A modern Book of Kells? Making ‘The Great Book of Ireland’
More than two decades has passed since the project began. Now, finally, a collaboration between dozens of artists and writers has a permanent home, as one of its driving forces explains
In the mid 1970s I worked summers on London building sites, spending the weekends exploring the city’s galleries, bookshops, museums and other less elevated attractions. One Saturday I walked through the great doors of the British Museum and found myself transfixed in a small room where original manuscripts of poems in the poets’ own hands were on display. I was fascinated by the postmaster’s neatness of Wordsworth; the lucid if opium-curvy hand of Coleridge, the fluent, nervy grace of Marvell. The handwriting gave me an eerie sense of their presence, as if the hand that had made these marks still rested on the page before me.
Sometime in early 1989, newly installed as director of Poetry Ireland, I had a visitor to our underground lair on Upper Mount Street in Dublin. Gráinne came bearing copies of In the Land of Punt, a book featuring poems by Paul Durcan and the paintings of Gene Lambert, a fundraising venture for Clashganna Mills Trust, of which Gene was chairman. Could we help with selling the book? Of course we could, but would Gene maybe drop by to explore an idea I had been nursing for nearly a decade?
So Gene duly arrived, in company with Clashganna’s chief executive, Eamonn Martin. I had in mind a book with maybe 50 poets in their own hands, illustrated by an artist, a joint venture between our two charities. Gene was having none of this illustration malarkey: parity of esteem demanded 50 artists if we were to have 50 poets. And it went on from there. By the time the coffee was cold we had decided between the three of us on a manuscript book, one copy only, all contributors to work directly on to the pages, something like a modern Book of Kells.
If we had known what we were letting ourselves in for, we might have left it at the “Well, nice idea, but . . . ” stage.
The practicalities first, then: Eamonn (God help him) would find the funding as we went on, Gene would choose the artists, I would choose the poets. Fine. Now materials: vellum, we thought, for its proven longevity, its historical association with manuscript books; dip pens and ink for the poets, a water-based pigment for the artists. Grand, except that Ireland’s only vellum manufacturer had just gone out of business. Then it came back to life again a week later, and Joe Katz of Celbridge became our supplier and our friend.
We read in the paper that Coillte was cutting down the elms Yeats had planted at Thoor Ballylee. Somehow I found the mobile number for Eugene Glynn, in charge of the chainsaw gang down there. Would he put aside a tree for us? Certainly. Grand: now we had the wood for the end boards of the book and for the book’s protective box.
Another few phone calls put us in touch with Anthony Cains, technical director of conservation at Trinity College Dublin and, as we would discover, a bit of a genius when it came to making and guarding manuscripts and books. Tony agreed to make and bind the book.
Now all we had to do was convince our fellow artists and poets that we weren’t mad. We drew up a preliminary list of the finest poets and artists we could think of, Eamonn found us some money, and we took a deep breath and set off on the journey.
The difficult business of persuasion
On June 11th, 1989, Seamus Heaney and John Montague arrived into Poetry Ireland to scribe out the first two pages of The Great Book of Ireland, as we had modestly decided to call it. Amelia Stein made the photographs that day, and you can see the latent schoolboy emerge as these great men dipped their pens in an inkwell for the first time in decades, Heaney steady and composed, Montague every inch the scamp a wise schoolmaster would do well to keep an eye on.
We sent both pages to Barrie Cooke, figuring that having Montague, Heaney and Cooke on board would act as a spur to doubters when we embarked on the difficult business of persuading early contributors to join the adventure.