Best Things to Do in Dublin: Visit The City’s Most Beautiful Libraries
Libraries are not just stern places where loud conversations - even accidentally - are greeted with cut-throat looks from the opposite side of the reading table. Libraries are full of stories and anecdotes waiting to be uncovered. Their architecture and interiors are often unexpected and sometimes even astonishing. That’s why libraries are always among my top things to see when I visit a new city.
Libraries are mystical places that have inspired stories for the big screen. They are a dark and forbidden labyrinth in a 14th century Italian abbey whose secrets Sean Connery feverishly explored in ‘The Name of the Rose.’ It is the tempting Hogwarts Library’s Restricted Section full of Dark Magic whose access is only barred to Harry Potter by a thin rope.
The weather being famously unpredictable in Dublin, they are also a great pick to keep your visit going and stay dry! For budget-minded visitors, access to libraries are often (but not always) free of charge. While in Dublin, I researched some great libraries that would later give me chills.
#1 | Admire The Great Classicism Of The National Library of Ireland
The Library’s front facade with its round shape and neat colonnade was certainly eye-catching. Located in a gorgeous neo-classical building dating back to the late 19th century, the National Library of Ireland was mirrored by the Museum of Archeology on Kildare Street.
Queen Victoria’s statue used to stand in the middle of a now forgotten garden that used to be 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 to.
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 the a wealth of knowledge freely accessible. More than inspired, I felt intimidated...
Inside the main reception hall, twelve literary masters in vibrant stained-glass windows had me cornered under their gaze. Shakespeare was among them as well as the only Frenchman of the gang: Corneille. I sensed a tickling sensation of national pride. Still, there was no way to hide from their stares exacerbated by the afternoon light piercing through the windows.
Climbing the stone staircase to the reading room, more stained-glass windows stood in my way. Like the final touch to my crumbling self-confidence, one of the biggest brainiacs of all time, Leonardo da Vinci himself dressed in glorious colours was also reminding me of my poor academic achievements.
Just a few more stairs lay ahead before I reached the reading room. Forgetting my wounded ego, my attention was drawn to a pastel green dome whose height took me by surprise. The same century-old furniture even though now fitted with electric lamps and sockets was still in use. My eyes were drifting over the circular wall covered entirely with dictionaries and diverse encyclopedias.
These were not all the books that the Library possessed of course. Miles of bookshelves were hidden away from the public eye. The National Library of Ireland 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. 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
#2 | Pop In To The Marsh’s Library, Dublin’s Oldest Library & Hidden Gem
I had never heard about it before so I had to thank Google for that one. The Marsh’s Library was hiding. If it had not been for the modest sign on the sidewalk, passing through its black wrought iron gate would have felt like trespassing.
I found the Marsh’s Library down St Patrick’s Close, a surprisingly quiet alley considering that the popular St Patrick’s Cathedral was just around the corner. It seemed that all the visitors were lured into the famous cathedral while the little library was left unnoticed by everyone but me. I snubbed the revered cathedral and walked confidently towards the Library knowing that something unexpected was close at hand.
Past a few stairs, I found myself standing in front of a modest red brick house. The front door was open.
The silence was intimidating. “Anyone in there?” I was tempted to shout.
Once I had crept inside, I posed 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.
On the first-floor landing, things got a little awkward. I was met with wooden doors that were large, silent and very much closed.
Is there a bell I should ring?” I thought.
No bell in sight.
“Or maybe knock? Never thought about knocking at a library’s door before…”
Puzzled and embarrassed I was about to retreat outside when the doors opened like the Red Sea before Moses. I sighed relief.
The Library seemed to have no other visitor. A staff member agreed to give me a short tour. I learnt that the Marsh’s Library was a 300 year old public library, the first to open in Ireland. Its interior had 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 had been kept in the same position for the last three centuries.
Shaped as a “L”, the Library was made of two galleries. The First Gallery housed 10,000 books bought by Archbishop Marsh. The Second Gallery contained more books which had 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, which sounded all very cryptic to me. The collection was enriched with the personal library of the Bishop of Clogher.
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 was the Old Reading Room where Bram Stoker and James Joyce themselves had sat! I suddenly felt a lame but irresistible envy to crawl into their chairs. Maybe I could have absorbed some particles of their lingering genius. In this very area was 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 had not moved since and the bullet hole was still visible.
The Library offers short tours for a meagre €3 during which you will hear more creepy stories about the Archbishop’s ghost for ever searching 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
St Patrick's Close, Dublin
#3 | Don’t Miss Out On The World Renowned Chester Beatty Library
I won’t deny it, this one is confusing. Called a “library”, the Chester Beatty Library is in fact a museum. A museum of books and one of the finest in the world and probably the best museum in Dublin.
Finding the Chester Beatty Library was a bit of a treasure hunt. The trail started outside the gates of Dublin Castle with a sign pointing towards the Castle’s courtyard. More signs brought me to the back of the Chapel Royal. The wall on my left suddenly opened onto a landscaped garden at the back of the Castle. And there the library stood, at the end of the garden.
In a remodelled 18th century building, two galleries located on two floors were filled with the most beautifully crafted books I had ever seen. Cameras were certainly not allowed in this holy sanctuary of the most richly-illustrated books you would ever have to chance to contemplate.
In the first gallery dedicated to the Art of the Book my eyes were drawn towards the bright colors 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 were covered in gold.
On the second floor dedicated to the Sacred Traditions, I lost track of time while gazing at a 12th century Bible in latin where eight biblical scenes had been painstakingly incorporated into a historiated initial. Tiny Adam and Eve in the nude could be seen eating the Forbidden Fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Also on display were extremely rare early Christian biblical papyri from the 2nd-3rd centuries written in Greek, then the lingua franca of the Roman Empire. They had been 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, that would be a shame to miss out on such an opportunity to see a unique collection!
Chester Beatty Library
Dublin Castle, Dublin
#4 | Discover The Unparalleled Trinity College Old Library
This was my last stop in my tour of Dublin’s finest libraries and certainly the one which captured my imagination the most. With the excitement building up I went to see Trinity College Old Library. 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.
It was just 10 am when I walked through Trinity College main gate but its popularity being such that already a small queue was forming outside the Old Library. The ground floor had been 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, sometime tiny, details. The Book of Kells had 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.
Now heading to the Long Room, more amazement was to come. I certainly wasn’t prepared for what I was about to see. Walking through its wooden doors the sheer dimension of the gallery was suddenly overwhelming. I was contemplating 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 I slowly walked past 14 marble busts that reminded me of a Greek temple and its deities. The gods here were called Socrates, Plato, Isaac Newton, William Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift or Francis Bacon.
In the middle of the room could be seen the oldest harp to survive from Ireland. Probably dating from the 15th century, the harp, symbol of Irish early bardic society, was made of oak and willow. This was 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 of the wooden ceiling and the gallery bookcases unfortunately not accessible. I was in a different time period, in a different world.
Trinity College Old Library
College Green, Dublin
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