The Shortlist

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The Shortlist



by Eavan Boland

In the worst hour of the worst season
      of the worst year of a whole people
a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
He was walking — they were both walking — north.

She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
      He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and west and north.
Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.

In the morning they were both found dead.
      Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.

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 this 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 woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proved.

From Code (2001), reproduced by kind permission of Eavan Boland and Carcanet Press.

About the poem

Between 1845 and 1852 more than a million Irish people died from starvation and disease. The catastrophic Famine of the 1840s devastated Ireland, an event, in Mary Robinson’s words, ‘which more than any other shaped us as a people. It defined our will to survive. It defined our sense of human vulnerability’. Eavan Boland’s poem was prompted by an anecdote in Mo Scéal Féin by An tAthair Peadar Ó Laoghaire and, in twenty lines, Boland catches the sweep of history and what she terms ‘a seasoned love story’.

Eavan Boland

Eavan Boland, the youngest of five children, was born in Dublin on 24 September 1944. Her father was a diplomat, her mother, Frances Kelly, an artist. The family moved to London when Boland was six and she went to school there until 1956. She remembers being reprimanded for saying ‘I amn’t’: ‘You are not in Ireland now!’

During her father’s next posting, from 1956 until 1960, the family lived in New York. Boland returned to Dublin and to boarding school at the Convent of the Holy Child in Killiney when she was fifteen. At Trinity College she studied Latin and English and graduated with a first-class honours degree in 1966. She lectured in Trinity 1967-1968 and then resigned to devote her time to writing. She wrote poems as a child and had published poems in the Irish Times while still an undergraduate. She published her first collection, New Territory, in 1967, when she was twenty-two. During the 1970s she gave writing workshops throughout Ireland and in 1980 she co-founded Arlen House, an Irish feminist press.

For Boland, what she calls ‘the placelessness of her childhood’ and ‘her emphatic sense of living in a suburb in her own home’ were important influences on her work. In 1969, in her mid-twenties, she married the novelist Kevin Casey. They moved to a house in the Dublin suburbs in the early 1970s and have two daughters. A grandchild was born in 2014. She has written of motherhood and suburban life and according to Declan Kiberd ‘She is one of the very few Irish poets to describe with any fidelity the lives now lived by half a million people in the suburbs of Dublin.’

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