By: Eavan Boland
Source: "Mise Eire." In The Journey, Eavan Boland. Manchester, U.K.: Carcanet Press, 1987.
About the Author: Eavan Boland, award-winning Irish poet and writer, was born in Dublin, Ireland. Educated in New York, London, and Dublin, she has taught at Trinity College, University College Dublin, and Bowdoin College.
By the 1950s, a century after Ireland's great potato famine (1845–1849), fifty-seven percent of Irish emigrants were women. Some women and girls, disconnected from families that could not feed them, were driven to survival measures such as prostitution or working long hours in poor conditions for little pay. Poverty and famine, although undeniably the major forces in the relocation of millions from the twenty-six counties of Ireland, was not the only important stimuli that encouraged women to leave their island country.
During this great emigration, Ireland was under both external and internal rule. On the one hand, the country was conducted by the colonial rule of England, and on the other, Ireland was ruled socially through its national religion, Catholicism. This combination of authority led many women to feel a distinct paralysis under an increasingly patriarchal society. Amidst the male-dominated social revolutions and caste system of the nation's religion, women and issues facing women were often dismissed, even in terms of their established traditional roles as mother and wife, let alone progressive movements.
British and Irish landlords and poor land conditions due to the famine left remaining harvestable land an especially valuable commodity. Families often strived to keep land through inheritance or the opportune marriage of a daughter, thus resulting in many arranged marriages for the sake of land consolidation. After the prim Victorian era, countries progressing through sexual revolutions such as the United States and England were enticing prospects for women who desired simple freedoms such as marrying for love and finding work in thriving cities.
Eavan Boland, Irish poet and feminist, wrote her poem "Mise Eire", meaning "I am Ireland" to illuminate the female Irish emigrants on their journey from their homeland in hopes of finding opportunity abroad. No longer oppressed, the Irish woman narrator finds her voice in a new found freedom.
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Boland's opening line of her poem "I won't go back to it—" is one of defiance and self-exile. The lines that follow characterize the women of Ireland, who feel they have no other choice but to leave its shores to find greater opportunity, escaping their rigid traditional roles. Between 1840 and 1895, almost one million Irish women immigrated to the United States.
Boland's poem refers to the "scar" of a new language to be learned for the immigrant, however, the English language was also forced upon Irish society by their English rulers during this time. Although English was used in schools and in governing Ireland, the Irish Gaelic language was very much alive among the Irish community and was responsible for the rhythm and rhyme of their traditional poetry. In modern times, the 2003 Official Languages Act was passed in Ireland, mandating that all official communications be published in both official languages of Ireland, English and Irish Gaelic.
Boland's "Mise Eire" is the second poem to be written under its title. Padraig Pearse (1879–1916), nationalist, writer, poet, and political activist known for his participation as a leader of the 1916 Easter Rising, wrote the original poem entitled "Mise Eire" in 1912, which would later inspire Boland to write her version. Originally written in Irish Gaelic, Pearse's poem refers to Irish mythology, the Old Woman of Beare, fabled to be the oldest woman ever to live. From a poem dating to the ninth or tenth century bearing the title of her name, Beare is painted with a life as strong an unyielding as the ocean. Famous for her seven periods of youth, always outliving her male counterpart, it can be recognized that she is a symbol of the strong Irish everywoman. Boland seems to take inspiration from this aspect of Pearse's original "Mise Eire," humanizing her with characteristics relevant to women during the time of the potato famine, the time of revolution, and nationalism—the time of mass Irish emigration.
Irish Culture and Customs. "Padraic Pearse." 〈http://www.irishcultureandcustoms.com/Poetry/PadraicPearse.html〉 (accessed July 15, 2006).
Library of Congress. "American Memory; Immigration … Irish." 〈http://memory.loc.gov/learn/features/immig/irish.html〉 (accessed June 10, 2006).
Norton Poets Online. "Eavan Boland." 〈http://www.wwnorton.com/trade/external/nortonpoets/bolande.htm〉 (accessed July 15, 2006).