Unlike Stephan Dedalus in James Joyce's "A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man," the artists who forged Ireland's grand literature appear as fiery revolutionaries and aged bards, fastidious wordsmiths and prophetic visionaries in an engaging exhibit at the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College.

Unlike Stephan Dedalus in James Joyce's "A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man," the artists who forged Ireland's grand literature appear as fiery revolutionaries and aged bards, fastidious wordsmiths and prophetic visionaries in an engaging exhibit at the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College.

Making its only stop in America, "Literary Lives" showcases portraits of Ireland's greatest writers from Jonathan Swift to Conal Creedon, along with first editions of "Ulysses" and other masterpieces, sculpted busts, letters, manuscripts, photographs and memorabilia.

Visitors will experience a collaborative exhibit by three institutions that combines the art of a portrait gallery with the atmosphere of a literary salon.

Reflecting the show's Irish origins, it features 49 striking portraits of Ireland's best-known novelists, poets and dramatists of the last 150 years.

A visitor would otherwise have to travel to Dublin on Bloomsday to savor in one place images of Ireland's literary giants, including Laurence Sterne, William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, J.M. Synge, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Brendan Behan and many more.

Visitors can see 10 films of varying lengths about contemporary Irish writers including Frank McCourt, author of the popular novel "Angela's Ashes."

Subtitled "Portraits from the Crawford Art Gallery and Abbey Theatre, Ireland," the exhibit will be on view through Dec. 5.

Organized by the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork, the exhibit that first showed in Ireland also included portraits from the historic Abbey Theatre in Dublin.

Once it arrived in Chestnut Hill, McMullen staff worked with the college's John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections to augment the original show with art, manuscripts, letters and illustrations.

The Burns Library contributed 18 works of art and artifacts, 90 manuscripts and books and a dozen photos from the collection of Bobbie Hanvey who documented "The Troubles," the half-century of political conflict in Northern Ireland.

Nancy Netzer, director of the McMullen Museum and professor of art history, played a key role bringing the exhibit to BC. She then worked with specialists from other departments to broaden its impact.

By using objects from the library to provide a historical or cultural context for the portraits, BC staff enhanced a show initially designed for Irish audiences into the multi-dimensional exhibit now on display.

As a result of the collaboration between the Crawford, the Abbey and BC's museum and library, "Literary Lives" has five curators: Diana Larsen, manager and designer for the McMullen Collections; Marjorie Howes, associate professor of English at BC; Robert Savage, associate professor of history at BC; and Peter Murray and Anne Boddaert, director and curator, respectively, of the Crawford Art Gallery.

By bringing together art treasures from various Irish national collections with objects from the Burns Library, Netzer said "'Literary Lives' melds and explores visual and textual biographies of some of Ireland's most celebrated literary figures."

Visitors can gaze upon the visages of Yeats, Joyce and Beckett, who created Crazy Jane, Molly Bloom and Godot, who has kept two forlorn tramps and audiences waiting more than 50 years for his arrival.

In an oil painting by Sean O'Sullivan, Yeats resembles an introspective professor rather than the visionary who ignited the Celtic revival and founded the Abbey Theatre. Joyce signed Michael Farrell's lithograph of him, "I don't mind how you paint my soul but get the (neck)tie correct."

And John Minihan's black-and-white photo of Beckett transforms his angular face, deep-set eyes and shock of gray hair into a mask that laughs as it stares into the void.

Netzer said, "The works of art in this exhibition celebrate literary achievements but they also celebrate the talents of Irish visual artists. The painters, photographers and sculptors who created these portraits give an insight both into the writer's world and also into the way in which they were seen by those around them."

Netzer credited Larsen "for making the exhibit come alive" by arranging the gallery into alcove-like spaces to display the show's five thematic sections: Early Origins and Influences, The Irish Literary Revival: W.B. Yeats and his Circle, The Counter-Revivalists, The Lost Generation and Contemporary Literary Lives.

For Howes, the 49 portraits were a starting point to "build out" the initial exhibit into something more complex.

A specialist in 19th- and 20th-century Irish literature, she said organizers from the museum, Burns Library, and English and history departments complemented the portraits with objects from the library to help viewers explore their own ideas about what constitutes a literary life.

"Historically, there are a lot of different ways to think about what's a 'literary life,"' Howes said. "We began with a set of portraits. Each portrait is a sort of interpretation that speaks to artists' relationships to their subjects," she said. "We're trying to set out a series of (portraits, letters, manuscripts and books) that look more meaningful when seen together."

Howes said the exhibit was designed to suggest a "literary life is lived in response to other literary lifes."

"What's distinctive about Ireland as a small place is that all these writers with all their energy and their frictions were in frequent contact with one another," she said.

The author of books on Joyce, Yeats and Dracula, Howes said the exhibit doesn't try to explain why writers from a small country produced so much great literature over a short period of time.

"A lot of what was written was produced in response to other writers, to other situations. We're not trying to expound a grand theory. We'll let visitors draw their own conclusions," she said.

Howes hopes visitors discover there are many aspects of a writer's life that are important.

"Writing is a physical act. Did the writer use a quill pen, a typewriter or a computer? We wanted to get people thinking that the physical act of writing actually matters," she said.

"The literary life is sometimes about the actual book. It matters whether it was cheaply or expensively bound. It affects how the book was read. That could be applied to all kinds of literary culture."

Asked why Ireland produced such great literature, Howes suggested that in a small country like Ireland artists routinely rubbed shoulders with politicos, scientists, laborers, clergy, brawlers and other writers. "It's probably less true now," she said.

Howes believes the exhibit will show visitors that "writers were writers in a whole world of other writers."

"No writer is produced in isolation," she said.

Do you have to have read "Finnegans Wake" twice, have a shamrock tattoo or get all gooey when Colin Farrell takes his shirt off to enjoy the exhibit?

Howes hopes viewers unfamiliar with Irish literature will see portraits, artifacts and writings that open a window into a fascinating culture.

"I think they'll see a bunch of objects that are not the ones you think you'd want to sit and stare at. They might not be that dramatic," she said. "But I think there's some things that provide the experience of learning how to read Ireland's larger history. That should be interesting for anybody."

So if someone asks you to see "Literary Lives," just answer like Molly Bloom at the end of "Ulysses": "yes I said yes I will Yes."


The McMullen Museum of Art is in Devlin Hall at Boston College in Chestnut Hill.

Hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and noon to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. It will be closed Oct. 11, Nov. 25 and 26.

Free group tours are offered Sundays at 2 p.m. through Dec. 5. Tours may be arranged on request by calling 617-552-8587.

The exhibit also includes an audio tour with an introduction to Irish literature, brief biographies of writers and selected readings.

An illustrated catalog, "Literary Lives," has been published in conjunction with the exhibit.

For directions, information or parking, call 617-552-8100 or visit www.bc.edu/artmuseum.