IntroductionOver the course of the twentieth century, Ireland experienced a flourishing of its literary arts remarkable for its intensity, duration, and impact both within and beyond Irish shores. One measure of the achievements of Ireland's writers and of the wide influence of their work during this period has been the awarding of the prestigious Nobel Prize for Literature to four of their number—William Butler Yeats (1923), George Bernard Shaw (1925), Samuel Beckett (1969), and Seamus Heaney (1995). Such a number (not to mention the names) would do honor to any country's literary tradition, but it is especially impressive when one thinks of the small size of Ireland, an island whose population hovered just above four million for much of the twentieth century. The importance of these literary developments in Ireland has been superbly documented in the collections of the library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, especially in the literary holdings of Wilson Library's Rare Book Collection (RBC). The writings of the four Irish laureates are especially well represented, each author by a collection that ranks among the strongest in North America and, indeed, the world. The interest and value of these collections are further enhanced by their presence among a broad range of other closely related Irish literary materials, which lend them both contextual meaning and additional research depth.
Block of four Irish stamps from 2004 honoring the Irish Nobel Prize winners for Literature. The present exhibition focuses on the four literary laureates and the holdings of their writings in Wilson Library. Most of the books shown are first or early editions, some of very great rarity. While most have been chosen for their importance to the author's canon, some at least aim to illustrate his Irishness (not always obvious in the case of Shaw, even less so of Beckett) or to point to issues specific to Irish history. While the emphasis is on printed materials from the Rare Book Collection, an effort has also been made to include items in other formats and from other locations in Wilson Library. As we provide a glimpse into the riches of the Irish holdings of the University Library, we want also to acknowledge the friends and donors whose generosity and encouragement have made these collections a reality, notably Archibald Henderson (Shaw), George Harper (Yeats), James R. and Mary M. Patton (Heaney and Joyce), and Henry C. Pearson (Heaney).
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