Obituary for Leland Bardwell

Leland Bardwell (25 Feb 1922 – 28 June 2016)

Leland Bardwell
was a poet and writer who produced thirteen books of poetry, fiction and memoir, stage plays, and radio plays for both RTÉ and the BBC during the course of a remarkable life. One of the founding editors of the literary magazine Cyphers, she was a member of the influential Irish Writers’ Co-operative in the 1970s, and a founder of Sligo’s Scríobh Literary Festival.

Born in India to Irish parents, Leland grew up in Leixlip, Co. Kildare, alongside a brother Christopher and sister Paloma. Her father Pat Hone, a railway engineer, was of the line that included two noted painters Nathaniel Hone, elder and younger, as well as the stained glass artist Evie, of whose work Leland was a great admirer. It was a difficult relationship with her mother, however, that had the most lasting effect. Like the heroine of her partly autobiographical debut novel, Girl on a Bicycle (1977), the young Leland found some refuge in literature, reading her way through “all the books in Foyle’s twopenny lending library” in the town.

In time, however, the shadows of that relationship
caused her to doubt her own ability to love. The grim humour that animates much of her work was, in part, her way of coping, of transforming the experience into something new.

And yet that work is all about affections and allegiances, about identifying with the hurt and the wounded. In the poem ‘A Mother Mourns Her Heroin-Addicted Daughter’ (written for a close friend), she speaks in the voice of the city that has failed the youngster: “I’ll raise my pavements to keep you safe. Open the balcony of my arms …” And in another poem, depicting the nightmare of struggling young mothers like herself in Dublin’s urban wasteland of the 1980s, the chorus (and title) seems to loop incessantly: “Don’t touch them. Them’s your mammy’s pills.” It is no coincidence that her one short story collection is entitled
Different Kinds of Love.

Leland’s movements, geographical and romantic, over her adult life are complex. Her marriage in 1947 to Michael Bardwell, by whom she had twins Anna and Billy, was marked by hardship and infidelity. After she left him, she moved to London to take up with his brother Brian, with whom she had a daughter, Jacqueline. But that relationship too came asunder and in time she moved to Dublin with Fintan MacLachlan, the most handsome man she had ever met and father of her three sons, Nicholas, Edward and John.

In Dublin, Leland just about kept the show on the road, struggling to balance a bohemian lifestyle with the pressures of young motherhood, while Fintan, as she puts it with unaccustomed delicacy, “treated his hangovers with care”. In Soho earlier, and now in Leeson Street, she was part of a lively circle of writers and artists (including poets Patrick Kavanagh and Anthony Cronin, and painters Robert MacBryde and Robert Colquhoun). But somehow, amidst the chaos and distraction, she continued to write, not only poems, but articles for newspapers, children’s stories for radio, and at least one lyric for her growing sons’ fledgling rock band, the barked-out chorus line of which, “I don’t wear uniforms,” expressed her own punky defiance as much as theirs.

By the late 1980s, she was conducting creative writing classes in the city centre, rolling shag tobacco on her knees and already inspiring a rising generation of mostly female writers.

When it comes to anthologies of Irish writing from the period, with few exceptions Leland was either ignored or reduced to a footnote: it was through her that Kavanagh met Katherine Barry Moloney, his bride-to-be.
That her writing shifted between pure lyric (with surreal influences) and narrative impulse, made her, possibly, harder than others to categorise; but the omission was lazy, scandalous and indefensible.

Friendships with other writers, therefore – among them Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Macdara Woods and Pearse Hutchinson, and more recently Dermot Healy, Brian Leyden and the poet Mary Branley – did much to sustain her. Her indomitable spirit survived a sequence of further relocations: from the new suburbs back in to Dublin’s York Street, and from York Street to the gate lodge of the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig where custodians Bernard and Mary Loughlin offered sanctuary, succour and love.

And often it was needed. On at least one night a heavy rainstorm diverted a veritable river through the house, filling the living room so full of frogs that visitors had to go on tiptoe to avoid them. Leland, though not oblivious to the problem, calmed the situation with a few lines by Hilaire Belloc – “Be kind and tender to the Frog, / And do not call him names” – transforming the disaster into a memorable literary soirée.

In 1992 she moved for the last time, north-west to the Sligo coast where, in a small sea-lashed cottage, she found a kind of peace.

Her 2002 novel
Mother to a Stranger was a surprise bestseller in Germany. In 2010, she received a short story award from Turkish PEN. In 2011, aged 89, she travelled to the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, and was astonished to find herself rapturously received.

But the journeying that had taken her to Paris, Russia and as far as Colombia over the decades was drawing to a close. A stroke in 2013 hurt her in the one place she could still be hurt, in that part of the brain that processes language. She laughed grimly, as she was wont to do; without reading and writing, what would be left for her?
Her restless life was starting to blur.

