The Famine Road by Eavan Boland

'The Famine Road' (1975) is a free-verse poem by Eavan Boland, the pioneering Irish poet. The poem follows two concurrent narratives: 

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The Famine Road by Eavan Boland The Famine Road by Eavan Boland

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Table of contents

    The first shows the cruelty of the British occupiers against Irish workers during the Potato Famine.

    The second depicts a conversation between a woman and her doctor as she discovers she is infertile.

    Boland uses the poetic device of analogy to compare these two storylines.

    Below is a summary and analysis of 'The Famine Road'. You will also find an exploration of the themes and tone of the poem, as well as a brief biography of Eavan Boland.

    Written in1975
    Written byEavan Boland
    FormFree verse
    MetreNo set metre
    Rhyme schemeIrregular rhyme scheme
    Poetic devicesCaesura, analogy
    Frequently noted imagerySuffering bodies (blood, bones)
    Tone Pessimistic, sad, despondent
    Key themesPrejudice, gender
    MeaningTwo narratives compared to each other. One shows the suffering of Irish labourers during the Famine under British rule. The other shows a woman being told by her doctor that she is infertile. Boland links the infertile body to a famine road.

    'The Famine Road': Eavan Boland

    Eavan Boland was born in 1944 in Dublin to a diplomat and a painter. Due to her father's position as a diplomat, Boland lived in both London and New York as a child.

    Boland's family returned to Ireland when she was in her mid-teens. She went on to achieve a degree in English Literature and Language from Trinity College Dublin. Boland then worked as a teacher and reviewer. She married her husband Kevin Casey in 1969.

    Partly inspired by W.B. Yeats, Boland started writing as a teenager. From the late 1960s onwards, she began to publish collections of poetry. Boland gained popularity relatively quickly. Today, she is recognised as one of the most influential Irish poets of the mid and late twentieth century. Boland is particularly respected for her effort to pave the way for female poets and writers. Some of Eavan Boland's collections include The War Horse (1975), Outside History (1990), and Against Love Poetry (2001).

    Eavan Boland passed away from a stroke in 2020.

    'The Famine Road': summary

    Let's first take a look at 'The Famine Road' itself.

    'Idle as trout in light Colonel Jones

    these Irish, give them no coins at all;

    their bones

    need toil, their characters no less.' Trevelyan's

    seal blooded the deal table. The Relief

    Committee deliberated: 'Might it be safe,

    Colonel, to give them roads, roads to force

    from nowhere, going nowhere of course?'

    'one out of every ten and then

    another third of those again

    women – in a case like yours.'

    Sick, directionless they worked; fork, stick

    were iron years away; after all could

    they not blood their knuckles on rock, suck

    April hailstones for water and for food?

    Why for that, cunning as housewives, each eyed –

    as if at a corner butcher – the other's buttock.

    'anything may have caused it, spores

    a childhood accident; one sees

    day after day these mysteries.'

    Dusk: they will work tomorrow without him.

    They know it and walk clear; he has become

    a typhoid pariah, his blood tainted, although

    he shares it with some there. No more than snow

    attends its own flakes where they settle

    and melt, will they pray by his death rattle.

    'You never will, never you know

    but take it well woman, grow

    your garden, keep house, good-bye.'

    'It has gone better than we expected, Lord

    Trevelyan, sedition, idleness, cured

    in one; from parish to parish, field to field,

    the wretches work till they are quite worn,

    then fester by their work; we march the corn

    to the ships in peace; this Tuesday I saw bones

    out of my carriage window, your servant Jones.'

    'Barren, never to know the load

    of his child in you, what is your body

    now if not a famine road?'

    Stanza one

    The first stanza of Boland's poem begins with a quote. This is from a letter written by a figure called Trevelyan to Colonel Jones and the Relief Committee.

    Trevelyan is the real historical figure Charles Edward Trevelyan. He was a British government official charged with addressing the problem of the Potato Famine in Ireland. Trevelyan was notorious for his cruel and callous treatment of Irish people. We can see his cruelty in this stanza. His anti-Irish sentiment is clear. He suggests forcing the Irish people to work on roads going nowhere in order to occupy them.

