Given Boston College's founding mission to serve Boston's predominantly Irish, Catholic immigrant community, it is not surprising that over time, as Boston Irish gained political, economic, and cultural influence, that community leaders should help Boston College establish special collections of books and manuscripts pertaining to Ireland and their own Irish American experience. Since 1948, when librarian Helen Landreth was appointed curator, the Irish collections in Burns Library have achieved increasing international recognition for their strengths in modern Irish history and politics, literary and artistic culture, and traditional music.
Additional literary collections include the primary archival holdings of Gerald Dawe, John F. Deane, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, and Flann O'Brien, among others. Burns Library also possess strong collections of other prominent Irish writers, including Padraic Colum, Monk Gibbon, Ethel Mannin, Thomas Moore, Sean O’Casey, Sean O’Faolain, Liam O’Flaherty, George William Russell (Æ), Francis Stuart, and J. M. Synge.
Irish history, politics, and economics are documented through extensive holdings of monographs, government documents, newspapers, and other published materials. Political pamphlets and ephemera from the late 1700s to the present include Daniel O'Connell's personal pamphlet collection on the union between Great Britain and Ireland and the Canon Rogers Collection, which traces the history of "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland from 1916 through the 1980s.
These are complemented by extensive holdings of Northern Ireland political ephemera from the late 1960s onward, and the archives of Northern Ireland photojournalist Bobbie Hanvey, from which thousands of images have been digitized.
The Irish Music Archives houses both unpublished and published material in a variety of formats: commercial and field recordings, video, sheet music, manuscripts, photographs, memorabilia, books about music, and musical instruments. Artistic content includes traditional instrumental music and song, dance, and various types of ensembles—not just from Ireland but also from Scotland, Cape Breton, and other Celtic regions.
The manuscript holdings of the Irish Music Archives include the largest collection of materials relating to tenor John McCormack, papers of celebrated musicians such as singer/harpist Mary O’Hara and fiddle player Séamus Connolly, and the archives of the North American province of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann.
Burns Library seeks to document the experience and contributions of Irish Americans, particular in the Boston region. Burns Library holds the papers of prominent national politicians of Irish descent, including former US Speaker of the House of Representatives Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill, and US Congressional Representatives Edward P. Boland, Robert F. Drinan, SJ, and Margaret M. Heckler.
Irish American activists and journalists such as John Boyle O'Reilly, Mary Boyle O'Reilly, and James Jeffrey Roche, are represented along with business leaders such as John Donnelly, and lawyers such as John T. Hughes. The papers of John Lawrence Sullivan document the first American heavyweight champion boxer.
Since 1991, the Burns Visiting Scholar in Irish Studies program, a collaboration between the Center for Irish Programs and Boston College Libraries, has brought to campus a long and distinguished series of academics, writers, artists, journalists, librarians, and notable public figures who have made significant contributions to Irish cultural and intellectual life. Burns Visiting Scholars teach courses, offer public lectures, and engage with the rich resources of the John J. Burns Library in their ongoing research, writing, and creative endeavors.