The world’s greatest – but probably least-known – Irish library

Film star Grace Kelly's roots prompted her to collect Irish literature, including rare editions of Joyce, Beckett and Shaw

Princess Grace  and Prince Rainier of Monaco with  their  children Caroline and Albert in the  1960s. Photograph: Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Images

Princess Grace and Prince Rainier of Monaco with their children Caroline and Albert in the 1960s. Photograph: Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Images

 

I don’t go to Monaco for the sports cars or casinos but to enjoy a delicate, pea-green first full edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses, published by Sylvia Beach of Paris bookshop Shakespeare and Co in 1922. The book is in the world’s greatest – but probably least-known – Irish library, near the Prince’s Palace in Monaco.

On the shelves are leather-bound volumes of Jonathan Swift’s letters, rare collections of the works of Oscar Wilde, John M Synge and George Bernard Shaw, first editions of Flann O’Brien, Katharine Tynan, Iris Murdoch and William Trevor, and there’s a corner dedicated to Samuel Beckett. It’s an athenaeum of Irish culture in Monaco’s spotless old town, away from the super-yachts and glassy towers of Monte Carlo.

An Irish library in Monaco may seem incongruous but Grace Kelly, wife of Prince Rainier III and mother of the current Prince Albert, was very proud of her Irish heritage and became an avid collector of Irish literature. Her collection formed the basis for the library, which opened in 1984, two years after she died.

Poet Fred Johnston at work at the Princess Grace Irish Library in Monaco, September 2004
Poet Fred Johnston at work at the Princess Grace Irish Library in Monaco, September 2004
Prince Rainier, Princess Grace, Prince Albert and Princess Caroline at Carton House, Maynooth. Photograph: Eddie Kelly
Prince Rainier, Princess Grace, Prince Albert and Princess Caroline at Carton House, Maynooth. Photograph: Eddie Kelly

In the main salon, a pair of Waterford crystal chandeliers illuminate a facsimile of the Book of Kells and among the hundreds of emerald-coloured volumes in the first-editions room is the Sinn Fein Rebellion Handbook from Easter 1916, with a false spine so it could be kept on the shelf in disguise. In another cabinet is an original of Joyce’s Dubliners alongside some of young Grace’s schoolbooks with her name inscribed on the inside page in a curly, schoolgirl script.

My favourite item is a copy of Joyce’s first novel, dedicated to his sister Eileen and her husband Frank, signed “Jim”. It sits beside bronze sculptures of Brendan Behan, Wilde and Joyce. Visitors can sit in the library and read and borrow some of the books – though not the first-edition Ulysses or the giant 17th-century Atlas Hibernia.

There’s also a huge collection of Irish sheet music and an upright piano that writer Anthony Burgess used to play, a glass of whisky gently vibrating on the lid and a cigar smouldering in the ashtray. Burgess, a friend of Princess Grace and Prince Rainier, was a driving force behind the inauguration of the library (his grandmother was Irish and Joyce was his literary hero) and became one of its founding trustees.

The collection now has about9,000 volumes and also offers a children’s section, lectures and readings, and a writer-in-residence scheme. There’s even a green Fabergé crystal egg glinting in a cabinet.
9 rue Princesse Marie-de-Lorraine, open Mon-Fri 9am-5pm
pgil.mc
 – Guardian Service

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