Although I had passed by it many, many times over the years I had yet to open the door and step inside. Marsh’s Library (beside St Patrick’s Cathedral) is one of those places that is little known, but has a lot to offer.
It was commissioned by the wonderfully named Narcissus Marsh and opened its doors in 1707. It is one of the few early 18thcentury (Enlightenment) buildings in the city still being used for its original purpose. Considering the changes that have occurred in the last three centuries, it is a testament to the building and to what it offers that have helped it survive.
Open the door and you step back in time. The stillness and quiet rule here, and the tall dark oak shelves are crammed with books that were old when Marsh got permission to build Ireland’s first public library.
It is laid out in two galleries (First & Second) joined by a reading room in an ‘L’ shape. It is interesting to think that most of the books are resting the same places that Marsh chose. At the end of the Second Gallery are the ‘Cages’. These were to prevent theft of the smaller books which would have been expensive, and very difficult, to acquire. And here you can test your Quill Power by writing in the old style – very interesting.
Some of Dublin’s greatest writers spent time here, researching and enjoying books that were unavailable elsewhere in the city. It is thought very likely that Jonathan Swift’s most famous work Gulliver’s Travels owes a lot to books on Formosa and Japan – published in the early 1700s. James Joyce and Bram Stoker also visited, and the place features in Joyce’s Ulysses.
Of a more contemporary note there are bullet marks in the shelves and books, leftovers from the Easter Rising. They, thankfully, are the only scars it bears from the conflict and show that even somewhere like the old library was not safe. The place, however, is, as someone wrote ‘living history’ and long may it continue to enthral and excite booklovers.