Follow my footsteps into the oldest library in Dublin, where Bram Stoker studied, James Joyce researched, and Jonathan Swift scribbled graffiti into text books. Amid the polished wood and ancient pages, you'll find even more secrets about Dublin, Ireland.
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.
The Oldest Library in Dublin
Marsh’s Library lives in the heart of Dublin right next to St Patrick's cathedral in the city centre. It admits the public for a fee, with supervision, or throws 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.
Many a literary giant used to study here, with recorded visits from Bram Stoker, James Joyce and Jonathan Swift.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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 island I'm standing on.
At peace now – to a cautious extent – memories of the violence never seem far away in Dublin.
And Marsh’s Library shows by far the most subtle example of this...
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 the psyche, words are torn and spread apart.
Fighting Over a Small Island
The bullet itself comes, of course, 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.
“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.”
From War to Travel in Dublin's Oldest Library
But the past isn't always painful.
Medieval parchments tell tales of travel, of exploration and of friendship between foreigners.
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."
The oldest postcard in the world inside the oldest library in Dublin.
It's a fitting place to end a visit.
How to Visit the Oldest Library in Dublin
Marsh's Library contains over 25 000 books and 300 manuscripts in towering oak shelves. You need to visit with a guide since oil from human hands can damage some of the ancient tomes. Plus, it's also more fun to hear the real stories behind these dusty, smoky corners.
For a little background, the library is named after Archibishop Narcissus Marsh, the 18th century founder. When its doors opened in 1707, Marsh's Library was the first public library in Ireland.
The First Public Library in Ireland
The atmospheric design comes thanks to Sir William Robinson, the then General Surveyor of Ireland. It includes teetering shelves and quiet reading rooms, a space for Irish authors to thrive.
It's much smaller than the library at Trinity College Dublin, but I think that's part of the reason why I like it so much. Away from the university and tourist crowds, you'll find a place to pause, reflect, imagine.
Plus, who can resist an old library?