Martina Devlin: Novel way to remind our emigrants they are not forgotten back home
Published 13/02/2014 | 02:30
IT'S a sight to gladden book-lovers, and silence rumours about the book being dead. Teetering towers of hardbacks and paperbacks colonise every available surface in a government office in Kildare Street, ready to be used as a bridge to a community of Irish emigrants.
Books on every subject under the sun – from music and sport to crime fiction and local history – are piled high. But they share common denominators – all have an Irish author or theme, all were donated, and all are destined for a new library in London.
I lift one at random: a novel by Carlo Gebler, Edna O'Brien's son, signed by him. Here's an autographed poetry collection by President Higgins. There's a stack of cookery books by Darina Allen. Their future home is the London-Irish Centre in Camden Town.
The story of how these books were collected together could be used as a parable for the importance of face-time. Undeniably, technology is useful for keeping people in touch. But when we interact one-on-one, then human connections are formed – and anything might spring from them.
Take the case of a TD and a civil servant who were in London on Leinster House business last autumn. While there, Labour's Michael McCarthy, chair of an Oireachtas committee, and the clerk Eugene O Cruadhlaoich, decided to visit the London-Irish Centre to observe its work among the Irish community.
As a small gift, Mr O Cruadlaoich thought a collection of Irish short stories might be appropriate. When it was handed over, the visitors were told the centre was hoping to set up a library. "How many books do you have?" they asked. "Yours is our first," came the answer.
With no funding available, the library was aspirational. But Deputy McCarthy, chair of the Joint Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht, and committee clerk Mr O Cruadlaoich went home with an idea taking shape. Why not donate a library of books to show our emigrants they haven't been forgotten at home? To let them know the candle in the window of Aras an Uachtarain is no empty symbol, and emigrants remain part of the broader Irish family?
An appeal for books was made to libraries, universities, publishers, authors, literary editors and others, including TDs and Oireachtas staff. Little did the committee suspect how whole-hearted would be the response.
So far, the project is on course to raise some 4,000 books. DVDs, CDs, newspaper and magazine subscriptions and sheet music have been contributed, too. The initiative has caught fire – perhaps because few families have escaped the impact of emigration.
The range of what's been donated is extraordinary. CDs featuring artists from U2 to Joe Dolan arrived from Universal Music, with offerings along more traditional lines from Gael Linn Records and Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann. Newspapers including the Irish Independent, the 'Irish Times' and the 'Farmers' Journal' have given subscriptions. Magazines from 'Ireland's Own' to the 'Emerald Rugby' magazine to the army publication 'An Cosantoir' have done likewise. Waltons Music has donated books and sheet music. RTE has given books and DVDs including the 'Love/Hate' series.
A selection of more than 200 novels as Gaeilge will help those who take part in the centre's flourishing Irish language classes. Cookery books should please a group of Irishwomen who call themselves 'the Marmalettes' – they emigrated to London in the 50s and 60s, and now use the centre's facilities regularly to make marmalade, among other culinary activities.
More than 120 organisations have donated or promised contributions including the Irish Writer's Centre. The Library Association of Ireland is taking care of the shelving. And there is a North-South dimension, with institutions north of the Border including Armagh Observatory and universities playing their part.
WHAT all this means is that, for the first time, emigrants to London will be reading the same books as library-users back home. As a returned emigrant, I know how such connections matter. Emigration can be a rewarding and enriching experience. But don't underestimate the uncertainty, the sense of isolation and the pressures to conform within an unfamiliar host nation.
We tend to overlook that sizeable emigrant community on Ireland's doorstep – focusing instead on emigrants to the US and, laterally, Australia. However, generations of Irish people took ship for England, with varying degrees of success – and those who didn't find a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow can feel ashamed at their situation today.
And so back to that room crammed with books. It seems appropriate that the building acting as the library's temporary centre of operations is Kildare House, built on the site of the home of Irish author and feminist Sydney, Lady Morgan.
She was a spirited woman specialising in spirited heroines, as might be guessed from the title of her most famous work, 'The Wild Irish Girl' – an instant success when it was published in 1806. Many of her novels dealt with Irish manners, music and history, and had a pronounced nationalist strain. Among her subjects were ordinary Irish people and her work was read by everyone from Byron and Shelley to Scott. Lady Morgan regarded books as a way of putting across a message. Perhaps this library, taking shape on the site of her home, will also reach out to people. It will be launched across the street in Leinster House on March 12, and its opening later this year coincides with the London-Irish Centre's 60th birthday.
Those thousands of books being boxed up for transportation – An Post is doing it pro bono – serve as proof that Irish people haven't lost their generous instincts, despite the economic collapse. And while our emigrants are gone, they are not forgotten.
Stocking the new library may be a small gesture but it comes from the heart.