By: Rachel Forsythe
Throughout my life, I’ve always had a deep appreciation for poetry. It amazes me how poets can express complex emotions, themes, and metaphors in just a few stanzas. As Voltaire once said “Poetry is the music of the soul, and, above all, of great and feeling souls.” Throughout these last few months, I have been discovering different elements of Irish culture. I’ve been enchanted by Ireland’s vast grassy plains, beautiful architecture, and bustling cities. Irish art, music, and dancing have all become interests of mine. But, above all, I appreciate Irish poetry. Moreover, I appreciate Ireland’s influence on American poetry.
Eavan Boland was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1944. She moved to London with her family at the age of six but soon returned to Ireland to receive her B.A. at Trinity College in 1966. She immigrated to America and has been living in California since 1996. She is currently a poetry professor at and director of the creativity writing program at Stanford University.
While she was still a student, she published her first collection of poems called 23 Poems in which she discussed her role as an Irish woman and the problems that ensue when you are a woman in Irish culture. Throughout her career as an author and poetry professor, Boland placed herself in the forefront of female writers in Irish poetry. Boland is known for breaking away from the concept of the traditional Irish woman while also creating a fresh perspective on Irish history. Boland’s fifth volume of poems, In Her Own Image, placed her on the map. She soon became known for her raw, controversial but acclaimed portrayal of her role as a woman in Ireland. Having first-hand experience, Boland decided to use her talents to create an accurate and honest portrayal of her experience. Critic Ruth Padel described Boland’s writing as a “commitment to lyric grace and feminism.”
In “Outside History”, she writes about Ireland’s painful history. A few examples of this would be the Great Potato Famine in which starvation, disease, and violence swept through Ireland due to the potato crop failing. Another focus is the Easter Rising of 1916 in which a group of Irish nationalists led a rebellion against the British soldiers. The rebellion was soon shut down but not without several thousands of deaths and the execution of the leaders of the rebellion. The title “Outside History” could also refer to the fact that for the majority of Ireland’s heritage, women were completely cut from the narrative. After all, Irish immigration was actually mostly female. By 1950, 57% of immigrants were female. But this wasn’t simply to escape poverty. It was also to reclaim their lives and escape Irish patriarchy. So if Irish women are leaders and breaker of cultural norms, why are they cut from Irish history? This is Boland’s way of expressing how she felt like an outsider in her own culture. Moreover, these lines show the suffering of Irish women as they watched their husbands die. Forced to pick up the pieces of their loves and continue,
How slowly they die
we kneel beside them, whisper in their ear
and we are too late. We are always too late
Many men died in the name of Ireland, but what about the women at their side, the women who were behind the scenes, the women who had the world on their shoulders but forgotten? This happened because women were often given the duties that weren’t considered “heroic.” They were not the ones who would fight and die for their country but they still had the great obligation of raising a family, taking care of a household, and tending to farms.
Boland writes poems about the horrific history of Ireland while also communicating the fierce bond and love amongst Irish people In her poem, “Quarantine.” She describes a couple attempting to emigrate from Ireland during the Great Potato Famine. But the woman was gravely ill with typhus. This disease is nicknamed “famine fever” because of its prevalence during the famine years. Her husband carries her for miles on end but the next day they are found dead with the wife’s feet against the husband’s chest in an effort to give her heat.
Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body
There is only time for the merciless inventory.
Their death together in the winter of 1847.
Also, what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and a woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proven.
This poem illustrates that even in the darkest times there is still a profound love and selflessness between this Irish man and woman. Perhaps this is a metaphor of how even with Ireland’s somber past, there remains a deep and intimate bond amongst Irish people which has helped Ireland prevail even when the odds were not in its favor.
Eavan Boland. (n.d.). Retrieved February 22, 2017, from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/eavan-boland
Outside History – Eavan Boland. (2010, June 08). Retrieved February 22, 2017, from https://elessarsc.wordpress.com/2010/06/08/outside-history-eavan-boland/
Women in 19th Century Irish immigration. (n.d.). Retrieved February 22, 2017, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12340226