Four poems next about the Irish experience of immigration, another kind of journey in this book. The first two—“An Irish Childhood in England: 1951” and “Fond Memory”—make use of Boland’s own personal experience of living in postwar London as a child; the first poem ends with an anecdote about a teacher’s racism. “Canaletto in the National Gallery of Ireland” looks back, through the lens of art, at a nation-republic one left behind. The immigrant speaker of “The Emigrant Irish” wants to find strength in the example of earlier immigrants, to imagine how their “possessions” of hardship and fortitude may become our “power.”
I like best “Fond Memory.” It first describes the London convent Boland attended as a child, wearing darned worsted, eating rationed food, playing English games, and learning how wise the Magna Carta was. When the Reverend Mother announced that the King had died, all the children cried, except for Boland. But she had to fight back tears when, back home after school, her father played Tom Moore on the piano. In the “slow// lilts” of the Irish national bard,
I thought this is my country, was, will be again,
this upward-straining song made to be
our safe inventory of pain. And I was wrong.
I think Boland means that she was “wrong” about returning to Ireland. Ireland will not be her country again, since she has immigrated to America. But the syntactical ambiguity in that stanza is a fruitful one. The child-speaker could also be wrong about song being a “safe” inventory of pain.
The Minstrel Boy, by Thomas Moore
The minstrel boy to the war is gone,
In the ranks of death you'll find him;
His father's sword he hath girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him;
"Land of Song!" cried the warrior bard,
"Tho' all the world betrays thee,
One sword, at least, thy right shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!"
The Minstrel fell! But the foeman's chain
Could not bring that proud soul under;
The harp he lov'd ne'er spoke again,
For he tore its chords asunder;
And said "No chains shall sully thee,
Thou soul of love and brav'ry!
Thy songs were made for the pure and free
They shall never sound in slavery!