The Four Irish Nobel Laureates
By Turlough McConnell
December / January 2013
“Without the titanic vision of one man, Brian P. Burns, none of this would have been possible,” writes Roger Kohn of The Four Irish Nobel Laureates, a series of sculptures created by noted Irish artist Rowan Gillespie, now permanently housed in the John J. Burns Library, in the historic, leafy suburb of Chestnut Hill, at the heart of the Boston College campus. Under the direction of Dr. Robert O’Neill, the Burns Library continues to be the world’s premier repository of Irish cultural heritage outside Ireland.
Earlier this year, Brian Burns phoned Gillespie, whose work includes international memorials to Ireland’s Great Hunger, inviting him to create a sculpture of Irish poet Seamus Heaney, recipient of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature. This commission would complement the artist’s James Joyce bust already on display at the library. For Gillespie, this was “a golden opportunity to work again with Burns,” a man whom he “admires enormously.”
As Gillespie’s biographer, Roger Kohn, tells it, “Rowan met Heaney at an exhibition opening in Dublin and asked if he would be prepared to sit for the bust. In Rowan’s words, Seamus was ‘sweet and charming as usual,’” and Gillespie created the bust forthwith.
On seeing Gillespie’s completed work, Brian Burns decided that a broader commission should include each of the other three Irish Nobel Laureates, William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw and Samuel Beckett. He convinced Gillespie, who created busts of the three, and the result was formally unveiled in November.
When Heaney was asked how it felt having his name included in the Irish Nobel pantheon along with Yeats, Shaw and Beckett, he is reported to have replied: “It’s like being a little foothill at the bottom of a mountain range. You hope you just live up to it. It’s extraordinary.”
“Burns has done much to redress the woefully inadequate perception of Irish art in America,” says Kohn. “His extraordinary private collection of Irish art is the finest in America. Together with the collection in the Burns Library the two collections blend seamlessly to showcase the unparalleled richness of Irish culture.”
Burns, an Irish-American entrepreneur and CEO of San Francisco-based BF Enterprises, is a business attorney and philanthropist. In 1999 he was named one of the Greatest Irish Americans of the Twentieth Century by Irish America. Thanks to an earlier gift made by the Burns family, the college has been able to fund an endowed chair in Irish Studies since 1991, which, next year, will be held by Mary McAleese, immediate past President of Ireland.