By Orla Fay
Eavan Boland was born on the 24th of September 1944 which makes her of the same generation as my own parents. Her father was a diplomat and her mother, a painter. Some of her childhood was spent in London and it has been reported that this separation from her native country strengthened her identity with it. Over her lifetime, she published several books and her poetry collection In a Time of Violence (1994) received a Lannan Award and was shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize. She was commissioned by the government of Ireland and the Royal Irish Academy to write the poem “Our future will become the past of other women” to be read at the UN and in Ireland during the centenary commemorations of women gaining the vote in Ireland in 1918. She was a professor at Stanford University where she had taught from 1996.
Yesterday, which was the day after her death, it was her poem Quarantine which was most recited on radio and read on social media. It is a heart-breaking and a livid poem about The Great Famine of 1845 to 1849 in which one million Irish people died and another one million – it is estimated – emigrated. It is a poem that is apt for the times as we self-isolate to curb the spread of the coronavirus, yet we are blessed in the sense that most of us in Ireland can eat and have many creature comforts. The poem is also an homage to the love between a man and woman. The Pomegranate is another piece which is treasured for its exploration of the love a mother holds for her daughter and of her fears for her in a sometimes dangerous world.
I met Eavan Boland only once, at the tail end of the launch of Poetry Ireland Review (PIR) 126 at the Poetry Ireland headquarters, Parnell Square, Dublin. It was early December 2018 and I had arrived in the city earlier that day to engage in the festive spirit of the season, admiring the decorative lights on Henry Street and Grafton Street, listening to carols and to those who were busking. “Welcome to Dublin 1” a neon sign glowed as the evening darkness set in after 4 pm. I did feel like a number one, at the top of my game for now at least, as PIR is the premier journal in our country and a prized feather in the cap of any aspiring poet.
In March, I watched a documentary on RTE (the state TV channel) about the life of Eavan Boland which was titled Eavan Boland: Is it Still the Same? It was aired to celebrate International Women’s Day. From watching the programme, I found a new respect for the elegance, directness and intelligence of Boland. I admired her descriptions of life as a new mother that can be found in the poem Night Feed, for example. I also loved that she had maintained her friendship with former President of Ireland and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson. They had met while studying at Trinity College at the same time.
The following day, I put pen to paper and wrote a letter addressed to Ms. Boland telling her I had watched the documentary and enclosed some poems for her consideration in PIR. She was the first editor of the journal I had submitted to and it seemed like I was shooting for the moon. To my surprise, she chose a poem called Poet in a Train Station Bar for inclusion. The poem was written about an encounter I had with another poet, a peer, I spied in Heuston Station and it is a character study of this figure, from a distance. In the editorial to PIR 126, Boland wrote about how barriers have been broken down to the extent that there is now no set stereotype of how a poet should look, nor who they can be. Anyone can be a poet. The marginalised can too be embraced. It is this democratic spirit that is so admirable about Boland. Poet in a Train Station Bar was also published in The Irish Times.
Before the launch, I had met fellow poet, John Noonan who hails from Dundalk. John had a poem in this issue. It was a night of readings and merriment. Afterwards, John and I meekly approached Eavan to ask her to sign our journals and to ask for a picture with her. She was friendly, gracious and pleased to chat.
In the editorial to PIR 126, Boland wrote about how barriers have been broken down to the extent that there is now no set stereotype of how a poet should look, nor who they can be. Anyone can be a poet. The marginalised can too be embraced. It is this democratic spirit that is so admirable about Boland.
As I walked towards O’Connell Street on leaving, I turned and saw her hailing a taxi or rushing to her lift home, an ethereal figure clouded with shadowy sapphire whom I would never see again.
May she rest in peace, gone to the other side, standing with the ancestors now, a poet of the mists.
Orla Fay is the editor of Boyne Berries Magazine. Recently, her work appeared in Impossible Archetype, Crannóg and The Lake. She won 3rd prize in The Oliver Goldsmith Poetry Prize 2019 and was highly commended in The Francis Ledwidge International Poetry Award 2019. Her poem The Natural Order was selected as a poem of the week in The Irish Times in July 2019. Her debut collection is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry. She blogs at http://orlafay.blogspot.com/
Follow her on Twitter: @FayOrla