In the mid-1980’s, Eavan Boland became one of Ireland’s most significant poets and certainly Ireland’s most significant woman poet. Her work has done much to promote women’s writing, for her themes have included an awareness of herself as Irish and Ireland’s painful history as well as a consciousness of her role as a woman in her functions as writer, wife, and mother.
Boland’s early life was influenced by her father’s position as Irish ambassador to the court of St. James in London. In London, she attended convent school until she was twelve. It was there that she first became sensitive to being an Irish person living in the country of Ireland’s colonial rulers. Her education continued in another convent school in New York City, where her sense of dislocation and exile intensified. In 1962, the same year she graduated from Holy Child Convent School in Killiney, County Dublin, she published her first pamphlet of poems. From 1962 to 1966, she attended Trinity College, Dublin, where she graduated with first-class honors in English. She briefly became a junior lecturer in English at Trinity, but although she enjoyed teaching she found an academic career to be incompatible with her writing. Thereafter, she limited herself to intermittent terms as lecturer or poet-in-residence. In 1969, she married the novelist Kevin Casey, with whom she had two daughters, Sarah Margaret, born in 1975, and Eavan Frances, born in 1978.
In New Territory, Boland’s first substantive book of poems, she begins to formulate some of the themes that were to remain important to her. In particular she is interested in the function of art. It is in the next volume, The War Horse, however, that Boland begins to come into her maturity. This is reflected in the way she treats Ireland’s tragic history in poems such as “The Famine Road” and “A Soldier’s Son.” Boland’s following volume, In Her Own Image, contains poems that articulate women’s concerns, including anorexia, mastectomy, and domestic violence. Some reviewers suggested that in this collection Boland is examining the entire nature of femaleness. The image she uses of a woman before a mirror and of the mask of cosmetics suggests women’s psychology and the ways in which the world forces women to hide their true selves.
In 1981, The War Horse and In Her Own Image were collected and brought out in the United States as Introducing Eavan Boland, the volume that established her reputation in that country and introduced her work to American readers. Boland’s next collection, Night Feed, focuses on the human relationships that make up home life, particularly her own relationship as a mother with two small daughters. Most readers understood that here Boland intended to use the details of home life to make concrete her perceptions about human relationships.
Boland has discussed the presence of the woman poet in Irish writing at some length. Her perception of her own writing in the Irish tradition is a significant element in her self-understanding. That perception demands an acknowledgment of the tragic violence of Irish history under British rule, of the catastrophe of the Great Famine, and of the bloodshed during Britain’s control of Northern Ireland. In her comments about the genesis of her poem “Achill Woman,” Boland explained the interrelationship of these themes. The poem refers to a time when she had gone to the isolated Achill district to prepare for university examinations. During her solitary time there, an old country woman had explained to her how hundreds had died in that district during the Famine. It was the first time Boland had confronted this part of Ireland’s past.
Her awareness of her country’s suffering under famine and the repressions of colonial rule become significant themes in In a Time of Violence, where her poems dramatize such historical events as the coffin ships carrying Irish immigrants to America and incidents in Ireland’s struggle for independence. In the long poem “Anna Liffey,” Boland expresses her sense of identification with the river Liffey, which runs through Dublin; she concludes, “The body is a source. Nothing more.” What is most important to Boland is that she is a voice; with that assertion she ends the poem. In The Lost Land, Boland continues to explore the issues and emotions of both exile and colonial victimhood. These are especially the burdens of “Colony,” a major poem that makes up the first half of the book. Boland’s artistry and her personal and public authority make this poetry collection a pinnacle of her career.
Object Lessons collects several autobiographical pieces and essays on the place of women in Ireland’s poetry. Essays such as “Outside History” and “The Woman Poet: Her Dilemma” articulate the history of Boland’s coming to feminism, her recognition of the special courage women must find to pursue their art, and the need for their work to give voice to the lives of the women who went before them, mothers and grandmothers whose lives were outside history.