Eileen Duggan,1894-1972, poet and writer


At one time, Marlborough-born poet, Eileen Duggan, was one of New Zealand's most widely acclaimed poets.1

Eileen Duggan as The Spirit of Ireland in a school playEileen Duggan as The Spirit of Ireland in a school play Special Collections, The University of Auckland Library & New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre
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Between 1922 and 1951, she published five volumes of poetry, with second editions of Poems (published 1937/39) printed in England and the United States. She was made an OBE in 1937 and an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (London) in 1943.2 In 1949 one of her poems "The Oxen" was set to music by Miss Dorothea Franchi (a New Zealander). 4,000 people sang it at a carol service in St. Paul's Cathedral. Princess Margaret joined in the singing.

Poetry, essays and journalism earned Duggan an income for nearly 50 years and her work was very popular. She used traditional poetic forms and simple lyrics, and Catholic beliefs, legends and symbols were important elements in her work.  However, apart from one eponymous volume published in 1994, her poetry is now largely out of print.3

Born in Tua Marina, which is now known as Tuamarina, the daughter of Irish Catholic immigrant parents who came to New Zealand in 1876, Duggan was the youngest of four daughters. She went to Marlborough High School, now Marlborough College, Wellington Teachers' Training College and graduated from Victoria University College in 1918 with an MA in History (first class honours).4

Eileen Duggan (left) and Julia McLeely, Wellington 1930-31, Eileen Duggan (left) and Julia McLeely, Wellington 1930-31, Special Collections, The University of Auckland Library & New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre
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She served her apprenticeship as a pupil teacher at her old school in Tua Marina and taught for a time at the Dannevirke High School, before she became a lecturer at Victoria University. Mr and Mrs Duggan moved their family to Wellington but soon after Evelyn (sister) died suddenly and was followed within a short time by first her mother and then her father. One of her sisters had become a nun, the other Mary was married and living in Wellington, so when her parents died she went to live with Mary.

Although she did not return to Tua Marina to live, Duggan's Marlborough childhood influenced much of her writing:  

"...until the days of motors Tua Marina, in the main, lived much to itself, even in our own times, though there were summer journeys to Picton or Cloudy Bay, and though the sea was so close, it had no pull as an occupation. The land was everything."

"In Tua Marina, the fruits of the earth were shared, often tools and machinery were lent, and, if labour was short, men gave a hand especially in flood time when stock or harvest was threatened."5

Or, from the poem Tua Marina:

Who here has seen upon the road to Para
Five tuis swinging on a bough at noon?
Who here has heard the wind among the raupo,
As I have heard it by the old lagoon?

Eileen had begun to write poems as a student at university and was contributing to periodicals both in NZ and abroad. Duggan's first volume Poems, published in 1921, reflected her Irish heritage.  Her next volumes but her next volumes: New Zealand Bird Songs (1929), Poems (1937/39) and New Zealand Poems(1940) had a New Zealand focus.7  In 1930, 16 of her poems appeared in an anthology of contemporary New Zealand verse, called "Kowhai Gold." In 1937 a book called "Poems" was published in England by Allan and Unwin. Walter De La Mare, who wrote the preface for "Poems" was another who praised her work highly.

Eileen Duggan (with cat) and sister MaryEileen Duggan (with cat) and sister Mary. Special Collections, The University of Auckland Library & New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre
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Despite the achievements of an OBE and early popularity,  Duggan fell out of fashion.  The decline in her reputation may partly be due to the absence of her poetry from three influential anthologies of New Zealand poetry- two published by Caxton Press in 1945 and 1951 and a Penguin anthology in 1960.8 Duggan was unhappy with the poems selected by editor Allen Curnow9, who had written of her poetry 'that the whole effect is that of an emotional cliché', and she refused permission to publish the poems in the anthologies.10

The other criticism of Duggan's poetry, was, that like other pre-1930s poets, she used words such as kowhai, rata and tui to try and make them New Zealand poems and this was considered by some to be gratuitous.  Duggan herself wrote in an essay on New Zealand poetry that "No art is made  national by the mere mention of kowhais and kiwis. 11

Eileen Duggan memorialEileen Duggan memorial in Tuamarina. Photo by Janine Faulknor
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Duggan's most iconic and timeless Marlborough poem was The Tides Run Up the Wairau12

The tides run up the Wairau
That fights against their flow.
My heart and it together
Are running salt and snow.
(Verse 1 )

'... we can be thankful for the uncompromising nature of Duggan's poetry... And she is worth reading ... (She) had great faith in herself as a poet, waiting these many years for readers...' Michele Leggott ("Lodestone at last", Listener, July 30, 1994).

