Ireland is often described as an island of storytellers; its boggy marshlands, steep sea cliffs, vibrant villages and hours passing by holding a pint offer and endless source for anyone for a lookout for a story. Apart from the inspiring landscape, Dublin is named as a City of Literature by UNESCO and, quite fittingly, one of Dublin’s most visited tourist attractions is a library and an ancient book – that is, The Long Room and The Book of Kells.
I have written about Long Room before, so now it’s time to broaden our horizons and visit some of the island’s other libraries, each one as intriguing as the Long Room.
1 Marsh’s Library, Dublin
First, let’s stay in Dublin and visit Marsh’s Library, just around the corner of St Patrick’s Cathedral. Marsh’s Library was built by the provost of Trinity College, Narcissus Marsh in the beginning of the 18th century. The Library opened to public (more accurately to “all graduates and gentlemen”) in 1707, making it the oldest public library in Ireland. If you use the Hop-On-Hop-Off buses, they go right past Marsh’s Library, and I suggest that you hop off here! The entrance looks like out from Harry Potter and when you step inside, it feels like stepping into one of Hogwarts’s smallest reading rooms. When the library was opened, the books were so valuable that there were times when you could only read them in a small cage! Nevertheless, the sneaky dean, Jonathan Swift, from the St Patrick’s Cathedral next door managed to make his personal notes on some pages. Also, James Joyce and Charles Maturin were regular visitors to Marsh’s Library.
Tip: If you walk along the Patrick Street a few minutes, you’ll find a perfect Dublin café for either a wholesome lunch or just a quick pick me up: Fumablly Café.
The other two booky samples come from Northern Ireland, but it’s ok, you can drive to both of them from Dublin in less than two hours.
2 Armagh Public Library
Let us first pop into a charming town of Armagh and here ring the doorbell (l literally had to do this!) to get into Armagh Public Library. This Library, from 1771 is Northern Ireland’s oldest public library. Above the door there’s a Greek inscription stating: “The Medicine Shop for the Soul” and inside, you smell the sweet scent of old paper and books and are overtaken by a wish to linger – lucky are the people who work here! The library has, for example, a first edition of The Gullivers Travels with Jonathan Swift’s own notes in it. A bit of drama: the book was stolen in 1999 but was recovered in 2001.
Tip: After visiting the Library, and a quick peek at the Saint Patrick’s Church of Ireland, have a bite at 4vicars at Vicar’s Hill. Both are just around the corner from the library.
3 The Linen Hall Library, Belfast
The Linen Hall Library, being the oldest library in Belfast, was founded in 1788 by the ‘worthy plebeians’ of Belfast. The second Librarian was one Thomas Russell, who was heavily involved in the day’s radical activities in the ranks of the United Irishmen: he was arrested in the library premises in 1796 and later executed.
During the times of insecurity amidst political upheaval, the library declared that although it purchased books on political and theological subjects, it was forbidden to discuss them in the library’s societies. In 1802 the library got premises below the clock tower of the White Linen Hall (hence the name!) on the site of the present-day City Hall. Much of the 19th century was a bit of a struggle for the library, but by the end of the century Belfast had started to prosper: in the 1890s the library moved into its current premises to make way for the construction of the new, grand City Hall.
Appropriately enough, these new premises were an old linen warehouse. Now, the Linen Hall Library has a worldwide recognised Northern Ireland Political Collection and a charmingly old-fashioned feel to it: as you step inside, there is a small “tourist shop” welcoming you, and, should you visit around lunch time, a homey smell of soup lingers in the air, as the library’s little café gets ready to welcome its customers.
Tip: A 10 minute walk away, on the other side of the Old Town area, you’ll find the best coffee in Belfast, in the Established Coffee.