In its libraries, Dublin’s literary reputation shines

John Baran / Alamy/ALAMY - Dublin National Library

We Dubliners take a lot of pride in our city’s reputation as a literary capital (not least because it lends our loquaciousness a certain gravitas, as if every quip were something more exalted than mere banter). Walk into any genuine pub in town, and you’re bound to see that famous poster of Irish literary heroes on the wall. It’s not idle boastfulness: Dublin can claim four Nobel laureates — George Bernard Shaw, W.B. Yeats, Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney. Moreover, the names Oscar Wilde, Brendan Behan, Flann O’Brien and of course James Joyce are synonymous with the town.

So when literary-minded visitors to the Irish capital inquire about suitably bookish activities, there’s plenty to point them toward: literary walking tours, regular poetry and storytelling events, numerous literary festivals and a writers’ museum.

Libraries of Dublin


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A literary tour of Dublin's famed libraries.

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But for me, Dublin’s long and storied relationship with the book — formally recognized last year when the city was named a UNESCO City of Literature — is most clearly defined by a group of libraries dotted around the city center. It’s in these remarkable buildings, with their miles of shelves and dusty volumes and vast catalogues and air of concentration, that Dublin most shines as a mecca of the written word.

By far the most famous library in the country is the Old Library in Trinity College, with its stunning Long Room. I moved to Dublin in the late 1990s to attend Trinity, a school with a magical campus located smack bang in the middle of the city, full of beautiful old buildings and grand squares, insulated from the traffic that grinds around its walls.

But the Old Library always stood apart: While we bustled in and out of the surrounding buildings, going to lectures, to lunch or back to bed, the Old Library seemed to be chiefly the domain of tourists, lining up to see the treasures inside. It wasn’t until late in my first year that I entered the famous building, and after that my perception of it changed radically. Far from being a mere museum, aloof from the college life around it, it’s the spiritual heart of the place.

The Old Library was built over a span of 20 years in the early 18th century, and the ground floor houses the Book of Kells, the four-volume illuminated Gospel that has been called Ireland’s equivalent of the Sistine Chapel. Dating from around the year 800, it’s the most treasured object in the country. Only two volumes are on display at any time, and there’s often a throng of tourists jostling for a glance through the thick glass, but it’s a thrill to make out the raised, 1,200-year-old ink on the vellum, each stroke applied with painstaking precision by Celtic monks.

Ascending the staircase to the Long Room requires an adjustment in scale, from the detail of the book to the huge space of the library in a few dozen steps. The Long Room is a breathtaking chamber, and entering it is like stepping into a vast cathedral for the worship of the printed word, with row upon row of book-filled alcoves stretching more than 200 feet before you and high up to the spectacular vaulted ceiling. Along each side stands a row of marble busts of great writers, starting with Shakespeare on one side and Homer on the other.

The sight of book after book on shelf after shelf in alcove after alcove has a powerfully repetitive effect, giving the faint impression of a hall of mirrors. I remember wondering, the first time I entered it, how such grandeur could sit alongside the humdrum lecture building across Fellows Square where my college life played out. It wasn’t until my final year that I got to use the Old Library for some research; a course on the history of the book led me to the Early Printed Books room, on the top floor. Laying the old tomes on foam rests, leafing through fragile pages that had been read by countless students and scholars before me — in those moments, the Old Library seemed very much a living part of the college, and a special place indeed.

After the Book of Kells, the next most celebrated book in Dublin is Joyce’s “Ulysses.” As it happens, the two main protagonists meet for the first time in the National Library on Kildare Street, where Leopold Bloom passes Stephen Dedalus at the end of the Scylla and Charybdis episode. So it’s fitting that the National Library should possess the first copy of the book, which Joyce gave to his patron, Harriet Shaw Weaver.

The great book is only occasionally on display, but it’s worth following Dedalus’s and Bloom’s footsteps to the august National Library anytime. Opened in 1890, it’s an exquisite piece of Victoriana: The light-filled, domed reading room is a sort of pantheon for book lovers, with winged cupids looking down on the orderly array of desks, and sky blue and white walls curving upward.

There are regular tours of the building, but don’t miss the Yeats exhibit downstairs: Nothing will give you a feeling for Ireland’s greatest poet quite like this showcase of his manuscripts and materials, the largest such collection in the world.

