Eavan Boland’s Ireland

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My undergraduate thesis advisor recommended Eavan Boland to me, having recognized an aesthetic in her work that I seemed to be striving toward. Her poetry explores the nature of womanhood (look at me as a daughter would/look: with that love and that curiosity–/as to what she came from./And what she will become.”); and she is a woman clearly in tune with nature (“When the nest falls in winter, birds have flown/to distant lands and hospitality./The pilgrim, with his childhood home a ruin/shares their fate…”). She extemporizes on Irish mythology (“The blood of man turns back and flows muddy/from this changing heart, and this fair skin/is ruffling in the feathers of a swan”), and Ireland’s difficult history (“I was born on this side of the Pale./I speak with the forked tongue of colony”).

Many of her poems evoke the Irish countryside. Because this is Irish week, I will leave you with a short poem of hers about the Liffey, the river that runs through Dublin:

The Liffey beyond Islandbridge by Eavan Boland

The Liffey, as it breaks from iron into grass

Past town, the Liffey breaks from iron into grass,

Then wanders, with the swans preening

In the shaken warmth of early March

And white abandoned sea birds leaning

On the wind. A cat steps cautiously

Among the daffodils. Under a tree

An old man contemplates his shoe,

Or turns to what he never thought to see

Again, the water fretted by a cygnet’s thrust.

Look well. Further beyond that river bend

Are spaces teemed with cities which must

Strike a destiny. But here for aimless miles

The river flattens to the land.

The genius of Guinness


It’s a proven fact that Guinness tastes better in Ireland, so when my friend Hilary and I visited Dublin two years ago a trip to the Guinness Storehouse was foremost on our itinerary.

I’d had the unreasonable hope that we would actually see the legendary beer being made but for sanitary reasons tourists haven’t been allowed into the brewery since 1972. The Guinness Storehouse is instead an interactive museum for adults, and one huge advertisement for the drink. You wander through a display on the ingredients (simple: water, barley, hops, and yeast, though there is a small amount of that yeast permanently stored in a vault at the brewery just in case something were to happen to the main supply). You learn about the the highly-skilled coopers who crafted the wooden barrels that once transported Guinness. You can try foods made with Guinness (this recipe for Guinness cupcakes with Bailey’s frosting sounds incredible). You are taught how to pour a perfect pint, as Fergal Murray demonstrates below:

Hilary and I spent a good deal of time in the advertising section, which catalogs the iconic Guinness posters so popular in the American college dorm room (this 1930s Guinness toucan shows that I’ve both got class and a love of alcohol!) As I discussed in a post from my previous blog, Hilary and I were underwhelmed by the advertising we’d seen in Dublin up to that point. We loved most of Guinness’s advertising exhibit, except for one story that we assumed was supposed to impress us. As I wrote then, “Two advertising executives were locked in a hotel until they came up with something stunning. After three days they emerged with one word: genius. Hilary and I scratched our heads. Sure, “genius” is a good word for Guinness–they share so many letters! But how did it take these execs three days?”

The tour ends at the top of the building in the Gravity Bar where you can enjoy a complimentary Guinness with a shamrock carved into the foam and 360-degree views of Dublin. It really is an extraordinarily flat city.

I was so enamored of Guinness by the time we were leaving, I made Hilary go to the expansive first-floor shop where I was hoping to find some sort of brewing kit for my dad or brother. I didn’t know anything about home brewing at the time, but I thought if there was a chance Guinness had home brewing merchandise, it would be here. I explained to a shopkeeper what I had in mind; he looked horrified. But that’s illegal! he exclaimed. Um, not in the US, I told him, and he shook his head as though this validated his belief that Americans are a morally repulsive lot. Well even if it were legal, he added, do you really think Guinness would be looking to sell their product for home manufacture? I shook my head. I guess I’ll just buy a Guinness-flavored chocolate bar? I said. He nodded smartly and left us in our shame.

My dad had a meeting in downtown St. Paul this morning and he said there was already a line down the block at 8 am in front of an Irish pub. Perhaps that shopkeeper would be shaking his head at the US if he knew, but more likely he’s already slurrily singing Danny Boy in a pub with his mates. It’s good to know that Minnesotans are keeping up with their Irish counterparts (the Irish got a seven-hour head start over us so it’s only right!)

So, happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone! Enjoy your Guinnesses and your green paraphernalia. If you truly want to “go green” on St. Paddy’s, remember that kegs are less wasteful than bottles or cans. And, as our Irish friends would have us know, you can’t have a perfect pour unless it comes from the tap. Sláinte!

Hilary and I, at the highest point in Dublin: five stories up.


Children of Lir


Irish writers are blessed not only with rhythm and “the miserable Irish Catholic childhood” that Frank McCourt acclaims at the beginning of Angela’s Ashes (“the happy childhood is hardly worth your while,” he says) but also an incredibly rich ancestry of myth and legend. In her 1904 book Gods and Fighting Men, Lady Gregory compiled and edited a large number of these myths.

I first read Lady Gregory’s version of Fate of the Children of Lir in an Irish Literature class in college and was completely smitten. The eponymous children in this story are Fionnuala and her three brothers Aodh, Fiachra, and Conn. After Lir, their father, is widowed he remarries a woman named Aoife. Her jealousy over Lir’s love for his children causes her to turn them into swans. She dooms them to spend nine hundred years in that form, three hundred years in each of three lakes/seas, until blessed by a monk.

