Resuscitating the Self through Verse: Alternative Histories in the Poetry of Eavan Boland

From Firenze University Press Journal: Studi irlandesi. A Journal of Irish Studies

University of Florence
4 min readSep 14, 2023

Somaya Abdul Wahhab Al-Samahy, Alexandria University

  1. Alternative Histories in the Poetry of Eavan Boland.

The emergence of postcolonial dialectics in the second half of the twentieth century has rendered resistance a prevalent notion within literature. Patricia B. Arinto argues that critics like Franz Fanon and Barbra Harlow consider literature of resistance one of “struggle and revolution against We s t e r n imperialist discourse” (1992, 59). According to Olivia Harrison, this emerging literary corpus has been assiduously tackled by Harlow in her crucial study Resistance Literature (1987). Harlow has borrowed the term from the Palestinian author Ghassan Kanfani and has applied it mainly to the literature produced by the third World (Harrison 2009, 2). Arinto further assigns the role of resistance literature more precisely. She states that it “seeks to reinscribe the history of the third World which has been distorted, misrepresented or altogether ignored in Western discourse” (1992, 60). Relative to this context are some themes that pervade resistance literature. “is paper is dedicated to exploring one of them in particular, namely the question of identity. In point of fact, investigating the question of identity within a work of literature would entail two techniques. The first one is reviving indigenous cultures. Authors from once subjugated territories have been keen on demonstrating the grandeur of their history, hence defying the pretexts that have long been propagated by the imperial discourse about the inferiority of the colonized. “e other one is looking at gender as an integral aspect of identity cringe: “This involves the analysis of the dynamics between imperialism and capitalism on one hand, and patriarchy on the other, as well as the examination of the role of women in the cultural and political struggle for liberation” (61).

Certainly, poetry that has been a cornerstone to this tradition has its ample share of resist-ance images. Paulo de Medeiros indicates that “the term resistance literature should be applied to all forms of poetry that voice opposition to oppression” (2013, 81). De Medeiros further consolidates the role of poetry as a tool for political resistance.Poetry was always engaged in political resistance, whether one invokes the Greek classics or thinks about the latest performance act, which is not to say that all poetry is political. But the dissenting voice of Antigone, calling sovereign power to account is one that has been repeated through ages (82). The Irish canon had contributed a number of master poets such as W.B. Yeats, Seamus Heaney and George William Russell, all of whom have arguably influenced shaping the poetic consciousness of their own times. It would be credible even to claim that their influence has continued to the present. “eir poetic output has frequently been used as a vehicle for resistance against British hegemony.Establishing a national identity is a recurrent theme in Irish poetry. Owing to its historical status as a colony and of its peoples as dispossessed of their land, writers in Ireland, particularly poets, are engaged in assiduous quest for asserting their national identity. One way to construct this national identity was to portray Ireland as a woman:Since the nationalist movement that lead to the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922 and the concurrent Celtic Literary Revival, in which writers like Yeats, O’Casey […] shaped a nationalist consciousness based upon a mythology that was drawn only partially from actual historical documents, the image of Nation as Womanand the use of Woman as a symbol for sovereignty and motherland, has become more and more prevalent in Irish culture. (Troeger 1998, 1)

This binary image, that was formed primarily by men, posed an obstacle to women writers and women poets in particular. It reduces women to mere symbols of abstract ideas. This idea reveals a salient feature of Irish poetry; namely, that this rich poetic tradition did not secure a position for women poets. In point of fact, Irish women poets were not officially welcomed into the poetic arena until the second half of the twentieth century. Yet, to claim that Irish women poets were not existent prior to this date would be a mere fallacy. The late nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century had actually witnessed the emergence of a number of women poets who displayed a genuine talent. However, a strict patriarchal society such as Ireland would have never acknowledged their existence easily. This is extremely obvious in the attitudes of major Irish poets like Yeats and Kavanagh. In Women Creating Women: Contemporary Irish Women Poets, Patricia Boyle Haberstroh argues that Kavanagh sees poetry as a male dominated profession. He believes that women are not good enough for the writing profession, because they lack the necessary skills required in a writer (1996,5–6). Yeats, on the other hand has shown some support for some of his contemporary women poets such as Kathleen Tynan and Dorothy Wellesley. His support; however, was patronizing to some extent. Haberstroh goes on to argue that the role played by Yeats’ wife in creating his poetry was underrepresented. Moreover, Yeats’ marginalizing attitude towards his fellow women poets is reflected in his poetry. He immortalized them in his poems according to his own perception of them regardless of their artistic talent. His poetry also depicts women within a traditional framework emphasizing that they cannot be obedient wives and mothers. It seems, then, that in their attempt to portray an image of their own homeland, Irish women poets are not only seeking the establishment of national identity, but they are also trying to eliminate their long-held marginalization and assert themselves as women, poets and Irish citizens.


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