Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin Essay - Critical Essays

Ní Chuilleanáin, Eiléan


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.”

Principal Works

Acts and Monuments 1972

Site of Ambush 1975

The Second Voyage 1977

Cork [with Brian Lalor] 1977

The Rose-Geranium 1981

The Magdalene Sermon 1989

The Brazen Serpent 1995

Irish Women: Image and Achievement 1985

Noble and Joyous Histories: English Romances, 1350–1650 [with J. D. Pheifer] 1993


The Times Literary Supplement (review date 1973)

SOURCE: Review of Acts and Monuments, in The Times Literary Supplement, July 27, 1973, p. 864.

[In the following excerpt, the reviewer compares Acts and Monuments to Pearse Hutchinson's Watching the Morning Grow and comments that although Ní Chuilleanáin's poems are skillfully crafted, they at times lack flair.]

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin's first collection [Acts and Monuments] is a more obviously unified piece of work than Mr Hutchinson's, the product of a less diffuse, more grave and self-possessed sensibility. A metaphorical fascination with coastlines, sea-voyages and the land threads several of the poems together; and although the book...

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Robert Henigan (review date 1985)

SOURCE: “Contemporary Women Poets in Ireland,” in Concerning Poetry, Vol. 18, No. 1-2, 1985, pp. 103-13.

[In the following excerpt, Henigan discusses Ní Chuilleanáin's technique and her ability to write about the positive and negative aspects of life.]

Like Líadan and Eileen O'Leary, Eileán Ní Chuilleanáin is from Cork. She is the daughter of a professor of Irish and the prolific novelist Eilis Dillon. Although her poems are highly regarded in Ireland, American critics have been, at best, condescending. They complain that her poems are not distinctively Irish, that her syntax is elliptical to the point of obscurity, that her images are extreme or unsupported...

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Clair Wills (review date 1987)

SOURCE: “Nearer by Keeping Still,” in The Times Literary Supplement, December 25, 1987, p. 1435.

[In the following review, Wills compliments Ní Chuilleanáin's technique and notes her use of the themes of movement and stillness.]

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin's poetry has been well received in her native Ireland, and The Second Voyage, comprising poems from her three volumes published there (it has been edited by Peter Fallon and is published in Dublin by Fallon's Gallery Books), is a welcome selection of her work for English readers. It displays a striking consistency of theme and technique—the dominant motif throughout being the contrast between movement...

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Jonathan Allison (review date 1991)

SOURCE: “Poetry from the Irish,” in Irish Literary Supplement, Vol. 10, No. 1, Spring, 1991, p. 14.

[In the following excerpt, Allison praises Ní Chuilleanáin's poetry for its grace and simplicity.]

In [Ciaran] Carson's world, language is deceptive and meaning is unstable, but in Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin's poetry language is serenely confident and comfortable in its relationship to the world and to the fictions it brings into being. The language of The Magdalene Sermon is simple, uncluttered and limpid, and Ní Chuilleanáin's poems are graceful and marvellously unfussy; she seems incapable of writing a superfluous line. She doesn't use figurative...

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Elizabeth Oness (review date 1994)

SOURCE: “Glittering in the Wilderness,” in Belles Lettres, Vol. 9, No. 4, Summer, 1994, p. 26-7, 96.

[In the following excerpt Oness commends Ní Chuilleanáin's ability to write flowing poetry and comments on the recurring themes found in The Second Voyage.]

Ní Chuilleanáin's The Magdalene Sermon was shortlisted for the 1990 Irish Times/Aer Lingus Poetry Book Prize Committee. The Second Voyage contains poems from Acts and Monuments (1966) and Site of Ambush (1975). The beauty of Ní Chuilleanáin's poetry does not lie in dramatic revelation, but in the cadence of her sentences, which are both flowing and simple. Throughout her work,...

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Peter Sirr (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “How Things Begin to Happen: Notes on Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Medbh McGuckian,” in Southern Review, Vol. 31, No. 3, Summer, 1995, pp. 450-67.

[In the following excerpt, Sirr examines Ní Chuilleanáin's poetry and analyzes her ability to blend different styles of poetry and various images to create imaginative poems.]

