Author of the Week / 15 May 2024

The Atmospheres of Irish poetry

Author of the Week: Ireland

In Irish poetry, for nearly two centuries, there was only W. B. Yeats and his sense of the past: our great national poet and Nobel Prize winner. Yeats was the towering presence who had actually lived in a famous tower in County Galway, Thoor Ballylee. He was a charismatic and powerful senator, politically romantic, but also a consummate organiser of theatre and journalism. And around him, all of Irish writing cohered into a single atmosphere. He commanded us:

I write it out in verse –
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

It was difficult for any poet, male or female, to get out from beneath his heroic, oracular literary output. It confirmed an atmosphere within which we must live. By ‘atmosphere’ I mean the dominant and exclusive view of what poetry should be about and what should inspire poets to write. Poets were expected to write about Ireland, its long suffering and heroic struggles. If they had something personal to say it could only be said in the context of some part of that national struggle against foreign occupation. This was how it was. It was a rich vein for poets, constantly reinvigorated by new struggles, new rebellions and mass imprisonments and British deportations, as well as by new scholarship in Gaelic translation, new findings from Celtic archaeology, new knowledge out of the soil of Ireland. And in the years between 1867 and 1967 there was a second supportive and influential readership for such poetry: Irish America, thousands of readers in Boston, New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. In the early twentieth century audiences of up to 2,000 people would assemble in those American cities to hear Yeats or Dubhghlas de híde, the Celtic scholar and future president of Ireland, reciting poetry and speaking about the heroic past. From the 1848 Young Ireland movement to the Easter Rising of 1916 with its leadership of poets, to the Ulster Troubles of 1969–1994 that created a whole new clutch of nation-poets – even another Nobel Prize winner, Seamus Heaney – the dominant cause and purpose of poetry was the cause of Ireland. Poets were stitched into every revolutionary struggle, and every struggle created its own harvest of poets. Even those poets who seemed to be internationalist or modernist – poets like Denis Devlin, John Montague and Desmond O’Grady – were still trapped inside that single viewpoint.

Then something else happened. Around 1981 or 1982 a sea-change occurred, a huge psychological catharsis that changed the tone and expectations of the popular audience for Irish lyric poetry. The agent of that change was a poet called Eavan Boland. Boland began to publish a poetry of personal process, a poetry of womanhood and motherhood that was not metaphorical or part of the national mythology, but radically documentary. Writing of fertility and menstrual cycles, of breastfeeding and night feeds, of ordinary suburban womanhood, she broke the national mould and caused utter confusion and even consternation. Well… I lie. She didn’t cause consternation, not at first. More amusement, really. I’m trying to recall influential male poets of that era in conversations with me about her. The male poets (and they were everywhere, believe me, drinking in every foyer of every hotel) were sure that she had suffered from some kind of nervous breakdown, a temporary madness caused by motherhood. Having a baby can be traumatic, I was told by old men finishing their pints of Guinness. Childbirth does things to a woman: that was the conclusion. Hardly any established male poet would review her book for the major journals. Nobody wanted to touch this material, it was too embarrassing. Also, it seemed to be without technique, without the then accepted minimal standards of verse-craft. But this was a new type of poem, owing more in technique to Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath or Adrienne Rich. It most definitely wasn’t Yeats:

Yes, it is me
she poaches her old face in.
I am bloated with her waters.
I am barren with her blood.
Another hour
And she will addle me…


In such poems, in ‘Anorexic,’ ‘Witching,’ ‘Menses’ and a host of others, Boland introduced a new vocabulary into Irish poetry, the female possibility of bodily physicality. She proclaimed and consolidated that new voice in three 1980s collections, In Her Own Image, Night Feed and The Journey. Her 1990 collection Outside History was a confirmation of the political certainties within those 1980s books, offering a broader, anti-historical history of female experiences. That 1990 collection was a bold, or emboldened, act of confirmation and confession: she was never going back to Yeats and his male descendants. She had parted from the literary companionship of men, and she would take many women with her. It was inevitable that she would leave Ireland, and she did, eventually becoming a teacher of poetry at Stanford University. At the other edge of Europe, there was another young female Irish poet at work in exile. This woman was the Irish-language poet Nuala Ní Dhómhnaill who had fled from her well-off professional family in Ireland to live with her beloved Turkish husband and her two mothers-in-law in faraway Anatolia. Her parting from Ireland had been fraught and urgent and utterly heroic: she had chosen family rejection and self-exile for the sake of love. There is no poet of Ireland more deserving of our praise; indeed, our complete devotion. In her poem ‘Maidin sa Domhain Toir’ (‘Morning in the Eastern World’), translated by Michael Hartnett as ‘Oriental Morning,’ written in isolation and exile, Ní Dhómhnaill wrote what must be the single most important feminist text ever created by an Irish writer:

Ní foláir ag teacht ar an saol so
go rabhas róchraosach: gur roghnaíos
an bhullóg mhór is mallacht mo mháthair
in ionad na bullóige bige is a beannacht…

There’s no doubt that in coming to this place
I was too ravenous: that I chose
The full loaf (of life) and my mother’s curses
Instead of the half-loaf and her blessing...

The scale and power of this poem is breath-taking, it is a poem about a woman claiming complete agency over her own love life, and willingness to sacrifice everything to assert that agency. A personal poem of this importance hadn’t been written in Ireland since ‘The Lament for Airt O’Leary’ in the eighteenth century. It is one of the great new poems of our era, in Europe as well as Ireland. It should be known by everyone who wishes to understand the clairvoyant power of true poetry. It links personal memory in Ireland with personal memory in Türkiye. It teaches us why poems must exist wherever there is human life.

