Eavan Boland was one of Ireland's most beloved writers. She died on April 27, 2020, suddenly of a stroke. Boland had just returned from her long-time teaching position at Stanford University in California to wait out the coronavirus pandemic in her native Dublin. She was 75.

The poem we have chosen is called "Quarantine," first published in 2001, but amazingly and painfully apt for today. The music we choose to combine with the poem is the 11th-century Irish hymn, partly in Latin, partly in old Gaelic, "Deus Meus."

"Quarantine" relates a story from the devastating Great Famine in Ireland in the late 1840s. "The Great Hunger," as it was called, is now looked at by some historians as a form of genocide. There was no actual shortage of food per se, at least none that should have created such widespread starvation. There was, though, a devastating failure of the potato crop that most of the island's inhabitants — 9 million at the time by some estimates — depended on. Food continued to be exported from Ireland during the period, and the inadequate response of the occupying British government led to the deaths of over a million people and set in motion decades of emigration that has put the Irish in every part of the world.

One response from the government — and this is important for the context of the poem — was to set up workhouses for the most destitute. In these institutions, life was often worse for its inmates than for those starving on the outside. The story of the poem is of a husband and wife leaving such an institution with the wife sick with "famine fever," most likely, Typhus. They travel all night but are found dead in the morning. When found, one last physical gesture of love is evident in the position of their bodies.

Reading this poem, I was put sadly in mind of the suffering and loneliness that countless victims of COVID-19; real people not just part of a daily statistic. The suffering of their spouses, partners, lovers, family members, separated by this pandemic - many dying alone. And of their humanity, as the poem ends, "...what they suffered. How they lived. And what there is between a man and a woman. And in which darkness it can best be proved."


In the worst hour of the worst season
of the worst year of a whole people
a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
He was walking — they were both walking — north.

She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and west and north.
Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.

In the morning they were both found dead.
Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.

Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
There is only time for this merciless inventory:

Their death together in the winter of 1847.
Also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proved.

"Quarantine" is from "New Collected Poems" by Eavan Boland, released by WW Norton.

Two recordings of the 11th-century Hymn, Deus Meus were used:

"Deus Meus," Cappella Caeciliana, Cantate Domino
"Deus Meus," Notre Dame Folk Choir, Songs of Saints and Scholars

Words and music is a feature of A Celtic Sojourn, and can also be found online at wgbh.org/celtic. If you have a suggestion for a poem, a reading, or a piece of music that would fit the series, send an email to celtic@wgbh.org and put "Words and Music" in the subject line.