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The legacy of Eavan Boland’s poetry

  • Published at 03:58 pm May 2nd, 2020
Eavan Boland
Image: Stanford University

Boland's poetry is relevant to any culture fighting for its survival

Eavan Boland, one of the most influential female voices in Irish poetry, died last month after a long career as a poet and teacher. She began writing in the 1960s when it was almost impossible for a woman to carve out a poetic identity as the Irish literary establishment was a male-only dominion. In her poems, she sought to explore women’s position in the most ordinary and domestic experiences of life. 

In his tribute to Boland for the Irish Times, Martin Doyle refers to poet and critic Ruth Padel who described Boland’s “commitment to lyric grace and feminism” even as her subjects tend to “the fabric of domestic life, myth, love, history, and Irish rural landscape.” Doyle also quotes from Boland’s Poetry Foundation profile which states: “Keenly aware of the problematic associations and troubled place that women hold in Irish culture and history, Boland has always written out of an urge to make an honest account of female experience.” The feminist strain is most prominent in her 1982 collection Night Feed and 2001 collection Against Love Poetry.

Equally significant is the way Boland seeks to understand her own identity with her unrelenting search for her Irish roots and history in the neo-colonial setting of the United Kingdom, most astutely articulated in poems such as “The Lost Land”, “In which the Ancient History I Learn is not my Own”, “A Dream of Colony” and “Exile! Exile!”. 

Her poetic take on Ireland’s dwindling landscape, history and heritage from the collective memory of the UK makes her acutely relevant not only to the Irish and English poetic traditions but also to any culture or tradition (of the immigrants or peoples rooted to their own land) putting up a fight against European or North American cultural hegemony.  

Boland published more than 10 volumes of poetry and two books of nonfiction prose and edited several other books. Her poetry collections include 23 Poems (1962), New Territory (1967), In her Own Image (1980), Night Feed (1982), Against Love Poetry (2001), New Collected Poems (2005) and A Woman Without a Country (2014).

Boland was the recipient of many awards including a Lannan Foundation Award in Poetry and an American Ireland Fund Literary Award.

She taught literature and creative writing at many universities including Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin and Stanford University. At Stanford, she was the Bella Mabury and Eloise Mabury Knapp Professor in the Humanities and Melvin and Bill Lane professor of English and director of the creative writing program. 

Eavan Boland died on April 27.


In Which the Ancient History I Learn Is Not My Own

By Eavan Boland


The linen map

hung from the wall.

The linen was shiny

and cracked in places.

The cracks were darkened by grime.

It was fastened to the classroom wall with

a wooden batten on

a triangle of knotted cotton.


We have no oracles,

no rocks or olive trees,

no sacred path to the temple

and no priestesses–

the teacher’s voice had a London accent.

This was London.

This was England. 1952.

It was Ancient History class.


Ireland was far away.

And farther away

every year.

I was nearly an English child.

I could list the English kings.

I could place the famous battles.

I was learning to recognize

God’s grace in history.


The colors

were faded out

so the red of Empire–

the stain of absolute possession–

the mark once made from Kashmir

to the oast-barns of the Kent

coast south of us was

underwater coral.


And the waters

of the Irish Sea,

their shallow weave

and cross-grained blue-green,

had drained away

to the pale gaze

of a doll’s china eyes:

a stare without recognition or memory.


She put the tip

of the wooden

pointer on the map.

She tapped over ridges and dried-

out rivers and cities buried in

the sea and sea-scapes which

had once been land.

And came to a stop.


The Roman Empire

was the greatest

Empire ever known.

(Until our time of course.)

Remember this, children.

In those days,

the Delphic Oracle was reckoned

to be the exact center of the earth.



I wanted

to stand in front of it.

I wanted to trace over

and over the weave of

my own country and read out

names I was next to forgetting.

Wicklow. Kilruddery. Dublin.

To ask

where exactly

was my old house?

With its front door.

Its brass One and Seven.

Its flight of granite steps.

Its lilac tree whose scent

stayed under your fingernails for days?


For days,

she was saying, even months,

the ancients travelled to the Oracle.

They brought sheep and killed them.

They brought questions

about tillage and war.

They rarely left with more

than an ambiguous answer.


[This poem has been sourced from https://howtopayattention.wordpress.com/2015/03/17/day-109-in-which-the-ancient-history-i-learn-is-not-my-own-by-eavan-boland/]

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