Following his untimely passing in December 2012, the personal library of the poet and critic Dennis O’Driscoll was bequeathed to University College Dublin. His wife, the poet Julie O’Callaghan, facilitated delivery of the extensive collection to UCD Library in 2017. The lion’s share of O’Driscoll’s library now resides in UCD Special Collections where it forms the Dennis O’Driscoll Collection. For the casual poetry fan through to the academic, the collection represents a veritable treasure trove, providing a cross section of over 40 years of poetry from Ireland, Great Britain, Northern and Eastern Europe, America, Australia and Russia, as collected by one of the most respected poets and critics of his time.
O’Driscoll was an astute reader and collector of poetry. The Dennis O’Driscoll Collection contains in excess of 3,000 items, the bulk of which are standalone poetry collections. For the most part these are first edition copies purchased upon publication or, as was often the case, delivered to the critic for review. Taken together, this vast personal library and O’Driscoll’s own output of nine collections of poems, two collections of prose, and his numerous works as an editor, are testament to a life spent completely immersed in the craft of poetry. His library allows us to trace his influences and to understand his influence – as such it is of immense value to researchers of modern poetry in Ireland and beyond.
The collection is unique in its scope but also in how it has been put together. O’Driscoll curated his library carefully and saved swathes of ephemera over the years by tucking items inside his books. As such, enclosures abound. Whether it be poems cut from journals, compliment slips from publishers, postcards and letters from poets, invitations to readings and launches, or even his own handwritten notes for a review or article – as often as not O’Driscoll will have squirrelled something extra between the pages for the scholar to pore over.
The collection also allows us glimpses into the relationships between Dennis O’Driscoll and his contemporaries. In a time before the advent of social media O’Driscoll forged friendships with poets all over the world – many of whom would stay at his home when they visited Ireland. Longstanding friendships with the poets Les Murray, R.S. Thomas, Peter Reading, Sharon Olds, and many others of a similar calibre, can be traced through the inscribed copies of their work that pepper the wider collection. He was held in high regard by his peers for his own poetic output and also for his incisive work as a critic. In spite of what could be described as a “mixed” review of Pulitzer Prize winner Charles Simic‘s 1997 collection Looking for Trouble which O’Driscoll contributed to the Times Literary Supplement, his library contains numerous subsequent titles inscribed by Simic with the poet signing off his dedications as “Charlie” – evidence that their friendship was enduring, respectful and fond.
O’Driscoll’s relationship with Seamus Heaney was a famously close one which gave rise to what is arguably his most well-known book, the biographical interview collection Stepping Stones. While there are relatively few signed Heaney titles in O’Driscoll’s library, one item – a copy of Robert Fagles translation of The Aeneid – offers a hint of the friendship that existed between the two; a handwritten post-it note inside the front cover records that O’Driscoll received the book as a Christmas gift from Heaney in December 2006.
This attention to detail with regards to provenance is evident throughout O’Driscoll’s library and makes him a great friend of the library cataloguer. Another example comes courtesy of his signed copy of Thomas Kinsella‘s A Dublin Documentary wherein a further post-it note details the occasion and date of the signing as well as the fact that Kinsella has circled his schoolboy self in a photograph towards the middle of the book. O’Driscoll’s fastidiousness here and elsewhere means valuable information that might easily have been lost has been safely recorded, and is evidence that he rightly regarded such detail as important. A long and distinguished career as a civil servant – entered into when he was just 16 years old and ending with a senior position in the Office of the Revenue Commissioners – no doubt contributed to this keen eye for detail which was in turn ever present in his own poetry and in his criticism.
UCD Special Collections has been actively building a modern poetry collection for many years – work which has more recently been augmented by the establishment of the Irish Poetry Reading Archive at UCD Library in collaboration with the School of English, Drama and Film. The Library has been very fortunate in receiving the Dennis O’Driscoll Collection and it sits in good company in Special Collections alongside existing libraries of contemporary poetry such as the John Lincoln Sweeney and Maurice Harmon Collections. In describing Dennis O’Driscoll, the poet Gerard Smyth called him “one of poetry’s true champions and certainly its most prodigious archivist” – visitors to UCD Special Collections who consult his collection are sure to find themselves echoing that sentiment.