Visit the Oldest Libraries in Dublin

From Bram Stoker to James Joyce, Ireland is famous for giving the world some of its most revered authors. And for those fascinated by Ireland’s literary heritage or just in love with books and old buildings, the old libraries in Dublin shouldn’t be missed.

Full of stories and anecdotes waiting to be uncovered, their architecture and interiors often unexpected and sometimes even astonishing, Dublin’s old libraries are a fun way to explore the city. The weather being famously unpredictable in Ireland, they are also a great pick to keep your visit going and stay dry!

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The National Library of Ireland

The old library’s front facade, with its round shape and neat colonnade, is certainly eye-catching. Located in a gorgeous neoclassical building dating back to the late 19th century, the National Library of Ireland is mirrored by the Museum of Archaeology on Kildare Street.

Queen Victoria’s statue used to stand in the middle of a now-forgotten garden that was located right between these two buildings. The creation of the Irish Free State in 1922 meant her time was up, and she had to pack her bags. Who knows where the poor woman was sent.

The building opened in 1890 as a free library accessible to anyone, man or woman, Protestant or Catholic. The interior of the library was designed to inspire anyone to create great things thanks to a wealth of freely accessible knowledge. More than inspired, I felt intimidated during my visit there…

Inside the main reception hall, twelve literary masters are pictured in vibrant stained-glass windows. Shakespeare is among them, as well as the only Frenchman of the gang: Corneille. I sensed a tickling sensation of national pride during the guided tour.

National Library of Ireland, Dublin

As you climb the stone staircase to the reading room, more stained-glass windows appear in front of you. One of the biggest brains of all time, Leonardo da Vinci himself, is dressed in glorious colours.

Reaching the Reading Room, attention is instantly drawn to a pastel green dome whose height takes every visitor by surprise. The same century-old furniture, even though now fitted with electric lamps and sockets, is still in use. My eyes drifted over the circular wall covered entirely with dictionaries and diverse encyclopedias.

Reading Room, National Library of Ireland, Dublin

These are not all the books that the library possessed, of course. Miles of bookshelves are hidden away from the public eye. The old library became a repository in 1927, and therefore books couldn’t and cannot be taken out. Today the library is also famous for its great collection of Irish manuscripts, periodicals, and photographs that can be consulted for free.

The National Library of Ireland is a working public library; therefore, tours are only available at the weekend when the place is free from its members. Visit the library’s event page for the next scheduled tour. No booking is required. Just show up on time! The visit is about 40 minutes long, and it’s free of charge, a good reason to go and check it out!

National Library of Ireland // 2/3 Kildare Street, Dublin // Free.

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The Marsh’s Library

I had never heard about the Marsh’s Library before writing this post, and it is literally hiding, a discreet building almost out of sight. If it had not been for the modest sign on the sidewalk, passing through its black wrought-iron gate would have felt like trespassing.

Gate of the Marsh Library, the oldest library in Dublin

You will find the Marsh’s Library down St Patrick’s Close, a surprisingly quiet alley considering that the popular St Patrick’s Cathedral is just around the corner. It almost feels like all the visitors are lured into the famous cathedral, while the little library is left unnoticed by everyone but those actually searching for it. Myself, I snubbed the revered cathedral and walked confidently towards the library, knowing that something unexpected was close at hand.

Past a few stairs, you will find yourself standing in front of a modest red-brick house. Once through the front door, pose for a moment to admire Archbishop Narcissus Marsh’s portrait, the founder of the library, guarding the entrance. Meeting his stare, I was secretly expecting something to happen. And… nothing. I guessed I was allowed in.

The Marsh's Library, Dublin

The library seems to have very few visitors. A staff member agreed to give me a short tour. I learned that the Marsh’s Library was a 300-year-old public library, the first to open in Ireland and the oldest library in Dublin. Its interior has remained largely unchanged since its opening in 1707. Sitting on their original dark Irish oak bookshelves, 25,000 rare books from the 16th to the 18th century have been kept in the same position for the last three centuries.

Shaped as an “L”, the old library is made of two galleries. The First Gallery housed 10,000 books bought by Archbishop Marsh. The Second Gallery contains more books which belonged to the same Archbishop! He wasn’t a hoarder, as I soon learned, but an accomplished linguist. He owned books in Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Syriac, and Coptic. The collection was enriched with the personal library of the Bishop of Clogher and books donated by Élie Bouhéreau, the first librarian of the Marsh’s Library and a prestigious member of the Huguenot community in Dublin.

At the end of the Second Gallery, a very curious sight: cages possibly dating from the late 18th century. People were locked up behind a metal fence when consulting smaller books to avoid thefts. This was how you enjoyed a good book back then!

Joining the two galleries together is the Old Reading Room where Bram Stoker and James Joyce themselves sat! I suddenly felt a lame but irresistible urge to crawl into their chairs. Maybe I could have absorbed some particles of their lingering genius. In this very area is a window through which a stray bullet shot through and found its way into a thick book during the 1916 Easter Rebellion. Like everything else in the library, the book has not moved since, and the bullet hole is still visible.

