Burns Library

Irish Collection Marks 50th Year

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

While the Irish Studies Program celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, the John J. Burns Library's internationally acclaimed Irish Collection is quietly observing 50 years of accomplishment in its own right.

"If there was ever a case where nothing succeeds like success, the Irish Collection is it," said Burns Librarian Robert O'Neill. "The strong reputation we've attained has convinced others to contribute, which further strengthens the collection and increases its attractiveness to scholars and others interested in Ireland."

The Irish Collection contains approximately 17,500 volumes relating to Irish history and literature, and some 13,000 manuscripts. Its roughly 2,500 pamphlets include items relating to the Catholic Emancipation of 1795-1840 and the incorporation of Ireland into the United Kingdom at the beginning of the 19th century.

Burns Librarian Robert O'Neill with some of the materials from the Irish Collection. (Photo by Gary Gilbert)

In addition, the Irish Collection encompasses Congressional Archives featuring official papers of four prominent Irish-Americans, all former members of Congress: Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., Robert Drinan, SJ, Edward Boland and Margaret Heckler. Its holdings of original art works represents Irish artists such as Jack Yeats, Frank McKelvey, Veronica Curran and Evie Hone.

Earlier this year, the library announced plans to establish an Irish Music Center, the outgrowth of an archive of traditional Irish music founded after the 1990 "My Love Is In America" Irish fiddle festival held at the University. The center will document traditional forms of Irish music from its origins to the present, with emphasis on its influence in America.

O'Neill said the joint anniversaries of Irish Studies and the Irish Collection this year was a happy coincidence, providing the opportunity to reflect on their mutually beneficial relationship.

"The collection had a good foundation on which to build," he said. "But the arrival of Irish Studies certainly enhanced our ability to collect important and valuable items, by giving a strong academic component to the University's Irish heritage and legacy."

That component was further enhanced by the establishment in 1990 of the Burns Visiting Scholar in Irish Studies chair, O'Neill said, which brings Irish experts to BC to teach and use the library's special collections for their research.

The origins of the collection go back to 1946, when the sons of Boston attorney and book collector John T. Hughes donated their father's substantial library of Irish books and manuscripts to Boston College, O'Neill said. That donation formed the nucleus of the collection, which was formally established in 1948 by Bapst Library Director Terence Connolly, SJ. Fr. Connolly invited historian Helen Landreth to curate the collection and she began seeking and organizing further contributions. The collection moved to the Burns Library when the library was dedicated in 1986 as the permanent home for the University's rare books and special collections.

Noted early on for its strong holdings documenting Irish history and society from the late 1700s to the present, the collection subsequently made strides in the areas of literature, art, music, agricultural history and economic history.

In the past few years, the library has arranged for several major acquisitions, including the donation of materials relating to Nobel laureates William Butler Yeats and Samuel Beckett. These collections are among the most comprehensive in the world. Another important acquisition was a rare, color facsimile of The Book of Kells in 1990.

Among its most recent coups, in May of 1997 Burns added the collected works of prominent Irish writers Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, who is the current Burns Scholar, and Flann O'Brien. Ní Dhomhnaill is widely considered one of Ireland's finest contemporary poets writing in the Irish language. Flann O'Brien was a pen name of the late Brian O'Nolan, who earned critical acclaim for his novels and a long-running series of newspaper columns.

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