Eavan Boland 1944-2020

Irish PEN is deeply saddened by the passing of Eavan Boland. One of Ireland’s greatest poets, Eavan had been selected as the recipient of the 2019 Irish PEN Award for Outstanding Contribution to Irish Literature.

She was due to receive this award on the 22nd March of this year, surrounded by her peers and admirers. We should have had the opportunity to celebrate her in person, to acknowledge her achievements both as a poet and fearless champion of women writers. But Covid19 intervened and the Award event had to be postponed. We planned that our Irish PEN celebration would instead take place to coincide with Eavan’s forthcoming publication, The Historians, scheduled for September 2020. (WW Norton and Carcanet Press) Her untimely death is a source of deep sadness to us all and we offer our sincere condolences to her family, friends and colleagues around the world.

Eavan Boland was the recipient of numerous accolades throughout her long career, among them a Lannan Foundation Award, the PEN Award for creative non-fiction for A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet, the Corrington Medal for Literary Excellence and the Bucknell Medal of Distinction. She held honorary degrees from, among others, University College Dublin, Trinity College Dublin, and Strathclyde University Scotland. In 2016, she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and in 2017, she was elected an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy.

Those who knew Eavan Boland personally speak of a brilliant teacher, a rigorous one.

Eilís Ní Dhuibhne, playwright, short story writer and novelist, remembers the workshops that Eavan Boland facilitated in the mid-1980s. She remembers her as brave, outspoken, passionate. ‘She was also intelligent enough, confident enough, and articulate enough to promote the idea that women should write poetry and literature. In her own poetry, she was  revolutionary: she wrote about her domestic and maternal life and confirmed that feeding a baby, putting out milk bottles, living ‘in the suburbs’ could be the stuff of poetry.’

Lia Mills – novelist, short story writer, essayist –  remembers A Kind of Scar: The Woman Poet in a National Tradition. ‘One of the seminal LIP pamphlets published by Attic press in the 1980s [in which] Boland challenges some of the sacred cows of Irish poetry using her own experience as a lens. It was a daring, radical thing to write and it predates by a long shot the explosion of fine personal essay and memoir writing that Irish literature enjoys now.’ Lia Mills also recalls the way Eavan Boland ‘had a way of drilling deeper into the core of words and shifting our angle of perception. These shifts were not always comfortable, but they were effective. She had such a strong mind.’

Eavan Boland loved teaching. She believed that workshops ‘generated oxygen’ – literary oxygen. According to Eilís Ní Dhuibhne, Eavan loved to quote an anonymous workshop participant, a woman, who declared: ‘If they knew I wrote poetry people would think I didn’t wash my windows.’  In so many ways, Eavan Boland ‘was the champion of women in the home, of women who longed to be poets and writers, but were hemmed in by society. Locked down in domesticity.’

Trailblazing. Daring. Committed. Fearless. Eavan Boland was not afraid to excoriate the editors of Field Day in the late 1980s, those who ‘forgot’ to include so many Irish women in their Anthology of Irish writing. Eavan herself was included – but that did not stop her protesting angrily at the exclusion of her female peers.

Mary Robinson recently spoke of Eavan Boland, her close friend, as a very ‘practical’ poet, one who knew, even early on, how to use a computer. In contrast, Mary Robinson was, she said, the ‘dreamy lawyer’.

Liz McManus remembers, in particular, the poem Our Future Will Become the Past of Other Women, written by Eavan Boland to celebrate 100 years of women’s suffrage in Ireland. Eavan read her poem at a special event at the UN, organised by the Permanent Representative of Ireland to the UN, Geraldine Byrne Nason, MRIA. Liz McManus also recalls that ‘Eavan Boland’s workshops in the mid 1980s were the springboard for the formation of WEB, possibly the longest-lasting women’s writing group in Ireland.’

Maria McManus, a poet from the north of Ireland, expresses for all of us that which we have lost in Eavan Boland’s passing, and all that we have gained from her life among us and her work: ‘We will receive sustenance from the work of Eavan Boland for a long time yet to come. The ‘long tail’ of her work and the resultant gift to us, is that she shared the deep truths of ‘dailiness’ – an  unflinching intelligence of the relational, an acute eye on the tyranny of the insular and the colonial, and the richness of the every-day. We see ourselves more clearly, we are better people and we are more daring because of her.’

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a h-anam dílís.

Catherine Dunne, on behalf of the Committee of Irish PEN

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