Swans are popular in folklore around the world. In Hinduism they are revered for their ability to pass through water without getting wet, metaphorizing a saint’s ability to pass through the world without getting attached. Swans were the mascot of the Spanish-language Modernismo poetry movement from the late nineteen to early twentieth century (Mexican poet Enrique González Martínez published the poem “Wring the swan’s neck” in 1910 to symbolize the end of Modernismo). Wagner’s operas Lohengrin and Parsifal both feature swans prominently.

A surprisingly large number of swan stories are of transformation. The Ugly Duckling recounts the misfortune of a young bird who is harassed until he grows into his adult body of a beautiful swan. Zeus takes on the form of a swan in his rape of Leda, begetting Helen of Troy. In Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake, based on old German and Russian legend, princess Odette is turned into a white swan, Odile to a black swan, and Natalie Portman to an Oscar winner.

Children of Lir statue in Dublin

Both innocent and elegant, large but fragile, swans are easily romanticized. Humans disguised as swans hide their terrible curses in muted throats and withstand centuries of punishment with grace. No wonder then, that the story of the children of Lir resonates so deeply with the Irish people who similarly suffered for nine hundred years under British oppression.

A tribute to the children of Lir and the people of Ireland stands in Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance in Parnell Square. This statue, added to the park in 1971, symbolizes rebirth and resurrection. For just as the children of Lir ultimately turned back to their human selves after nine hundred years, the Irish are now free of the reign to which they were so long bound.

How to be an Irish writer


What you’ll need: a pen, a Guinness

Songlist: Dropkick Murphy’s Finnegan’s Wake, Danny Boy (duh)

Further reading: The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story ed. Anne Enright

Ok, you want to be a writer, you’re saying to yourself, but why Irish?

Because Irish writers are the best. And because it’s almost St. Patrick’s Day and my way of honoring the day when everyone wants to be Irish is to talk about something I care more about than beer dyed green. And that’s writing.

Early Irish writing: Book of Kells

Let’s talk about Irish writers. The greats, to name a few: Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, Bram Stoker, Jonathan Swift, William Butler Yeats, C. S. Lewis, Brendan Behan, Samuel Beckett. And contemporary Irish writers: Seamus Heaney, John Banville, Anne Enright, Colm Tóibín, Frank McCourt. And former teachers of mine: Tommy O’Malley, Colum McCann.

The first sentence on Wikipedia’s Irish Literature page reads, “For a comparatively small island, Ireland has made a disproportionately large contribution to world literature.” Fact. My home state of Minnesota is almost three times the size of the island of Ireland, my Twin Cities more than three times the population of Dublin. And yet Dublin has been home to most of those writers listed above, four of which are Nobel laureates (Yeats, Shaw, Beckett, Heaney).

As John Banville remarked in a 2009 interview with the Paris Review, “This is a problem for Irish writers—our literary forebears are enormous. They stand behind us like Easter Island statues, and we keep trying to measure up to them, leaping towards heights we can’t possibly reach.”

But Banville also acknowledges that, even though he hates his own novels, “they’re better than everybody else’s, of course.” So what makes Irish writers so good?

For one thing, Irish writers, as Banville put so nicely, are always trying to keep up with the incredible achievements of their forebears. Set the bar high, and you have to make more spectaculars jumps to leave any impression. Furthermore, they are blessed with a nice blend of Catholic guilt and British oppression, exactly the kind of emotional trauma that fuels a lifetime career in the arts. And lastly they’ve got that beautiful rhythm.

Though at times it barely sounds like English, listen for a minute to James Joyce as he reads from his classic–and incomprehensible–Finnegan’s Wake:

I remember being struck the first time I heard Colum McCann, winner of the 2009 National Book Award for “Let the Great World Spin” give a reading. His enjambment of simple sentences made them sound extraordinary. Whereas I might have read, “By God [pause] the old man could handle a spade [pause] just like his old man,” Colum might have read, “By God the [pause] old man could handle a spade just [pause] like his old man.” Read those aloud. The latter will feel unnatural, but if you drop the unnecessary words just right you enhance the value of the more important words, enrich the repetition of “old man” (These lines are from Seamus Heaney’s poem “Digging”).

Here’s John Banville one more time* on the necessity of rhythm in his work:

It all starts with rhythm for me. I love Nabokov’s work, and I love his style. But I always thought there was something odd about it that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Then I read an interview in which he admitted he was tone deaf. And I thought, that’s it—there’s no music in Nabokov, it’s all pictorial, it’s all image-based. It’s not any worse for that, but the prose doesn’t sing. For me, a line has to sing before it does anything else. The great thrill is when a sentence that starts out being completely plain suddenly begins to sing, rising far above itself and above any expectation I might have had for it. That’s what keeps me going on those dark December days when I think about how I could be living instead of writing.”

So this week, be Irish. Wear green and drink beer and, when you’re giving your poetry readings, enjamb in a different place than you normally would. If you’ve got rhythm and you’ve got a pint, who could ask for anything more?

*If you’re wondering why I keep quoting Banville instead of the vast range of incredible Irish writers, it’s because I read his Paris Review interview last night and loved it.