‘Kells II’ a celebration of Irish creativity

It has been described as a “Book of Kells of the second millennium”.

It’s even had its own airline seat on five transatlantic flights.

And last night, The Great Book of Ireland — a hand-crafted anthology of Irish art, music, and poetry — was on display in all its glory at a ceremony in the Aula Maxima at University College Cork.

President Michael D Higgins — himself a contributor to the book — was there to mark UCC’s acquisition of the book.

He said: “The Great Book of Ireland is both a celebration and an affirmation; a celebration of the creative talent for which we, as a nation, are renowned and an affirmation of the great wealth of creativity that exists in this country.”

The university paid $1m (€752,000) to acquire The Great Book — a vellum manuscript compiled between 1989 and 1991 that contains the handwritten work of nine composers, 121 artists, and 143 poets, including three Nobel laureates: Samuel Beckett, Seamus Heaney, and Derek Walcott.

Joined by other contributors, President Higgins signed the page containing his handwritten poem he composed in 1990.

“Now, more than ever, we need to honestly explore and reflect on our recent history,” he said.

“If we are to move forward harmoniously, we need to fully understand when and how things worked — or didn’t work — in the past. We need to look past the familiar horizons and push beyond the boundaries of our own cultural comfort zones in order that our society can work better for all its constituent elements, without exception.”

The score of a musical composition in the manuscript by Horslips member Jim Lockhart received its world premiere at the event.

Edited by Theo Dorgan and Gene Lambert, The Great Book has served as a fundraising venture to advance the development plans of two charitable status organisations — Clashganna Mills Trust, which works for people with disabilities, and Poetry Ireland/Éigse Éireann, the national poetry organisation.

“UCC first took an interest in acquiring The Great Book back in 2005,” said University Librarian, John FitzGerald who added that the cost of the manuscript was raised by the library and the Cork University Foundation. “The Great Book is something of an artistic time capsule that captures the richness of Irish creativity during a particular period towards the end of the 20th century. It is only through the support of a number of generous philanthropic individuals and organisations that it is now possible for UCC to act as permanent custodian for this major work of art.”

UCC president Michael Murphy said the university would now work to raise money to put the book on public display: “From here we must progress to the next step in the journey, which will be to preserve and display The Great Book, in order that its artistic richness may be put at the disposal of the wider community. Our fundraising campaign, as before, will draw exclusively on private sources.”

The next phase of the project includes plans for the conservation of the manuscript; an anthology of the poetry; facsimiles of The Great Book; and an exhibition space.

It is being kept in a secure and controlled environment until those arrangements are finalised.

Anthology of artistry

*The Great Book of Ireland includes the last handwritten poem of Samuel Beckett:

“Redeem the surrogate goodbyes/

Who have no more for the land/

The sheet astream in your hand/

And the glass un-misted above your eye”

*The vellum-paged book is contained in a wooden box made from an elm tree planted by WB Yeats.

*The book represents the acquisition of a collection of work from 143 poets, 121 artists, and nine composers.

*Former President Mary Robinson has described it as the Book of Kells for the second millennium.

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