Bound for Glory – Frank McNally on the lost and re-found art of bookbinding

An Irishman’s Diary

One of the smaller tragedies of the Civil War was the loss of the records of the old pre-union Irish Parliament. Their contents aside, the 149 volumes were things of beauty. Especially in their covers, they were “the wonders of the bookbinding world”.

Alas, they became hostages to fortune when Rory O’Connor’s anti-Treaty forces took over the Four Courts, 100 years ago this week, and they were destroyed utterly in the fighting that followed.

The books dated from an era in the middle of the 18th century when Dublin binders produced work to rival that of any other city, even Paris. Their combination of exuberant design and meticulously hard labour created what the late Maurice Craig called "artefacts of unparalleled splendour".

But perhaps the goddess Nemesis was implicated in the events of 1922, punishing the hubris of the books’ commissioners. The very magnificence of the bindings was itself a reflection of the former parliament’s self-esteem. In Craig’s words, it had “a very high opinion of its own importance”.

And yet a generation later, as reported by an astonished English observer (Thomas de Quincy), the members were nevertheless persuaded “to part with their birthright, and to cashier themselves and their children forever into mere titular lords”.

Jonah Barrington's verdict on the Act of Union was even more ominous, if somewhat premature. "An independent country was thus degraded into a province," he wrote. "Ireland as a nation was extinguished."

Getting back to the books, they came up in conversation with a man I met in Boston last week, Philip Maddock.

A Dublin-born, US-based physician, Maddock is one of the leaders in his professional field: radiation oncology. But in his spare time, he is also a book-collector, a condition he cheerfully describes as addiction, with a special interest in 18th-century bindings, destroyed and otherwise.

Maddock’s day-job includes much time spent in front of computer screens, studying high-resolution scans and calculating “target loads” for cancer patients, including the question of which parts of the body to hit and which to avoid.

But it turns out that those same computer imaging skills can also be used to bring old bookbindings back to life, with the help of latter-day craftspeople.

In this, Maddock benefits from the work of such earlier scholars as Sir Edward Sullivan, himself a binder but also an historian of the art, who photographed some of the old parliamentary volumes and also made pencil and ball "rubbings" of the originals, now in the National Library.

Between “rubbings” and “toolings”, by the way, bookbinding enthusiasts speak a language of their own, comparable at times to the steam-train veteran invented by Myles na gCopaleen, whose writings were being celebrated elsewhere in Boston last week.

Here is Craig again, for example, from a book Philip Maddock gave me, describing the finish to his own volume on Irish book-bindings (1954):

"For the title-page they cut two new letters in Fry's Ornamental which till then lacked any numerals. The only fault is that for want of a flimsy there is perturbation of the gold in the coloured frontispiece . . . When John Hayward heard that I was doing such a book he scared the life out of me by warning that I strayed on to such a minefield/quicksand/Serbonian bog . .. at my peril. 'Look what they did to poor old Ramsden,' he said."

Some of Maddock’s treasures were on display at a dinner I attended in Boston’s Club of Odd Volumes, a private society of book lovers founded in 1887.

The club occupies the atmospheric former home of Sarah de St Prix Wyman Whitman (1842-1904), a stained-glass artist, painter, and designer of book covers, whose wood-panelled ballroom is now the candle-lit dining-room, flanked by display cases.

One of these, I was deeply flattered to notice, contained a 1920s copy of Seamus O’Kelly’s The Weaver’s Grave, with a hand-written note attached: “A book recommended by Frank McNally – has a good binding also”.

The chief attractions, however, were the covers of large-volume editions with multiple gold-leaf indentations, as ornate in their own way as the Book of Kells.

The Club of Odd Volumes is a double-edged name, apparently, referring not just to the books but also to the members themselves, still limited by tradition to men only, although guests of all the main genders are welcome on occasion.

Membership is typically drawn from the city’s universities, museums, and libraries. The current enrolment includes another bibliophile I met during the week, Christian Dupont of Boston College’s Burns Library. As I was reminded during a tour there, it’s not just books Christian presides over. The collection of Irish literary archives also extends to such holy relics as Myles na gCopaleen’s hat and overcoat. Rubbings, within reason, are welcome.

READ MORE