St. Paddy’s Day: ‘Those in Power Write the History; Those Who Suffer Write the Songs’

Irish poet Eavan Boland

“Those in power write the history, while those who suffer write the songs, and, given our history, we have an awful lot of songs,” quipped Irish singer Frank Harte.

On St. Patrick’s Day – when all the world “is Irish” – it seems fitting to lift up one of Ireland’s finest contemporary poets, Eavan Boland. Her poems rise from that sung suffering of the Irish.

Boland was born in Dublin in 1944 and published her first book of poetry,  New Territory, in 1967. Along with her prolific poetry, she also has consistently advocated for the rights of women, the voices of women, and promoted the power of women in Irish history. In a 2006 essay, Boland addresses the question: Can Poetry Console a Grieving Public? She writes:

Years ago my father saw the keen, or caoine. It was the 1920s; he was a student at Trinity College. On a trip one Easter, he went a hundred miles west and a whole century back to Connemara and the Atlantic coast of Ireland.

There, one morning, he saw the emigrant boat, about to leave for Liverpool. There was a small group of old women gathered on the pier. They were the keeners. They could be hired for a few pennies to come to a wake or a funeral or, as here, to a final emigrant farewell on the Galway docks. As the passengers disappeared on board and the boat drew out—or so my father told me—the old women put their shawls over their heads and began the keen. He remembered it as eerie, powerful, terrible.

What the Irish give the world – more than green beer or even the rich trove of poetry – is a the memory of public imagination. Irish verse carries in its DNA an ability to understand deep human emotions and yearnings that transcend cultures and time. The dangers of an over individualized culture, such as is heralded in the U.S. – is the loss of public imagination. We can’t see where we are going together. We can only strive for an uneasy balance of rules and regulations that protect me or mine. The keeners that Boland recalls act out a public liturgy that taps deep into Irish imagination.

“If poetry does not address public grief in some way,” writes Boland, “it runs the risk of abandoning one of its great roles and one of its great genres, which is elegy. The origins of elegy are not private: they are sacred and public.”

As we celebrate the day when all the world is Irish, let’s do it with poetry and public dancing, and remembering that the keeners who lamented the loss of Ireland’s daughters and sons a few generations earlier, now speak Spanish. The keeners are in Mexico, and El Salvador, and Guatemala, and Honduras. The mothers cover their heads and cry out to see their children go north.

Below, is Boland’s wonderful poem on what maps don’t tell us about lives lived in actual places.

That the Science of Cartography Is Limited

– and not simply by the fact that this shading of
forest cannot show the fragrance of balsam,
the gloom of cypresses
is what I wish to prove.
When you and I were first in love we drove
to the borders of Connacht
and entered a wood there.
Look down you said: this was once a famine road.
I looked down at ivy and the scutch grass
rough-cast stone had
disappeared into as you told me
in the second winter of their ordeal, in
1847, when the crop had failed twice,
Relief Committees gave
the starving Irish such roads to build.
Where they died, there the road ended
and ends still and when I take down
the map of this island, it is never so
I can say here is
the masterful, the apt rendering of
the spherical as flat, nor
an ingenious design which persuades a curve
into a plane,
but to tell myself again that
the line which says woodland and cries hunger
and gives out among sweet pine and cypress,
and finds no horizon
will not be there.
–Eavan Boland

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