Acclaimed poet shares Irish imagination

Andrea Wilson

One of Ireland’s most esteemed contemporary voices, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, appeared on campus to read some of her poetry as part of the seventh annual Literary Festival on Tuesday.

The poet read several of her older works and a few poems from her most recent collection, “The Girl Who Married the Reindeer.”

A few of the more recent readings, which Ní Chuilleanáin said were “as close as I get to writing political poems,” indirectly addressed the idea of peace in Ireland.

Asked why she has not written any poetry in the Irish language, Ní Chuilleanáin explained that she would feel limited since she does not experience most of the world through the Irish language.

The poet has never lived in a primarily Irish-speaking community larger than her own family. However, she has not ruled out using Irish in the future.

“There is a certain range of language that I have,” she said. “I have translated poems into Irish, so who knows, I may actually get to doing a whole poem in Irish.”

Fluent in many languages, Ní Chuilleanáin is currently working on learning the Romanian language, since she has been translating the work of Romanian poet Ileana Malancioiu.

She also offered her thoughts on the changing attitudes in her home country, where the perception of poets continues to evolve.

She told a story about an encounter with some Irish schoolchildren who doubted that any live person could be a “real poet.”

The nation’s rich poetic tradition, both written and oral, has had an ambivalent relationship with Irish society throughout history.

“The narrowness of the mid-century expressed itself in the idea that poetry is not something that you should be doing,” she said. “Poets were best avoided and unlikely to be the real thing. Better off dead, really.”

Much of Ní Chuilleanáin’s work, known for its opacity, is concerned with the mysteries of religion and gender.

She has been especially interested in the seeming contradictions that have confronted women and the Catholic church, addressing the fury over the abuses of thousands of women in Ireland’s Magdalene laundries.

Ní Chuilleanáin comes from County Cork, Ireland, and was educated in Cork and at Oxford.

She has published seven collections of poetry and has been awarded the Patrick Kavanagh Prize and the O’Shaughnessy Award of the Irish-American Cultural Institute. Her “Magdalene Sermon” was acknowledged as one of the year’s three best books of poetry by The Irish Times in 1989.

She currently teaches Renaissance literature, folklore and literary translation at Trinity College in Dublin.

Previous guests of this year’s Literary Festival include novelists Edward P. Jones and Karen Tei Yamashita.