Linen Hall Library celebrates its 225th anniversary

Library played an important role in Belfast and Irish history

The Linenhall Library in Belfast  celebrated its 225th birthday on Monday. Pictured are  Julie Andrews, Linen Hall Library Director, and Deputy Director Patricia Saunders. Photograph: Arthur Allison

The Linenhall Library in Belfast celebrated its 225th birthday on Monday. Pictured are Julie Andrews, Linen Hall Library Director, and Deputy Director Patricia Saunders. Photograph: Arthur Allison

Tue, May 14, 2013, 01:00

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, who’ve engaged in a personal spat or two over recent months, could usefully take a trip up the stone steps of the Linen Hall Library in central Belfast to reacquaint themselves with the capricious nature of politics – and maybe to see a ghost of the past.

On the walls of the library - which is marking its 225th anniversary with a range of activities, including a gala celebration in the Ulster Hall last night – is a history of the Troubles in poster form. And some of those displays are very telling, poignant and occasionally chilling.

There’s one of a charred body of a man or woman with the caption “This is what the bombers did.” There’s an “Ulster Says No” to the Anglo-Irish Agreement and another urging people to “Vote Yes” to the Belfast Agreement.

And then there are two particular posters that might give the First Minister and Deputy First Minister pause. One unionist poster declares “Vote DUP – Smash Sinn Fein”, while a republican one asserts “Smash Stormont”.

For 225 years, the Linen Hall Library has played an important part in Belfast history. It’s the oldest library in the city and the last subscribing library in Ireland and is probably best regarded for its Irish and local studies collection.

Its current and 21st librarian, John Killen, says its longevity is in no small measure due to its longstanding ability to manage Belfast’s and Northern Ireland’s competing constitutional tensions, while still maintaining a radical, dissenting edge associated with the Presbyterianism of many of the 1798 Ulster United Irelanders.

One of those United Irishmen was its second librarian, Thomas Russell, “the man from God knows where”, who was hanged after throwing in his lot with Robert Emmett in 1803. Its first librarian when it was founded in the time of the Enlightenment in 1788 was Robert Carey, a housepainter by trade. The library met first in local taverns but the view was that such places were not conducive to learning, and it moved a number of times before ending up for 90 years on the site of the old city hall, then moving in 1892 to its current premises.

Killen, who has worked in the library since 1977, is a 59-year-old native of Loughinisland who received his second-level education in Downpatrick – two Co Down towns very much associated with Corkman Thomas Russell when he landed up in Ulster. Which explains why Killen can so readily rhyme off the words of The Man From God Knows Where , written in the late 19th century by Florence Mary Wilson.

The library’s president at the time was the Rev William Bruce, who was part of the militia that opposed the uprising. “That association saved the library in the aftermath of the ’98 rebellion,” says Killen.

And he hasn’t gone away you know. “I met a lady on the stairs 25 years ago,” Killen adds. “She stopped me and said, ‘John, I was looking through that door and saw a man dressed in period garb, 18th or 19th century, looking at the books, and when I glanced back he had just disappeared into the wall.’ It sounded very much like our portrait of Rev Bruce. I showed it to her and asked her, is that the man? ‘That’s very like him,’ she said.”

Paranormal Ulster came into the library in recent years to spend a night but Rev Bruce had other business at the time and didn’t show.

Maybe even Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness will pay it a visit to reflect on its history – and its posters – and how far Northern Ireland has moved forward in 225 years.