Spend some time in The Ohio State University’s Thompson Library Exhibit Gallery and you’ll want to brew a pot of Bewley’s tea, bake a loaf of barmbrack, and curl up with the literature that reflects the Irish people’s pride in their Gaelic heritage and their national identity.
“Of What Is Past, or Passing, or to Come: The Irish Literary Renaissance,” an exhibit of The Ohio State University’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, presents rare books, first printings and signed editions of works by some of the most influential Irish writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The exhibit features works by William Butler Yeats, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, as well as contemporary Irish writers like Patrick Kavanagh, Liam O’Flaherty and Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney, who died on August 30, 2013.
Emerald-hued exhibition panels bordered with Celtic knots present a timeline of Irish literary history and author biographies. A photographic map locates the origins of several authors of Ireland. Several historical pamphlets document the Irish quest for independence from Britain. Recordings of James Joyce reading the “Anna Livia Plurabelle” section of Finnegan’s Wake, as well as William Butler Yeats reciting The Lake Isle of Innisfree in 1937, bring the acclaimed writers to life.
Three distinctive publishers’ bookbindings are worth the trip in themselves.
The gold-stamped covers and spine that Althea Gyles designed for The Secret Rose, Yeats’ 1897 poetic work, are rich in Celtic symbols. Trees with intertwining roots and branches are reminiscent of the interlaced Celtic knots so prevalent in the Book of Kells and other illuminated manuscripts from Ireland’s past. The lettering of the title looks like Gaelic type. “A last-minute shopper entering a London bookstore on Valentine’s Day in 1928 with six shillings to spend on a gift for his or her beloved could hardly have made a better investment – either poetically or financially – than one of the 2,000 copies of a volume Macmillan & Co. had published that morning: The Tower by W.B. Yeats,” Richard J. Finneran wrote in his introduction to the 2004 facsimile edition of this influential volume of verse. Yeats wrote this collection of poems at and about Ballylee Castle, the romantic County Galway hideaway he purchased in 1917 and christened Thor Ballylee. Plenty of Valentines must have fallen for the image of the castle’s 16th-century Norman tower stamped in gold on olive green boards that T. Sturge Moore designed for the cover.
Equally breathtaking are works from the Cuala Press, a small but influential hand-printing press established by Elizabeth and Lily Yeats, the poet’s sisters. First known as the Dun Emer Press between 1902 and 1907, and active until the 1970s, the private press contributed to the revival of the old Irish heroic literature, the Gaelic language, and the artistic craft of book-printing by issuing 60 small quartos featuring an old-style Caslon font, handmade rag paper and a pressmark known as “Lone Tree in Irish Landscape,” after a line drawing by Elizabeth Yeats.
Cuala Press works include first editions of the work of William Butler Yeats; George William Russell, who wrote under the pseudonym AE; Augusta, Lady Gregory, the Irish dramatist and folklorist who co-founded the Abbey Theatre with Yeats and Edward Martyn; and John Millington Synge. The Love Songs of Connacht, a volume of Gaelic poetry collected and translated by Douglas Hyde, and Lady Gregory’s copy of Wild Apples, a collection of poetry by Oliver St. John Gogarty with a preface by Yeats, are on display.
From 1908 until 1915, the Cuala Press printed monthly broadsides that contained poems and ballads by traditional and contemporary writers. They were illustrated with hand-colored drawings — many by Jack Butler Yeats, the poet’s brother — that were printed from line blocks. The Cuala Press also designed and printed bookplates, prints and hand-colored greeting cards.
The library’s Irish Collection includes over 189 works related to William Butler Yeats; two copies of the first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses, as well as a 1935 Limited Editions Club copy of the work with illustrations by Henri Matisse; and original Samuel Beckett manuscripts, including a notebook that included early drafts for Endgame and a ten-line fragment intended for Waiting for Godot that did not appear in the published text. Other highlights of the collection include Gleanings in America, printed in 1814 in Cork; the first edition of Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars; and the unpublished typescript of Thomas H. Nally’s The Spancel of Death, a play that was to open on April 25, 1916, but was canceled and never performed because of the Easter Rising.
More recent works in the collection are manuscripts of contemporary Irish writers Ena May, Mick Egan and Mike Finn, as well as a rare copy of the first issue of Verses for a Fordham Commencement. Seamus Heaney read this poem during the commencement at which he received his honorary degree from Fordham University in 1982. When a downpour erupted during the ceremony, most of the pamphlets containing the poem were lost or ruined.
“Of What Is Past, or Passing, or to Come: The Irish Literary Renaissance” is on view in the Thompson Library Exhibit Gallery on Ohio State’s main campus through January 5, 2014. The gallery is open Monday through Wednesday, 10 am to 6 pm; Thursday, 10 am to 8 pm; Friday, 10 am to 6 pm; and Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5 pm.