Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin Introduction - Essay

Introduction

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin 1942-

Irish poet, essayist, editor, and translator.

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin is regarded by many as one of the most important contemporary Irish women poets. Her poems range from social commentary and considerations of religious issues to quiet, introspective poems about human nature. She is noted for being a mysterious poet; her poems at times have subtle messages that unfold only through multiple readings. Ní Chuilleanáin is well-read in history, and sense of connection between past and present characterizes her work, in which she often draws parallels between historical events and modern situations. Her poems frequently show the contrast between fluidity and stillness, life and death, and of the undeniable motion of time and humanity's attempts to stop change.

Biographical Information

Ní Chuilleanáin was born in 1942, in Cork, Ireland. Her father, Cormac O'Chuilleanáin, was a university professor of Irish, and her mother, Eilis Dillon, was a prolific novelist. Reared in a strongly Republican family, Ní Chuilleanáin was instilled with a strong sense of national pride. She attended University College and the National University of Ireland, receiving her Bachelor of Arts in 1962, and her Master of Arts in 1964. She then attended Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and received her Bachelor of Literature in 1968. A Catholic, Ní Chuilleanáin ironically titled her first poetry collection Acts and Monuments (1972), borrowing the name from John Foxe's sixteenth-century historiography of English Protestantism, also known as the Book of Martyrs. Acts and Monuments won the Patrick Kavanagh for Poetry. In 1975 Ní Chuilleanáin co-founded Cyphers, an Irish literary magazine. She married fellow poet and editor Macadra Woods in 1978, with whom she has a child, Niall. She won the Irish Times Poetry Award in 1966 for her poem “Ars Poetica”; the Books Ireland Publishers' Award in 1975 for her second collection of poetry, Site of Ambush; and the O'Shaughnessy Prize from the Irish-American Cultural Foundation in 1992. Ní Chuilleanáin resides in Dublin with her family and is Senior Lecturer of English at University of Dublin Trinity College and a continuing co-editor of Cyphers.

Major Works

Ní Chuilleanáin's search for a balance between motion and stasis is prevalent in most of her poetry. In her first collection, Acts and Monuments, poems about people constantly traveling are contrasted with still lifes of everyday, mundane scenes that seem to trivialize humanity's need to rush about. In the title poem from Site of Ambush, Ní Chuilleanáin uses this ability to capture a scene and keep it still, to give the reader a glimpse of war-torn Ireland. The Second Voyage (1977) deals more with motion than with stasis. It contains poems from both of Ní Chuilleanáin's first two collections as well as new poems. The title poem refers to the Greek hero Odysseus, whose first journey was a constant battle with the treacherous ocean; now fatigued by the struggle against the forces of nature, he decides his second voyage will be on land and therefore less difficult. The Second Voyage was shortlisted for the Irish Times/Aer Lingus Poetry Book Prize Committee in 1990. Cork (1977) contains poems written about and inspired by Ní Chuilleanáin's birthplace. In these poems she urges the reader to look past the façades and to look in the windows to get a glimpse of the “real” Cork. The Magdalene Sermon (1989) is a collection of new poems and selected pieces from The Rose-Geranium (1981). The poems contained in The Magdalene Sermon are simple and graceful, again presenting small, almost inconsequential parts taken from larger scenes. Their main focus is on women's religious experiences. This exploration into religion is taken a step further in Ní Chuilleanáin's most recent collection, The Brazen Serpent (1995). In “Fireman's Lift” from this volume she describes the scene depicted in the painter Correggio's masterpiece Assumption of the Virgin. Ní Chuilleanáin focuses on the struggle of the angels to lift Mary into the heavens, and the awkwardness and wonder of being pushed in such a similar manner to birth. In “Our Lady of Youghal” she writes about an ivory religious icon emerging after years of being hidden in wood. Throughout this collection Ní Chuilleanáin explores not only religious themes but also death and the idea of rebirth. The poems cover the cycle of life and beyond, and because of Ní Chuilleanáin's mysterious writing style, the poems can be read on many levels, each treating a different aspect of the cycle of life.

Critical Reception

The critical reaction to Ní Chuilleanáin's poetry has been mixed. Some critics have found the style of her poetry distant and its meaning elusive. Her unwillingness to write in an intimate, personal voice has led some reviewers to judge her poems unemotional. Others, however, have argued that Ní Chuilleanáin's use of third-person narrative lends her poems more power by presenting contrasting viewpoints. Not limited to one perspective, these poems vividly convey universal concerns with change, aging, and death, even as they explore the nature of one's own identity and search for self. Her keen historical sense and use of mythology, legend, and folklore, critics note, contribute to the sense of shared experience her poems evoke. Peter Sirr, discussing the power of Ní Chuilleanáin's work to engage the reader deeply despite the poet's seeming detachment, has characterized her work as “a poetry where isolated moments are held in the poet's ordering gaze, a poetry that depends on the relentless clarity and attentiveness of that gaze and the details it illuminates rather than on the central government of an overt poetic personality.” It is the intensity of Ní Chuilleanáin's focus, he asserts, that “pushes the reader into the self-enclosed world of the poems.”