The Marsh's Library in Dublin, Ireland

The library offers short tours for a few euros during which you will hear more creepy stories about the Archbishop’s ghost forever searching for a note left by his niece or about an unidentified mummy found in a closet. Due to the books’ old age, no touching or photos allowed! The Marsh’s Library is no doubt astonishing, one of Dublin’s best-hidden gems.

The Marsh’s Library // St Patrick’s Close, Dublin // Small entrance fee.

The Chester Beatty Library

I won’t deny it; this one is confusing. Called a “library”, the Chester Beatty Library is, in fact, a museum. One of the finest museums of books in the world and probably one of the best museums in Dublin.

Finding the Chester Beatty Library is a bit of a treasure hunt. The trail starts outside the gates of Dublin Castle with a sign pointing towards the Castle’s courtyard. More signs bring you to the back of the Chapel Royal. The wall on your left suddenly opens onto a landscaped garden at the back of the Castle. And there the library stands, at the end of the garden.

In a remodelled 18th-century building, two galleries located on two floors are filled with the most beautifully crafted books I have ever seen. Cameras are not allowed in this holy sanctuary of the most richly-illustrated books you would ever have the chance to contemplate.

Chester Beatty Library, Dublin

In the first gallery dedicated to the Art of the Book, my eyes were drawn towards the bright colours of 16th-18th Japanese painted manuscripts depicting popular fairy tales, folk tales, and religious legends. Even more attention-grabbing Qur’an manuscripts from 18th-century Turkey, richly decorated in baroque and rococo styles, are covered in gold.

On the second floor dedicated to the Sacred Traditions, you can gaze at a 12th-century Bible in Latin, where eight biblical scenes were painstakingly incorporated into a historiated initial. Tiny Adam and Eve in the nude can be seen eating the Forbidden Fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Also on display are extremely rare early Christian biblical papyri from the 2nd-3rd centuries written in Greek, then the lingua franca of the Roman Empire. They were found in Egypt and only fragments remained.

We have to thank Alfred Chester Beatty for this not-to-be-missed, world-class museum. Born in New York, he made a fortune in the mining industry before retiring in Dublin. A great collector of manuscripts, he had a keen eye for richly-illustrated material, fine bindings, and beautiful calligraphy.

Upon his death, his collection was bequeathed to a trust for the benefit of the public. Free of charge, it would be a shame to miss out on such an opportunity to see a unique collection in one of the best free museums in Dublin.

The Chester Beatty Library // Dublin Castle, Dublin // Free.

Trinity College Old Library

This is my last stop in my tour of Dublin’s oldest libraries, and certainly the one which captured my imagination the most, and a must-see for anyone visiting Dublin for the first time. Founded in 1592, Trinity College is the oldest university in Ireland. Built between 1712 and 1732 the Old Library is the University’s earliest surviving building. 

With the excitement building up, I booked a tour of Trinity College Old Library. It was just 10 am when I walked through the campus’s main gate, but its popularity was such that already a small queue was forming outside the historic building.

Trinity College Old Library, Dublin

The ground floor was redesigned to make room for a permanent exhibition dedicated to the Book of Kells while the Long Room, the main chamber of the Old Library, occupied the second floor. 

I have always found old manuscripts fascinating, and the Book of Kells exhibition didn’t disappoint me. They are windows to the past that have moved from hand to hand, century after century, to finally end up in front of you to deliver their own testimony.

Dating from the 9th century AD, the Book of Kells has been described as one of the most richly-illuminated manuscripts of the four Gospels. I was taken aback by its flamboyant golden, red, blue and green illuminations with interlocking Celtic spirals, abstract patterns and numerous, sometimes tiny, details.

The Book of Kells survived the successive plunders of the Abbey of Kells, from where it is first known, even spending three months hidden in the ground, sadly not without a few scratches. 

After the exhibition, you are free to head to the Long Room where more amazement awaits. As you walk through its wooden doors, the sheer dimension of the gallery can be overwhelming. Indeed, you are left to contemplate a 65 metres long gallery housing about 200,000 of the library’s oldest books under a jaw-dropping barrel-vaulted ceiling. I was gobsmacked, standing there with eyes as big as a lemur, trying to take in as much as I could.

Placed along the gallery, 14 marble busts remind the visitors of a Greek temple and its deities. The gods here are called Socrates, Plato, Isaac Newton, William Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift or Francis Bacon.

In the middle of the room can be seen the oldest harp to survive from Ireland. Probably dating from the 15th century, the harp, symbol of Irish early bardic society, is made of oak and willow. This is the one that ended up on the Irish coins.

I had to make a conscious effort to leave the Long Room. I had been walking up and down the gallery for so long that I might have seemed suspicious to the security guards. I simply couldn’t take my eyes off the wooden ceiling and the gallery bookcases, which unfortunately were not accessible. I was in a different time period, in a different world.

Trinity College Old Library // College Green, Dublin // Book your ticket here.

These old libraries in Dublin are remarkable places to visit for anyone with an interest in literature, history, and art. I was blown away by what I discovered hiding behind sometimes modest walls. Looking for more great things to do in the Irish capital? Check out my Dublin city guide for a local’s best activities and sites to explore.

Disclaimer: This post may contain affiliate links. If you click on a link, I earn a little money at no extra cost to you.


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