Paying tribute to our friend and colleague Clíona Ní Shúilleabháin

Clíona Ní Shúilleabháin worked as an Assistant Librarian in the Library of Trinity College Dublin from  1987 until her untimely death in February 2021. She was a Trinity graduate with a degree in French and Modern Irish. Starting work as a subject cataloguer in Celtic and other languages, over the course of her career, Clíona moved within the Library from Collection Management to Digital Systems and Services and to Reader Services. In Digital Systems and Services, she worked as Electronic Resources Librarian. As Subject Librarian in Reader Services, she supported the staff and students in the School of Languages, Literatures and Cultural Studies, the School of Religion and the School of Creative Arts and was longstanding member of the Library’s User Education Group.

At the time she joined the Library, her beloved parents were working close by. Her father, Dr Séan O’Sullivan was in the Medical Research Council of Ireland laboratory in Trinity. His team’s breakthrough was a drug based on a natural product extracted from lichen, that became world-renowned in the treatment of leprosy and AIDs-related skin diseases, garnering UNESCO’s science prize “For an outstanding contribution to scientific and technical development in developing countries” Later, Clíona proudly accepted his posthumous award of the Boyle Medal.

Clíona’s mother, Máire, was a librarian in UCD’s Medical Library, based in Earlsfort Terrace. Following in her mother’s professional footsteps was by no means a foregone conclusion: Clíona’s original leanings were towards engineering but she consciously chose to become a librarian in order to have a career with a particular purpose, motivated by the opportunity to make a cultural difference over and above personal gain or advancement.

She had a mastery of languages and spoke and wrote Irish and French fluently. She also spoke Spanish and German and had a working knowledge of Welsh, Scots Gaelic and Breton. Her linguistic and bibliographic interests converged in 2000 when she won the Library-based competition for a bursary with her proposal to visit Paris and research and report on the the-new Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

Clíona played a very significant role in strengthening the Irish language in Trinity College Library and in College generally, an effort central to College life, and duly recognised in the College’s Strategic Plan and Irish Language Policy. Her work in this area was recognised by College when the Gradaim na Gaeilge awards were established in Trinity in 2015. This Awards program was created to honour excellent work done on behalf of the Irish language in the University. Clíona was first ever recipient of its Individual Staff Member award.

Clíona receiving Gradaim na Gaeilge award from then Minister of State for Gaeltacht Affairs, Joe McHugh, TD (May 1st, 2015, Oifig Na Gaeilge)

Clíona worked closely with Oifig na Gaeilge, ensuring the Library’s compliance with the Official Languages ​​Act 2003. She was a member of the group who brought Seomra na Gaeilge to fruition, a permanent, dedicated space in College for Irish language speakers to meet, have coffee, host events or just sit and read in an Irish language environment. She was a member of Coiste na Gaeilge and of the Management Committee of Seomra na Gaeilge and interviewed students each year for the Scéimeanna Cónaithe do Mhic Léinn (the Irish Language Students’ Residency Scheme) – an extraordinary boon for the successful students and a major encouragement to Irish-speaking students in College.

She edited and maintained the Library’s Irish language web pages, one of the largest Irish language websites in the University and she monitored the Library’s Irish language signage and publications to ensure that they met the highest standards of spelling and grammar. She brought together staff from the Library and students from the Residency Scheme to create a video about Irish language services in the Library.

With colleagues Colin Brennan and Ella Hassett, she organised a conversation circle for Library staff to provide an opportunity for staff (particularly those who provide Irish language services) to practice their Irish in a comfortable and work-friendly setting.

In addition, Clíona gave guided Library tours through Irish during Freshers’ Week each year, showing new students the Library’s resources and services (Irish and general). She guided Irish language tours of the Book of Kells and the Long Room, a unique service which was availed of by groups from within Trinity and from Dublin secondary schools. The tour gave school students a new insight into the University, demonstrating that the Irish language is alive in Trinity College, and that the public can participate in the College’s heritage.

In all of this activity, Clíona was an outstanding language and cultural activist whose enthusiasm could be felt throughout the Library, the University as a whole and the wider community.

In addition, as a lifelong lover of nature and of wild places and a devoted gardener, Clíona worked with the Trinity Green Campus Committee and contributed her time and creativity to the annual Trinity Green Week.

And yet, Trinity accounted for only a fraction of Clíona’s energy, abilities and activities. Multi-talented and multi-dimensional, she was a musician, singer and song-writer, inveterate traveller, linguist, conservationist, environmentalist, broadcaster, supporter of the arts, literature, poetry, theatre and film. She contributed her expertise to the Irish Traditional Music Archive on Merrion Square and was a founding member and shareholder of Raidió Na Life, hosting its An Port Ard programme on weekend evenings for many years.

Grand niece of Pádraic Colum, Clíona grew up immersed in tales of her poet, novelist and playwright, uncle, and his brilliant wife, Mary, their literary circles in Dublin, Paris and New York, which included Yeats, Joyce and Lady Gregory. His visits back to Ireland as an old man were occasions of great excitement in her home, events she remembered well.  Equally revered were photographs of her aunts working with the Yeats sisters in the Dun Emer Press and the Cuala Press. Clíona took over from her mother as custodian of the Pádraic Colum literary estate and spoke about the family with typical authority and vivacity at events such as the annual Longford Pádraic Colum Gathering.

 She was a direct link to the Irish Literary Revival and carried within her the same fierce pride and passion in her language and culture.

Clíona’s contribution to last year’s publication, ‘Director’s Choice: The Library of Trinity College Dublin is a reflection of her own personality and outlook. Out of the vast wealth of the Library’s collections, Clíona chose Robert McFarlane’s and Jackie Morris’s ‘The Lost Words: A Spell Book’,  a  beautiful collection of poems and illustrations to help readers rediscover the magic of the natural world.

Clíona’s text about ‘The Lost Words’ is accompanied by Jackie Morris’s stunning full page illustration of a Hare and Goldfinches and is showcased on the publisher’s webpages. In it she says,

‘…the book’s beauty, wit and wisdom have inspired people of all ages, more conscious now than ever of the perilous state of our natural world … it has been adapted for … dance, theatre, even graffiti … musicians are recreating the poems as songs – conjuring up the magic of this beautiful book in another art form’.

It is entirely apt that Clíona highlighted a beautiful book that wove together nature, language, poetry, music and beauty. These were the hallmarks of her life. These, and infectious enthusiasm, a lively sense of fun, undying interest in people, adherence to truth and to the highest professional and personal standards and above all, friendship and kindness.

Clíona will be sadly missed by friends, colleagues, staff and students, by many others inside and outside Trinity and most of all, by her husband, Tony. A suitable commemoration is being planned in College to honour her memory.

Ní bheidh a leithéid ann arís.

Niamh Brennan, friend and colleague

Programme Manager, Research Informatics, Library of Trinity College Dublin