A modern Book of Kells? Making ‘The Great Book of Ireland’
An adventure, indeed, is what the whole process became. None of the poets had written on vellum before; it’s a difficult surface to work on, no two sheets the same, pitted and irregular, with random spots of natural skin oils to contend with.
With the exception of the late John Kelly, none of the artists had worked on vellum, either, and they would have to contend with the complication that if the page became too wet as they were working, it would shrivel up again when it dried out – with terrible consequences.
And then the logistics . . . All very well when you can hand someone a double spread to work on, but we very soon got to the point where some unfortunate artist would find herself working on split signatures, some other person’s work on either side of her pages. Nerve-racking. And then the business of matching poets with painters (and sculptors, too, and composers writing their music). We’d decided from the start that image and poem would have equal status. We paired men with women, women with women, young with old, old with old, Irish language with English, all the time in search of variety, energy, the jolt of the unexpected.
Both editors were determined to see that women poets and artists were properly celebrated in the book, conscious as we were of the impediments to recognition so many of our colleagues had faced and overcome in the recent past. Anyone examining the binding of the book will see imprinted around its inside margins some lines from Eavan Boland, a gesture intended to acknowledge not just Eavan but a whole generation coming forward in her wake.
We had little to go on by way of precedent; we were making things up as we went along. But, taking the wise advice of Trevor Scott, we resolved to make a unified whole of each page by employing a calligrapher to unite the disparate elements, artwork and handwriting, on each page. A young Dubliner, Denis Brown, was hired to do this work under Scott’s supervision, and his talent, vision and remarkable skills made from the start a remarkable contribution to the evolving book.
As the work gathered momentum, keeping the whole show on the road became a dizzying whirlwind ride. At any one time, any number of pages might be flying around the country, sometimes in the boot of Gene’s car, sometimes confided to the impeccable hands of An Post. We kept running out of money for materials, for petrol, postage and vellum, but somehow Eamonn Martin kept finding sources of aid.
Danny Osborne was on trek in the Arctic, and we considered having paints, brushes and vellum dropped on his campsite from a plane, but the Canadian postal service somehow got the materials through. Somebody let her page get too wet, then let it dry too quickly to half its natural size. Tony Cains read us the riot act, then slowly and carefully, by some arcane near-alchemical process involving steam, coaxed the vellum back to its normal dimensions without damaging either poem or painting on the page.
We saw before long that The Great Book of Ireland was beginning to shape itself, that far from being its masters we had become its servants; we saw, too, that where the Book of Kells, say, was a single unified vision, a hegemonic gospel, this would be a book celebrating and exploring diversity, plurality, a country that had become, almost unknowingly, cosmopolitan and variously independent in its thought and practice. To reinforce this perception, we decided to invite a number of habitual visitors to Ireland to contribute; hence the Nobel laureate Derek Walcott (who also contributed a beautiful drawing), Carolyn Forché, Miroslav Holub, Bella Akhmadulina and Ted Hughes, among others, found their way on to the pages.
Samuel Beckett wrote gently to decline our invitation, pleading ill health, but we sent him pen, ink and vellum, lest he should change his mind – and a fortuitous visit from John Montague did indeed persuade him to change his mind. The Great Book of Ireland now contains what as far as anyone knows is the last poem Beckett wrote, a significant variation on a poem from 1932, borne home reverently from Paris by the late Lar Cassidy, just short of three weeks before Beckett himself was borne away into his last great silence.