When I was in school, we had to learn some of Yeats’s poetry by rote, a process that reliably drained the work of any emotion or vitality. As a result, for many Irish people, Yeats exists as a worthy but uninspiring figure. This exhibition manages to undo all that damage, bringing color to the great man’s life and illuminating his words.

Here you can see Yeats’s typed and annotated draft of “Sailing to Byzantium”; a handwritten manuscript of “The Second Coming”; a well-worn copy of “Walden”; his Nobel medal and the top hat he wore to the ceremony; even his last pair of spectacles, the left lens famously darkened. A number of documentaries examining different aspects of his life play on screens in various corners, and interactive displays offer an exhaustive guide to all the paraphernalia on exhibit. Perhaps the most evocative touch is the recording you can hear throughout the exhibition, Yeats reciting his most famous work, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” in stentorian tones.

While the Long Room and the National Library trade in period grandeur and impressive scale, a far more intimate and discreet cousin predates them both. This is the cozy Marsh’s Library , hidden on a quiet street behind St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Stepping across its threshold for the first time only recently, I had the distinct sensation of traveling back in time. Built in 1701 by the brilliantly named Narcissus Marsh, then the Protestant Church of Ireland’s archbishop of Dublin, it was the first public library in the country and remains essentially unchanged, as if preserved in a scholarly aspic.

Marsh had a famously fractious relationship with Jonathan Swift, the dean of St. Patrick’s, who often cruelly caricatured the archbishop in his writing: An example is on display in the library, which might seem unfair to Marsh if Swift weren’t so amusing a writer.

Marsh’s Library is also the location of one of Dublin’s most illustrious hauntings. The story goes that the archbishop’s ghost still resides here, fruitlessly searching for a note left by his niece before she eloped. Marsh is buried just beyond the library walls, on the grounds of St. Patrick’s.

Compared with the Long Room, Marsh’s is a modest structure, an L-shaped reading room with oak bookcases along opposite walls. There are three “caged” alcoves, where the rare books were kept; scholars used to be locked in with the volumes, then searched as they left, a bibliocentric forebear of airport security.

The collection comprises 25,000 volumes, with many focusing on theology and religious matters. But the rotating exhibitions of material show that there are also many volumes of medicine, law, science, literature and more. What’s most amazing is that most of the volumes reside on exactly the same shelves where they’ve sat for as long as 300 years.

Marsh’s Library is an example of the Protestant Church of Ireland’s rich legacy in the city, but Dublin’s most overtly religious library — the Chester Beatty Library , tucked away inside Dublin Castle — isn’t the product of a bishop or religious order at all.

Alfred Chester Beatty was an American mining magnate who in 1950 bequeathed to the Irish state his extraordinary collection of Oriental and Christian religious manuscripts, books, paintings, drawings and rare art from Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and Europe, a munificent gesture that earned him a rare state funeral in 1968.

It’s a functioning library for scholars, but the chief attraction is the portion of the Beatty collection in the library’s main gallery. This rich assembly of historical artifacts includes objects as rare as a 3rd-century Gospel According to Mark; a papyrus codex of the Pauline Epistles from around 180 to 200, the earliest book of Saint Paul’s letters in existence; and one of the few surviving volumes of the first illustrated Life of the Prophet Muhammad from the 16th century.

In the dim space, a film about global religious practices emits a faint drone of worship, adding to the reverent ambience. It’s little wonder that the place inspires such fervent loyalty among its fans: Ireland is determinedly post-Catholic now, indeed post-religious in many ways, but the Chester Beatty succeeds because of its pan-religious nature. Like many of my generation, I’m skeptical of organized religion, but the Chester Beatty is my favorite museum in Dublin precisely because these artifacts, when placed in the context of a library, offer a powerful perspective on faith and culture.

After a day of bibliophilic wanderings, if you’re looking for someplace to relax, head for the Library Bar above the Central Hotel. Despite the name, this book-lined bar, with its inviting armchairs and couches, is most conducive to a good conversation. I’ve lost many evenings to engrossing discussions here, as darkness draws in and time loses its hold. I can attest that the Guinness is the best in the city, but the elegant surroundings make this just as much a gin-and-tonic kind of place, and a good spot to raise a toast to Dublin’s writers and wordsmiths. After all, the city’s literary heritage may be best explored on the page and in its libraries, but it’s probably best discussed over a drink.

O’Dwyer is a writer with the Irish Times in Dublin.

 
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