Eileen May Duggan was born on 21 May 1894 at Tuamarina, near Blenheim, the youngest of four daughters of John Duggan, a plate layer for New Zealand Railways, and his wife, Julia Begley, both from County Kerry, Ireland. During her childhood Eileen lived in the cottage built by her father at Tuamarina, a small and struggling farming community set at the northern edge of the Wairau Plains and enclosed by hills, bush and swamps near the Wairau River. This landscape, in which she found much pleasure, was to exert a strong influence on her poetry of the 1920s and 1930s. In 1949, when contributing to a school history, she commented, 'To be asked to write of Tua Marina is almost like a request to write on self'.
Eileen went to primary school at Tuamarina, and from 1907, after winning a Junior National Scholarship, attended Marlborough High School until 1910. After returning to Tuamarina primary school as a pupil-teacher in 1912–13, she went to Teachers' Training College, Wellington, in 1914–15, and Victoria University College from 1915 to 1917. She graduated BA in Latin, education, English and English history in 1917 and MA in history with first-class honours in 1918. That year she began teaching at Dannevirke High School, but ill health forced her to abandon her intended career. From 1919 onwards she supported herself mostly by her writing, although she was awarded a state pension by the first Labour government in August 1942.
Tragedy struck in the early 1920s. Her elder sister Evelyn, her closest companion in childhood, died of nephritis in 1921. Then in 1923 her parents, with whom she had been living, died within a few months of each other. Sometimes she stayed with her eldest sister, Mary, but for most of the remainder of the decade she lived in a Catholic hostel in Wellington, where she met Julia McLeely, who was to be her friend and companion throughout the rest of her life.
In 1926 Duggan taught briefly at St Patrick's College, Wellington. She then held a one-year post as an assistant lecturer at Victoria University College – an appointment she referred to, in a letter to the Australian writer Nettie Palmer, as her 'Land of Egypt and House of Bondage'. The onset of Parkinsonism forced her to give up teaching again, but it seems to have been with some relief that she quit the classroom, adopting instead a secluded, but not reclusive, lifestyle in Wellington. After her sister Mary was widowed in 1931, Eileen and Julia McLeely lived with Mary. A shy, sensitive woman with blue eyes and red-gold hair, she cited ill health and her general frailty as reasons for turning down two proposals of marriage, but her decision was probably also influenced by her notion of the artistic vocation, which she felt required a dedication not always compatible with marriage.
By 1931 she had acquired a considerable reputation as a writer. She was a regular publisher of historical and critical material, short stories, and a weekly column, ‘The Catholic Woman’, in the New Zealand Tablet, under the pen-name Pippa, begun in 1927. It was as Pippa that she was perhaps best known within the New Zealand Catholic community; she was also much sought after as the author of occasional verses to celebrate significant events within the life of the church, and did much in her prose writing to support the work of religious congregations and charitable institutions. As an essayist and occasional journalist, she published in the Sun, the Press (Christchurch), the Bulletin (Sydney), the New English Weekly (London), and Commonweal (New York).
But it was as a poet that she was best known in the wider community, both within New Zealand and abroad. She had begun writing poetry while at Training College, and individual poems appeared in the New Zealand Tablet from 1917. Between 1922 and 1951 she published five volumes; two ran to second editions, and the three major publications were given simultaneous release in England and America. Despite her quiet lifestyle, she maintained a prolific correspondence, in particular with a wide range of literary people in New Zealand, Australia and England.
Her earliest poetry reflected her Irish heritage, its publication coinciding with growing local support for Irish home rule. But by the mid 1920s, when she turned down the chance of a trip to Ireland, she had committed herself much more clearly to New Zealand and its literature. This showed itself in the simple but popular verse of New Zealand bird songs; in attempts to accommodate Maori traditions and language in her writing; in folk ballads, which captured the lives of ordinary working men and women in rural New Zealand; and in intense personal lyrics set in vividly realised landscapes. Throughout her career she was conscious of writing in a community with little literary tradition of its own.
Her poetry is characterised by its conspicuous religious dimension, which ranges from simple devotional writing, through poems that celebrate the sacredness of the created world, to more spare and sombre meditations on the moral implications of human actions.
Eileen Duggan was the first New Zealand poet to gain an international reputation; she was admitted to the Gallery of Living Catholic Authors in 1939, appointed an OBE in 1937, and made an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1943. Ironically, at the same time, changes in literary fashion were underway. After 1951 it appears that she wrote no further poetry, feeling herself to be remote from what was then happening in New Zealand literature, and out of sympathy with the critical judgements of Allen Curnow in his influential anthologies. After protracted and difficult negotiations in the late 1950s, she refused to admit any of her work to Curnow’s 1960 Penguin anthology of New Zealand verse. Thereafter, she confined herself to historical and religious writing. Eileen Duggan died at Calvary Hospital, Wellington, on 10 December 1972.