The Gallery of Living Catholic Authors was established in 1932 by an American nun, Sister Mary Joseph, at Webster College, St Louis. Its purpose was to honour contemporary Catholic writers and create interest in their work. The Gallery was by no means composed of American authors only. Its number included Ronald Knox and Jacques Maritain; and, in 1939, a New Zealand poet was admitted to its ranks.
Eileen Duggan was born in 1894 in Tua Marina on the northern tip of New Zealand’s South Island to parents who had emigrated from County Kerry. Ireland, its travails and grievances, is a major theme in some of her poems, but it was New Zealand itself that ultimately commanded her greatest loyalty. Indeed, her poem “The Man Away” shows how the thoughts of an emigrant who has returned to Ireland keep running back to “Terawhiti’s storm of gulls, / To Mana drowning in the sun”. She once said: “To be asked to write of Tua Marina is almost like a request to write on self.”
She identified deeply with the landscape of New Zealand whose islands “stand / A pledge, a ransom and a dare”, where one could “Conserve man’s old alliance with the earth / Of veins with rivers and of flesh with loam”. In “Titahi Bay”, the movements of the sea come to resemble those of a Maori war party: “Oh stealthy, silent, sure, like warriors descending / Head up and tense […]”
There is an edge of anxiety to her poems. She knew that, in part at least, poets had to rely on “Such will as bees have when they fly by night, / Foreseeing a sour summer for the comb” (“Plea”). However, Duggan (no relation) also knew that there were rougher tasks than poetry. Though she spent most of her adult life in Wellington, her rural upbringing meant that she could begin a poem with the words, “I was driving the cows”. Her identity remained in part that of a “paddocks woman”, though she feared losing touch with humble people “who turn their sorrows into powers”.
She knew well also how tenderness could break through the rough cladding of the rural scene: “My mares would shame a man. / I’ve seen them lift their feet / To let a bird through / In all the summer heat.” (“The Drayman”) And so writing of the Blessed Virgin, she could treat the Mother of Christ with great reverence and piety, while not forgetting that she was “poor, roughfingered”.
Her religious belief seems to have been deep and constant, but not uncomplicated. In “And at the End”, she finds herself begging for nothing more than the faith of “a blind hound nosing the knee”. Religious and national piety combine in “The First Night”, in which native New Zealand birds take turns to give a special blessing to the newborn Christ. In 1949, a carol of hers was sung by 4,000 people in a service at St Paul’s Cathedral.
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