Burns Library Exhibit Displays Artifacts Of Irish Culture, Music

Many documents in the Irish collections in the Burns Library allow people to uncover stories that reveal the history, literature, and culture of Ireland and Irish America.

One Story Draws Another: Staff Selections from the Irish Collections at the Burns Library is on display from Jan. 26 to May 8. The exhibit was coordinated by Justine Sundaram and Kathleen Williams. Boston College University Libraries sponsored the collection. Contributions come from all of the Burns Library Staff members and student employees, who selected exhibit materials, wrote and edited label text, and installed the exhibit.

The exhibit is divided into four sections: Irish-American Fine Press Books, Irish Traditional Music, Irish American History in Boston, and Irish Literature. In March, the library will host a fifth section, which highlights published scholarships that used research materials from the Burns Library’s Irish collections.

“Burns Library Staff members have the opportunity to explore collections from many different perspectives—from organizing collections with other staff to providing access to these collections to scholars, students and faculty in the reading room,” said Justine Sundaram, the senior reference librarian/bibliographer of the Burns Library in an email. “For this exhibit, we wanted to focus on the multiplicity of connections between these perspectives, especially in the Irish collections.”

The Burns Library began the Irish Collection when it acquired the John T. Hughes Library in the 1940s. BC librarian Terence Connolly, S.J. asked Helen Landreth to build on the Hughes materials and expand the Irish collections. Working with BC for the past 30 years, Landreth assisted in bringing BC’s Irish Collection international renown. To recognize Landreth’s contributions, the Eire Society of BC awarded her their Gold Medal in 1964. Afterwards, Landreth received a Bicentennial Medal from BC in 1976.

The history of BC and Ireland are intermixed. BC’s founder John McElroy was born in Ireland in 1782. McElroy immigrated to the United States in 1803. Writing to the bishop of Boston in 1843, McElroy asked whether a Jesuit college could be established in the city in hopes of serving the Catholic population.
His request was very urgent because not many institutions were hospitable to Catholics. In 1847, plans were underway for McElroy’s Catholic college. BC was chartered by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on April 1, 1863.
The “Irish-American Fine Press Books” collection mainly comes from The Traffic Street Press, which printed these same works as a part of its Irish Poetry Series. These volumes focus on Ireland and Irish experience.
The Irish poetry collection emphasizes stories of emotion, highlighting the shared experiences that past generations would understand.
The “Irish Traditional Music” collection focuses on Irish music, song, and dance. Oftentimes concerts, dance events, and informal gatherings would be filled with these musical traditions. Traditional Irish songs tell tales about the way Irish life used to be.
The “Irish American History in Boston” collection ranges in content, brought together by a shared affiliation with BC and Boston. Librarians examined items from BC’s archives and alumni papers, political manuscripts, Boston historical collections, and business records.
The largest sources of Irish Literature are by and about George Bernard Shaw. These materials were obtained from Samual and Russell Freedman, two rare manuscript dealers. This collection contains letters written by Shaw to Bernard Gould, an actor in the premier performance of Arms and the Man.

Shaw received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1925, joining other Irish recipients including William Butler Yeats, Samuel Beckett, and Seamus Heaney. Irish writers, such as Yeats, would share tales of folklore and fairy stories popularized by the Celtic revival. When examining the materials in the Irish Literature collection, students will note Irish roots present throughout, highlighting the home of “saints and scholars.” Each of these Nobelists can be found in the Burns Library. Additionally, students can find busts of Yeats, Shaw, and Heaney in the Irish Room.

A fifth section that highlights published scholarships that utilizes research materials from the Burns Library’s Irish collections will begin in March.

Featured Image by Arthur Bailin / Heights Editor