An excellent exhibit at the University of Delaware Library’s Special Collections Gallery explores Irish history before and after Easter Week 1916 through literary texts, political broadsides, manuscripts, letters, periodicals, graphics and other ephemera.
A rare first edition of William Butler Yeats’ “Easter, 1916” is the iconic centerpiece of ” ‘A terrible beauty is born’: The Easter Rising at 100,” which closes 12 June. Images and commentary on the exhibit material will remain available online.
The exhibition was curated by Maureen Cech, UD’s senior assistant librarian and coordinator, Accessions and Processing, Manuscripts and Archives Department. I asked her a few questions via email after viewing the exhibit in mid May.
Which parts of the exhibit are held by University of Delaware Special Collections? Where did the other portions come from, especially the Yeats first edition? What other Irish-related material is available for researchers at UD?
MC: Most of the material is from Special Collections’ holdings. Our senior research fellow Mark Samuels Lasner, whose collection is on loan to UD, lent me a few wonderful pieces around the Yeatses, including a beautiful pencil sketch of Lily and Lolly by John B. Yeats and a poster advertising W.B. Yeats’s first produced play in London designed by Aubrey Beardsley; several items relating to Wilfrid Scawen Blunt; and an excellent volume of Beltaine.
I was also lucky enough to have faculty in the English department here at UD lend me some items: Prof. Bernard McKenna lent, among other things, two medals from the War of Independence; and Prof. Jim Burns lent several documents that had belonged to his grandfather from de Valera’s campaign in the United States in 1918-1919 for support and funds for the Republic. They add a really personal touch to the exhibit.
Irish holdings in Special Collections (including the first edition of W.B. Yeats’s “Easter, 1916”) have been built over the years, beginning with faculty input and support, especially from Irish scholar Robert Hogan, who was part of the UD faculty until his retirement in the early 1990s. Our strength would be toward the 20th century (representing both the Republic and Northern Ireland), especially in terms of manuscript material, but we do have some great items from the 19th century, including a diary kept during the Great Famine. We also continue to collect new Irish literature, in English and Irish.
What is your favorite item in the exhibit, and why, and/or something you learned about Irish history?
MC: I learned an enormous amount researching this exhibit and figuring out how to tell a very complicated, multi-layered story in a finite amount of space. Some were trying to define what it meant to be Irish, but there are no simple dichotomies of English or Irish, Catholic or Protestant. Throughout the exhibit I wanted to examine how the leaders of the 1916 Rising got to that point, the physical force tradition they drew on and felt was their only option, and the parliamentary efforts they felt had failed them, as well as contemporary reactions to the Rising. It’s a pivotal point in Irish history and one that created a lot of ambivalence and anxiety when it happened and of course still carries a lot of gravity. 2016 has been a time of reflection in Ireland.
I suppose if I had to pick a favorite item it would be two matchbook covers from Tuam from around the end of the 19th century. They were unexpected finds. One depicts Irish sports (hurling and Gaelic football) and the other reproduces portraits of prominent political figures like Charles Stewart Parnell and William O’Brien. Both are representative of the politicization of advertising that was happening in the 19th century and how buying local and supporting Irish industries (and not English ones) was a political act.
As a librarian, archivist, curator & specialist in literary collections, what are your thoughts about how ephemera (the political broadsides, manuscripts, letters, periodicals, and graphics in the exhibit) reflect patriotism and popular culture, as compared to bound books, official documents and other materials intended to be held long term? How well, or poorly, do you think today’s digital media will reflect our contemporary world 100 years from now?
MC: The press was incredibly important in spreading ideas in Ireland in the 19th and 20th centuries. Ephemera like newspapers and publications was cheaper, produced more quickly, distributed more broadly, and aimed at a wider audience than other kinds of publications. The industrial revolution came late to Ireland, after the Great Famine, so developing Irish industries was very important. Advertising became very politicized starting in the 19th century, encouraging people directly to “buy Irish” and/or incorporating nationalistic elements like shamrocks into advertisements.
That’s a very complex question because it addresses ideas of postmodern archives in which we consider ideas of collecting and who’s doing the collecting and the institutional biases that create (intentionally or unintentionally) gaps and silences in the archival record. The archival record is never 100 percent complete, at least as we know it now. But it might become more complete because more people are able to create records, and institutions are recognizing the value of multiple voices and multiple narratives.
It’s also a difficult question because born-digital materials represent a different kind of ephemerality–not only do we need to ask whether it is meant to last, as with traditional analog ephemera, but will it last? How will we continue to determine what is ephemeral? How will our traditional definitions of “enduring value” in archives change? Our collecting activities as archivists are becoming more active and robust in order to accommodate new forms of expression. We are developing collecting strategies and creating short-and long-term born-digital and electronic preservation plans. There are projects that are documenting the new ways in which we communicate and document our lives, like the Library of Congress archiving Twitter and some institutions documenting social movements like Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street, which have large born-digital components.
New media have democratized record-keeping and creation in really exciting ways, ones that will hopefully reduce the amount of gaps and silences in the archival record. So I think it will depend on how well we are able to document what is created at the rate at which it is created and remains “permanent.”