Speech at the Announcement of new ‘Ireland Professor of Poetry’
Provost's House, Trinity College, Dublin, 27th May 2016
Tá áthas orm a bheith anseo inniú chun ‘Ollamh Éireann le Filíocht’ nua a fhógairt. Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil le Bob Collins agus leis an mBord Iontaobhaithe as ucht a gcuireadh agus gabhaim buíochas libhse go léir as an bhfáilte mhór sin a chuir sibh romham.
I am delighted to be here today for the announcement of the new ‘Ireland Professor of Poetry. I would like to thank Bob Collins and the Board of Trustees for their invitation, and all of you for that generous welcome.
The Ireland Chair of Poetry has, for eighteen years played a critical role in introducing and encouraging an engagement by the Irish public with the great resource that poetry is. To date six gifted poets have held the Chair, each bringing their own unique insight and perspective to their tenure.
The Chair was of course initiated to mark and honour the awarding of the Nobel Prize of Literature to the late Seamus Heaney in 1995. Its origins, therefore, are rooted in illustrious soil and I commend John Montague, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Paul Durcan, Michael Longley, Harry Clifton and Paula Meehan who have, in their very personal and special ways, filled the role, allowing it to flourish and passed it on enhanced to their gifted successors.
Today, we are here to celebrate the appointment of another gifted poet to this important role, Eiléan ni Chuilleanáin. Eiléan has been described as one of Ireland’s most important contemporary female poets; a well deserved accolade but one that does not, perhaps, need the word ‘female’ included in order for it to stand as an accurate statement of Eiléan’s position in the world of Irish literature.
Readers of poetry in Ireland have, for long, been drawn into the narratives that form the core of Eiléan’s poems; deep, and beautifully open ended narratives, revealing mystery, which vividly capture how a shared event can mark a very different journey for each of the individuals who undertake it.
Eiléan writes with a generous and inclusive detachment, declining to project as sole option her own personal experiences onto the scenes that unfold through her inspired imagery, shading and phrasing.
She leads us, as it were,
to the ‘half open door’,
down the ‘slanting lane’,
up ‘the long stairway’
before departing quietly, allowing us to complete the journey ourselves; to use our personal observations and impressions as tools to navigate our way towards a final engagement with her work. No single door requiring a habitual certainty as permission to enter stands in our way.
Eiléan’s poems have, at their heart, an instinctive understanding of the importance of indicating the right of each individual mind to reflect on and see the world in its own way. They are truly inclusive works which allow for the differing experiences, viewpoints and perspectives of those with whom we share a common journey.
The journey of which Eiléan so often speaks is a universal non linear voyage where connection is taken as a given; one rooted in a shared history of elusive possibility where:
“Odysseus rested on his oar, and saw
The ruffled foreheads of the waves”
In mining the past, our new Ireland Professor of Poetry uncovers truths that extend beyond the borders of personal experience. We are offered truths which might remind us, again and again, of the power of imagination to traverse barriers, to move us into different realms of thought, and to sit side by side with the temporary pieces of the rational, the flotsam and jetsam of reason that makes the stuff of our attempts at conscious life.
Reading through Eiléan’s work many striking lines linger, heavy with the weight of vital truth. In the opening line of ‘Family’ she tells us that:
‘Water holds no memory’
A phrase which serves as the departing point for so much of Eiléan’s poetry; the memories which are retained and held all around us, bonding past with present and present with future. In her own words
“The past does not go away...... It is walking around the place and causing trouble at every moment”
Eiléan’s work is pervaded by a rich connection to the past; by the memories quietly waiting in the corners and the shadows of the everyday. Even the most static of objects have a sentience which gifts us with clues to what went before; houses enabling us to ponder on:
“What behind those pointed windows, breathes”
or reflect on how
“Somebody was born in every room”
In Eiléan’s poems we view how the past can be accessed through everyday portals. We are told how ‘The Bend in the Road’ where she and her family pulled over many years ago during a car journey is now,
‘Silent as it ever was on that day’
Yet it was not gone, but rather acts as a potent force of memory, pulling the poet back for re-engagement with a different time and space and point of life.
We read how a train flying through Palmers Green Station in London transports her back to a time of loss; her mother's shoe falling in the gap between train and platform as she was returning
“from the hospital where she’d left her younger daughter
among the dying”.
Cuireann na dánta seo le Eiléan, agus a cuid saothair cumasacha eile, i gcuimhne dúinn go mbíonn ár dtuiscint ar an saol seo faoi thionchar siombaile, ócáide agus fiú focail a tháinig romhainn.
These, and other powerful works by Eiléan remind us that life, whilst constantly moving forward, is shaped and understood through a prism of a symbol, and event, even a word of that which has gone before.
Our new Professor of Poetry comes, of course, from a context of public memory. In recent weeks we have been reflecting on, and celebrating, a seismic chapter of our nation’s past which was to become the founding moment of our independent State. It is a founding moment to which Eiléan has a profound connection through her maternal grandparents Geraldine Plunkett and Tom Dillon, active players in the events leading up to Easter 1916 and the eventual creation of a new and independent Ireland. Indeed, they married on Easter Sunday 1916, and watched the Rising in O’Connell Street as it played out beneath their window in the Imperial Hotel that weekend.
Eiléan is also, of course, the daughter of the much loved and highly regarded children’s author Eilís Dillon and of Cormac O’ Cuilleanáin, Professor of Irish at University College Cork. Hers is a rich and vibrant cultural heritage, evident in the quiet but deep connection between past and present which characterises her work.
As a nation, we owe Eiléan a great debt of gratitude for her generous sharing of her writing talent, and for all that she has contributed to the literary community in this country.
In particular I would like to mention Eiléan’s role in establishing ‘Cyphers’ in 1975, along with her husband Macdara Woods, Leland Bardwell and the late Pearse Hutchinson. I so recall, not just the work but the efforts at distribution of all poets’ work that they made in what were thin times for poetry. Cyphers has become one of Irelands longest established Literary Magazines and has provided, for over forty years, an important outlet for distinguished work by writers from Ireland and across the world.
In addition to publishing work by successful and well regarded poets, fiction writers and critics, Cyphers also became a significant conduit for emerging talent.
Is ceart do mhórscríbhneoirí na hÉireann, roinnt agaibh atá sa chomhluadar seo inniu, a bheith buíoch do Cyphers as deiseanna a chur siad ar fáil dóibh agus iad ag iarraidh slí bheatha a dhéanamh den scríbhneoireacht. Níl aon abhras ach go bhfuil tionchar Cyphers le braith go mór ar saol liteartha na hÉireann.
Many of today’s prominent Irish writers, indeed some of those in the room today, have reason to be very grateful to Cyphers for affording new possibilities as they aspired towards a literary career. There can be no doubting the profound imprint that Cyphers has made on the world of Irish writing.
Today, of course, also marks the end of Paula Meehan’s tenure as Irish Chair of Poetry. When that tenure was announced, in 2013, I expressed confidence that she would illuminate the role with her own unique genius and extraordinary creative depth. It is fair to say that Paula was brilliant and unstinting in her generosity, and has honoured the memory of Séamus Heaney with inspiration and great dedication. I thank and pay tribute to her for that.
I am equally confident that Eiléan’s inimitable talent will cast its own dynamic and distinctive light across her three year tenure. I congratulate her on being chosen for this well deserved honour and wish her well in her new role, a role I know she will undertake with what we all have come to know as her customary intelligence, enthusiasm and generosity.
Go raibh mile maith agaibh go léir.