Remarks at the “Crucial 100: one hundred books which inspired a revolution” an Exhibition by Cork City Libraries
4th May 2013
I am delighted to be here today to launch this historic exhibition – ‘The Crucial 100: one hundred books which inspired a revolution’ by Cork City Libraries.
Robert Louis Stevenson once said that “books are a mighty bloodless substitute for life”. Much as I admire the work of this great Scottish author, I profoundly disagree with this sentiment. On the contrary, books enrich our lives; they help to give meaning and texture to the quotidian events of our day; they provide an opportunity for reflection on, and appreciation of, all that is profound and wondrous in our lives.
Más luachmhar linn leabhair, ní mór dúinn leabharlanna a cheiliúradh. Bím i gcónaí sásta am a chaitheamh i leabharlann agus tá áthas orm a bheith anseo i Leabharlann Chathair Chorcaí i Sráid an Chapaill Bhuí. D’éirigh an spás poiblí breá seo, a d’oscail in 1930, aníos as luaith Leabharlann Carnegie Chorcaí, tar éis gur dódh go talamh é ar an 12ú lá de Nollaig 1920.
[And if books are to be cherished, libraries are to be celebrated. I am always happy to spend time in a library and am delighted to be here in Cork City Library in Grand Parade. This wonderful public space, which opened in 1930, literally rose from the ashes of the Cork Carnegie Library which was burnt to the ground on the 12th of December 1920.]
The occasion of our gathering is an exhibition of the one hundred books chosen by library staff which informed the cultural, intellectual and political revolutionary period of the early 20th century. It is very appropriate that this collection of 100 books finds echoes in the history of Cork City Library during a turbulent period of what was then a bustling Edwardian port city. At the height of this period of turbulence, on the 12th of December 1920, the Cork free library, with its fifteen thousand hard won volumes, was burnt to the ground, along with most of the city centre. This was a dark, difficult period for the people of Cork but they rose to the challenge of reconstruction and renewal.
One such public servant who rose to that challenge was the City Librarian, James Wilkinson, who undertook the task of rebuilding the library collection. First of all, he asked for the return of the one thousand volumes which had been on loan that night. Then in a famous Appeal for Books nationally and internationally, he asked for donations from all book lovers in order to restore a cultural and educational service ‘which was patronised almost exclusively by working-men and women, serious young students, and also school children’.
The appeal was very effective and books began to arrive from all corners. Among the donors were Mrs. George Bernard Shaw, who donated one thousand two hundred and eighty three volumes, and Mrs. W.B. Yeats. James Wilkinson assiduously pursued his goal for a new library and we are now standing in the phoenix-like embodiment of his vision.
We again live in challenging times; the conventional wisdoms of the recent past have proven to be not so wise; the paradigms of the present are under pressure; and the future seems very uncertain. However, the story of the Cork library service and this unique collection of books tell us that it is often in our darkest times that people are most inspired to take imaginative and far-reaching steps and to start building the foundations for future success.
This historic building is now hosting the first in a decade long programme of events to mark the commemoration of a series of important centenaries: the labour struggles and the 1913 Lockout; the period of unrest leading up to the Easter Rising; the Rising and its aftermath; the contribution of Irish and Ulster volunteers to regiments during the Great War; the War of ndependence and the Civil War. All of these centenaries will be celebrated nationally and locally.
In the case of Cork, which constitutes a major chapter in this narrative, Cork City Libraries are leading the way in marking the milestones of the period through events centred on their historic collections. This will provide the opportunity for the citizens of Cork to explore the cultural, political and social history of one hundred years ago.
The Libraries programme will be book-centred, beginning with this first major event. These one hundred books are drawn from the social, political, historical, mythical and cultural life of the time. They show us that, despite the shock of the Irish Famine and the mass emigration of the previous decades, the Irish spirit had emerged stronger than ever, leading to major land reform, increased political assertiveness, a cultural renaissance and ultimately independence.
