Tribute for Ethna McKiernan

From the Celtic Junction Facebook post 4/12/22

For those of you that knew her, read her and/or loved her, we have been asked by her family to announce that there will be a Memorial Service for Ethna McKiernan on May 14, 3pm at Spirit of St. Stephens – 5011 31st Ave. South, Minneapolis, MN.

Ethna passed away this past December from an aggressive form of cancer. Her obituary in the Irish Times covers much of her life and history: as fifth of nine children to Eoin McKiernan, as proprietress for Irish Books and Media, as a fearless champion for the homeless and as “a beautiful poet with an amazingly generous spirit and a deep respect for other people.” Ethna – your light shone brighter than most. Thank you for sharing it with us. We will remember you in life, with love, and in your own words (read aloud, of course).


As in to let go utterly,

the highest gold leaf diving

from the maple tree. Or that first time

on the beach under stars, terrified

by raw tenderness, by depth.

I saw a firefighter today

blaze into a building not worth

saving and I said a prayer—

God, let me lose any kinship

to the inconsequential

when it’s my turn to dive

without the parachute.

When I become the highest leaf

in the sky, grace me

with pure abandon.

– Ethna McKiernan

Article on Ethna from “The Irish Times”

Ethna McKiernan obituary: a poet and a champion of Irish culture in the US

Her work at a distribution hub for Irish music and books gave Irish Americans a deep appreciation of contemporary Irish literature and culture for over three decade

Wed, Dec 29, 2021, 16:01 Updated: Wed, Dec 29, 2021, 16:02

Born: November 30th, 1951

Died: December 12th, 2021

The Irish American poet and beacon for Irish culture in the United States, Ethna McKiernan, has died in her Minneapolis home. The author of five poetry collections, McKiernan had a strong affiliation with Ireland, and regularly visited family and friends here. Her work with Irish Books and Media, a North American distribution hub for Irish music and books, gave Irish Americans a deep appreciation of contemporary Irish literature and culture for over three decades.

In July 2021, she travelled with her two adult sons to Ireland for the launch of her poetry collection Light Rolling Slowly Backwards (Salmon Poetry) in the Salmon bookshop, Ennistymon, Co Clare. At that event American-born writer Susan Millar DuMars spoke about how McKiernan’s poems “transcend autobiography” as she, the poet, “acts as one small, still point in a world of aching tragedy and stunning beauty”.

“She employs metaphor, music and a sense of place like an Irish poet while also having faith in the colloquial, the anthemic and in societal critique as in Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes,” said Millar DeMars.

Unconventional and rebellious by nature, McKiernan wrote fearlessly about personal and political issues, tacking subjects as varied as Arctic explorers, poverty-stricken Dublin mothers, the death of her son Brian, her own mother’s Alzheimer’s disease and clients she met when working for homeless charities in later life.

Following the killing of African American man, George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis in May 2020, McKiernan witnessed at close hand the sirens, the fires and looting and the violent disruption of peaceful protests that followed his death.

Her poem I Can’t Breathe for George Floyd includes the lines “Today, I mourn the death of George Floyd, whose neck was pinned for nine minutes beneath a white cop’s knee until the only thing that could be heard was ‘I can’t breathe’.”

Light beams

Earlier poems addressed the bombing of school girls in Alabama and the racially-charged beating of Rodney King in the 1990s. In another recent poem, The Radiation Room, she compares the light beams sweeping her body for cancer to the reassuring twinkle of winter constellations overhead and “everyone she’s ever loved”.

McKiernan’s first collection of poetry, Caravan, was published in 1989 by the Midwest Villages & Voices in the US and by Dedalus Press in Ireland. Her collections The One Who Swears Your Can’t Start Over (2002), Sky Thick with Fireflies (2011), Swimming with Shadows (2019) were published by Salmon Poetry.

In 2004 she completed a Masters of Fine Arts at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, and was twice awarded a Minnesota State Arts Board grant for poetry.

She also took part in the annual Twin Cites St Patrick’s Day poetry readings in Minnesota for about 20 years. Her work appeared in the New Hibernia Review, Poetry Ireland and the Notre Dame Book of Irish American Poetry.

Jessie Lendennie, editor and founder of Salmon Poetry, said that McKiernan was “a beautiful poet with an amazingly generous spirit and a deep respect for other people”.

McKiernan grew up the fifth born of nine children of Prof Eoin McKiernan and Jeanette McKiernan (nee O’Callaghan), both of whom had Irish-born parents. The family lived first in upstate New York, where her father was the head of the English department at the State University of New York in Jeneseo.

Head-hunted for a similar role at the University of St Thomas at St Paul and Minneapolis, Prof McKiernan first embarked on a sabbatical year of study in Ireland, bringing his wife and nine children to live and study in Dublin while he became proficient in the Irish language and culture. Ethna attended Muckross Park College in Donnybrook during that year in Dublin.

The family moved to Minnesota on their return from Ireland in 1960, where Prof McKiernan founded the Irish American Cultural Institute in St Paul’s which became the first of many chapters of this formidable force for Irish culture throughout North and South America and beyond.

Distribution hub

Ethna was very close to her father and worked with him at the Irish Books and Media distribution hub for Irish music and books while studying at the University of Minnesota, and following her graduation she joined him in the business. She continued to distribute and promote an annual catalogue of Irish-published books throughout the US for a number of years after his death in 2004.

Publishers from O’Brien Press, Wolfhound Press in Dublin, Mercier Press in Cork and Blackstaff Press in Belfast remember her as a true friend of many in the book world.

“She opened cultural doors for Irish writers and book producers and understood the cultural value of the Irish American identity well before the Irish government discovered it,” said Michael O’Brien, Seamus Cashman, John Spillane and Ann Tannahill in a tribute to her in Books Ireland magazine.

Following two short-lived marriages, McKiernan brought up her two sons, Conor and Naoise, on her own, instilling in them a compassion for the less fortunate. For the last decade of her life she worked as a street outreach worker for homeless charities. This work saw her walk alone on river paths, down alleyways and under bridges to bring kindness and services to people without shelter.

Not afraid to break the rules, co-workers remember many incidents in which she stepped outside professional boundaries – offering a client overnight accommodation in her home to avoid an abusive boyfriend, visiting a former client in jail and minding a homeless couple’s hamsters while they stayed in a hotel. Her son Conor said “she gave more to others than anyone I ever knew”.

Ethna McKiernan is survived by her sons Conor Moe and Naoise Moe, and by her siblings Deirdre, Kevin, Brendan, Nuala, Fergus, Grania, Gillisa and Liadan. Her son Brian Plunkett pre-deceased her.