For the last 26 years, Robert O’Neill has been the director of the John J. Burns Library at Boston College. Now, as he prepares to retire this month and head for the warmer clime of Arizona, he leaves a deep legacy. The library, under his and his staff’s tutelage, stands as one of the finest university research institutions anywhere. Its rich Irish collections have garnered worldwide acclaim, due in no small measure to the foresight of Robert O’Neill.
Scholar, librarian, author, manager, and adjunct political science professor – these are but a few of the hats O’Neill has worn so well at BC, but they barely hint at the imprint he has left for anyone who writes, studies, and researches about Ireland, Irish America, the diaspora, Irish art, culture, and, especially, literature.
He arrived at The Heights in September 1987 after serving as director of the library at the Indiana Historical Society and as head of special collections and associate professor of library science at Indiana State University. A trained and notable historian, O’Neill earned his BA in history at Merrimack College, his MA in European history at the University of Arizona, and his PhD in philosophy, European history, and MALS in library science at the University of Chicago. He has brought that blend of historian and archivist to the Burns Library for nearly three decades. Recently, Dr. O’Neill , a Holliston resident, sat down for an interview with the BIR to discuss his time at the Burns Library and in and around Boston.
BIR: When you took the post at the Burns Library, what were both your immediate and long-term goals?
O’Neill: When I came into the job, it was at a difficult time for the library and the university. My predecessor had been convicted of the theft of rare books, artifacts, and materials from the library. My immediate concern was to restore the staff’s morale and confidence. My long-term goal was to build upon and expand the library’s already outstanding collections. I wanted to help build on the strength of the collections, such as those of Boston, the Irish, and the Jesuitical, as well as others. Ulitmately, what we wanted to do was to build our collections into one of the leading research libraries in the country.
BIR: What achievements for the library rank high on your personal list?
O’Neill: Collection development has been the most important. We have been able to acquire the second largest collection of W.B. Yeats in the world. Only the National Library of Dublin has a larger one. We also have one of the finest and most voluminous Samuel Beckett collections. That’s true now of our George Bernard Shaw collection, too – over 3,400 items.
Along with these collections of great Irish writers, we also have such items as the papers of Thomas Clarke, hero and architect of the 1916 Easter Rising. Our Bobby Hanvey photographic archives have the work of this award-winning photographer living and working in Northern Ireland. His body of work is one of the finest photographic collections of The Troubles from the 1970s though 2007, everything from the violence to daily life in those decades.
BIR: What has been your most memorable moment at the library?
O’Neill: The 1990 FBI sting operation we became involved in when a “dealer” in Irish antiquities offered us a collection that included rare Irish gravestones. He claimed that the collection had been handed down through his family and claimed the artifacts were worth $7 million. I was suspicious from the start and contacted the Irish consul and other experts both here and in Ireland, and they confirmed my suspicions. When I got in touch with the National Museum in Dublin, they sent stories on how some of these items were stolen.
By this time, the guy was asking a “mere” $500,000. He brought the stones to the US as ballast and docked at Miami. At this point the FBI would only have been able to charge him with customs violations at port of entry, which was a misdemeanor. The FBI asked me to persuade him to transport the stones from Miami to Boston and also bug my office when I met with him.
We did it, he was subsequently arrested, along with three associates – including a police officer in the Midlands. Because the dealer claimed a connection to NORAID, the British press became interested in the story, and a reporter who talked to me – I tried to explain that there was no concrete NORAID or IRA connection – still wrote a London Times story entitled, “O’Neill Lured Kenny [the dealer] to Boston.” The then-director of the FBI, William Sessions, gave me a framed plaque of thanks for my help.
BIR: What will you miss the most about the Burns and Boston?
O’Neill: It’s been so much fun. I’ve met so many people – visiting scholars, students, faculty and such incredible figures as Seamus Heaney. Too many great people and times to even begin to list, and Boston College and Boston are such unique and terrific places.
BIR: As you leave BC, what would you most like people to remember about your tenure at the Burns Library?
O’Neill: That I had a hand in building one of the finest research libraries in the country today. BC achieved a prestigious Associate of Research Libraries membership, thanks in no small part to the Burns Library Special Collections.
BIR: What comes next for you?
O’Neill: To start, the third edition of my book on Irish libraries. I plan to research, write, and hopefully teach a little. I’m also looking forward to spending time with my grandchildren and playing a lot of golf. Actually, one of the things I’m most looking forward to is going to Ireland as a tourist – not on business – with my wife.