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The gapped and fractured nature of Irish poetic tradition was from the outset a central theme in the work of Eavan Boland (1944–2020). Its gaps are the products of historical traumas which have often expressed themselves in gendered fashion: while Irish tradition has found abundant use for feminised embodiments of the nation, it has been less comfortable with allowing female experience agency to speak in its own right. Boland’s career engaged vigorously with this historical silencing. I address this dilemma through the prism not just of Irish nationalist historiography but the European Romantic tradition, from Hegel to Wordsworth and Keats. Among the dramas Boland confronts is personal testimony versus positions of exemplarity, in which the poem speaks for and from absences in the historical record. This often places Boland in conflict with the mythic imperatives of Irish poetry, a dissonance registered by the poet in the jagged surfaces of her texts. Situating Boland in the historical moment of recent debates within Irish studies adds an extra dimension to the experience of reading these poems, while also helping us appreciate the way in which their successes have been effectively internalised in subsequent Irish women’s poetry and criticism.
In an admired poem in the sonnet series ‘Clearances’ in memory of his recently dead mother, Seamus Heaney recalls her death in this way:
. . . we all knew one thing by being there.
The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep, it penetrated
Clearances that suddenly stood open.
High cries were felled and a pure change happened.
(‘Clearances’, vii; HL 31)
It may not be surprising that ‘The Thorn’ is the poem by Wordsworth which Heaney, after an opening discussion of the bog-like spots of time in The Prelude, chose for his point of focus in his crucial essay ‘Feeling into Words’. At the centre of that Romantic poem is a cloaked, threatening, but also compelling female figure. She embodies what Wordsworth in The Prelude and elsewhere describes as Nature’s vexed, redundant energies, its reflexive and recursive return of acts of human aggression towards her secret places. In the concluding pages of his essay Heaney puts that figure into a more specifically Irish context. Referring to the ‘religious intensity of the violence’ in Northern Ireland as ‘a struggle between the cults and devotees of a god and a goddess’, he calls that goddess an ‘indigenous territorial numen, a tutelary of the whole island’, citing the names given to her in Ireland: ‘Mother Ireland, Kathleen Ni Houlihan, the poor old woman, the Shan Van Vocht, whatever’. Known earlier in Irish legend as ‘Sovereignty’, that female figure’s very name ‘has been temporarily usurped by a new male cult whose founding fathers were Cromwell, William of Orange and Edward Carson . . . What we have is the tail-end of a struggle in a province between territorial piety and imperial power’ (P 57).
Any consideration of Irish poets as a collective, much less a coherent, body of study may be skewed by two misconceptions of the ‘Irish’ ‘poet’. First, there is a popular tendency to think of that poet as a heroic individual who represents or embodies ‘Irishness’, standing in for the other and – according to this view – lesser poets of his (we use the gender deliberately) generation. Yeats served this purpose during the first Irish literary Renaissance until the year of his death, just before this chapter begins; likewise Seamus Heaney is misconstrued as the single and singularly gifted poet for the second such Renaissance in Ireland. Yet if this misconception needlessly narrows two rich and broadly various periods in Irish literary history, so does its corollary: that the ‘Irish poet’ is a faceless figure carried forward from the bardic past, his or her individual strengths or even eccentricities effaced by the relentless march of tradition.
In the Anthology of Irish Writing produced by Field Day, itself a literary collective, Seamus Deane argues that most nineteenth-century Irish poets ‘survived by clinging on to an organized grouping’ and that ‘this structural organization of Irish writing was to persist into the twentieth century, with the Irish Revival and the northern poets as the dominant groups’. While such groupings can be convenient to critics, in actuality Irish poetic movements have been incoherent and short–lived after and, partially, because of William Butler Yeats. A history of Irish poetry over the last six decades of the twentieth century begins with a handful of poets struggling not to succeed the great poet and chef d’école Yeats but to gain independence from his dominant influence
(Medbh McGuckian 'Life as a Literary Convict', Soldiers of Year Two, 2002)
The modern Irish poet is not a man in the foreground, silhouetted against
a place.... like a Gaelic bard the creature can be male or female, nomadic
without losing a tribal identity.
(Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin)
In an Irish context it may not be possible to imagine poetry in relation to the 'body' of the 'nation' without evoking the still-existent border to which Medbh McGuckian starkly alludes, a political and historical fact that divides 'Ireland' into two states and at least two bodies politic. Neither is it possible, despite the growing popularity of these three women poets, to imagine the term 'Irish poet' without picturing the foregrounded and masculine body emerging from the landscape which Eilean Ni Chuilleanain challenges. Bringing together both implications, the phrase 'body of the nation' implicitly recalls the nationalist literary text to which Eavan Boland, probably Ireland's most influential feminist, alludes in her essay 'Subject Matters', The Spirit of the Nation. Concerning these 'sixpenny booklet' anthologies of nationalist ballads compiled by The Nation newspaper from 1843, Boland writes: 'in its pages the public poem and the political poem were confused at the very moment when the national tradition was making a claim on Irish poetry which would colour its themes and purposes for a century'.
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