It would be easy (and I am tempted), to write the story of my life in fifty objects merely by making a list of the books that have influenced me the most. However, that is a series for another time. Nevertheless, there are one or two tomes which must be included. The above is one.
‘Irish Literature, Vol. IV’ (this edition printed in 1904), has an editorial board and list of contributors that reads like a “Who’s Who” of Irish literature. Lady Gregory, Douglas Hyde, W.B. Yeats, and George Russell are just a few of the more well-known names. Aside from the short stories, ballads and poems one would expect, the book contains many beautiful visual works of art, including landscapes—
such as the lakes of Killarney, above, historical curiosities such as a facsimile of part of what is purported to be the first Irish newspaper, shown below—
—a page from the illuminated manuscript ‘The Book of Durrow’—
—and portraits, photographic and otherwise of famous personages, such as this pencil sketch of Lady Gregory made in 1893—
—and so much more.
Naturally, it is the text itself (along with the book’s age) which makes it such a treasure; almost as important to me is how I came by this particular volume.
I’ve owned thousands of books in my life; many of them were given to me by family members and friends, others I purchased from various shops in Ireland, Wales, England and Scotland. Many of the books I currently own I bought in America.
‘Irish Literature Vol. IV’ is one such book. I would have thought I’d run across it in an antique booksellers in NYC, Philadelphia, Chicago, or some other major city with a sizable Irish-American population. But no. I found this book at a silent auction at a tiny library in a tiny town in North Dakota. The library was auctioning off books that no one wanted to read as a fundraiser. This book was the only Irish-subject book they had. It was also, in my mind, the only book up for auction worth reading, and I fairly have wide interests when it comes to books.
Trouble was, I had very little money, the book was not only an antique but gilt-edged, and I was certain that someone would out-bid me only to take the book home and put it on a shelf, never to be read. And so I bid all of the money I had—the princely sum of thirty-five American dollars.
The librarian looked at me as if I’d lost my mind. I had to wait a week to find out whether or not I’d claimed my birthright. It was a lean week for a growing boy far from home.
But then the phone rang and I was told to come and collect my book. I couldn’t believe it. I was over the moon. I had to ask the librarian, “What was the next highest bid?”
She just shook her head. “There wasn’t one. You could have had it for a dollar.”
I felt no regrets.