The Rosenbach Museum and Library is always on the alert for a good literary anniversary - or an anniversary that can be celebrated through literature.
The former is coming up June 16 - Bloomsday, the Rosenbach's annual celebration of James Joyce's novel Ulysses, which takes place on that date in 1904. The Rosenbach event has grown over the last 20-plus years to include readings, concerts, and even a Bloomsday 101 trivia quiz at Fergie's Pub.
This year marks the centenary of the Irish Easter Rising, and the Rosenbach will host a literary celebration to mark that occasion Thursday evening, when contemporary Irish writers will take the stage of the Montgomery Auditorium at the Free Library of Philadelphia. In a discussion moderated by journalist Sadhbh Walshe, novelist Colm Tóibín (author of the novel Brooklyn) and poet Eavan Boland will address the theme "Ireland: Then and Now."
With an extensive collection of Irish literature, including not only Joyce, but also Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, and others, the Rosenbach has a significant connection and commitment to Irish culture. According to director Derick Dreher, the idea for another Irish-themed event grew out of comments Anne Anderson, Ireland's ambassador to the United States, made at a dinner the Rosenbach held last year.
"She spoke about Joyce and what Joyce meant to Ireland and America," Dreher said. "She reminded us that 2016 was the 100th anniversary of the uprising, and that Philadelphia was a city with an enormous Irish population and ties to the Easter Rising. She challenged us to do something that was worthy of this anniversary of Irish independence."
Further conversations with Barbara Jones, consul general of Ireland in New York, helped shape the event, Dreher said.
"She wanted to use the centenary as a lens to look at how Ireland has changed over the years" and how that change had been set in motion by the rising.
"It created independence, created 'the Troubles' in [the] '70s, '80s, and '90s, and, toward the end of the '90s, it created the Ireland of today, which is a very open society," Dreher said.
By bringing in writers such as Tóibín and Boland, Dreher hopes to examine how all of this history is filtered through literature.
"Tóibín is so gifted at talking at how history and memory come together and sometimes get confused. I can't wait to hear what he thinks about what the rising means to him and how he processes and uses it," Dreher said. "And Eavan Boland brings poetry to the mix."
Boland, a prominent Irish poet and director of the creative writing program at Stanford University, said she was pleased to be part of the program. "The centenary has provoked or at least enabled a conversation about what we mean or what we think about the establishment of a modern state," she said. "Irish America has been such an important part of that consciousness and of the retrospection. It includes many people who had to leave Ireland but who remember it fondly."
Moderator Walshe has written about women's role in the uprising, in particular in a recent New York Times op-ed piece, "The Sisterhood of the Easter Rising."
Women's roles and feminism are a strong theme, as well, in Boland's work.
"There are very hopeful signs in the society that might not have been there 20 or 30 years ago," she said. "When I was a much younger writer, I didn't feel women were included much in the arts .. . . especially women who wanted to be writers." She added that strong female writers have emerged in Ireland, citing Edna O'Brien and Anne Enright as examples.
Alexandra Wilder, manager of public programs at the Rosenbach, anticipates the panel will address a host of themes.
"Feminist themes are definitely one of the topics they will cover," she said. "Also the role of art in the uprising, the role of artists in contemporary Irish culture, major changes in Irish life in the past few decades, changes that are still needed . . .. It will be a wide-ranging discussion accessible to a wide audience."
Lynn Rosen is director of Open Book Bookstore in Elkins Park and is an Inquirer books blogger.
Ireland: Then and Now