Remembering Brian Burns: A Lasting Legacy at Burns Library

As we begin this new academic year, we are saddened by the recent loss of our primary benefactor, Brian P. Burns, and fondly recall his warm friendship and the vital roles he played in establishing Burns Library and providing ongoing support for collections and scholarship.

Brian contributed to the award-winning 1986 renovation of the Bapst Library building, which included purpose-designed facilities to house and provide access to the Boston College’s rare book and manuscript collections and University Archives. Named in honor of his father, John J. Burns, Class of 1921, Burns Library occupies more than a third of the historical structure.

Ford Tower lobby, Burns Library. Photo by John Wolff, 2017.

Several features in the Ford Tower lobby in Burns Library reflect Brian’s devotion to his father and desire to enhance the beauty of its gothic architecture. Brian commissioned presidential portraitist Robert Alexander Anderson to paint the portrait of Judge Burns that hangs opposite the main doorway to greet visitors. Brian also ensured that the 17th-century Flemish tapestries donated to the University in Judge Burns’s memory by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation would be hung by the grand staircase. In addition, he commissioned famed New York lighting designer Abe Feder to create a unique steel-clad chandelier to illuminate the tapestries and the tower’s 50-foot vaulted ceiling.

That was just the beginning. To help the University and its libraries rise in national rankings, Brian pledged $1.15 million towards satisfying the requirements of a 2-1 matching grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The funds Brian contributed were used to create Burns Library’s principal acquisition endowment, named once again in his father’s honor, and a separate endowment to establish an annual visiting professorship. Since 1991, the Burns Visiting Scholar in Irish Studies program has brought to campus 41 distinguished academics, writers, artists, journalists, librarians, and notable public figures who have made significant contributions to Irish cultural and intellectual life.

Mary McAleese, Fall 2013 Burns Visiting Scholar, served as the eighth President of Ireland from 1997-2011. Photo by Lee Pellegrini, 2013.

Once those initial pledges were fulfilled, Brian and his wife, Eileen, made a further gift of $700,000 to establish the Brian P. Burns Endowed Acquisitions Fund, which enables Burns Library curators to purchase rare and unique collections to support research and teaching. To honor former Burns Librarian Robert K. O’Neill upon his retirement in 2013, Brian and Eileen led a campaign to create yet another acquisitions fund. Recent purchases supported by the three endowments include dozens of Jesuit biographies printed during the first 100 years of the Society, additions to the papers of Irish poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, and fine press publications from The Salvage Press, Dublin.

In addition to establishing perpetual endowments, Brian made several large gifts for special purchases. A prime example: in 1993, O’Neill orchestrated the acquisition of a major collection of original manuscripts, notebooks, and correspondence of Irish poet WB Yeats. Among the manuscripts was the poet’s earliest play, Love and Death. Never published during his lifetime, it was subsequently digitized by the BC Libraries and performed for the first time in 2011 at the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo.

Brian also helped to fund Burns Library publications, including Brigid Boardman’s new edition of The Poems of Francis Thompson (2001)—a fitting gesture, since his father had spearheaded fundraising efforts to purchase the original manuscript of Thompson’s most famous poem, “The Hound of Heaven.”

Booklet and cover photo by Roger Kohn, 2012.

In 1996, Boston College’s McMullen Museum curated an exhibition and published a catalogue of Brian’s extraordinary collection of Irish paintings, one of the largest and most important in private hands. Brian also had a taste for Irish sculpture, which he both collected and commissioned. In 2001, he donated to Burns Library a bronze sculpture by Rowan Gillespie depicting James Joyce at three stages of his life. A decade later, he commissioned Gillespie to create a unique installation commemorating Ireland’s four Nobel Laureates in Literature: WB Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, and Seamus Heaney. In 2020, he provided Gillespie with funds to cast a replica for Boston College Ireland, a study center located in two Georgian townhouses in the center of Dublin whose acquisition Brian facilitated while serving on the University’s Board of Trustees.

Brian and Eileen Burns at their home in Palm Beach. Photo by Chris Salata/Capehart, 2016.

Brian devoted his service and philanthropic support to many organizations and institutions, particularly those with a mission to promote the cultural heritage of Ireland. Burns Library was always chief among them. Over the years, Brian’s tradition of giving grew to include family members and friends, many of whom have made substantial contributions of their own,. For his 85th birthday this past July, Brian’s friends and family sent donations which supported several acquisitions, including a previously unknown collection of letters addressed to the Irish revolutionary leader Constance Markievicz by several artists, including Brian’s favorite painter, Jack B. Yeats. A month later, Brian passed away peacefully, family members at his side. He will be greatly missed, but his legacy will be long appreciated at Burns Library.

-Christian Dupont, Burns Librarian

Further Reading:

BC News Obituary

BC Heights Remembrance

Burns Visiting Scholar Program 25th Anniversary

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