Marsh Library: The Best and Oldest Library in Dublin

By Abi King | Western Europe

Oct 08

Marsh's Library - an otherworldly place for book lovers from @insidetravellab

Marsh’s Library, Dublin

As a child, I dreamed one day of owning, or perhaps just prowling around, an overtowering library.

Shelves would reach beyond my eyes, with creaky ladders required to reach the top.

Sunlight would shimmer through dust and romance, and science and wild adventure would swim between the thick, creamy pages where black ink bled into soft and yellowed parchment.

Well, in 21st century Dublin I found the library of my dreams, flirting behind flighty leaves and wrought iron gates and a steep if unspectacular staircase.

 

Dublin’s Oldest Library

Marsh’s Library lives in the heart of Dublin, admitting the public for a fee with supervision or throwing open its doors for free for the excellent Open House Dublin event.

Founded in 1707, it’s Ireland’s oldest public library and it offers a flight through the history of reading and literature before the digital age.

 Literary Giants

Many a literary giant used to study here, with recorded visits from Bram Stoker, James Joyce and Jonathan Swift.

Read more about Unusual Things To Do in Dublin here.

Literary Giants in Marsh's Library from @insidetravellab

Joyce took memories of the library further, by furnishing his novels with the library reborn, while Jonathan Swift of Gulliver’s Travels and the former dean of St Patrick’s cathedral around the corner, took things a little further.

Swift's comments at Marsh's Library, Dublin @insidetravellab

In jagged inky letters bound tight with suppressed tension, he gives his views on the Scots in the margin of The History of the Great Rebellion. And let me tell you, dear readers, for a man of the cloth, he was unforgiving when it came to the betrayal of his beloved king.

Jonathan Swift writes at Marsh's Library @insidetravellab

Travel and Conflict in Dublin’s Best Library

Another quiet example of conflict comes in the form of delicate hand drawn maps from a time, and then a world, far away.

Visiting officials from Japan halted at the manuscript. Magnifying glasses unsheathed, backs bent and eyes squinted as the corps searched for a certain disputed island in the South China Sea.

Happily, this century old document seemed to back the claims of Japan and so a diplomatic incident was avoided.

Read about unusual things to do in Ireland (outside Dublin) here

Old Maps in Marsh's Library via @insidetravellab

Not so funny now…

It struck me, walking around and drinking in the history, how the prism of space and time distorted my interpretation of events. This map, drawn centuries ago, and this dispute, so far from home, seemed little more than a curiosity, an eccentric event that bordered on comic at the thought of grown men bickering back and forth about the fate of a tiny island.

Books relating to Ireland at Marsh's Library @insidetravellab

The Maps of Ireland in Marsh Library Dublin

Come forth to the here and now and ever forth to the ground I was standing on and it immediately became clear how unfunny such bickering can be.

Grown men – and women – have not laughed off such disputes when it comes to the islands between the Atlantic and France.

At peace now – to a cautious extent – memories of the violence never seems far away in Dublin.

And Marsh’s Library shows by far the most subtle example of this…

Line of damaged books at Marsh's Library

 

Memories of Violence

At first the row of books looks normal.

At second glance, the scuffing becomes clear, the ragged edged hole that signifies a bullet.

The keeper pulls the book from the shelf, creasing the spine to lay it open.

Inside the book, as in the body, and it would seem a people’s psyche, words are torn and spread apart.

Gunshot wounds in book in Marsh's Library from @insidetravellab untitled-62-3 untitled-63-3

 

Fighting Over a Small Island

The bullet itself comes, inevitably, from a clash over the ownership of Ireland.

Marsh’s Library itself was never under direct attack, making this destruction even more poignant.

Nothing stays safe during war, crossfire affects everyone.

To the keeper’s great credit, this book does not form the centrepiece of the visit.

“We use it to show children,” he says, “to let them know the real effects of bullets. And to show that there’s nothing cool about fighting. That the effects of these bullets are real.”

Skull at Marsh's Library via @insidetravellab

The skull is also for study…though not from the recent conflict

 

What now?

I’ve heard many theories both here and during my lifetime as a child on both sides of this painful chapter of history.

But Dublin looks forward now, as well as back, making a name for itself as a a cooler silicon valley with a backdrop of swirling Guinness and a reputation for having a good time.

