By Kevin Grace
-Not your colloquial Irish farewell, mind you, because that would have us skipping out when it is our turn to buy a round of drinks, and you just know we would never do that! Rather, a farewell to Archives Month in Ohio and its 2012 theme of “Ethnic Peoples of Ohio.” In southwest Ohio, the focus has been on Irish heritage and the Celtic contribution to our culture. From businessmen and women and Civil War soldiers to civic leaders and politicians, to writers and artists, Cincinnati and this corner of the state have been greatly enriched by the Irish.
In addressing this theme in October, we were very fortunate that it coincidentally embraced the annual Niehoff Lecture at the Mercantile Library, presented by Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney. It could have been happenstance, of course, but more likely cinnuint, or destiny to youse guys. On Saturday evening, October 20, Heaney spoke before an enthralled audience at the Westin Hotel as part of a lecture series that has helped mark the Mercantile as the center for literary life in Cincinnati.
Heaney’s appearance brings to mind that of another notable Irishman who graced the dais in Cincinnati a mere 130 years ago (ah, we are reaching the stage of our history when we could safely refer to it as heritage!). While variously labeled as poet, playwright, author, and all-round bon vivant, Oscar Wilde was more aesthete performer than anything else. In 1882 he undertook an American tour to lecture on “Beauty,” fully relishing the effect he had on American audiences with his shocking views on art and fashion, while wearing his own velvet get-ups. He was fun to listen to. The reputation he carefully garnered for himself preceded his arrival in Cincinnati, and the city awaited his appearance with great anticipation. Local stores advertised Wilde-influenced clothing and jewelry for sale and newspaper reporters eagerly jotted down his opinions on style as he passed through Cincinnati to first lecture in Louisville.
On February 23, Wilde returned to the city and the Grand Opera House to present his lecture on “The Decorative Arts.” Wilde’s audience loved his talk and applauded enthusiastically. However, when he traveled again to Cincinnati in June for another lecture performance, the reaction was much more tempered and he was only wearily received by the attendees. But following the conclusion of his visit to the United States, Wilde remarked how friendly Cincinnatians were and that the city was one of his favorite stops on the tour.
Seamus Heaney’s appearance was more subdued than his countryman’s so many decades ago, and it was richly enjoyed by his audience. Heaney had a quiet demeanor, a gentle wit, and a mellifluous (and how often do we get use such a quality word?) voice when reading his poetry. It was a beautiful evening, and typical of the fine work that the Mercantile Library does in bringing such outstanding literary voices to Cincinnati. And, everyone in attendance received wonderful keepsakes with a program sketch of Heaney by Jim Borgman, along with a Heaney poem at each place setting. Heaney selected two of his poems, “The Railway Children” and “The Skylight,” and the lecture committee arranged for Steam Whistle Press in Cincinnati to do a special letterpress printing of them. The texture of the paper and the indentation from the type added to the luster of the poetry.
The month of October is fading now, but there is still much to be discovered about Cincinnati and its Irish connections. First off, though, is a plug for the Mercantile Library: to learn more about this seminal Cincinnati institution, please go to http://www.mercantilelibrary.com/. A good place to start looking at contemporary Irish life in Cincinnati is the Irish Heritage Center of Greater Cincinnati, http://www.irishcenterofcincinnati.com/. To find out about the Society of Ohio Archivists and its annual sponsorship of Archives Month in Ohio, visit the organization’s website at http://www.ohioarchivists.org/. And, of course, if you are interested in the holdings of the Archives & Rare Books Library, please call us at 513.556.1959, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit us on the web at http://www.libraries.uc.edu/libraries/arb/index.html.