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.

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.

Dizzying whirlwind

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.

Heartening story

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.

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