Leabhar Mór na hÉireann – The Great Book of Ireland

by Edel Cassidy
Words Edel Cassidy

An extraordinary modern vellum manuscript in a single volume which is comprised of the original work of Ireland’s finest poets and artists, produced in Dublin between 1989 and 1991

Theo Dorgan and Gene Lambert, architects of The Great Book of Ireland (Leabhar Mór na hÉireann), came up with the idea of creating a saleable artefact which would help to fund the development plans of two charitable-status arts organisations in Ireland. The beneficiaries were to be Poetry Ireland (Éigse Éireann), to enable the building of a National Poetry Centre, and Clashganna Mills Trust, now a subsidiary of Rehab, for their work promoting the interests of people with disabilities in the arts. Artists, poets and composers were asked to contribute in their own medium what they believed represented their hopes, fears, dreams or imaginings in the Ireland of that particular time.

What was to emerge was a project of breath-taking ambition and scale. The pages combine both visual and verbal elements, where poets and artists collaborated to unite two distinct yet related modes of creative expression. The work of calligrapher Denis Brown acts to blend the overall design. Every individual page of The Great Book is a unique artefact in itself, often multi-layered or palimpsestic in nature. 

A page of The Great Book of Ireland
Page 52. Opening. The second ‘rest page’ of The Great Book by Paki Smith. © University College Cork 

Anthony Cains, Head of Conservation at Trinity College Dublin, who had many years of experience looking after the collections at TCD Library, including The Book of Kells, agreed to make and bind the book. The cover was made from a Sardinian goatskin which he had acquired when working on the restoration of manuscripts in the Florentine libraries.  

Finally, a pressure box made from an elm tree from Thoor Ballylee, former home of William Butler Yeats, with bog oak detail, was made by master craftsman Eric Pearse. A silver clasp for the box was made by metalsmith Brian Clarke. 

On completion, the plan was to offer the book for sale to one of the small number of wealthy businessmen in Ireland at that time. The purchase would be made for the Irish state and the monies then divided between the two charities. For years following completion, the objective of securing a buyer remained frustratingly unrealised. An unused guard remains inside the first few leaves, intended perhaps as the location for a dedicatory page.

The Great Book of Ireland was introduced to the public at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in 1991. Following this, there was very limited opportunity for it to be displayed and, in due course, it was placed in a bank vault on Dublin’s Grafton Street.

In 2005, University College Cork indicated its interest in becoming the permanent custodian of The Great Book of Ireland by acquiring it with philanthropic support from the Cork University Foundation. This was to be achieved with the support of a number of enlightened philanthropic individuals and organisations so that the university would acquire the manuscript and associated rights. As one of the top research universities in Ireland and globally, UCC has a strong commitment to artistic culture and its promotion and preservation.

The acquisition was announced at a launch on Friday 18th January 2013 in the Aula Maxima of University College Cork. The occasion was marked by the attendance of Michael D Higgins, President of Ireland, himself a contributor to the book. Over sixty of the original contributors were present to celebrate the acquisition, including the poet Seamus Heaney, who movingly read his poem Punishment as part of the ceremony. 

From April to July 2014, the book was the centrepiece of a public exhibition entitled Facing Pages in the Lewis Glucksman Gallery, UCC, where it was on display both physically and digitally. The digital version allowed visitors to leaf through the precious book and magnify sections to an incredible level of detail.

Photographs of the day when work on the book was launched, 11 June 1989, when Seamus Heaney and John Montague made their marks, were also on display, along with a series of installed listening posts where visitors could hear poets reading their works. 

University College Cork intends to continue to encourage, support and facilitate opportunities for public exhibition and further public engagement with the book and its contributors. Such opportunities are dependent on the availability of financial resources, as each new project must be self-funding or supported philanthropically.   

  • ‘Leabhar Mór na hÉireann – The Great Book of Ireland’ is published in Anthology Volume 15. Read more features from this volume or buy it now.
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