Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin 1942-
Irish poet, essayist, editor, and translator.
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin is regarded by many as one of the most important contemporary Irish women poets. Her poems range from social commentary and considerations of religious issues to quiet, introspective poems about human nature. She is noted for being a mysterious poet; her poems at times have subtle messages that unfold only through multiple readings. Ní Chuilleanáin is well-read in history, and sense of connection between past and present characterizes her work, in which she often draws parallels between historical events and modern situations. Her poems frequently show the contrast between fluidity and stillness, life and death, and of the undeniable motion of time and humanity's attempts to stop change.
Ní Chuilleanáin was born in 1942, in Cork, Ireland. Her father, Cormac O'Chuilleanáin, was a university professor of Irish, and her mother, Eilis Dillon, was a prolific novelist. Reared in a strongly Republican family, Ní Chuilleanáin was instilled with a strong sense of national pride. She attended University College and the National University of Ireland, receiving her Bachelor of Arts in 1962, and her Master of Arts in 1964. She then attended Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and received her Bachelor of Literature in 1968. A Catholic, Ní Chuilleanáin ironically titled her first poetry collection Acts and Monuments (1972), borrowing the name from John Foxe's sixteenth-century historiography of English Protestantism, also known as the Book of Martyrs. Acts and Monuments won the Patrick Kavanagh for Poetry. In 1975 Ní Chuilleanáin co-founded Cyphers, an Irish literary magazine. She married fellow poet and editor Macadra Woods in 1978, with whom she has a child, Niall. She won the Irish Times Poetry Award in 1966 for her poem “Ars Poetica”; the Books Ireland Publishers' Award in 1975 for her second collection of poetry, Site of Ambush; and the O'Shaughnessy Prize from the Irish-American Cultural Foundation in 1992. Ní Chuilleanáin resides in Dublin with her family and is Senior Lecturer of English at University of Dublin Trinity College and a continuing co-editor of Cyphers.
Ní Chuilleanáin's search for a balance between motion and stasis is prevalent in most of her poetry. In her first collection, Acts and Monuments, poems about people constantly traveling are contrasted with still lifes of everyday, mundane scenes that seem to trivialize humanity's need to rush about. In the title poem from Site of Ambush, Ní Chuilleanáin uses this ability to capture a scene and keep it still, to give the reader a glimpse of war-torn Ireland. The Second Voyage (1977) deals more with motion than with stasis. It contains poems from both of Ní Chuilleanáin's first two collections as well as new poems. The title poem refers to the Greek hero Odysseus, whose first journey was a constant battle with the treacherous ocean; now fatigued by the struggle against the forces of nature, he decides his second voyage will be on land and therefore less difficult. The Second Voyage was shortlisted for the Irish Times/Aer Lingus Poetry Book Prize Committee in 1990. Cork (1977) contains poems written about and inspired by Ní Chuilleanáin's birthplace. In these poems she urges the reader to look past the façades and to look in the windows to get a glimpse of the “real” Cork. The Magdalene Sermon (1989) is a collection of new poems and selected pieces from The Rose-Geranium (1981). The poems contained in The Magdalene Sermon are simple and graceful, again presenting small, almost inconsequential parts taken from larger scenes. Their main focus is on women's religious experiences. This exploration into religion is taken a step further in Ní Chuilleanáin's most recent collection, The Brazen Serpent (1995). In “Fireman's Lift” from this volume she describes the scene depicted in the painter Correggio's masterpiece Assumption of the Virgin. Ní Chuilleanáin focuses on the struggle of the angels to lift Mary into the heavens, and the awkwardness and wonder of being pushed in such a similar manner to birth. In “Our Lady of Youghal” she writes about an ivory religious icon emerging after years of being hidden in wood. Throughout this collection Ní Chuilleanáin explores not only religious themes but also death and the idea of rebirth. The poems cover the cycle of life and beyond, and because of Ní Chuilleanáin's mysterious writing style, the poems can be read on many levels, each treating a different aspect of the cycle of life.
