Think we have it bad? Eavan Boland’s poem about Ireland’s Great Famine

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Eavan Boland: one of Ireland’s leading poets

Ireland’s terrible period of starvation and disease from 1845 to 1849 was called the “Great Famine” or the “Great Hunger” – George Bernard Shaw had a different term for it: “the Great Starvation.” About a million died, and a million emigrated. The worst year was 1847.

I ran across Eavan Boland‘s poem “Quarantine” the other day over at the Poetry Foundation website. I asked her how she came to write this poem about the Great Potato Famine, and whether the story was true. Here’s what she replied:

The story itself is anecdotally true – that is, it comes from a book called Mo Sceal Fein by An tAthair Peadar Ó Laoghaire (the title means he was a priest). The book was published  as autobiography somewhere about 1907 and in the Irish language. The title means “My Own Story.”

There is a brief recounting in that book of the story of Kit and Patrick, who left the workhouse during the 1847 famine to return to their cabin. Both were weakened by lack of food and she had famine fever. In the morning they were both found dead. In the text it says “the feet of the woman were in Patrick’s bosom, as if he had tried to warm them.”

It’s a very brief story and I first heard it as just that, when I was a teenager. Later I read a translation of it in the book. It seemed to me then, as it does now, to bring together so much of the public agony and private experience of the Ireland of that time. Just a terrible parable of people on the dark side of history, who somehow amend it for a moment by the grace of their actions.

Quarantine

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 wife.
He was walking – they were both walking – north.

She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
.  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 arrived.

In the morning they were both found dead.
.  Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
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 body.
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.


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