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Mary Kenny

My estrangement from Eavan was sad, but this pandemic has rekindled so many friendships

Mary Kenny



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Eavan Boland

Eavan Boland

Eavan Boland's close school friend Mary Robinson

Eavan Boland's close school friend Mary Robinson

Eavan Boland

I had been pondering on the theme of friendship, when I learned that Eavan Boland had died from a stroke. She was considered to be the leading female voice in Irish, or even world, poetry. She wrote about the experiences of women, in a domestic setting, with great intelligence and a fine lyrical voice.

We were quite warm friends back in the days of our young womanhood, and would meet on Saturday mornings for coffee in Grafton Street. Brown Thomas was then placed where Marks & Spencer is now, and there was rather a chic cafeteria on one of the upper floors. Eavan was very much involved with Trinity College Dublin at the time, previously as student, then as lecturer: she worshipped the Kerry poet Brendan Kennelly, a TCD star.

She also talked a lot - often semi-jokingly - about her father, Freddy Boland, the distinguished public servant who had been a major influence in the development of Irish diplomacy, and a bigwig at the United Nations. She seldom mentioned her mother, the painter Frances Kelly, who - this is the small-world side of Dublin life, as it was - my own mother had admired both for her art and her beauty.

Eavan had an infectious sense of humour, but, for a poet, she was also surprisingly conventional. There was nothing of the Bohemian about her. Her childhood had been so peripatetic, moving around the world with her diplomat parents, that she seemed to prefer safety, consistency, even tradition, to the wilder shores of what I had thought of as the poetic stereotype - Dylan Thomas drunk in Soho, Allen Ginsberg bonding with druggie hippies like Jack Kerouac or William Burroughs.

And yet I came to see that perhaps the reason why Eavan was drawn to me, and even sought me out, was that I represented, to her, the wilder shores of bad behaviour and madcap lifestyles which she would never have wanted for herself. In our conversations, she was also interested in characters like Charlie Haughey and his glamorously unconventional girlfriend, Terry Keane.

I may have been instrumental in introducing Eavan to Women's Liberation (as feminism was then called) and she attended several "consciousness-raising" meetings in my Dublin flat, along with the doctor, Eimer Philbin Bowman, and Mary Robinson.

Eavan and Mary R had been at school together - at the posh Holy Child convent in Killiney - and they had been joined at the hip ever since school days. Eavan drew a lot from those feminist meetings: and quite rightly, too - a poet, like any writer, must find ideas to stimulate the muse. Didn't Conor Cruise O'Brien point out that Yeats only got involved with Sinn Fein because the energy of nationalism fuelled the poetry?

Eavan married the very nice novelist Kevin Casey and had two daughters, and we sort of kept in touch. And then, for no discernible reason, she just seemed to drop me. I didn't hear from her any more, and whatever had been of the friendship simply dissolved. Did I offend her in some way? I suppose it's possible - most of us are capable of giving offence, and I could be abrasively argumentative. And yet, paradoxically, I regard the test of friendship as being able to overcome spats and rows. How many arguments did I have with dear Mary Holland, who could mock and jeer acidly, and yet remained steadfastly, utterly loyal as a pal?

Friendships do come to an end, sometimes for no particular reason. Sometimes people just grow apart, or they move on to other spheres. Sometimes one goes up in the world, and the other goes down, and a difference in status can be difficult to maintain - Eavan became an international name in poetry, lecturing in America - while, look, I'm just a modest working scribe.

I accept that friendships don't always endure, and we should dwell on the memory of the friendship we once enjoyed rather than resent its passing. Still, I was disappointed that a last effort of contact came to nothing. I read some royal archives at Windsor which seemed to indicate that Queen Elizabeth may have asked Freddy Boland, when he was Ambassador in London in the 1950s, about a possible visit to the Republic of Ireland (perhaps for the National Stud horses). I wrote to Eavan to ask her if her father had left any papers touching on this subject of Anglo-Irish relations, or spoken about the episode, but received no reply. Maybe she intended to answer, but was too busy - I have intended writing letters or sending emails that I haven't got around to doing.

I'd been thinking about friendship in general because one of the positive sides of this wretched coronavirus lockdown is that it has kindled and reconnected so many friendships. The landline telephone seems to have been reinvented and friends are calling each other with renewed warmth. Friendly emails and messages pop up by the day. I've never known a time when people were nicer, kinder or more friendly to one another.

The night after I learned of Eavan's death, I dreamt about her. She was just as she had been when we were both young: in the dream, she was as she was then, lively, friendly, and wryly amusing. In dreams, sometimes, all is made well again.

Belfast Telegraph