    The Potato Famine in Ireland lasted from 1845 to 1849. It occurred because a severe blight struck the Irish potato crop, a staple food in Ireland at the time. This caused mass starvation, death, and emigration. It is thought the Irish population fell by two million due to both death and emigration. Today, many believe that the severity of the Famine was partly caused by the ineffective and cruel actions of the British government.

    Stanza two

    The second stanza of 'The Famine Road' adopts a new narrative. It is in quotation marks, so we can see it is dialogue. A female subject is being told some statistics about her 'case'. The exact situation is unclear, but we can ascertain a doctor may be speaking.

    Stanza three

    This stanza returns to the poem's original storyline. It describes the condition of the Irish workers as they are forced to labour on the famine roads. They are suffering, bleeding and lacking food and water. Boland also references the English opinion of the Irish as primitive, suggesting that they may revert to cannibalism.

    Famine roads were a common concept during the Irish Famine. These were roads that led nowhere and had no purpose. They can still be found in many parts of Ireland today. Irish people were forced to build these roads by British occupiers. This was to occupy them so they would not be able to rebel against their colonisation and poor treatment by the British. It was thought if the Irish were exhausted, they would be too weak to fight back. Some were also given measly wages to buy inadequate food.

    Stanza four

    Boland's fourth stanza returns to the second narrative of 'The Famine Road'. The doctor tells his female patient he does not know what has caused her condition. He speculates arbitrarily, suggesting he does not take her case very seriously. There is little care shown for the feelings of this woman.

    Stanza five

    This next stanza focuses again on the plight of the Irish workers. One of the workers has contracted typhoid, a common disease at the time of the Famine. The other workers are aware he will not survive much longer. They avoid him to save their own health. There is a lack of empathy because they must prioritise self-preservation.

    Typhoid is a disease that is contracted from contaminated food or water. It is caused by bacteria. The symptoms include fever, digestive issues, and, in serious cases, internal bleeding. There was a typhoid outbreak in Ireland in 1847. At this time, there was no medicine to treat typhoid and it was often fatal.

    Stanza six

    We now return to the doctor and his patient. His uncaring bedside manner is emphasised further by Boland. He tells the woman that she should take the news of her condition on board and spend time tending to her garden and house. This shows that he thinks of women first and foremost as housewives. He then bids her goodbye. Boland may be showing how dismissive many medical professionals are of women's health concerns. At this point in 'The Famine Road', it is still unclear what exactly is wrong with this woman.

    Stanza seven

    This is the final stanza that addresses the Famine narrative in Boland's poem. It takes the form of a letter once again. This time it is being written by Colonel Jones to Trevelyan. He informs Trevelyan that his suggestion of famine roads has been a success from the British perspective. The Irish workers are now too exhausted and physically damaged from working on the roads to rebel. They have also been cured of what the Colonel sees as idleness. This is another stereotype. He even seems happy that he recently saw bones while riding in his carriage. Boland is clearly showing the cruelty of these British occupiers.

    Stanza eight

    The final stanza of 'The Famine Road' returns to the female patient. Readers are told she is 'barren'. Her medical condition is infertility. She seems devastated by the fact that she will never carry a child. She seems to have a partner or husband as she particularly laments she will never be able to bear 'his' child. Boland ends her poem by comparing this woman's infertile body to a famine road.

    'The Famine Road': theme

    Now let's look at some key themes in Boland's 'The Famine Road'.

    'The Famine Road': prejudice

    Prejudice is everywhere in 'The Famine Road'. Throughout her poem, Boland emphasises how unfairly the Irish people are treated by their British occupiers. They are looked down upon and seen as inferior. Trevelyan and Colonel Jones perpetuate many anti-Irish stereotypes in their letters.

