Eavan Boland searching for her voice as an Irish female poet in the 1960s

Irish poetry was predominantly male. Here or there you found a small eloquence, like 'After Aughrim' by Emily Lawless. Now and again, in discussion, you heard a woman's name. But the lived vocation, the craft witnessed by a human life - that was missing. And I missed it. Not in the beginning perhaps. But later, when perceptions of womanhood began to redirect my own work, what I regretted was the absence of an expressed poetic life which would have dignified and revealed mine ... Isolation itself can have a powerful effect in the life of a young writer.

I turned to the work of Irish male poets. After all, I thought of myself as an Irish poet. I wanted to locate myself within the Irish poetic tradition. The dangers and stresses in my own themes gave me an added incentive to discover a context for them. But what I found dismayed me.

The majority of Irish poets depended on women as motifs in their poetry. They moved easily, deftly, as if by right among images of women in which I did not believe and of which I could not approve. The women in their poems were often passive, decorative, raised to emblematic status. This was especially true where the woman and the idea of nation were mixed: where the nation became a woman and the woman took on a national posture.

The trouble was these images did good service as ornaments. In fact, they had a wide acceptance as ornaments by readers of Irish poetry. Women in such poems were frequently referred to approvingly as mythic, emblematic. But to me these passive and simplified women seemed a corruption. Moreover, the transaction they urged on the reader, to accept them as mere decoration, seemed to compound the corruption. For they were not decorations, they were ornaments. However distorted these images, they had their roots in a suffered truth.

What had happened? How had the women of our past - the women of a long struggle and a terrible survival - undergone such a transformation? How had they suffered Irish history and rooted themselves in the speech and memory of the Achill woman, only to reemerge in Irish poetry as fictive queens and national sybils?

The more I thought about it, the more uneasy I became. The wrath and grief of Irish history seemed to me, as it did to many, one of our true possessions. Women were part of that wrath, had endured that grief. It seemed to me a species of human insult that at the end of all, in certain Irish poems, they should become elements of style rather than aspects of truth.

From Eavan Boland, Object lessons, Dublin, 1996, p.134.


  1. Referring to the first two paragraphs, why did Eavan Boland feel isolated?
  2. What was Eavan Boland searching for?
  3. Referring to the third and fourth paragraphs, why did the writer not approve of the images of women in the work of Irish poets?
  4. Briefly outline the contrast she makes between real Irish women and the 'mythic, emblematic' women.
  5. 'The final sentence in the passage is a good summary of the point she is making.' Discuss.
  6. Evaluate this document as historical evidence for the role of women in the mid twentieth century.


  1. Research the work of Eavan Boland.
  2. Discuss a literary work by any Irish writer in which women are 'elements of style rather than aspects of truth.'
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