My Life’s Work: Éamonn de Búrca, antiquarian bookseller and publisher, Dublin
“I bought my first antiquarian book in Castlebar at the age of 16”
Eamonn de Burca: ‘As a general rule of thumb, with really rare books one can expect to double one’s money in 10 years’
Éamonn de Búrca runs De Búrca Rare Books, along with his son William, in Blackrock, Co Dublin. He buys and sells old and rare books, manuscripts and paper ephemera, items relating mainly – but not solely – to Ireland. They sell online and through published catalogues which are collectors’ items in themselves. They also publish limited editions of historical, topographical and biographical books. They carry out valuations of individual items or entire libraries throughout Ireland, the UK and the US.
What is your background?
I’ve been in the bookselling business for nearly 40 years. Before that I worked in construction. I’m a a patriotic Mayo man educated at St Gerald’s College in Castlebar and the university of life.
I left Ireland aged 18 and went to England to work in construction – mostly on civil engineering projects, building motorways. I came back to Ireland in 1980 and set up my bookselling business in my native Castlebar and a few years later moved to Dublin. We had an antiquarian bookshop in Dawson Street for about 10 years but footfall declined during the recession and two years ago we closed the shop and now run the business – which is mainly mail-order and online – from home.
How and why did you get into the rare books business?
I bought my first antiquarian book in Castlebar in 1966, at the age of 16, when I was a pupil at St Gerald’s College. It was Thomas Moore’s History of Ireland, published in Philadelphia in 1843, in what I now – but not then – would describe as full, straight-grained, green Morocco binding. That was the start of my love of old books. That first acquisition has pride of place in my personal library and is truly unique in that it is the only book I would never part with – at any price.
Moore, a poet, composer and prose writer, was born in Dublin in 1789 and he has played a surprisingly significant part in my life. During the summer holidays of 1967 I stayed with my aunt, Mary (Cusack) Rattue in Devizes, Wiltshire, and worked on a housing development for the Ministry of Defence at Warminster. This was not far from Sloperton Cottage where Thomas Moore lived with his family from 1817 until his death in 1852.
When I discovered that the author of my first rare book once lived nearby, I decided to learn more about him and his writings. Today he is best known for his ballads, which were published as Moore’s Irish Melodies in 1821.
Moore was a friend of Lord Byron, a strong advocate of Catholic Emancipation and a supporter of Daniel O’Connell. His History of Ireland introduced me to the heroes and heroines of Irish history and a new-found appreciation of the book I carried with me. The flame of my love for the printed word was lit.
I am particularly proud of publishing Charles Nelson and Wendy Walsh’s Flowers of Mayo, which won the overall book of the year award in 1995.
Inevitably, Moore also features. Some time ago, we had an enquiry from a client in Russia who was restoring the palaces of the Tsars and was looking for a first edition of Lalla Rookh by Thomas Moore which, he informed us, would be housed in the summer palace of the Tsars. Why? I learned that Tsarina Alexandra, Consort of Tsar Nicholas I (mother of Nicholas II, the last Tsar of the Russian Empire, who along with his family was executed by the Bolsheviks in July 1918), loved Thomas Moore’s work; and that her favourite book was this classic oriental romance. It took pride of place in the palace library at Peterhoff.
Tsarina Alexandra is still venerated in Russia and her birthday is celebrated each year on July 12th in St Petersburg. The streets are strewn with petals and white roses; and scenes from Lalla Rookh are enacted. This work, first published in London in 1817, was a bestseller in the early 19th century, running into six editions in six months and translated into many European languages.
What advice would you give to collectors/investors?
It is really up to each individual, but never buy a book solely because you expect to make a profit; buy it because you like it. Prices can go down as well as up, but a colleague of mine in the UK told me some years ago that, as a general rule of thumb, with really rare books one can expect to double one’s money in 10 years. My favourite book about Ireland is the 1633 first edition of Pacata Hibernia of the finest historical works on Ireland in the 16th century, with a magnificent set of maps and plans. The title page is in Latin and English but the text is in English.
My favourite European book is the Nuremburg Chronicle, first published in 1493.
What do you collect, and why?
I think most booksellers are collectors at heart and in my own case there are certainly some items that I would not part with unless I had a duplicate. I am passionate about the history and antiquities of Mayo, my native county, and I have a substantial collection relating to it, which is not for sale. I am also very interested in anything relating to the Bourke clan.
What would you buy if money were no object?
What is your favourite work of art?
My favourite painting is Frederic William Burton’s Hellelil and Hildebrand, The Meeting on the Turret Stairs in the National Gallery of Ireland. I think it appeals to me because of my Norman background.