Ní Dhómhnaill eventually returned to Ireland and saw her best poems translated into vibrant English poems by poets of the calibre of Paul Muldoon and Michael Hartnett. Two major collections of her work translated into English, Pharaoh’s Daughter (Gallery Press, 1990) and The Astrakhan Cloak (Gallery, 1992), helped to consolidate her reputation in both Ireland and Irish America.

Boland and Ní Dhómhnaill have had a profound effect on the atmosphere of Irish poetry in the last three decades. Their reputations, performances and workshops have encouraged a whole new wave of poetry, work created in a distinctive female voice. These voices are as different from each other as any group of differing personalities can be, yet amount to a profound new style and ambience or political tone. Through this era, let me not forget, a poet of the calibre of Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin has been publishing constantly and with great success since her first collection, Acts and Monuments, was published by Gallery Press in 1973. Other poets like Paula Meehan, the great poet of Dublin working-class life, Mary O’Malley and Moya Cannon, voices of the West, the brilliantly intellectual Vona Groarke, the dynamic Martina Evans and Doireann Ní Ghríofa, as well as that super trio, Leanne O’Sullivan, Victoria Kennefick and Molly Twomey, have all made huge and immediate impacts.

But what of the other poetries, other atmospheres? There are the modernist-internationalist Irish poets like Trevor Joyce and Randolph Healy, both thriving and impressive. There are Irish voices abroad, Greg Delanty, Eamon Grennan and Nick Laird in America; Martina Evans, John McAuliffe, Maurice Riordan, Bernard O’Donoghue and David Wheatley who live and work in the UK, or John Liddy who lives in Madrid. It is a condition of Irishness that it has always been scattered. We are a people who disperse instinctively. But even in their exile poets feel connected, implicated, through what happens at home. Social media has made distance almost irrelevant. Irish hearts have learnt to have no time zones.

And then there is Belfast. Ah, Belfast, the capital of that Irish/British canton of Northern Ireland. Since the Partition of Ireland in the 1920s, writers in Belfast have sheared away from the discourse of the Irish Republic and this separation has created quite a self-consciously distinctive ‘other’ poetry on the island. In more recent years, poets living and writing in Belfast, coalescing around the influential Seamus Heaney Centre at The Queen’s University, have heard echoes from elsewhere. They have followed a different drum. The dominant voice has been the voice of the QUB scholar Edna Longley and her brilliant teaching of Edward Thomas and Louis MacNeice over the decades. After John Hewitt, the overwhelming voice of influence has been Michael Longley, disciple of Edward Thomas and remembrance-master of the Ulster dead of The Great War. The Battle of the Somme, rather than the Easter Rising of 1916, provides the heroic sediment of such sensibilities. Firm British connections within Belfast social and media life give Ulster poetry a different lustre, an almost British way of saying things made up of the strange dark materials of Ireland. This matter is highly political, of course it is, and sometimes we are discouraged by authorities from emphasising such difference. But this sense of otherness has created a useful and fruitful effervescence in Irish poetry. Poets who remained in Belfast right through the Troubles are marked with a particular blitz, a no-nonsense hard-headedness; they endured the bombings and survived and became strong, without our help. This is true of Michael Longley, the late James Simmons and the late Ciaran Carson, and it is true of Medbh McGuckian, that most distinctive and powerfully moral poet of the Troubles era. The sheer grandeur and invention of Sinéad Morrissey’s collections, The State of the Prisons (Carcanet, UK, 2005) and On Balance (Carcanet, 2017) is a reminder of this Belfast richness. Hot on the heels of the vibrant Morrissey comes the poet Stephen Sexton, a teacher at the Queen’s University. His If All the World and Love Were Young (Penguin, UK, 2019) and Cheryl’s Destinies (Penguin, 2021) are both works of astonishing completeness and imagination. Those two poets alone would be sufficient, but they are part of a long Belfast Hall of Fame in poetry that must include the like of Leontia Flynn and Gerald Dawe as well. That city is a Yeatsian singing school, though the moral authority of Yeats or Boland doesn’t hold sway there.

And what about the far South of Ireland, Cork city, that ‘Queen of the South’ as Mícheál Mac Liammóir, poet and dramatist, calls it in his journals? The poets who live in that city, Gerry Murphy, Theo Dorgan, Patrick Cotter, Mary Noonan, Liz O’Donoghue, Molly Twomey, Niamh Prior and many others form another living fragment of a dispersed national tradition. There is, therefore, women’s writing; there’s the great singing school of male poets, and there’s that distinctive tincture of Ulster writing. Three strands at least. And many more, if I cared to look. If I dared to exhaust you.


Thomas McCarthy

Thomas McCarthy was born in Co. Waterford and educated at University College Cork. He worked at Cork City Library for over thirty years. He was a Fellow of the International Writing Program, University of Iowa 1978/79 and Professor of English at Macalester College, Minnesota, in 1994/95. His many collections of poetry include The Sorrow Garden (1981), Merchant Prince (2005), Pandemonium (2016) and Prophecy (2019). A former editor of Poetry Ireland Review, he is a member of Aosdána, the Irish Assemby of artists and writers. His diaries, Poetry, Memory and the Party, were published in 2022 by The Gallery Press, Dublin. His Questioning Ireland, essays, will be published by The Gallery later this year and his new collection, Plenitude, will be published by Carcanet Press, Manchester, UK in spring 2025.