Though set for the most part in her native Kerry, Sheehan’s poetry is far more universal than provincial. Much has been made by critics of her word-craft: its earthy rhythms, its careful cadences, the evocative lyricality with which she explores the ancient and undying themes of love, family, domesticity, nature, death and myth. Yet her poetic compass frequently leads her beyond this well-trod ground, toward situations uncannily familiar or curiously surreal. Such moments are captured with consistently surprising metaphor in work that possesses a delightfully magnetic and multi-layered simplicity.
Eileen Sheehan was born in Scartaglin, in the Sliabh Luachra area of Co.Kerry in 1963, and has lived for most of her life in the nearby lake-side town of Killarney. A well-esteemed and much-loved poet, especially in her home province of Munster, Sheehan has won both the Listowel Writers’ Week Poetry Slam in 2004 and the coveted Brendan Kennelly Poetry Award in 2006. She has been published in several high-profile anthologies and has been invited to read her work at many festivals and events both in Ireland and around the world. Her first collection, Song of the Midnight Fox, was published by Doghouse Books in 2004, as was her most recent, Down the Sunlit Hall, in 2008. Both collections met with critical acclaim and a third, The Narrow Place of Souls, is forthcoming.
Again and again Sheehan colourfully explores intimate, domestic circumstances, often stressing the need for personal assertion and the upending of cultural preconceptions. We see this in the mirthful ‘Brassicas’, for instance, or in ‘The Sister of Martha Rejects Her New Man’ where ‘Life is too long//to spend with a man//who’s obsessed//with white, shining tiles’. Sheehan’s playfulness and wit are emancipatory in this sense, often evoking both the desire and the courage to escape convention, mediocrity and customary roles. Her deft humour, in ‘living in the surreal with Alois’ among many other works, amplifies a deadly serious treatment of familial intricacies.
Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill has said of her poems that ‘even the darkest, most threatening of them is a balm for the soul’. And her at once fragile yet powerful works do indeed weave tales of both love and loss, of stamina and salvation, accepting of the austere wisdom that bids us get on with things yet driven by rhythms that relish life’s lighter side.
Francis Devlin-Glass has described Sheehan’s work as an ‘ameliorative storying’. And in her poetry equal care is given to darkness, light and the dependency between them. In ‘Kiss’, for instance, ‘Death is a seriously sexy man’ while the ‘multitude of fledglings’ that appear in ‘Claiming It’ form the source of ‘ten-thousand shadows’.
Such poems are steeped in a defiantly secular, perhaps even pagan spirituality, an aspect of her work designed to ground, humble and make a rougher concrete of the more dialectically Christian tenets that underpin much of the Irish poetic tradition. In ‘Songbird in the House’, for instance, the poet honours her mother while not quite dismissing a popular superstition:
it was said that a songbird in the house
was a harbinger of death for someone there,
she claimed it was only a small soul
and meant no harm to anyone
Quincy Lehr has described Sheehan as ‘perhaps one of Ireland’s most underrated poets’. Yet her work has begun to receive its due recognition and she is with increasing frequency ranked alongside the most compelling and transcendent women poets in Ireland today, such as Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin.
And deservedly so, for the language that meanders through her collections possesses a spring-water clarity and teems with bio-diversity, from playful meditatons laced with an unmistakable Kerry irony, to profound engagements with the heart’s most turbulent sorrows. These are poems encoded in a rare triple helix of talent, passion and delicate attention to detail.
Song of the Midnight Fox, Doghouse Books, Tralee, 2004
Down the Sunlit Hall, Doghouse Books, Tralee, 2008
Sheehan's page at Doghouse Books
The Belleetrist's review of Down the Sunlit Hall
Sheehan Links at the Munster Literature Centre