Launch of Enigma and Revelation in Renaissance English Literature, a collection of essays in honour of Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin
Trinity Long Room Hub
31 May 2012
Distinguished guests, colleagues, friends,
Since taking on the duties of Provost last August I've given many speeches in which I've spoken of Trinity's commitment to nurturing creativity. I've talked about the Oscar Wilde Centre for Creative Writing, the new Music Composition Centre, and the Lir Academy of Dramatic Art. And I've frequently mentioned the outstanding poets who are, or were until recently, members of Trinity's staff; Brendan Kennelly, Gerard Dawe, Iggy McGovern, and of course, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin.
Having such award-winning and inspiring poets shows, like nothing else, Trinity's commitment to creative endeavours and how important they are to the broader academic enterprise.
As my predecessor, John Hegarty, said eighteen months ago at a reception to celebrate Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin being awarded the Griffin Poetry Prize – “Eilean is not only a leading Irish poet but a poet of the highest international standing… winner of the prestigious Patrick Kavanagh and O'Shaughnessy Poetry Awards”.
Eiléan is known far beyond Trinity, and beyond Ireland, as a poet. But it is the exceptional scholar that we celebrate this evening, and indeed today at this symposium.
This very handsome book - beautifully produced by Four Courts Press in celestial blue – is a festschrift of twelve essays on renaissance English literature.
The contributors are Professor Ní Chuilleanáin’s colleagues and former students. They come from as far afield as the universities of East Carolina, Syracuse and Groningen, as well of course as our departments in Trinity. And they are writing here about riddles and anonymity, allegory and decoding, resonances and enigmas.
I am not a scholar of English literature but I take from this book an exciting sense of what one contributor calls “the mysterious wisdom” of Renaissance literature - a mystery which can be unlocked but doesn't, seemingly, yield its secrets easily. It requires expert researchers willing to dig deep.
I congratulate the editors, Dr Helen Cooney and Dr Mark Sweetnam. I don't know what the exact brief was for those contributing to this book but the result is strikingly cohesive. This is not a random collection of essays but a series of thematic arguments. The approach throughout is interdisciplinary insofar as the contributors display not only linguistic and aesthetic awareness but also great historical and political understanding, which allows them to contextualise the works under discussion. I am, I must say, very keen on interdisciplinarity and consider it a hallmark of the Trinity education.
This fascinating book is a valued contribution to Renaissance literature studies. It's also, I guess, a kind of kaleidoscope portrait of Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin because a Festschrift always reveals something of the character and scholarship of the person who inspired it.
The editors write in the introduction that “the range – both chronological and thematic – of the essays gathered here is testament to the breadth as well as the depth of Eiléan’s scholarship”.
Many of the works analysed in this book are well-known, even to me. They have entered the canon and are now considered timeless, but as this book underlines, they should also be understood as Elizabethan constructs, born out of a particular political situation.
The politics which gave rise to Spenser’s Faerie Queen and Shakespeare’s As You Like It also, of course, gave rise to Trinity College. (In fact The Faerie Queen and Trinity share a birthdate, more or less). I know that every university in Ireland – and indeed in the UK and the world – would have fought to have Eiléan on their staff, but I do think that Trinity, this Renaissance university, has provided the ideal setting for her.
And in return, she has enhanced College life and scholarship and we are fortunate to have had her for over forty years in the School of English. During that time she served as head of department, dean of faculty of arts (letters), and first director of the M.Phil. in Medieval Literature and Culture.
A teacher is, of course, known for her students, and the achievement of Eiléan’s students is manifest in this book. Eiléan has not only set sail poems on the world, but people, and some of these people have returned to harbour to give us these essays, and so continue the dialogue with their teacher – that unbroken dialogue through the ages which constitutes true scholarship, and which we, as readers, are fortunate to eavesdrop on.