Some people devote themselves to sharing culture, or creating art, or helping others. Ethna McKiernan was passionate about all three.
She helped spread Irish culture, wrote acclaimed poetry and worked to serve homeless people.
"She gave more to others than anyone I ever knew," said her son, Conor Moe of Minneapolis. "Sometimes disregarding her own health to help other people."
McKienan died of cancer Dec. 12 at her Minneapolis home. She was 70.
"Ethna was a Renaissance woman, a single mother, a poet and a fearless advocate for homeless rights — who also had a special passion for Irish history and literature," said her brother, Kevin McKiernan of Santa Barbara, Calif.
She was born in Rochester, N.Y., one of nine siblings with Irish-born grandparents. Her family lived in Dublin for a year, then moved to Minnesota. She graduated from the University of Minnesota and earned an MFA in poetry from Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, N.C.
For 30 years, McKiernan operated Irish Books & Media in Minneapolis, which distributed Irish music and literature. She "gave Irish Americans a deep appreciation of contemporary Irish literature and culture," read an obituary in the Irish Times, a Dublin-based daily newspaper. Books Ireland magazine called her "a true sister of Ireland who opened cultural doors for Irish writers and book publishers."
Later, McKiernan spent 13 years working with homeless people on the streets, occasionally taking risks or bending rules as she did it.
Monica Nilsson, who worked with McKiernan at St. Stephen's Human Services, said "street outreach is kind of a young person's job" — physically and mentally taxing. McKieran did it until she 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 partnered with McKiernan at the nonprofit People Incorporated. "She definitely would do things that I wouldn't do."
He recalled a time when McKiernan invited a woman with an abusive boyfriend to stay overnight in her home. Afterward, the woman moved to Duluth to join family and work on her mental health and recovery from substance abuse. The invitation crossed professional boundaries, Bouwens said.
"But really that was what that one client needed, to take a different direction in her life."
McKiernan dedicated her fifth poetry collection, "Light Rolling Slowly Backwards," to her homeless clients, "who often appear in her poems lavished with tenderness," said a Star Tribune review published the day she died.
"She was just an amazingly articulate, beautiful poet," Minneapolis poet Tim Nolansaid. "She had a way of going down into things and then coming up into some light."
Her writing desk was the kitchen stove, despite the fire risk, Conor said.
"She'd have papers all over the stove, and she'd be smoking a cigarette."
She wrote about ordinary experiences — "the late-night hum of the furnace" — and dramatic ones, including her son Brian Plunkett's death in 2016.
"For the common grace of all of it, the way the earth's relentless lovely roots pull us deeper in," she wrote in one poem, "I offer blessings, praise, amazement."
In addition to Kevin and Conor, survivors include son Naoise Moe of St. Paul; sisters Deirdre Hetzler of Fairport, N.Y., Nuala Rosensteel of Aiken, S.C., Grania and Gillisa McKiernan, both of St. Paul, and Liadan Lorsung of Minneapolis; brothers Brendan McKiernan of Watkinsville, Ga., and Fergus McKiernan of Wausau, Wis. A service is planned for spring.