Blue bus in Dublin @insidetravellab

Creative and daring youngsters return for the rise of the Celtic Tiger as the post recession years begin to ease.

Cool fashion houses, renovated marketplaces and even a big blue bus stick a shamrock in the eye of the Ireland world view spread by the success of Angela’s Ashes.

But back in Marsh’s Library, I’m glad to see that looking back isn’t always painful.

In two staid dimensions, medieval parchments tell tales of travel, of exploration and of friendship between foreigners.

In other words, the more usual sequence of events when humans travel.

Postcard of Venice in Marsh's Library @insidetravellab

Old Postcards

I recognise certain landmarks and catch the keeper’s eye.

“It’s Venice,” he tells me. “And this is one of the oldest postcards in the world.”

Marsh's Library Dublin - Book Lover's Treat

Disclosure – I travelled to Marsh Library Dublin as part of the Must Love Festivals project. As you can see here, not all festivals involve music and mud!

Would you like to visit Marsh Library Dublin?

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About the Author

Abigail King is an award-winning writer and author who swapped a successful career as a hospital doctor for a life on the road. With over 60 countries under her belt, she's worked for Lonely Planet, the BBC, National Geographic Traveller and more. She is passionate about sustainable tourism and was invited to speak on the subject at the EU-China High Level summit at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris.Here she writes about food, travel and history and she invites you to pull up a chair and relax. Let's travel more and think more. Welcome!

  • Claire Robinson says:

    I am such a big fan of your writing Abi; you always evoke the perfect picture of a place. I’m smitten with this description and now very keen to go.

    Claire :)

    • Abi says:

      Oh, thank you Claire. What a lovely thing to say! There were so many interesting aspects to this place it was tricky to know just where to start!

  • Maja says:

    That’s a great place!
    Ireland is still on my list :)

    • Abi says:

      Dublin’s great fun. For Guinness, sure, but plenty more besides.

  • Andy says:

    Wow – bulletproof books, ancient postcards, skulls for study and Guinness at the ready should you need a break. Sounds like quite the place for a visit! I’ll be that way this year, although with so much to take in I might have the Guinness first.

    • Abi says:

      Hehe. It’s hard to avoid the black stuff in this town…and you’ll find plenty of people to drink with you too!

  • rebecca says:

    WOW! What a place! without having read this article I would probably never have even knew it existed! the literature history in the UK is outstanding and something I wish I had of explored more

    • Abi King says:

      It IS an incredible place – and there is so much history there. On that note, while Dublin was ruled by Westminster during some of the texts quoted above, Dublin today is the capital of the Republic of Ireland and not part of the UK. Just in case you get talking to locals ;-)

  • Sophie says:

    Love libraries, especially ones with a history: the smell of dust, the creak of paper, all those ideas, thoughts and feelings written down through the centuries…

    I remember thinking the first time I saw the old library at Trinity how much I’d like to hide somewhere before they closed it off for a holiday, so I could have the place all to myself for days and nights. The books, the authors, their ideas… surely it must all come alive at night…

    • Abi King says:

      Oh wow – that would be a fantastic thing to do! Just closing my eyes and thinking about that now…

  • Kristin M says:

    Thanks for posting this! You have no idea how excited I am! Eek! I love reading and am obsessed with books. I’m moving to Ireland for 6+ months mid June to live and work at a hostel doing social media and digital marketing. This will definitely be on my must-see list!

  • John says:

    I was just in Dublin. I had been to the North to see my ailing first cousins the guest of my un ailing first cousin once removed. Brian is his name. If I had a daughter she would be his first cousin twice removed. Ah me all this removal business.
    No Dublin is reinventing itself as a modern city entering into the affairs of the planet. With success. In the EU.
    But if you want to know Dublin, do not read Angela’s Ashes, fine and noble an account of growing up in Limerick that it might be, and not that you said the Irish were doing anything with it other than experience pride at its success, but still; read At Swim Two Birds. You thought I was going to say Ulysses, didn’t you. I was, but both are good and Dublin. Baile a cliath.

    Very much enjoyed the piece and the writing. Most excellent.

    • Abi King says:

      I did think you were going to say Ulysees, yes :-) I will make a note of the other one too! Thanks for the recommendation (and encouragement!)

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