Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin was born in Cork City in 1942. She was educated there and at Oxford before spending her working life as an academic in Trinity College, Dublin. She was co-founder of the literary journal Cyphers, which she continues to edit.
After fifty years of distinguished work, her Collected Poems was published by The Gallery Press in October 2020 and won the Pigott Prize in 2021.
She served as Ireland Professor of Poetry from 2016-2019; her lectures from the role were published in the volume Instead of a Shrine (UCD Press, 2019). In May 2022 she was elected Saoi by the members of Aosdána, the highest honour of that affiliation of artists.
Q: You once said that “there are moments in poetry where we are being asked to look at the literal truth, [but] with such intensity that the light that emanates from it becomes indistinguishable from the radiance of fiction, or of myth, or of ritual.” There seems to be an urge coursing through your own poetry, to nurture and unearth those moments of “radiance”: allowing the materials and densities still locked in the past to be transfigured and reclaimed in a new form (as fable, say, or metaphor, or something between a dream and a memory). What do you make of this interpretation?
A: I think it’s very perceptive. A rather laboured metaphor for what I do is to climb or stagger to the position however awkward from which I can see furthest, and what I suppose I am trying to see clearly is that radiance in the best focus I can achieve, perhaps using myth or fiction as viewfinders .
Q: Reading your work, I sense that, for you, the task of finding and using words (whether in a single language, or drawn from several) has an ethical dimension: poetry becomes a way of honouring life, and precise expression can be a way of acknowledging its mysteries. Is this the case? I’m thinking of ‘Gloss/Clós/Glas’, in which the “rags of language are streaming like weathervanes, / like weeds in water they turn with the tide”, as a scholar sits “raking the dictionaries” like “a boy in a story faced with a small locked door.” Or your later poem, ‘Incipit Hodie’, which is dedicated to your grandson, and addresses a newborn who “fell into our language / like a fish into water”: “when you reach for words they will be hard like pebbles in your hand.”
A: Yes undoubtedly to the idea of the ethical dimension. I think poetry both frees us to find words in unexpected places, and imposes a duty of using them in as truthful a way as we can, never saying more than we mean.
Being bilingual from birth I am of course interested in the mismatchings and gaps between languages. The first poem you mention is also about the way dictionaries only deal in the small change of a language, don’t help us unless we can already hear the great wings beating. But more widespread than multilingual experience is the discovery of language itself, and one can see this in a baby, the appreciation of having landed in a world of words and having to work out what’s going on.
Q: Are you a poet of memory, or remembrance? I ask because for all the descriptive immediacy of your work, it often encompasses large spans of time, folding personal losses or revelations into a longer continuum of memory and change. One poem traces “the abandoned roads” that no map records: “Their arthritic fingers / their stiffening grasp cannot / hold long on the hillside – / slowly the old roads lose their grip.” In another, ‘Family’, “every stone recalls its quarry and the axe.” And in an elegy for your Aunt Blánaid, you write that “the past keeps warm, although / it knits up all our griefs: / a cold start in our lives.”
A: The past is all we know, but it can take a lifetime to bring it into focus. Those poems are quite far apart in time, the first registering a quite recent (then) realisation that deaths and displacements change the map, the way we feel about places and how they bring back the sense of loss. I wrote the poem on my aunt on request by my cousins, to read at her funeral. I wanted it to be full of things they would remember and that would amuse them, as the funeral of an old person should have some laughter in it. Another poem, ‘The bend in the road’, on the loss of my sister and stepfather and mother, took years to write.
Q: Your work is also marked by (and attuned to) Irish history specifically, sometimes filtered through your own experience. ‘The Polio Epidemic’ recollects the uncanny silence of Cork city during the 1956 polio outbreak, as a girl on an errand “sliced through miles of air, / free as a plague angel descending / on places the buses went: Commons Road, Friars’ Walk.” In ‘On Lacking the Killer Instinct’, likewise, we glimpse your father, a young republican rebel, “running from a lorry-load of soldiers / in nineteen twenty-one”, while another piece reflects sadly on “all the false beginnings” of (our) history, even as it attempts to “Remember James Connolly, // who put his hand to the work”. Finally, the poem ‘Bessboro’ returns to the gates of Bessborough Mother and Baby Home, to find that “the blood that was sown here flowered / and all the seeds blew away.” Being a poet (and being Irish), for you seems to involve an uncovering of Ireland’s past, but also an imagining of how that past might have been otherwise (gladder, more humane, or perhaps even more radical). Is this the case?
A: Most of those poems were dealing with difficulty – the polio epidemic was simple enough as I was really there. Ireland’s political and social past is harder to get a hold of, since I value the revolutionary turn of mind, and I also value the religious and cultural inheritance. Poems like these, the writing of them, have made me ask ‘where am I in relation to this?’ In the case of ‘Bessboro’ I was very aware that I must not attempt or be taken as attempting to speak ‘for’ anyone, even though I knew about the place and what it threatened, and observed a case of a young woman being deflected from being sent there (by my mother’s intervention). In the case of the Connolly poem and the one about my father, there is the century of space and all the changes that have intervened, and yet I felt the pressure to write (well, the Connolly poem was commissioned – but I could have said no). The sense that change is possible, that people can combine and take risks to bring about change, is very real, but the newspapers tell us that movements in history can go very wrong.
Q: You recently celebrated your 80th birthday (congratulations!), and in 2020 you published a landmark Collected Poems with The Gallery Press. How does this feel? Is there a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction looking back, or do you find yourself, as a poet, focused more on the present and future?
A: The past we know but the future we make. I am alive in the present and I hope for the future, so I think that’s where my poems will be going.