    The stereotype of idleness is repeated twice in the letters of Trevelyan and Jones. They are initially concerned about the idleness of the Irish people, and then relieved that the famine roads have solved this perceived issue. This is a clear prejudice. These British men also believe that the hard labour of working on the famine roads will help the 'characters' of the Irish. Trevelyan and Jones believe that the Irish are lazy and in need of improvement. In reality, Boland makes it clear that the Irish are deeply suffering the effects of the Famine. This suffering can be seen in the below quote.

    Sick, directionless they worked; fork, stick

    were iron years away; after all could

    they not blood their knuckles on rock, suck

    April hailstones for water and for food? (ll. 12-15)

    This narrative is based on historical events. Boland is tapping into real prejudices that were held against Irish people at this time. These were particularly prevalent during the Famine. The British idea of the Irish as inferior led to a lack of help in Ireland's dire time of need during the Potato Famine.

    'The Famine Road': gender

    The theme of gender can be seen in the second narrative of 'The Famine Road'. This revolves around a conversation between a woman and her doctor in which she discovers she is infertile. This is deeply distressing for her.

    It is important to note the doctor's treatment of this woman and his bedside manner. He is harsh and uncaring, much like Trevelyan and Jones. He also does not seem to take her case very seriously, dismissing her infertility as possibly caused by 'spores' or 'a childhood accident'. Boland shows here how women's health issues are often afforded little care or empathy.

    As we can see in the following quote, this doctor also has quite a stereotypical view of women.

    but take it well woman, grow

    your garden, keep house, goodbye. (ll. 28-29)

    He suggests that this woman belongs in the domestic space, caring for her home and garden. This is a very restrictive view of women. Boland indicates here that this doctor may not be the best person to care for a female patient. There is a clear power imbalance.

    The last stanza of 'The Famine Road' also addresses issues of gender. A voice comments on the situation of this woman. It does not seem to be the doctor, it is unclear who it is. It is also relevant that this woman is not permitted her own voice at any point in 'The Famine Road'. This other voice compares the infertile body of the woman to a famine road. This suggests that neither can perform their primary function anymore.

    By comparing an infertile woman to a famine road, Boland suggests that neither have a purpose. If this is the case, Boland is pointing out that a woman's body lacks purpose if she cannot have children. From your reading, do you think she is really arguing this, or is she ironically addressing societal stereotypes about women?

    'The Famine Road': tone

    Tone is key to gaining a better understanding of a poem.

    Tone refers to the mood or atmosphere of a poem. The narrator's voice often creates this.

    The tone of 'The Famine Road' is slightly more complex. This is because it has two storylines and lacks a single, clear narrator.

    However, we can see some common themes in the tone of 'The Famine Road'. The tone is pessimistic and sad, even despondent, and there are no positive or happy events in the poem. There is no progress towards anything better for either the Irish people or the infertile woman in 'The Famine Road'.

    There is also a tone of arrogance in the voices of Trevelyan, Jones, and the doctor. They have little care for those around them and see themselves as superior. Trevelyan and Jones believe it is their duty to teach and control the Irish people. Similarly, the doctor tells his patient the devastating news of her infertility in a detached tone.

    Eavan Boland, 'The Famine Road': analysis

    Now let's move on to an analysis of some other areas of 'The Famine Road'.

    Form, metre, and rhyme scheme

    'The Famine Road' is an eight-stanza poem of varying lengths. The stanzas alternate between two different storylines. It fits into the form of free verse.

    Free verse poetry is poetry that follows no specific metre or rhyme scheme.

    Because of this, 'The Famine Road' does not follow a rigid metre or rhyme scheme. Different stanzas have different rhyme schemes. For example, the second stanza follows the scheme AAC, whereas the third stanza does not have a rhyme scheme at all.

    Free verse is often used because it is close to how people naturally speak. There are multiple instances of dialogue in 'The Famine Road', so Boland may be using free verse to help get this across.

    One of the few consistent formal elements of 'The Famine Road' is the fact that the stanzas containing the second storyline of the woman and her doctor are all tercets.

    A tercet is a stanza or poem made up of three lines.

