Home News Obituary: Ethna McKiernan

Obituary: Ethna McKiernan

Obituary: Ethna McKiernan

by Michael O’Brien, Seamus Cashman, John Spillane, Ann Tannahill

We were saddened to hear of the death of Ethna McKiernan. In the 1970s, 80s and 90s several lrish book publishers cooperated in many ways: in particular in developing new overseas markets, especially in America.

An export company IRISH BOOK SALES was created by Ann Tannahill of Belfast-based Blackstaff Press, Michael O’Brien of O’Brien Press, Seamus Cashman of Wolfhound Press (both Dublin) and John Spillane of Mercier Press in Cork. 

McKiernan, who was 70, published several poetry collections, including three from Salmon Poetry. Her latest, Light Rolling Slowly Backwards: New & Selected Poems, was launched in August 2021 at Celtic Junction Arts Center in St Paul.


Light.  The rapture of it, heft
and weight.  Two birches wear the white sheen
of it, a zinnia’s face blazes gold in it,
sidewalk shadows change size because of it.

Quick as that, a gloss of light lands 
on the cricket’s back, then leaves.  Leaves in Fall
are charged with it, fierce light pulsing out
from colors against black bark after rain.

When dark falls, there is an absence,
a quiet sorrow in the realm of eyesight.
Edges blur and soften, and we no longer
recognize what we knew so keenly yesterday.

Then daybreak, when the rapt world flames forth
again, scattering bits of light, delirious light.

A true sister of Ireland

Ethna’s father, Professor Eoin McKiernan, was named by Irish America magazine as one of the greatest Irish-Americans of the century, along with President Kennedy and artist Georgia O’Keeffe, in 1999. In St Paul Minnesota, he founded IRISH BOOKS AND MEDIA, importing Irish music, press and books for sale and distribution to the Irish diaspora.

Ethna worked with him, and took over following his passing in 2004. She distributed an annual catalogue of Irish published books and promoted them throughout the US for many years. In those pre-internet days this was largely through direct mail. Ethna ran IB&M with genuine personal passion for Irish culture, and became a true friend of many in the book world.

Ethna was Irish-American to her core, and understood this identity well before lrish governments discovered its cultural value. 

It’s important to honor Ethna as a true sister of Ireland who opened cultural doors for Irish writers and book publishers. She will be sadly missed.