Even Eavan couldn't save her countrymen from famine. But she sure can write a poem that packs a powerful punch. Eavan Boland, Irish poet extraordinaire, was born in Dublin in 1944. She moved around a bunch as a kid, but came back to Dublin to attend Trinity University. It was there that she published her first book—23 Poems—in 1962.
The poem "That the Science of Cartography is Limited" is Boland at her best. It's at once personal and historical, individual and a product of Irish history. The poem is about a young woman coming to terms with one of the darkest moments in Ireland's history—the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-49—in which over a million Irish people starved to death or died of disease, and millions more emigrated away from Ireland.
So what, exactly, went down during the Irish Potato Famine? Well, this famine was caused by the potato blight, a disease that destroyed potato crops all over the country. Poor people in Ireland relied on the potato as their main source of food, so the blight had a serious effect on the Irish lower classes. No potatoes = no breakfast, lunch, or dinner. All that meat and no potatoes… Just kidding, these poor souls didn't have any meat either.
Now here's where politics enter the scene: the English, instead of offering food directly to the starving Irish, demanded that the Irish work for their food. Even though they were starving to death. (Good going, Brits.) They insisted that the Irish build what are now called "famine roads"—pointless roads that literally go nowhere. Kind of like when your chemistry teacher goes on a tangent about his home experiments, and he's still discussing the intricacies of using this or that chemical to properly clean a bathtub when the bell rings. Hundreds of thousands of Irish people died while building these futile famine roads, and the roads remain a reminder of England's long, problematic relationship with Ireland. (For more details on the famine, check out this resource.)
In "That the Science of Cartography is Limited," Boland has an encounter with one of these famine roads, and this encounter causes her to think about her relationship with Ireland's past, and also about the ways that we represent tragedies like the potato famine. Boland thinks in particular about cartography—or map-making—and how maps of Ireland don't show famine roads. The poem asks all kinds of deep questions about maps, history, and the ways we have to remember and represent the past. And you know how we love asking deep questions.
Luckily for us, Boland has gone on to publish many, many more books of poems, and she's known for writing about womanhood, motherhood, identity, Ireland and its history, and that good ol' feminist thematic standby: the relationship between the personal and the political. And that's what this poem's all about. Oh, and take note, Shmoopers: Boland has been teaching in the U.S. for decades now, and these days you can find her roaming the halls of Stanford. (We think she's a pretty great reason to get started on your Stanford application early, folks.)
No matter the time period or where you live, you've got some relationship with History (note that capital H here). Maybe your grandfather fought in World War II and you have one of his medals. Maybe you've visited a Civil War battlefield on a school trip. Maybe you live near Ground Zero in New York. Every country is filled with residues of the past, and it's important to remember that the past isn't always pretty.
"That the Science of Cartography is Limited" fleshes out this connection between our everyday lives and world history. It takes a great national tragedy, and considers it from the point of view of a gal who is not in the political world. She shows us that it's not just politicians and historians who have to come to terms with capital-H History: it's all of us. Especially if there's a zombie apocalypse someday. But, you know, even if there isn't.