    Poetic devices

    Let's now look at some poetic devices in 'The Famine Road'.


    The use of caesura can be seen in 'The Famine Road'.

    Caesura is when a line of poetry is broken into two, causing a natural pause. It is often marked by punctuation.

    Caesuras can affect the rhythm of a poem and how it is naturally read. This is usually intentional by the poet. Caesuras can place emphasis on a certain word or phrase. They can also mark a turn or change in a poem.

    This device is present in multiple lines in 'The Famine Road'. One such line is quoted below.

    these Irish, give them no coins at all; (l. 2)

    The caesura here can be found in Boland's use of a comma to break up this line. The line in question comes at the start of 'The Famine Road', in Trevelyan's letter to Colonel Jones. The placement of the comma forces readers to stop and focus on the words immediately preceding it. In this case, the words are 'these Irish'. This is relevant because 'these Irish' are who the British occupiers are preoccupied with controlling for the rest of Boland's poem. The phrasing here also suggests an arrogant tone.

    There is more than one occurrence of caesura in 'The Famine Road'. Can you identify any more?


    In creating a poem with two narratives, 'The Famine Road' makes use of the device of analogy. This is when two things are compared, or similarity is drawn between them to reveal a more profound meaning.

    Boland builds her analogy throughout the poem. It is finally revealed in the last stanza, which is quoted below.

    what is your body

    now if not a famine road? (ll. 38-39)

    Boland uses a purposeless famine road as an analogy for the body of an infertile woman. This is quite an unusual and shocking comparison to make. It forces readers to stop for a moment and consider this. Boland is also linking the past with the present here. In comparing the two, Boland suggests that both lack meaning and a true reason for being.

    Frequently noted imagery

    We will now look at imagery in 'The Famine Road'. Much of this revolves around suffering bodies. We will look at exactly what forms these images take.

    Suffering bodies

    Boland uses vivid and dark imagery in 'The Famine Road'. This centres around suffering bodies.

    There is a repetition of blood imagery in Boland's poem. This is first mentioned when the narrator tells us that Trevelyan's seal 'blooded' the table when the Relief Committee made a deal about the famine roads. This foreshadows the suffering of the Irish to come. Blood is referenced twice more in 'The Famine Road'. Once in relation to the pain of the labouring workers and another time regarding the worker who has contracted typhoid.

    There is also frequent imagery of bones in 'The Famine Road'. In the first stanza, Trevelyan states that the bones of the Irish' need toil'. This then happens throughout the following stanzas. In the penultimate stanza, Jones tells Trevelyan that he has seen 'bones' from his carriage window. This is a harrowing image, particularly because it is said so positively. The British occupiers have gone from wishing the Irish people to work hard to driving them to death.

    All of these images depict the human body as a site of suffering. This was commonplace during the Famine. There is also the image of a suffering body in the second storyline of Boland's poem. The suffering of this infertile woman is caused solely by her body's inability to do something. The Irish workers are suffering because of the impact of outside actions on their bodies and the woman is suffering because of her own body.

    The Famine Road by Eavan Boland - Key takeaways

    • 'The Famine Road' (1975) is a free verse poem by Irish poet Eavan Boland.
    • It follows two compared narratives: Irish workers forced to build a famine road and a woman discovering she is infertile.
    • Two key themes in Boland's poem are prejudice and gender.
    • The tone of 'The Famine Road' can be described as pessimistic, sad, and despondent.
    • Boland uses the poetic devices of caesura and analogy in her poem.
    Frequently Asked Questions about The Famine Road by Eavan Boland

    What is 'The Famine Road' poem about?

    This poem has two separate narratives. The first follows Irish workers during the Famine as they are forced by their British occupiers to work on a road that has no purpose. The second follows a conversation between a doctor and his female patient as she discovers that she is infertile.

    Where is 'The Famine Road'?

    The poem has no particular setting. There were many famine roads built throughout Ireland, and Boland's poem could be referring to any one of them.

    When was 'The Famine Road' by Eavan Boland written?


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