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Margaret Kelleher MRIA, Professor of Literature

01 December 2023

Professor Kelleher describes her year as a Cullman Center fellow at New York Public Library.

Margaret Kelleher MRIA is chair of Anglo-Irish Literature and Drama at University College Dublin

From September 2022 to May 2023, I held a fellowship at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library (NYPL). Funded primarily by a generous endowment from philanthropists Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman, and with support from a number of other foundations, the centre hosts fifteen fellowships every year. Their purpose is to support research that would benefit directly from access to the research collections in the NYPL at Fifth Avenue.

My Cullman project was to work with the Henry W. and Alfred A. Berg collections, specifically on the papers of Mary and Padraic Colum, as part of my biography of that literary couple. Mary Maguire Colum (b. 1884) and Padraic Colum (b. 1881) left Ireland in the autumn of 1914, planning to stay in America for a short period; they remained in New York for most of the rest of their lives (Mary died in 1957, and Padraic in 1972). Over these decades they both built impactful—and intermittently, financially successful—literary careers in America: Padraic as a novelist, poet, critic and author of children’s literature, Mary as an influential essayist and literary critic.

The Berg collections are well known to Irish researchers for their priceless archives relating to Augusta Gregory, W.B. Yeats, John Butler Yeats, John Millington Synge and others. Alongside these Irish materials, the Berg library holds exceptional archives for writers such as Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Charles Dickens and Emily Brontë. With respect to the Colums, it holds 13 large boxes of their papers, along with many other invaluable resources regarding their lives and careers. Many of these papers were acquired in 1958, just after Mary’s death, most likely sold by Padraic in order to raise the funds to bury his wife in Ireland.

My research finds were many and moving; probably the most unexpected was the extent of the correspondence from members of the Colum family in Ireland that still exists within the Berg holdings, and which provides a unique window into Irish politics and family life during the revolutionary decade of 1912–22. Mary and Padraic had peripatetic lives in New York, so the fact that these letters survived their many moves of home underlines its personal value to them. That correspondence has brought home to me very strongly that a diasporic story consists not just of the opportunities and challenges experienced in a ‘new world’, but also of what is happening at home, in one’s absence.

I am deeply indebted to the staff of the Berg collection and the Cullman Center for the most wonderful of research sabbaticals. One of the many beneficial aspects of the Cullman fellowship programme is that it funds creative writers and independent scholars, nonfiction writers and journalists, as well as academics, and the residency both requires and enables its fellows to workshop projects with one another. During my residency I had the great fortune of being in the inspiring company of nonfiction writers Rozina Ali, Raghu Karnad, Patrick Phillips and Francesa Wade; fiction writers Claire Luchette, Daniel Saldaña, Brandon Taylor and C Pam Zhang; poet Colin Channer; and academics Daphne A. Brooks, Neil Maher, Sarah Maza, Maurice Samuels, and Erin L. Thompson. Previous holders of the fellowship include Irish writers Vona Groarke, Mary Morrissy, Joseph O’Connor, Sally Rooney and Colm Tóibín; and international academics such as Linda Colley, Kaiama L. Glover, Lucy McDiarmid and James Shapiro.

The Cullman Center’s programmes of educational and creative collaboration also feature a summer institute for high-school teachers and a public conversations series (whose subject is the books on which fellows worked while in residence at the NYPL). Past episodes of this series are available for viewing and listening online.

The Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers is located on the second floor of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, an iconic building flanked by the stately marble lions, ‘Patience’ and ‘Fortitude’ (whose names date from the American Depression). My daily journey from the centre to the Berg collection was up one flight of stairs, with an occasional diversion to the nearby, magnificent Rose reading room, or down a flight to the Treasures of the Public Library exhibition, an impressive and engrossing exhibition that is free and open to all. I urge future visitors to New York to make the New York Public Library a ‘must see’.

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