The  Maynooth University Ken Saro-Wiwa Collection

By Helen Fallon, Deputy University Librarian.

Ken Saro-Wiwa, courtesy of Noo Saro-Wiwa

On Saturday the 25th of September 2021,  BBC World Service will broadcast the documentary Silence Would be Treason. 

This blog post gives a short account of the background to the death-row correspondence of Saro-Wiwa, to Sister Majella McCarron (OLA), which was donated to Maynooth University. A fuller account is given in my essay in the book Silence Would be Treason: Last Writings of Ken Saro Wiwa.

On 10th November 2011, Sr. Majella McCarron presented a collection of personal correspondence and 27 poems she received from Nigerian writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, to Maynooth University Library. The collection comprises 28 letters to Sr. Majella, 27 poems, a MOSOP (Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People) cap and flag,  a collection of photographs and other documents, including articles, reviews, flyers and maps relating to Saro-Wiwa’s work and the work of Sr. Majella on the cause of the Ogoni people, both in Nigeria and Ireland.  Some of this material can be viewed in our Ken Saro-Wiwa Library Guide.

Letters and poems, (c) Maynooth University Library

We are grateful to Maynooth University sociology student, John O’Shea, who created the initial link between Sr. Majella and the University Library. In 2010, O’Shea interviewed Sister Majella while working on his MA thesis Societies in Transition. She told him about the archive and expressed an interest in finding an appropriate home for it, knowing the value this collection would have to present and future generations of scholars and activists. He contacted the Library and we immediately set about acquiring this unique collection.

The letters were mainly handwritten between the 20th of October 1993 and the 14th of September 1995. In May 1994 Saro-Wiwa and several other activists were placed in military detention in Port Harcourt. The letters, from this period until his execution with eight others (the Ogoni Nine), were smuggled out of military detention in food baskets.

The letters cast light on Saro-Wiwa as a political activist, a writer, a family man and a personal friend to Sr. Majella, who travelled as a missionary from Ireland to Nigeria in 1956. While lecturing at the University of Lagos, she met Saro-Wiwa, The oil problem in the Niger Delta region was severe, with major environmental damage being wrought from oil extraction by Royal Dutch Shell. Saro-Wiwa, the leader of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), was organising a non-violent campaign against the environmental destruction of the Ogoni area of the Niger Delta.  Sr. Majella worked with him to highlight the issues and to raise funds for the relief effort when Ogoni villages were destroyed in September 1993. In May 1994, Saro-Wiwa and other members of MOSOP were arrested. The 28 letters from this time until his death were written in military detention.

MOSOP flag and cap, (c) Maynooth University Library

In August 1994, Sr. Majella returned to Ireland, having decided not to renew her contract at the University of Lagos. The conversations that had begun in the Lagos office continued on paper. She campaigned, with others, to save the lives of the Ogoni Nine. Sadly, this was unsuccessful and Saro-Wiwa was executed, with his eight colleagues, on the 10th of November, 1995. She received his final letter, hand delivered by his son, after his death.

Ken Saro-Wiwa is considered to be one of the great environmental activists of the late 20th century and his letters reflect his passion for peace and justice. In gifting these letters to Maynooth University, Sister Majella is ensuring the Ogoni story will continue to be told in many different contexts. A travelling exhibition has been developed from the archive and this has been exhibited at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut and in public libraries across Ireland.

A number of articles have been published on the collection and the issues embodied therein.  Both Silence Would Be Treason: Last Writings of Ken Saro-Wiwa (edited by Íde Corley, Helen Fallon and Laurence Cox, and published by Daraja Press), and I am a man of Peace: Writings Inspired by the Maynooth University Ken Saro-Wiwa Collection (edited by Helen Fallon, and published by Daraja Press) are available on open access.

Queries on the Ken Saro-Wiwa Archive should be sent to Special Collections and Archives at: library.specialcollections@mu.ie