Some people are dedicated to sharing culture, creating art, or helping others. Ethna McKiernan was passionate about all three.
She helped spread Irish culture, wrote acclaimed poetry and worked to serve the homeless.
“She has given more to others than anyone I have ever known,” said her son, Conor Moe of Minneapolis. “Sometimes regardless of his own health to help others.”
McKienan died of cancer on December 12 at her Minneapolis home. She was 70 years old.
“Ethna was a Renaissance woman, single mother, poet and fearless homeless advocate – who also had a special passion for Irish history and literature,” said her brother, Kevin McKiernan of Santa Barbara, California.
She was born in Rochester, NY, one of nine siblings whose grandparents were born in Ireland. His family lived in Dublin for a year, then moved to Minnesota. She graduated from the University of Minnesota and received an MA in Poetry from Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, North Carolina.
For 30 years, McKiernan operated Irish Books & Media in Minneapolis, which distributed Irish music and literature. She “gave Irish Americans a deep appreciation for contemporary Irish literature and culture,” read an obituary in the Irish Times, a Dublin-based daily. Books Ireland magazine called her “Ireland’s true sister which has opened cultural doors for Irish writers and book publishers”.
McKiernan later spent 13 years working with homeless people on the streets, sometimes taking risks or breaking the rules as she did.
Monica Nilsson, who worked with McKiernan at the Spirit of St. Stephen’s Catholic community, said that “the street approach is kind of youth work” – physically and mentally taxing. McKieran did so until he was 69.
“There’s always an element of danger when you’re in these cracks and crevices of the city,” said Tyler Bouwens of St. Paul, who has partnered with McKiernan at the nonprofit People Incorporated. “She would definitely do things that I wouldn’t do.”
He recalls a time when McKiernan invited a woman with an abusive boyfriend to spend the night with her. The woman subsequently moved to Duluth to join her family and work on her mental health and recovery from drug addiction. The invitation crossed professional boundaries, Bouwens said.
“But that was really what this client needed, to take a different direction in her life.”
McKiernan dedicated his fifth collection of poems, “Light Rolling Slowly Backwards,” to his homeless clients, “who often appear in his lovingly lavished poems,” a Star Tribune review published on the day of his death said.
“She was just a beautiful, incredibly articulate poet,” said Minneapolis poet Tim Nolans. “She had a way of going into things and then coming back up to the light.”
His office was the kitchen cook, despite the risk of fire, Conor said.
“She would have papers all over the stove and smoke a cigarette.”
She has written of ordinary – “the late night furnace buzz” – and dramatic experiences, including the death of her son Brian Plunkett in 2016.
“For the common grace of it all, the way the beautiful, relentless roots of the earth draw us deeper,” she wrote in a poem, “I offer blessings, praise, amazement. “
In addition to Kevin and Conor, survivors include St. Paul’s son Naoise Moe; sisters Deirdre Hetzler of Fairport, NY, Nuala Rosensteel of Aiken, SC, Grania and Gillisa McKiernan, both of St. Paul, and Liadan Lorsung of Minneapolis; brothers Brendan McKiernan of Watkinsville, Georgia, and Fergus McKiernan of Wausau, Wisconsin. A service is planned for the spring.