‘To Niall Woods…’
by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin
Upon analysing a poem, I find it useful to decode it in a particular way. I like to read the poem as if it were a story. This helps me to generate an understanding of both the poet and the poem’s context. The following notes outline the story of ‘To Niall Woods…’. Once an understanding of this poem’s story has been established you will then be able to more effectively create your own opinions and observations.
The Story of the Poem
- Ultimately the poet discusses the experience of two people from different countries coming together. The speaker acknowledges that leaving one’s home country can be a challenge, but wants to reassure the young couple that things will inevitably turn out well for them ‘You will have to trust me, she lived happily ever after.’
- The poem proceeds in a rather fantastical manner by intertwining tales, that are found in the two respective countries folklore, together. ‘…the King of Ireland’s Son and the Enchanter’s Daughter.’
- The poet describes the relationship between Niall and Xenya as a product of fate, their stars are said to have figuratively aligned ‘When you look out across the fields/And you both see the same star…’.
- Both subjects come from polarising worlds (Ireland and Russia) and will now pursue the same journey together as one ‘…time to set out on your journey.’
- The poet suggests that the tales we hear as children have, in a way, the power to shape who we are. These tales encapsulate our culture and it is said in this poem that these tales will reacquaint the lovers’ with the aspects of their lives which they have left behind ‘All that you leave behind you will find once more…’.
- The speakers reference to the Book of Ruth can be understood as a gesture of welcome – she likens Xenya to Ruth (who travelled the world and trusted strangers). This metaphorical comparison insinuates that Xenya possesses similar strength and power to that of Ruth.
- The talking cat symbolises the different tales/stories/folklore and culture that the couple will now share. The striking image of the cat represents that amalgamation of two cultures; Irish and Russian. ‘When the cat wakes up he will speak in Irish and Russian’.
Themes in ‘To Niall Woods…’
- Family (this poem was read at Ní Chuilleanáin’s son’s wedding. It can be interpreted as a celebration of love, a celebration of a new family being formed and a welcome to Xenya).
- Transitions (the transition from single life to married life is evident in the poem. The poem discusses the sacrifices made in order to participate in love/marriage. The transition of moving from one country/culture to another is also presented to the reader in this poem).
- Love (this poem is a celebration of love. The poet discusses the old adage that ‘love knows no boundaries’. The boundaries in this case would be the geographical separation and cultural differences. The poet also alludes to the fact that love demands sacrifice and can present adversity.
- Strength and Power of Women (this poem, like many other Ní Chuilleanáin poems, celebrates and acknowledges the strength and power of women. In this poem Ní Chuilleanáin compares Xenya to Ruth. Here the poet seems to be alluding to the strength and power Xenya has exhibited in moving from Russia to Ireland.
‘To Niall Woods…’ Exam Focus
In the prescribed poetry section of Paper 2, you are always asked to discuss the poet’s themes and the language they use. As long as you can reference how a particular language technique helped the poet to deliver various messages in relation to their themes, you will be able to answer any question you get on the day of the exam.
- Strength and Power of Women
- Importance of Literature (stories/folklore)
- Love’s Necessary Sacrifices
- Accessible language used
- Striking imagery created (sets scene/talking cat/natural references i.e stars/fields)
- Anthropomorphism (giving animals human qualities)
It is important to acknowledge that Ní Chuilleanáins carefully chosen language techniques allow her to present difficult subject matter (themes) in a way that makes it accessible for her readers.
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