by Giada Gelli, former NLI Collections Student
There is always a mixed bag of feelings waiting at the end of a project: something is over and a void opens up in front of us, but the sense of accomplishment can be overwhelming. Something has come to an end, but while this is the end of my journey, it is only the beginning of an adventure for the Sean O’Casey library collection.
The last 6 months have been 6 months of bliss for me. I have been the lucky recipient of a studentship here at the National Library of Ireland, which has allowed me the incredible honour of cataloguing the personal library of Dublin playwright Sean O’Casey. In essence, the end of this cataloguing project means that from now on everyone can start exploring and enjoying this great collection. All of the materials have been analyzed, descriptive records have been created and added to the online library catalogue for everyone to consult and, also very importantly, all of the materials are now safely housed to archival standards for future preservation.
It has been an incredible and enriching voyage for me. I remember the first day when I saw all the boxes ready to be opened and explored, and I remember the joy of the continuous discovery that followed. What books did Sean O’Casey and his family read? What books did they treasure? What scribbles or notes did they add to the volumes?
It has to be said that this is not only Sean O’Casey’s library, but also Eileen’s, Breon’s, Niall’s and Shivaun’s library, as so many volumes bear their marks and inscriptions too. The same goes for those items that were added to the collection after the writer’s death, in many cases presented to Eileen O’Casey by authors and publishers.
From a holistic perspective, the Sean O’Casey library could be considered the chronicle of this great playwright’s life and intellectual endeavours. Comprising just over 1800 items, it is a sort of bibliographic tale that recreates the journey of his life. It starts with the very first volumes that O’Casey collected when a young man living in East Wall, including presents from friends such as Gaby Fallon or Rev. E.M. Griffin, or the odd purchase from second-hand shops with the little money he had to spare from his worker’s salary. Perhaps some of the volumes from his own father’s library are here too, although I did not explore this aspect and maybe some researchers in the future might want to compare the list of books mentioned in his autobiography with the library holdings (hint!).
Then onto the early Irish grammar books he used to learn Irish, where he religiously spelled his name in the Gaelic form Seán Ó Cathasaigh (sometimes in creatively elaborate handwriting), and the countless religious books, interspersed with volumes of drama and fiction, in particular sonnets and plays by Shakespeare. Curiously, the last book that Eileen O’Casey read to a senile and blind Sean was William Shakespeare. A biography by A.L. Rowse.
Not surprisingly, a good portion of the O’Casey library collection features books of Irish interest, either written by Irish writers (including many volumes of O’Casey’s own work which he dedicated to his wife) or concerning Irish subjects, particularly poetry, prose, history and drama. Well represented here are works by his good friends G.B. Shaw, Lady Gregory, James Joyce; and his not-so-good-friend W.B. Yeats. The Irish language seems to have had an important place in his library, as a significant section of fiction and non-fiction books are as Gaeilge.
The later books, again mostly second-hand purchases, show a wide interest in many realms of knowledge, particularly literature, drama, history of drama (with many volumes authored by American critic and friend George Jean Nathan), philosophy, music (he claimed never to have written a play without at least one song in it!), biography, religion (in particular controversial and critical literature on religion) and science.
There is also a rich selection of fine art books, which I suspect either belonged to or had a great influence on his son Breon’s career as a painter and sculptor.
A great number of books bear the ownership signature of Sean O’Casey, sometimes with a date and a place (Abercorn Road, London, Devon), while many volumes bear dedications from friends and fans alike. A gallery of affectionate little messages is displayed on the pages of the O’Casey library collection. He is invariably depicted as a friend, a great playwright, a defender of social justice [LO 11771], a ‘light for lesser men’ [LO 10634], a ‘great fighter for democracy and freedom’ [LO 11803], poet and defender of the faith’ [LO 11679]. A simple keyword search in the catalogue for ‘dedication to Sean O’Casey’ will suffice to unearth these precious volumes with dedications from such figures as G.B. Shaw, Lennox Robinson, Oliver St. John Gogarty, Lady Gregory, Frank MacManus, Brook Atkinson, just to mention a few.
Perhaps the most exciting part of the cataloguing process has been the continuous discovery of items hidden within the books: letters, notes, bills, birthday and Christmas cards, newspaper clippings, empty envelopes probably used as bookmarks. A fantastic array of items (circa 240), which complements the library collection and the existing manuscript collection already housed here at the National Library. I even found a used match once in one of the volumes, but you won’t find that in the catalogue I’m afraid!
All in all, this is a fantastic collection. Personally, it has been such a pleasure to be part of the journey that saw it transformed from private to national treasure. This journey might be over for some, but it is now up to you to start infinite new journeys of discovery of the man and writer Sean O’Casey. So, enjoy!