The critical reaction to Ní Chuilleanáin's poetry has been mixed. Some critics have found the style of her poetry distant and its meaning elusive. Her unwillingness to write in an intimate, personal voice has led some reviewers to judge her poems unemotional. Others, however, have argued that Ní Chuilleanáin's use of third-person narrative lends her poems more power by presenting contrasting viewpoints. Not limited to one perspective, these poems vividly convey universal concerns with change, aging, and death, even as they explore the nature of one's own identity and search for self. Her keen historical sense and use of mythology, legend, and folklore, critics note, contribute to the sense of shared experience her poems evoke. Peter Sirr, discussing the power of Ní Chuilleanáin's work to engage the reader deeply despite the poet's seeming detachment, has characterized her work as “a poetry where isolated moments are held in the poet's ordering gaze, a poetry that depends on the relentless clarity and attentiveness of that gaze and the details it illuminates rather than on the central government of an overt poetic personality.” It is the intensity of Ní Chuilleanáin's focus, he asserts, that “pushes the reader into the self-enclosed world of the poems.”
by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin
Upon analysing a poem, I like to decode it in a particular way. I like to read the poem as if it were a story. This helps me to generate an understanding of both the poet and the poem’s context. The following notes outline the story of ‘Street’. Once an understanding of this poem’s story has been established you will then be able to more effectively create your own opinions and observations.
The Story of the Poem
- A male figure observes the butcher’s daughter from a distance as she walks through the streets. He has fallen in love with her. ‘He fell in love with the butcher’s daughter When he saw her passing by…’
- The butcher’s daughter is represented as being powerful, strong and even masculine. The striking image concerning the drops of blood coming from her knife, ‘…her white trousers…’ (male connotations) and even her label (the butcher’s daughter) suggest this.
- The male figure makes a decision to follow the woman home. He follows her ‘down the slanting lane at the back of the shambles.’ The female being observed has a certain confidence and boldness. She seems to be comfortable in her role, which is unusual for the male observer as her role is one that is traditionally associated with being a man’s job.
- The sloping lane leads to the entrance of a house in which the female lives. It is neat and clean, the opposite condition to what one might expect the shambles (slaughterhouse) to be in.
- The transition from a professional role to a more domesticated role is both emphasised and striking. The poem acknowledges, in a way, the multiple identities we assume depending on the world in which we are partaking in at any given time. It is being portrayed here that the butcher’s daughter assumes one identity while at work and another while at home.
- The butcher’s daughter removes her shoes and leaves crescent shaped blood marks as she climbs the stairs into her home. The imprints of blood gradually fade as she climbs closer and closer to home. This image symbolises the shedding of the woman’s professional role as she enters her home ‘…each tread marked with red crescent, her bare heels left…’.
- The poem insinuates that we find love locally, often falling for people whom we encounter in our everyday lives.
- This poem encourages the reader to wonder why the male observer never approaches the butcher’s daughter. Perhaps her blood stained knife, the power she seems to possess and the confidence she has intimidates him. Maybe this idea offers the reader an insight into the cultural context of Ireland at the time.
- There is a definite cinematic quality to the poem in that we move from shot to shot and are drawn into the world of the butcher’s daughter (sense of mystery).
- No interaction (sinister or romantic?) – the ‘slanting’ lane suggests that nothing in this tale is straightforward.
- The door = symbol of boundary between public and private / professional and domestic.
- The female moves further and further away from her admirer until all traces of her have vanished – she is a mystery and this is what fascinates him.
- The most engaging aspect of this poem = no views forced upon us, we must use our imagination to draw conclusions.
Themes in ‘Street’
- Strength and Power of Women (butcher’s daughter)
- Transition (transitioning from public to private / professional to domestic)
- Love (male observer in love with what the butcher’s daughter represents – not like normal girls given the cultural context of the poem. The male observer arguably is more curious and fascinated with the butcher’s daughter rather than in love with her)
Ní Chuilleanáin Exam Tips:
- Incredibly evocative (brings strong images/memories/feelings to mind) poems
- Ní Chuilleanáin’s poetry at times serves as an exposé into the cultural context of Ireland at a particular moment in time
- Often alludes to fairytales (To Niall Woods/Transitions etc.)
- Complex themes delivered in accessible language (poetic techniques/imagery)
- Gives voice to the unheard
- Often celebrates strength and power in female figures
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