Cambridge University to share unique Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes ‘treasure trove’

When two of the biggest names in poetry met up with an eccentric artist in the Irish countryside for fishing weekends, it is perhaps inevitable that they left their mark in words.

Now such works, by the literary greats Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, are to be finally shared for the first time, after Cambridge University acquired a “unique” archive of unseen manuscripts on the pair’s close friendship and regular fishing holidays.

For years, the pair’s close friend and expressionist painter Barrie Cooke kept an archive of private letters, poems and drawings in an old shoebox in his home in Co. Kilkenny, Ireland. 

The material includes letters between the trio on their love of fishing, a poem Heaney scribbled down in a guest book which would go on to become his well-known sequence ‘Squarings’, and – most remarkably – a previously unknown poem. 

The existence of ‘The Island’, which is about Cooke’s house on the River Nore, has startled scholars on both sides of the Atlantic. 

The "treasure trove" remained secret between the men, until Pembroke College fellow Dr Mark Wormald visited Cooke in Ireland shortly before he passed away in 2014.

“He asked me if I would like to see the letters,” Dr Wormald told The Telegraph. “There was a cubby hole just behind where he was sitting and he pulled out this cardboard box, which was stuffed with all of these letters and poems. 

“After Barrie died I persuaded his daughters’ to keep them together rather than selling them off individually”.

Dr Wormald spoke of his “surprise” at Pembroke being able to acquire the pair’s latest collection of manuscripts, as the UK is increasingly losing out on archive material due to the big cheques being written out by universities in the US. 

“They have major money to bid,” he said. “They have just got more money than British libraries have. And good on them – they are building up their intellectual property. But it’s frustrating if you are a British or Irish scholar because it means it is at least £1,000 if you want to go and study them.

“It is an issue. British libraries and universities just don’t have the kind of acquisition budgets as your Harvard’s, Emory’s or Yale’s.”

Emory University in Atlanta is one of the many “well-endowed” US universities snapping up the early works of British writers with generous offers that their estate’s cannot refuse.

Emory, which is funded by the fizzy drink giant Coca Cola, holds a “considerable amount” of material belonging to the former poet laureate Hughes, as well as the early journals of British Indian writer Salman Rushdie. Its Rose Library archive boasts 150,000 print titles and more than 1,350 collections from a broad range of writers.

In 2014, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas paid  £1.2 million for Ian McEwan’s literary archive – including abandoned stories, early drafts of novels, letters from other writers and about 17 years of emails.

The archive includes drafts of all of the British author’s published works including his critically acclaimed novels Atonement and On Chesil Beach.

Pembroke College declined to reveal how much was paid to Cooke’s family for Heaney and Hughes’ material, but confirmed it was a six-figure sum raised through donations from six national funding bodies.

Cooke’s daughters, who inherited the material after his death in 2014, were persuaded to give the College the first bid thanks to Dr Wormald’s ongoing research into the friendship between the trio. 

Commenting on the significance of the newly discovered material, Dr Wormald said: “The tenderness of the letters between these men takes my breath away, and it transforms what we know about their work and personal lives. 

“Ted Hughes emerges as an absolutely devoted father, a wonderfully generous friend, and someone who lived and breathed nature through fishing. And Cooke’s influence on Seamus Heaney, as an artist who was completely committed to the natural and mythological history of Ireland’s waters, was real and enduring, as was the nourishment Heaney took from their friendship.”