A modern Book of Kells? Making ‘The Great Book of Ireland’
There is a story, and often more than one story, for every page of this mysterious book. Time, no doubt, will disclose these, but perhaps the most heartening story of all is that, 20 years ago, so many of Ireland’s finest poets, artists and composers gave their work so freely and generously to a quixotic venture that aimed to further the work of Clashganna Mills Trust, a charity promoting the interests of people with disabilities in the arts, and to give Poetry Ireland/Éigse Éireann the means to build what Ireland so sorely lacks, a national poetry centre.
Twenty years have gone by since the book was completed, and there were times when it came perilously close to being sold out of the country, but now University College Cork has stepped up and sourced the funds to ensure The Great Book of Ireland will be preserved and displayed for the benefit of the Irish people. Great credit is due to the university librarian, John FitzGerald, who has worked for the past seven years, with the full support of UCC’s president, Michael Murphy, to make this possible. We owe a great debt, also, to the trustees of The Great Book of Ireland for their stewardship over the years, in particular to Keith Poole, whose steady hand kept the ship on course during these final negotiations.
I know that UCC, in furtherance of its ongoing ambition to be a world leader in the humanities, is planning to use the book as a spur to programming and activities that will cement and develop a new set of relationships with the community of living artists. I know, too, that it will be working vigorously to develop a purpose-built centre to house and display the book. In the meantime, I hope UCC might consider putting its new acquisition temporarily on show in the magnificent Lewis Glucksman Gallery, so that all those large-souled and generous contributors to The Great Book of Ireland can be properly celebrated and honoured, so that we all can see what a treasure it is we now own.
Chronology of a book foretold
The Great Book of Ireland was introduced to the public on June 25th, 1991, at a ceremony at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, where it subsequently went on display for some weeks.
Since then it has led a somewhat mysterious life. It has been exhibited from time to time at venues such as the Irish Writers’ Centre and Dublin Castle, and it has travelled the world in search of a buyer and a home.
Mostly it has led a subterranean existence, deep in a bank vault, emerging into the light from time to time in circumstances that have only added to its mystique. It showed up briefly at the Irish Embassy in Tokyo, for the benefit of a potential Japanese buyer. It had its own seat on an Aer Lingus flight to Chicago while UCC was seeking to attract donors to help it buy the book; on another flight, Virgin Airlines staff took their coats out of the staff wardrobe so that the book could rest there and I could sleep across our two booked seats. But perhaps my favourite moment in the book’s secret life came when it was on show at Dublin Castle and Nelson Mandela’s daughter came to visit.
Nancy Wynne Jones had contributed a painting that flowed across the page in, it seemed to me, the colours of the ANC, and on the day that Nelson Mandela flew into Dublin to accept the freedom of the city we’d had Gearailt Mac Eoin write on that page his poem dedicated to Mandela.
Naturally, this was the page lying open on the occasion of Ms Mandela’s visit. David Byers, I think it was, told her the story – and she began to weep. One of her tears fell on to the page, into the river so to speak, moving everyone there present to silence.
And now, at last, after a long search for its proper home, we are ready to let the book go, to begin a new and public chapter in its life. Not before time.