‘Witness‘ offers a view of Dublin, both geographically but also as a symbol of memory. The narrator also contemplates the ways in which places leave their mark on people by comparing the city’s characteristics with their own. Taken from her 2014 collection, A Poet’s Dublin, the text is a example of Boland’s lifelong interest in Irish identity.
‘Witness‘ is a reflective poem that gradually moves through the layers of Dublin, offering both a broad geographical perspective and a deeply personal one, informed by memory and guilt.
The opening stanzas create a panoramic view of the city, spanning the mountains and coastline that surround the urban center. This serves to illustrate the scale of the poet’s undertaking, as well as provide a contrast to the narrator’s later musings, which become more personal. The undulating nature of the poetic gaze also mirrors the poem’s preoccupation with identity, which is inevitably a composition of an individual and their environment. Finally, the poem ends with an unanswered question, which challenges the reader to assess their own conclusions about the nature of memory, legacy, and identity.
You can read the full poem here.
Eavan Boland was born in Dublin in 1944 and, despite spending significant periods abroad, died in the city in 2020, having attended Trinity College Dublin in her youth. The poem was first published in 2014 in Boland’s celebrated collection, A Poet’s Dublin, which dealt primarily with the relationship between Ireland’s capital and her feelings about what it meant to be Irish during her lifetime.
Boland’s life coincided with a period of immense change in Ireland, having been born less than thirty years after the Irish War of Independence. Dublin itself also changed dramatically during her lifetime, as a result of commissioned works to celebrate icons of the newly independent nation and later by the influx of wealth during what became known as the Celtic Tiger.
Here is the city –
its worn-down mountains,
its grass and iron,
its smoky coast
seen from the high roads
on the Wicklow side.
The poem begins by announcing that the narrator is in the city, as demonstrated by the word “here.” However, it also implies that the narrator has recently found the city, having symbolically lost it or has recently returned to it. Boland lived in Britain as a child and traveled widely as an adult, so she would have been familiar with the feelings one gets when returning home. The omission of the city’s name arguably emphasizes the narrator’s affection towards it, as though it was the only place that mattered and therefore did not need to be specified.
The rest of the stanza appears to view the city from a distance, from which the surrounding landscape is visible. The metaphorically “worn-down” mountains imply a familiarity and fondness for the landscape as it suggests the narrator has walked the mountain paths many times. The poet also juxtaposes Dublin’s “grass and iron” to reflect the complexities of Irish identity, given so much of which is associated with rural landscapes in spite of its predominately urban population and the fact Boland lived most of her life in the city.
From Dalkey Island
its old divisions are deep within it.
This stanza establishes the panoramic view of the city to contrast the more intimate contemplations of the later stanzas. It also emphasizes Dublin’s relationship to the coastline by referring to Dalkey Island, which lies in the bay, as well as the “blue distance” which could refer to the Irish Sea. This sea functions as a symbol of possibility and change, both because of its unpredictability and also because the notion of emigration by sea is deeply ingrained in the Irish psyche. Therefore, Boland could be expressing a view that, like the adjacent sea, Dublin is constantly evolving and changing. However, she could also be indicating the opposite by contrasting the variable sea with the permanence of the city, lamenting its inability to change with the rest of the world.
The final line supports the latter interpretation by reminding the reader that the city’s divisions are longstanding and unlikely to change. The alliteration also creates a sense of bitterness to support the view that she was frustrated by the city. It is unclear which divisions are being referred to, but The Troubles blighted the Republic and Northern Ireland for much of Boland’s life. Conversely, the city could be divided along gendered lines, given that the Irish constitution made specific reference to women’s domestic role and abortion was still illegal in Ireland at the time of the poem’s publication.
And in me also.
And always will be:
The men and women
This stanza marks a shift toward the intimate relationship with the city and offers a more introspective tone while using these personal musings to continue commenting on the city more broadly. The use of personal pronouns highlights the fact the narrator assumes responsibility for her faults, even though they appear to be the product of her divided environment. Thus, the opening lines suggest that the poet felt that one’s personal identity is inseparable from their surroundings.
The metaphorical “garrisons” which emerge from the narrator’s mouth show the power of language and how easily it can lead to actual violence when used malevolently or even carelessly. Boland also aligns her words with the “dispossessed” as though unsure whether she belongs to a tradition of victims or oppressors.
What is a colony
And the dead walk?
This theme of oppression continues in the opening line of the final stanza, through the use of the emotionally charged “colony” which immediately evokes connotations of violence and abuse. Likewise, the oxymoronic “brutal truth” reminds the reader that, whilst confronting the past can be cathartic and educational, the legacy of any place almost always contains moments of pain and suffering which must then be borne by those who remain.
Curiously, in spite of the fact the entire stanza is framed as a question, only the final line is punctuated as one. This creates a separation between that line and the preceding four, which stand alone as a statement. Therefore, Boland asserts that the graves do metaphorically “open” when one examines Irish history but stops short of claiming that this causes the dead to walk. This decision creates a level of ambiguity, as it questions the usefulness of reflecting on painful histories if they only cause pain, yield no new conclusions, and cannot change the old ones. These complex feelings, for Boland, are amalgamated within the fabric of the city in which she lived and died.
Boland engaged with many themes during her long and respected literary career, but regularly tussled with questions surrounding Irish identity. In particular, Boland’s work examined the relationship between Ireland and femininity, using both contemporary imagery and Irish mythology in order to do so.
The poem was taken from Boland’s collection, A Poet’s Dublin, and so the context would have been clear to many readers. However, the omission of the city’s name could also imply that Boland was conflicted in her attitude towards it and therefore found it easier to literally and metaphorically skirt around the edges.
Boland lived and wrote in the latter half of a golden period for Irish writers, four of whom received the Nobel Prize for Literature from 1923-1995. Beyond this, Boland was part of a close network of Irish poets throughout her life. The collection from which ‘Witness’ is taken was edited by her friend and fellow poet Paula Meehan. Finally, the celebrated Irish novelist Edna O’Brien is fourteen years older than Boland, and her work shares clear parallels with the poet’s.
The poem is written in free verse across four stanzas, with little regularity with regard to line length. The poem, therefore, resembles ordinary speech, offering the kind of straightforward tone one would expect from a real witness. However, it is not specifically clear what, if anything, the narrator has witnessed as the poem is deliberately ambiguous.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Witness‘ might like to explore other Eavan Boland poems. For example:
- ‘The Pomegranate‘ – A beautiful retelling of the myth of Persephone, with clear links to Boland’s modern experience of the world.
- ‘The Famine Road‘ – A heart wrenching mediation on the horrors of British rule in Ireland and the devastating effects of the Potato Famine.
Some other poems that may be of interest include:
- ‘A Prayer for my Daughter‘ by W.B. Yeats – Like ‘Witness’, this poem interweaves the personal with the societal and shows Yeats at his most reflective.
- ‘Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin‘ by Patrick Kavanagh – Another poem written about Dublin and its relationship to water by one of Boland’s contemporaries.