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

Document of the Day – Using an Archive to Communicate a Human Rights message: the Maynooth University Ken Saro-Wiwa Collection

By Helen Fallon, Deputy University Librarian, Maynooth University Library

In 2011, Sister Majella McCarron (OLA) donated the death row correspondence she received from Nigerian writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa to Maynooth University Library. Saro-Wiwa was executed, with eight colleagues (The Ogoni 9) in November 1995. Twenty-five years later, the book A Man of Peace: Writings Inspired by the Maynooth University Ken Saro-Wiwa Collection, published by Daraja Press and edited by Helen Fallon, Deputy Librarian, will be launched by Dr Gemma Irvine, Vice-President, Equality & Diversity, Maynooth University on 10th December, International Human Rights Day.

Cover of the new publication

The twenty-one essays and forty-two poems by people from different parts of the globe, relate to human rights, environmental protection, climate justice, equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) and the role of the Library in preserving and promoting the Ken Saro-Wiwa and other Special Collections. There are contributions from those closely connected to Saro-Wiwa. His daughter, the renowned travel writer Noo Saro-Wiwa, shares her story of growing up in England with strong links to family in Nigeria, and the trauma of hearing of her father’s execution while at University. His brother Dr Owens Wiwa recounts how his older brother awakened and nurtured his awareness of the tremendous damage being wrought by Royal Dutch Shell to their homeland, in collaboration with the then Nigerian military dictatorship.   Sister Majella McCarron (OLA) reflects on the events that shaped her work with Saro-Wiwa in Nigeria and her subsequent efforts to save the lives of the Ogoni 9 and her more recent work on the Shell to Sea and other campaigns in Ireland.

Noo Saro-Wiwa with archivist Ciara Joyce in MU Library

Other essays explore topics such as the environmental destruction that Shell has caused in the Niger Delta, land rights in the global south, redress for communities adversely effected by Shell and other multinationals, climate justice, and various historic and current aspects of the Ogoni struggle. Library-related topics include open access, the cataloguing, digitisation, and subsequent use of the archive to support teaching and research, and the broader, often complex, issues of collection development.

The final essays, while inspired by Saro-Wiwa’s quest for equality and justice, reflect on aspects of an increasingly diverse Irish society. They include an exploration of relationships that exist amidst the intersections of race, gender and institutional positions, diversity training for library staff at MU, and the designation of MU as a University of Sanctuary.

Selection of documents from the Ken Saro-Wiwa Archive

The second section of the book contains poems by both established and new poets. The poems are preceded with a contextual essay by Irish poet and creative writing teacher Jessica Traynor, who has worked with the Library on delivering poetry workshops for schoolchildren and adults, both face-to-face and, more recently via Zoom. While the workshops grew from human rights violations in Nigeria, they sought to inspire people to write about their own life experiences. Read more on the poetry competition.

The concluding essay is by David Rinehart, who has worked with migrant aid and solidarity organisations for many years. He reflects on the poems in the collections for both their intrinsic beauty and as a tool for looking both inward and outward in order to better understand different ways of being, and the effect of our actions as a global community on the people we share this planet with.

Maynooth University has a long involvement with issues of inclusion and justice in Ireland and abroad.  This deep-rooted commitment is articulated in our University Strategic Plan 2018-2022, where a strategic goal is ‘to build on our achievements to date and become a model University for equality, diversity, inclusion and inter-culturalism, where social justice, addressing inequality and empowering people are central to our mission.’

The death-row correspondence of Ken Saro-Wiwa has been the catalyst for this collection, which I hope, will inspire archivists, librarians and concerned citizens to continue to use our archives to promote debate, dialogue and publications on the topic of justice and equality.

Learn more about the Ken Saro-Wiwa Collection.