Saturday, September 20, 2014

Ní Chuilleanáin - Themes


Memory and the process of remembering features in many Ní Chuilleanáin poems including: The Bend in the Road, On Lacking the Killer Instinct and Kilcash.

The Bend in the Road focuses on how memory connects with specific places and how these places can assume personal significance over time.  Every time the poet passes a particular ‘bend in the road’ she remembers her child was ‘sick one day on the way to the lake’ and how the family associated that place with that event ever since.

On Lacking the Killer Instinct demonstrates the process of memory, how one thought can spark off a memory and another and another. A picture in the paper sparks off the memory of the time when her father was dying in hospital and then she thinks of her father as a young man.

Kilcash pays tribute to a heroic figure from Irish history, Lady Iveagh, and places emphasis on the importance of remembering those who have died.

To Niall Woods is a vibrant celebration of romantic love that fervently believes in ‘happily ever after’.  In this poem Ní Chuilleanáin depicts an idealised, magical vision of love by referencing traditional folk tales.  She advises her son and his bride to have courage as they start out on the adventure of marriage together:

Leave behind the places that you knew:
All that you leave behind you will find once more.

Street deals with love in a more ambiguous way. In it a man falls in love with the butcher’s daughter who he watches passing by in the street. It appears to be a one sided attraction in that we do not get the butcher’s daughter’s perspective. 

The dark side of love is hinted at when he follows her home one day and sees her bloody footmarks on the stairs.  The reader is left guessing as to the outcome.


On Lacking the Killer Instinct deals with a violent period in Irish history which Ní Chuilleanáin’s father took active part – The War of Independence.  She describes how he was chased by ‘a lorry-load of soldiers’, the Black and Tans, a notoriously ruthless force, on one particular occasion and thankful evaded capture. She criticises the need for such violence saying he ‘like the hare should never have been coursed.’

Kilcash details the suffering endured by the Irish people as a consequence of colonialism.  The suppression of religion and theft of natural resources: ‘What will we do now for timber?’ left the people poor and struggling for identity. Leaders were exiled leaving the people unprotected. The poet depicts the scene in apocalyptic terms:

Mist hangs low on the branches
No sunlight can sweep aside,
Darkness falls among daylight
And the streams are all run dry;

Lucina Shynning in the Silence of the Night references Cromwell who was responsible for a violent and chaotic invasion of Ireland in 1649. She describes the dark moments of history as: ‘the waves of darkness’ behind her.


Death and Engines focuses on the inevitability of death in all our lives. Each of us will encounter a moment when we are ‘Cornered’ by death and will have no way to escape.  Some might survive encounters with death and feel ‘relief’ but they cannot escape it forever.  A time will come when it will be ‘too late to stop’.

On Lacking the Killer Instinct deals with the very real death of her father and her struggle to deal with having to watch him die.  She reveals that she ‘ran away’ to avoid the pain of seeing him suffer but felt guilty and eventually returned. She also addresses the thrill experienced by human and animal alike in evading death at the hands of a hunter quoting her father as saying he never felt ‘Such gladness’ as when he escaped the Black and Tans.

Kilcash is an elegy for Lady Iveagh who contributed so much to her local community when alive and whose absence was strongly lamented.

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