Is the Irish Poetry Collection at Emory a Kind of Cultural Theft?

October 19, 2010

Emory’s extensive archives of Irish literary papers and manuscript archives are utterly astounding. So much so they’ve been nicknamed Emory’s ‘Irish Poetry Village.’ This week they welcomed Joan McBreen into the fold, and on Thursday evening celebrated that fact with a reading from her.

McBreen is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Heather Island. She has put together several significant anthologies of Irish poetry, including The White Page: Twentieth Century Irish Women Poets. McBreen’s is a poetry of memory and rooted in the Irish landscape of her various homes in Sligo and Galway. She enters into the Irish poetic tradition of emotional geography, mapping her relationships onto the surrounding terrain. It is a terrain traversed by Michael Longley and Eamon Grennan, who are McBreen’s neighbours both in Ireland and in Emory’s archives.

Personally, it’s incredibly exciting to have access to such a wealth of material, and I cannot wait to explore them. Still, something seems not quite right with the situation. Ireland has an immense cultural heritage and, as recently highlighted in Brian Cowen’s inaugurating speech for Harry Clifton as Ireland Professor of Poetry, poets are particularly elevated within the Irish arts. So surely the archives and manuscripts of Ireland’s brightest literary stars belong on their home turf? Emory’s collection even includes the papers of the Nobel laureate and arguably Ireland’s second largest export (after Guinness, of course), Seamus Heaney, despite the fact that Queen’s University Belfast has a wonderful centre for poetry named after him.

To look at it negatively, this collection could be viewed as cultural theft. Or it could just be admiration. So, is a nation’s literary heritage bound to geographical borders? Or is it free to the highest bidder?

Caroline Crew is on Fellowship at Emory University in Atlanta, GA for 2010-2011. She is an editorial assistant at 32 Poems.

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