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  • Symbolic Power:Mary Robinson's Presidency and Eavan Boland's Poetry
  • Molly O'Hagan Hardy

In her inaugural address on December 3, 1990, Mary Robinson, Ireland's first female president, set out to transform her recently achieved symbolic role. Article 13 of Bunreacht na hÉireann, the Irish Constitution (1937), essentially limits the function of the president to that of a figurehead or symbol. But Robinson's election had imbued this symbol with new meaning. She spoke of how she would use symbols to cause change and to provide a new identification for the people of Ireland. Her address thus expresses her deeply held belief in the power of symbolic action, a belief that she shares with her longtime friend, the poet Eavan Boland. Robinson said,

As the person chosen by you to symbolize this Republic and to project our self-image to others, I will seek to encourage mutual understanding and tolerance between all the different communities sharing this island. In seeking to do this I shall rely to a large extent on symbols. But symbols are what unite and divide people. Symbols give us our identity, our self-image, our way of explaining ourselves to ourselves and to others. Symbols in turn determine the kind of stories we tell; and the stories we tell determine the kind of history we make and remake. I want Aras an Uachtarain to be a place where people can tell diverse stories—in the knowledge that there is someone there to listen. . . . As a woman, I want the women who have felt themselves outside history to be written back into history, in the words of Eavan Boland, 'finding a voice where they found a vision.'1

In these first words to the Irish people as their president, Robinson stresses the agency of the voting public; through the act of voting, they have chosen her to symbolize them. Forsaking her position as legal activist on such key feminist issues as reproductive rights and divorce, Robinson was relinquishing some of her own agency in order to provide a new identification for the Irish people. Having been chosen to symbolize Ireland, she, in return, will "rely to a large [End Page 47] extent on symbols," defining herself as one who inspires and listens to "diverse stories." She will, in effect, redefine her pre-scripted role.

Combining poetic and political symbols, Robinson first turned to a symbol provided by Boland in her poem "The Singers." In her work in general, and in this poem in particular, Boland also imbues Ireland's poetic symbols with new meaning. In Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time, she discusses the "ethical relationship between imagination and image," explaining that "images are not ornaments, they are truths."2 In "The Singers," Boland considers the sources of imagination and inspiration for female artists in Ireland. A paean to the traditional female singers of the West of Ireland, the poem depicts the harshness of these women's lives "on an unforgiving coast." The speaker wonders how the women's sense of place shapes their creative expression: ". . . was there ever one / moment when all of it relented, / when rain and ocean and their own / sense of home were revealed to them / as one and the same?"3 The question is as much about an event,"was there ever one moment," as it is about an agent who may have done the "revealing."Who, in effect, is these women's muse, who inspires them to"[find] a voice where they found a vision"? (CP 173) In other words, who or what is their vision? And, moreover, who will hear their song?

Through her presidency, Robinson wanted to embody both the vision that inspires and the listener who hears the multiple voices of Ireland, particularly those that have been silenced in the past. She transformed herself from active politician to political figurehead. Both Robinson and Boland work to redefine what it means to be a woman in Ireland while still accepting the limitations, and strengths, of a tradition: Boland in a poetic tradition derived from Yeats, and Robinson in the legal tradition embodied in Bunreacht na hÉireann. In the...


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