The Generational Divide in Eavan Boland’s The Achill Woman
Eavan Boland is an Irish poet and author born in Dublin, Ireland in 1944 who focuses much of her work on the national identity of Irish people, the role of Irish women throughout its history, as well as Ireland’s rich and, at times tragic, history and culture as a country itself—especially pertaining to the impact that the Irish potato famine, or “The Great Famine” between 1845 and 1852, had on Irish society. Currently, Eavan Boland is a professor at Stanford University. In the poem “The Achill Woman” written by Eavan Boland, the speaker (heavily indicated to be Eavan Boland herself, therefore making the poem rather autobiographical) recounts her experiences on Achill Island off of the coast of Ireland and more specifically her encounter with a woman who lives there. Throughout the course of the poem, the narrator describes the woman’s simple way of life in juxtaposition to her own lifestyle, being an educated college student. Upon this reflection, the slight culture clash between the two Irish generations are highlighted through the different interests they spend their time pursuing during the day as well as their general mindsets towards life.
First, their interests in daily pastimes differ completely in origin and purpose. For instance, the Achill woman spends her time climbing “up the hill carrying water” (1) in her wool clothing, or being productive with the “harmonies of servitude” (30). These daily rituals and chores consist of the basic necessities for her, and by keeping herself occupied she remains content with this daily routine as well; especially considering the fact that she actually lived through the famine that caused many casualties in Ireland during her youth. Overall, the Achill woman is content and more than satisfied with her simplistic lifestyle. Alternatively, the narrator spends her time as a normal college student would, “week-ending at a friend’s cottage” (16) and reading her books by the side of a fire throughout the cold night. Preferring to stay inside with a good book, the narrator initially does not understand and takes for granted the hard work of the Achill woman in this way. This typical young adult, college student schedule also causes a cultural clash between the two women purely because of the fact that they share different lifestyles, interests, and pastimes that are stereotypical for their ages and generations.
Next, both women retain their own sets of values, opinions, and perspectives that stem from their own personal experiences and lifestyles, also causing a slight disconnect between the two of them. For example, when the Achill woman converses with the narrator, “the evening turned cold without warning” (20) as it usually seems after a person reveals tragic or dismal news. If one were to assume the conversation was about detailed accounts and disclosed information about the terrible famine that struck Ireland, then the woman of Achill has endured many hardships throughout her life— tragedies that the narrator will most likely never experience due to her youth. The Achill woman represents a generation that survived harsh times, a stark contrast from that of the youthful narrator. Nevertheless, the lack of catastrophe in the narrator’s life has its benefits. She was “all talk, raw from college” (15) and therefore educated as a young woman with no real negative experiences or traumatic events to speak of in her adult life. Since this conversation can be assumed to be her first time hearing stories about the potato famine and how awful it was for the Irish people during that time, it isn’t surprising that the verses to follow shift, consisting of her more thought-provoking lines as she is left alone reflecting about her own life experiences.
Eavan Boland’s “The Achill Woman” captures the realistic essence of the subtle internal struggle between impoverished older generations that endured hardships such as the Irish potato famine as well as their newer counterpart generations. Towards the end of the story, however, Boland incorporates a structural literary device called enjambment in order to convey to the audience that the narrator’s stream of conscience is beginning to drift off, ultimately ending the poem afterwards. Once the speaker starts to enjamb the poem in this manner, the narrator begins to understand the virtues and hardships of those who came before her as she reflects on her life years later while on the verge of falling asleep. By emphasizing this slight transition, the culture clash of different activities and outlooks on life between the two generations is seen through another, more understanding and empathetic perspective.
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