The library service will invite the citizens of Cork to comment on the library choices. They will be able to make their own recommendations for The Crucial 100. Inevitably there will be healthy debate about what has been included and omitted. I know that there are no citizens more qualified or engaged than the citizens of Cork to contribute to this debate.
Scanning the catalogue of the 100 selected books, I can see that the collection offers great learning and illumination for readers. We get an opportunity to reflect on what inspired the authors of key texts of cultural nationalism in the period leading up to 1916 – for instance, Patrick Pearse’s The murder machine, Daniel Corkery’s fiction and plays, Terence MacSwiney’s seminal text Principles of Freedom.
I note in particular that the first President of Ireland, Dúbhglas de hÍde, is appropriately well represented. As a writer both in Irish and English, his work ranged from poetry to literary commentary to history. His involvement with the Gaelic League and the revival of the Irish language and culture brought him into contact with all the other great scholars, writers and national patriots such as William Butler Yeats, Arthur Griffith and Lady Gregory.
The leaders of the 1916 Rising also feature in the collection – Padraig Pearse, Joseph Mary Plunkett, James Connolly, Thomas Clarke and Thomas MacDonagh. We are very fortunate that the founders of our State were very assiduous in documenting their vision for building the new Ireland and have left these works for our study and reflection.
The revival of the Irish language was, in many ways, the catalyst for much of the wealth of literature which defines the early twentieth century. Working with Dúbhglas de hÍde was Eoin Mac Néill, whose titles feature in this collection, as do other Gaelic League writers such as Pádraic Ó Conaire and Standish James O’Grady.
Tosóidh clár de chuid Leabharlanna Cathrach Chorcaí le taispeántas dírithe ar leabhair agus ar scríbhinní. Cé go mbeidh béim liteartha ag rith tríd an gclár, i., litríocht Bhéarla na hÉireann agus na Gaeilge ón aimsir úd mar thúspointe, díríonn an clár freisin ar eachtraí pholaitiúla. Sa Bhailiúchán Chéad Leabhair Riachtannach / ‘Crucial 100’, beidh roinnt mhaith leabhair ón Athbheochan Ghaelach, ó údair mar de hÍde, an céad Uachtarán, go Fóclóir an Duinnínigh, agus saothar an tAthar Peadar Ó Laoghaire.
Cork writers and statesmen are also well represented in the collection – Michael Collins, Terence McSwiney, the patriot Lord Mayor who died on hunger strike, and the provocative and influential Daniel Corkery who evoked rural and urban Cork in his writing so effectively.
Neither is our social history neglected in the collection. Annie M.P. Smithson, Canon Sheehan and Somerville and Ross are examples of writers who wrote about the small details of everyday life at the time. It was also a time for some writers – such as T.W. Rolleston and Eleanor Hull – to look back and to explore our nearly forgotten myths and legends.
The collection is of course rich with our internationally renowned literary forefathers. George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, Oscar Wilde, John Millington Synge and Seán O’Casey provide the foundation for Ireland as a country of literature. In Cork this tradition of literary excellence has been ably sustained over the years by writers of such stature as Frank O’Connor, Seán O’Faolain and William Trevor.
In preparing for today’s event, I was struck by the following two sentences in a document prepared by Cork City Library;
“Through our services and resources we foster learning and personal development. A public library is in itself an embodiment on a small and local scale of what a republic means.”
I could not agree more. The public library is, above all else, a resource which is held in common by citizens. It is a community space and reflects the values of that community. Through its collections – books, journals, newspapers and other media – it represents the collective memory of the communities it serves.
This collection of the best and seminal Irish literature of the early 20th century, The Crucial 100, is a wonderful example of the staff of Cork City Libraries working on behalf of the people of Cork so that they are able to effectively engage with their historical and literary heritage.
It is a testament to the unique service provided by public libraries that, although these historic works were published in the early 20th century, they have remained in public collections, available to and read by our citizens throughout the intervening years. This collection of The Crucial 100 books will continue to be read, studied and enjoyed by current and future generations of readers, scholars and students.
It gives me great pleasure to launch this exhibition.