Given the full range of what has been possible in verse in our century, Irish poetry is essentially conservative. It tends to avoid formal experiment, jealously hoards its clarities, its logic, its trove of paraphrasable content. Think, for instance, of the effective marginalisation of Thomas Kinsella, who has stoically pushed the...

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Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Acts and Monuments of an Unelected Nation: The Cailleach Writes about the Renaissance,” in Southern Review, Vol. 31, No. 3, Summer, 1995, pp. 570-80.

[In the following essay, Ní Chuilleanáin discusses the writers and historical events that have influenced her writing.]

I work in an institution founded by Queen Elizabeth I, though not much about its appearance now suggests that she and her colonial advisers, and not the cool philosophers and raging politicians of the eighteenth century, were the originators. Because my work as teacher and researcher is mostly connected with the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it frequently occurs to me to...

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Paul Scott Stanfield (review date 1995)

SOURCE: A review of The Magdalene Sermon, in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 69, Summer, 1995, pp. 148-56.

[In the following excerpt, Stanfield examines Ní Chuilleanáin's use of mobility and stasis in her poetry and describes how this inertia makes Ní Chuilleanáin's poems powerful.]

Irish poets stand a good chance to get a fair hearing in the United States, not only when compared to poets of other foreign countries, but even when compared to our own. Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, and Derek Mahon receive notice in such venues as the New York Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books, which are rather miserly in the column inches they accord books...

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Steven Matthews (review date 1995)

SOURCE: “One Free Foot Kicking,” in The Times Literary Supplement, July 7, 1995, p. 13.

[In the following excerpt, Matthews favorably reviews The Brazen Serpent, stating that Ní Chuilleanáin's lyrics blend factual history and magical poetry.]

The relations between poetry and history, between the personal space of the lyric and the painful facts of public event, have inevitably formed an exacerbating focus of attention in Irish writing of the past two-and-a-half decades. In these recent books from the Gallery Press, two major poets take up the strains of those relations in striking and suggestive ways which extend the range of possibilities offered within...

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Kevin Ray With Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin (interview date 1996)

SOURCE: “Interview with Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin,” in Eire Ireland: A Journal of Irish Studies, Vol. 31, No. 1-2, Spring, 1996, pp. 62-73.

[In the following interview, Ray and Ní Chuilleanáin discuss the themes prevalent in Ní Chuilleanáin's poetry and talk about her other work and current projects.]

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin was born in Cork, in 1946, the daughter of Irish scholar Cormac O Cuilleanáin and novelist Eilis Dillon. She was educated at the University of Cork and at Oxford, and has lectured in medieval and Renaissance literature at Trinity College, Dublin, since 1966. She is married to the poet MacDara Woods and has a son, Niall. Together with...

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Dillon Johnston (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “‘Our Bodies' Eyes and Writing Hands:’ Secrecy and Sensuality in Ní Chuilleanáin's Baroque Art,” in Gender and Sexuality in Modern Ireland, University of Massachusetts Press, 1997, pp. 187-211.

[In the following essay, Johnston examines Ní Chuilleanáin's poetry in comparison to Eavan Bolard's poetry, in view of religious overtones and in a study of sexuality.]

In her autobiographical treatise, “The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time,” Eavan Boland remarks that “Irish women poets had gone from being the objects of the Irish poem to being its authors in a relatively short space of time.”1 That final spatializing locution...

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John Kerrigan (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Hidden Ireland: Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Munster Poetry,” in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 40, No. 4, Winter, 1998, pp. 76-100.

[In the following essay, Kerrigan studies how the history of Ireland's Munster region, and past writers from this area, have affected Ní Chuilleanáin's writing.]

During the 1970s, as the Troubles took hold in Northern Ireland, the work of Heaney and his contemporaries was projected by London publishers to an international audience. Here was a poetry authenticated by crisis, which addressed the conditions of violence in ways which the media could understand. In the Republic, where readerships were small and the machinery of...

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Further Reading


Ní Chuilleanáin. “Love and Friendship.” In The Pleasures of Gaelic Poetry, edited by Seán Mac Réamoinn, pp. 47-62. London: Allen Lane, 1982.

Ní Chuilleanáin translates and studies Gaelic love poetry written between the fourteenth and eighteenth century and describes their importance to the modern poet.

Additional coverage of Ní Chuilleanáin's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 126; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 53 and 83; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 40.

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