The Eileen Duggan Green was opened on Wednesday 7 October, 2009 by deputy mayor Jenny Andrews as part of Marlborough's 150th Anniversary celebrations. The small park, with a plaque featuring a verse from the Tides run up the Wairau, is situated behind Tuamarina School and accessed via Cotterell Street, Tuamarina.


Permission to print the poetry extracts was granted by Mark Horton, Literary Executor, Estate Eileen Duggan.

Sources used in this story

  1. Eileen Duggan. Retrieved from New Zealand Book Council: 
  2. Whiteford, P. (2007) Duggan, Eileen May 1894 - 1972 Dictionary of New Zealand Biography:  
  3. Eileen Duggan. Retrieved from New Zealand Book Council
  4. Whiteford, P.(Ed.)(1994).Eileen Duggan : selected poems. Wellington, N.Z. Victoria University Press, p 14-15
  5. Whiteford (1994), p 109-110
  6. Whiteford (1994), p 62
  7. Whiteford (1994), p 19
  8. Eileen Duggan. Retrieved from New Zealand Book Council
  9. Leggot, M. (2001) Opening the Archive :  Robin Hyde, Eileen Duggan and the persistence of record.
  10. Eileen Duggan. Retrieved from New Zealand Book Council
  11. Whiteford (1994), p 20- 21
  12. Whiteford, (1994) p 45

Want to find out more about the Eileen Duggan,1894-1972, poet and writer ? View Further Sources here.

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  • I am currently writing a novel and would like to include a poem written by Eileen Duggan. Unfortunately to date, I have been unable to locate a contact address for Mark Horton. Can you please forward me his email or contact address. Many thanks for your assistance ion this matter. Kind regards Andy Hay . Ed. I suggest you contact Auckland University Press as the Prow no longer has the contact details.

    Posted by Andy Hay , 17/03/2015 12:33pm (9 years ago)

  • I am writing on behalf of my husband the artist, Ray Ching, who is publishing a book on New Zealand birds, in which he would like to include a number of Eileen Duggan's poems. Can you email me the address of Mark Horton, Literary Executor, Estate Eileen Duggan? Your article is very interesting — Eileen Duggan's poetry has great nostalgic charm for any ex-pat New Zealander. I am so glad her work is being remembered.
    Thanks for the comment - will email you direct - Ed.

    Posted by Carolyn Ching, 01/10/2013 11:55pm (10 years ago)

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Further sources - Eileen Duggan,1894-1972, poet and writer



  • Anderson, D.M. (1952, March) Mr Holcrofts Islands. Landfall 21, p.5-20.
  • Anderson, R.F. (1979) Four studies in the New Zealand Writers and their work series.World Literature Written in English 18, p. 139-143
  • Else, A. (1985) Not more than man nor less: the treatment of women poets in Landfall, 1947-1961. Landfall 156. p. 431-446.
  • Leggott, M. (1994). Opening the archive: Robin Hyde, Eileen Duggan and the persistence of record. Hecate 20(2), p.193-216.  
  • McEldowney, D. (1973) A visit to Miss Duggan. Islands 2, p. 423-427.
  • Whiteford, P. (2001) Food parcels and fond hopes : some correspondence of Walter de la Mare. Kotare - New Zealand Notes & Queries 4(1), p.55-63
  • Wright, F. (1986). Salt and snow: an essay. Cultural and Political Booklets, Wellington, N.Z. : Cultural Critique


  • Eileen Duggan Park -  to be opened in Tuamarina as part of Marlborough's 150th celebrations, October 2009
  • Wellington writer's walk - The walk, on the Wellington waterfront,  includes a plaque near the Day's Bay Ferry wharf for Eileen Duggan, with exerpts from her poem The Acolyte

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