Marsh’s Library: The world-famous library in The Liberties of Dublin
Visit Ireland's first public library, Marsh's Library, situated in Dublin 8 and dating back to 1707, which has a collection of over 25,000 books and 300 manuscripts
Step back in time and explore Marsh’s Library this autumn. It is open Monday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm, and visitors can book a tour in advance or self-guide through the library.
If you are not paying attention it is very easy to walk past the entrance to Marsh’s Library. The narrow metal gate in a high stone wall leads into a place of quiet which is crammed full of rare and ancient books.
Marsh’s has remained unchanged since it first opened to the public more than three centuries ago.
A step back in time
“The library opened in 1707,” explains the library director, Dr Jason McElligott. “It was the first public library in Ireland.”
“When it was opened it had all the latest and best books as well as the classics. People could come in and read for free. We have been open ever since.”
Entering the building today feels like taking a step back in time to the Dublin of Jonathan Swift.
“It’s the only building in the city unchanged from that period that is still used for its original purpose,” Dr McElligott states. “In the library, nothing has changed, we still have the original bookshelves, we still have the original reading desks and all the books are in the same place as they were 300 years ago. It really is like going back into the past.”
Precious and rare books
The library is not only visually stunning (many visitors say it is like stepping into Hogwarts), it is also home to some extremely rare books.
The 25,000 books and manuscripts housed within its walls come from all over Europe, from Lisbon to Moscow and from Naples to Oslo.
The books were donated to the library in the early 18th century by important scholars so they are very rare and valuable. Many hundreds of them are the only surviving copies of the text in the world. That means a lot of scholars, readers and students come to the library to look at these items.
In fact, many of the books are so valuable that the library had to install cages to prevent theft.
“Even in the 18th century, the books in the library were rare and precious. Almost 10 per cent of the collection went missing in the first 60 years. So, they brought in cages. After 1767, if the librarians didn’t like the look of you or if you asked to see some very rare books, you couldn’t sit in the bays. Instead, they would lock you into one of three cages. They were still in use occasionally as late as the 1960s.”
For centuries, authors and writers have used and enjoyed the library. Without a doubt, the most famous patrons are Jonathan Swift, Bram Stoker, and James Joyce.
“We know that when Bram Stoker read here in 1866 and 1867 he requested books about Transylvania,” Jason explains. “When the young James Joyce appeared at the door in 1902, he wanted to read a banned text from several centuries earlier that he could not find elsewhere in Dublin.”
Walking around the library today you can still see the desks where these famous writers worked and studied. For example, there’s a little spot in the central reading room which is known as Swift’s Corner, where he used to sit and look out at the cathedral.
Something for every age group
Marsh’s Library isn’t just for bookworms and budding historians. The fragrant smell of old leather, beautiful oak furniture and photogenic interiors make it a great place to visit with the family.
“For younger children we have a mini-figure hunt. They can go through the library and find little mini-figures associated with the library. That allows parents to look at things while the kids are busy. Our current exhibition is of rare early maps of China.”
The library has a very active presence on social media platforms, showcasing the breadth and depth of its collections. There is also a wonderful courtyard garden that visitors can explore before exiting.
“Hidden right in the centre of the city we have our little courtyard garden. For the past 300 years, it’s been tucked away within the library. You really wouldn’t expect it!”
The perfect time to visit
Marsh’s Library is much more famous abroad than it is in Ireland. Due to the absence of international tourists, there has never been a better time for locals to visit this little gem. It is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm. Visitors can book a tour in advance or self-guide through the library. Marsh’s has signed up to Fáilte Ireland’s Covid-19 Safety Charter, so you can be sure they are following all national guidelines.
“It is an ideal time to visit the library because there is now plenty of space for people to social distance. We give people time to linger,” McElligott explains. “It’s not a high volume tourist attraction where you’re rushed in and quickly shown back out again. You get a chance to interact and ask questions to find out more.”
Step back in time and explore Marsh’s Library this autumn. Find out more and perhaps enjoy the online resources on their website today.