Page last updated at 10:57 GMT, Friday, 5 February 2010

Belfast Robert Burns collection goes on show

Belfast Burns Club membership card dating from 1896
There were clubs and associations celebrating the works of the Scottish poet

He is Scotland's national poet, but his popularity extends beyond the shores of Ayrshire.

Few places have more of an ear for Burns than Northern Ireland, which has one of the largest collections of his works outside of Scotland in a Belfast library.

The Linenhall Library's Burns Collection was amassed by Andrew Gibson in the last decades of the 19th century. From Ayrshire himself, he was a governor of the library and it bought his collection in 1901 with £1,000 raised by public subscription.

Burns's great-granddaughter Mrs Eliza Everitt later donated a number of items to the library, which are on display at the library until March.

While it includes no Burns manuscripts, the collection demonstrates in depth the huge and international popularity of Burns in the 19th century, and includes a wide range of ephemeral material.

Deborah Douglas is the champion of the collection and explained that correspondence with a newspaper editor had meant Belfast was exposed to Burns at an early stage.

"Burns, from what we know used to write quite regularly to the editor of the Belfast News Letter, and quite often his letters would have been published," she said

"Then they started to publish little bits of his poetry and writing in the paper so he would have become quite well known in Belfast."

"There are references to people from the city going over to Scotland to visit him."

With a strong Ulster-Scots connection it is perhaps not surprising that the poet became popular. Ulster was to become home to a number of Burns associations celebrating his work.

Robert Burns
Thousands of pieces of Burnsiana are on display in Belfast

The poet's face looks down towards the City Hall from a stained glass frieze marking men of note dating from the 1870s. Removed during the IRA bombing campaign of the Troubles it is now back in the library.

"There wasn't really much of a centenary until 1859, the centenary of his birth and then in Belfast they had this grand festival in the music halls to celebrate it," Ms Douglas said.

"There was obviously some debate as to whether Burns would have sat down to a Burns Supper, as we consider it, with all the neeps and tatties, which is just a form or artistic licence really.

"He was a bit of folk hero and depicted things like families sitting round reading the Bible," she said.

"I think after the war (WWI) there was a great social change and shift in attitudes.

"Although he was still very well respected, these Burns societies and associations started to die down."

Other items in the collection are on loan, including a Tam O'Shanter drinking jug.

In 1787 an edition of his poems was published by James Magee in Belfast.

"It is the first Burns work to be published outside of Scotland anywhere in the world and it was published here in Belfast," she said.

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