Sunday 22 September 2019

1916 celebrations thrive while our heritage starves

We must act fast to get a happy ending to the National Library tale

The Irish Government declined to send a diplomatic representative to the funeral of James Joyce
The Irish Government declined to send a diplomatic representative to the funeral of James Joyce

Emer O'Kelly

The manuscript of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake is in the British Museum, not in the National Library of Ireland. It is there at the express wish of Nora Barnacle Joyce, her vengeance on behalf of her Jim just before she died in Zurich in 1951. Joyce had died there 10 years earlier, and the Irish Government had refused permission to repatriate his body. The Government had also declined to send a diplomatic representative to the funeral of their Nobel prize-winning son.

A collection that is in the National Library is the correspondence between Joyce and his agent Paul Leon. Leon was Jewish, and was picked up in Paris by the Gestapo and sent to Auschwitz where he was executed, because he remained in the city after Joyce had fled, trying to save the writer's papers. The Joyce-Leon papers are stored in the National Photographic Archive in Temple Bar in Dublin, not the National Library itself. They may well be safer there, because the National Library building in Kildare Street is close to being a national disgrace. And the Government knows it.

There was much fanfare from Government when another Nobel Laureate died here in Dublin, which admittedly was a bit of an advance on spitting on Joyce's memory. There was a stampede of politicians to attend Seamus Heaney's obsequies, all eager to bask in reflected literary glory, and paying tribute to the power of literature.

The National Library had state support of €11m in 2005. Last year it was down to €6.3m. In 2005, 110 staff worked there. The current staff complement is 86, whereas its counterpart in Norway, for instance, has 414.

The government-appointed board of the National Library changed in the past six months And before it left office, the outgoing board let fly in a letter to the Minister for Arts Heather Humphreys. The national collections are in grave danger, the board claimed. The library lacks environmental controls, and priceless manuscripts are deteriorating. Seventy five per cent of the collections are at risk of destruction since they are stored where there is no adequate fire protection.

The library needs financial provision for storage on and off-site. I presume this includes the Photographic Archive which houses the Joyce-Leon papers. Leon gave his life to preserve those papers; Ireland is not prepared even to fire-proof a building.

There was a "top-up" budgetary payment last year of €2m for all cultural institutions in the State. The National Library got €600,000. Then acting director of the library stated it was very grateful. At the time that the library was being "grateful" for €600,000, it was on record with a financial breakdown which showed a need of €1m in extra funding annually to stagger on in the inadequate fashion in which it was operating. That inadequacy included not being able to add to its collections on the nation's behalf.

The library is working on a major memorial exhibition of the work of Heaney. No doubt the Taoiseach and Arts Minister (whoever they may be by that time) will attend and talk of the importance of our literary heritage and of the respect the rest of the world has for our literature. In that they'll be right: the rest of the world has more respect for our literature than we have ourselves. We want the reputation and kudos of civilisation without putting our money where our mouth is.

And to argue about priorities is a cop-out. Of course it is a scandal that our homeless crisis is deepening by the day. Of course it's a scandal that our A&E departments are hell-holes. Those scandals are becoming part of our history: history is what we make every day. And history disappears if it is not recorded.

Some of the manuscripts in danger in the library relate to figures such as Daniel O'Connell, Wolfe Tone, Roger Casement and Patrick Pearse. There'll be a lot of chat about them in the coming year. The figures from literature whose works are housed in the National Library include minor figures such as Brendan Behan as well as the giants such as Yeats, Joyce and Beckett. As a group, they are Ireland's past, which has made Ireland's present.

There is a touch of the drunken sailors about the Government's attitude to centenary celebrations for 1916. By the looks of things, we're going to have a year-long Donnybrook Fair. But at the end of it, will we have a National Library worth even talking about? Patrick Kavanagh wrote of his soul being like "an old horse, offered for sale at every fair". There are papers relating to his work in the library threatened with deterioration. Humphreys says she's "acutely aware of the challenges facing the library". It's time she saved some distinguished old horses before they end up in the knacker's yard.

Sunday Independent

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