Enda Cunningham

An Irishman's Diary: A memoir of the late Enda Cunningham of Cathach Books, Dublin
The Irish Times - Monday, September 27, 2010

Enda Cunningham was the Don Quixote of Duke Street.  The deep-pocket multinationals and chain stores were his windmills, and he didn’t tilt at them as much as he defied them.

His iconic shop, Cathach Books, with its blood-red frame and inviting plate glass window, is one of the last independent bookshops in Dublin. It has stood in the same spot at 10 Duke Street for 22 years. The first Dublin incarnation of Cathach was in Market Arcade for nine years before that. Cunningham was working as a schoolteacher in his native Carrick in Donegal when he opened the first Cathach Books more than 40 years ago. He named it after the ancient manuscript of psalms. A battle over the ownership of the original manuscript, amounting to the first copyright dispute, led to a war. Cunningham reasoned that fighting over words was a most appropriate theme for an Irish bookshop. He moved the business to Dublin 31 years ago, and when Cathach Books moved to Duke Street, it was just a short stroll from what’s left of the original Cathach manuscript at the Royal Irish Academy on Dawson Street.

When Cunningham first opened in Dublin, he was more of an idealist than a businessman. One of his first customers was a man who claimed his wife had bought him a book at Cathach that he already had. Cunningham had given the man a refund and the man was well down Grafton Street before Cunningham checked his files and realised that besides lying about his wife buying the book in the first place the man had nicked the book on the way out the door.

Cunningham’s business acumen grew through the years. Cathach specialises in rare books, first and second editions, and there is an impressive map collection downstairs. He came to regard his job as that of a gold prospector, sifting through silt for valuable nuggets. It was important not to rely on only first impressions. He had to dramatically increase the price of a 1922 facsimile of The Book of Kells when he noticed it had been inscribed by James Joyce to one of Nora Barnacle’s uncles. The writing was never on the walls at Cathach, but the writers were.

Stenciled caricatures of Heaney, Swift, Goldsmith, Wilde, Shaw, Joyce, Yeats and O’Casey look down upon the browsers with stern approval. Like the late, lamented Parsons of Baggot Street Bridge, Cathach is one of those bookshops where it is not uncommon to find yourself leafing through a book while standing next to its author. Anne Enright and John Banville are frequent visitors, as is Joe O’Connor. Brendan Kennelly, the poet, appreciated the shop’s impressive number of works in Irish, as does Brian Lenihan, the Minister of Finance. Whenever he was in Dublin, Brian Friel would drop in to chat with his old friend Enda Cunningham.

Cunningham was more than a kind, genial bookseller. He was a publisher and a man devoted to preserving history, literary and otherwise. He founded Four Masters Press which, among other things, published John O’Donovan’s Ordnance Survey Letters, a treasure trove of information about how and why people named places throughout Ireland before the Famine. He didn’t do it for the money. For love of history, Cunningham would empty his own pockets. He commissioned a pair of plaques in Cornish, New Hampshire, one of the Dublin-born sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the other of the Carrick-born Mary Cunningham to commemorate an obscure moment in American history. Mary Cunningham, his father’s cousin, had left Donegal for America and by chance became the model for Miss Liberty when Saint-Gaudens redesigned American coins at the behest of President Teddy Roosevelt in the early 20th century.

Growing up in Donegal’s Gaeltacht, Enda Cunningham retained a deep, spiritual love of the language, which was in evidence throughout his shop, no more prominently than on his business card, which listed his name as Eanna Mac Cuinneagain. The anglicised version was in parentheses. In recent years, Cunningham fretted over the prospects of keeping an independent shop alive in a market where the rents are high and the chain stores hover like vultures. He turned over the day-to-day running of the shop to two of his five children, David and Aisling. Together, they created something of a hybrid, relying on both the Internet, for an increasing international clientele, and the constant walk-ins of tourists, academics, artists and punters.

Two years ago, Enda Cunningham was diagnosed with cancer. He appeared to have beaten it but it returned this year with a vengeance. He fought it with everything he had. He died, aged 82, in his home in Castleknock on September 15th, surrounded by his family. Two days later, he was buried in his native Carrick, in a grave he went to knowing that Cathach, the bookshop, has the convention-defying staying power of Cathach, the manuscript. A third generation of the family, brother and sister David and Shauna O’Brien, has started working at the shop. Dad died knowing the shop is in good hands, his daughter Aisling said. We’re not going anywhere.

The Irish Times - Kevin Cullen