The great Irish poet Eavan Boland (1944-2020) has gone beyond to the Irish pre-Christian Otherworld of Mag Mell (the Plain of Delight) or, perhaps, Tír-na-hÓige (land of the [ever-] youthful) where worthies engage in poetry, music, entertainment, and the feast of Goibniu that grants immortality to those taking part.
If Americans know Eavan Boland it is most likely for her poem Quarantine from her 2001 book Code, reproduced, below, courtesy of Carcanet Press, All Rights Reserved.
Boland lived in New York from 1956 to 1960 when her diplomat father had a posting. Though the poem Quarantine is about Irish history, she often wrote poetry reflecting the lives of those who live in Dublin’s contemporary suburbia.
Boland said she wrote this poem after reading an anecdote in an early 20th century memoir of the famine, Mo Scéal Féin by An tAthair Peadar Ó Laoghaire. It has been estimated that more than a million Irish died from starvation and disease in the period 1845 to 1852 and a million others emigrated, a period we know as the Irish Potato Famine. Although almost documentary in nature, I prefer to read Quarantine as a love poem and admire the use of repetition (‘worst’, ‘last heat’, ‘last gift’), the phrase ‘freezing stars’ and a reference to the horrible British administration of the country during the famine where tenant farmers actually grew enough wheat to feed people but had to ship it off for English tables (‘Of the toxins of a whole history’.) The next to last stanza brings to my mind the phrase, ‘Never Again!’ but, of course, we humans are slow to learn and even slower to react.
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
He was walking—they were both walking —
She was sick with famine fever and could not
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
In the morning they were both found dead.
Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole
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
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.