Eoin English (Irish Examiner)
Apr 29, 2019

Exhibiting the lost art of writing a letter

Students in Cork are staging an exhibition exploring the modern-day relationship between writing and the letter, featuring some well-known faces, writes Eoin English

Some of the country’s best-known public figures have put pen to paper to celebrate the disappearing craft of letter writing.

In an era of emails, texts, tweets, and instant online posts, students at CSN College of Further Education in Cork set out to create a unique exhibition exploring the modern-day relationship between writing and the letter.

The students of the college’s cultural and heritage studies course wrote and posted handwritten letters to leading figures in the arts, academia, politics, and the media, setting out their plan to look at the changes brought about to the “noble craft of letter writing” in the face of emails, texts, and screens.

The exhibition’s main display draws from handwritten letters from a broad cross-section of well-known personalities including former president Mary McAleese, poet Theo Dorgan, artist Robert Ballagh, Benedictine monk and writer Patrick Hederman, historian Diarmuid Ferriter, Kerry football legend Tomás O Sé, broadcaster Miriam O’Callaghan, author Patrick McCabe, and many others.

Mrs McAleese wrote of the importance of words.

“Spoken or written, tweeted or blogged, typed or printed, what we say is more important than how we say it. Words can heal or hurt, excite or incite. Use them carefully, thoughtful of how they will be used,” she wrote.

Dorgan said if he had to single out one aspect of life today that concerns him, one he wrote which could be “chosen more or less at random from a long list”, it would be the disappearance of wisdom, the desirability of wisdom from the array of human ambitions”.

“At a time when you would imagine, we need wise reflection, considered and informed judgment, a reflective approach to solving problems, when last did we hear someone say: ‘what we need to ask is, what would the wise solution be.’ We devalue earned wisdom,” he wrote.

McCabe said he was delighted to accept the students’ “quill-based calligraphy challenge” because he has always been “a champion of the epistolary form, ever since my aunt in Arigna sent me a brand-new leather football in acknowledgement of my letter-writing achievements in the Co Monaghan ’Scríobh Litir 1969’ competition”.

Broadcaster John Creedon said in his letter that he can still clearly visualise his “mother’s beautiful writing and my father’s scrawl decades after they last put pen to paper”.

Ballagh said fulfilling the students’ request would pose no difficulty for him. “Unlike most people today, I don’t possess either a ’smart’ phone or a computer, so my normal means of communication with others is to send a handwritten letter. Also having designed almost 70 postage stamps, I feel I have a vested interest in the survival of the mailed letter,” he quipped.

Shane Lehane, the director of the course, said the students who sent the letters were all of mixed age and background but united in their enthusiasm for and love of Irish heritage and culture.

“Email is such an efficient form of communication, but there are times in your life when you’re in love, or at times of death, where you need not type. There is a need for a more intimate, direct form of communication,” he said.

“By handwriting a letter, you are giving something more than the idea.

“You are giving someone a material sense of yourself.

“People hold on to letters. They become an artefact. They become cherished. They become a memento of a relationship, of a connection.”

Shane Lehane, second from left, the course director, with students Catherine Casey, David Riordan, and Robert Harte from the cultural and heritage studies course at CSN. Picture: Eddie O’Hare

The exhibition also features a number of old letters, including one written by Terence MacSweeney, the lord mayor of Cork who died on hunger strike in Brixton Prison in 1920, and Arthur Griffith, writer, newspaper editor, politician, and president of Dáil Éireann who died in 1922.

The exhibition at CSN on Tramore Rd will run until the end of Cork’s Life Long Learning Festival and will be open to the public until the end of May.