By times anarchic, hilariously irreverent and heartbreakingly shy, Leland lived life to the full, whether at her cluttered desk under a sprinkle of wild flowers, or stepping out into the chill Atlantic, which she did until recent years, complaining and cursing all the while but fearless as an Olympian. Membership of Aosdána saved her life, and enabled her to complete at least four of her books – extending, in so many ways, the range of contemporary Irish writing.

For such a big personality, her carbon footprint was small. Her radio played Lyric FM, quietly. And for years and years she drove an ancient Triumph Herald, the back seat of which was composed almost entirely of old literary magazines and dog-eared typescripts. And yet somehow, just like language itself, it sustained her.


Leland Bardwell
is survived by her children Billy and Anna, Jacqueline, Nicholas, Edward and John, by her half-brother Christopher, and her many cousins, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

(First published in
The Irish Times, 02 July 2016)

Pat Boran on 3 Favourite Yeats Poems

microphonePat Boran reads and discusses three favourite Yeats poems as part of WB and Me, RTÉ Radio 1's series in which contemporary Irish poets discuss their relationship with Yeats. Produced by Kevin Reynolds for Drama on One (June, 2015).


Two poems in Italian Translation

Two poems in Italian translation ('A Dog' / 'Cane' and 'Still Life with Carrots' / 'Natura morta con carote') over on the very handsome new IrisNews website dedicated to international poetry in translation, run by the translator Chiara da Luca of Edizioni Kolibris. Here

Lost and Found: The Afterlife of a Poem

It's odd how some poems set out, as it were, in the company of their peers, but quickly discover a very different path through the world.

Though I didn't think much of it at the time (and certainly not more than those which accompanied it), the poem 'Lost and Found' from my 2011 collection
As the Hand, the Glove, is one that has established something of an independent life for itself. This does not, I think, make it a better (or even worse) poem than others from the same book, but it does serve to remind how so much of what happens at the writing desk is given, fated even, and that in the end the strongest poems inevitably seem to speak for themselves.

Over the first decade or so since its publication, 'Lost and Found' (like the majority of poems, let's face it) went more or less unnoticed – a positive mention in a book review somewhere, an appreciative note once from a reader from across the Atlantic.

And then, three years ago on an Irish radio show in which two friends discuss their friendship (
Miriam Meets, RTÉ Radio 1, see earlier blog post), the host asked her two poet guests to each pick a favourite poem by the other. And Theo Dorgan, my long-time friend and colleague, picked 'Lost and Found', a poem he had never once mentioned to me, to the best of my recollection.

Of course, the idea of a favourite poem (or favourite poet) is more or less meaningless, at best a prompt to conversation and useful as that. The truth is, we all know the feeling of being in love with a poem or a song lyric one day and then finding it strangely lifeless the next. The heart moves on, even if it has a peculiar habit of subsequently going back and forcing us to think, and feel, again.

So it was a surprise to me when my colleague chose 'Lost and Found'; I had long since lost what I had found in the moment of writing it.

Even so, having to read it again that day brought, as poems often do, some part of that original emotion physically back to me – as if a small time capsule had been opened and its contents had come spilling out, bubbling up.

This is not to make any particular claim for the poem. Instead, I suppose, I am only trying to clarify for myself my own now-off now-on-again relationship with it.

What is odd though, and heartening, is how that radio broadcast, that surprise return of emotion, seems to have struck a chord with so many of the listeners. Not that the switchboards were jammed! In fact, nothing at all happened. The world happily went on with its existence, as the next programme on the daily schedule was released into the ether.

But within weeks, and then again months, and now, once more, years later, I still receive emails and occasional calls about the poem, asking where it might be found, if the original book is still in print, if the text is available anywhere on the internet. And inevitably the people writing to me have themselves, recently or even quite some time ago, lost a father, are struggling to find ways to talk about it to themselves and to each other.

Just as the poem describes how my late father's gathering up of all sorts of odds and ends was somehow transformed into a communication to me, that moment in which I thought I was alone with the fact of his death turns out to be a communication to others dealing with the same difficult experience.


Sometimes now I see my father
up in Heaven, wandering around
that strange place where he gathers up
what other souls no longer want,
as all his life he gathered
unloved things.

As if on a screen I see
his big frame bend, his bony hands
reach down for a rusted pin,
a nail, a coin from some lost kingdom.
One day it will be the very thing
someone will need.

And when the tears become too much
and this damned bed might be a field,
I sit up wondering how the hell
the world can always find more fools
to lose things and be lost themselves,
and carry on.

Then something in my heart gives in,
and I know, as if I’d always known
deep down, that all that trash, that old
Christmas wrapping, those balls of string,
the belts, belt buckles, the left-hand gloves,
the dozens of pairs of worn-out shoes
and toeless socks, the blown light bulbs,
the coils of wire and threadbare screws,

the broken clocks, the plastic bags
folded neatly, the leaking pens
and dried-up markers, the ink-stained rags
and blotting paper, the bashed-in tins
of washers, plasters, needles and lint
were never his at all, were meant
for me.



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