What other treasures do congregations own?

Where did All Hallows College get the precious contents of its apparently plundered archives? And how does its library compare to others?

Veduta with the Temple of Jupiter Tonans by Piranesi, from around 1755: similar engravings by the artist seem to have been removed from the All Hallows archive. Photograph: Fine art/Heritage/Getty

Veduta with the Temple of Jupiter Tonans by Piranesi, from around 1755: similar engravings by the artist seem to have been removed from the All Hallows archive. Photograph: Fine art/Heritage/Getty

 

One evening last winter a former colleague telephoned in some distress. While out walking in a Dublin suburb he had come across a skip “full to the brim of books” outside one of the oldest religious congregations in Ireland.

The books were of good quality. Among them was a copy of the Gospels that had been given to a nun on her retirement, an English-Irish dictionary and a signed copyof History’s Daughter: A Memoir from the Only Child of Terence Mac Swiney, by Maura Mac Swiney Brugha. She was the daughter of the lord mayor of Cork who died after a hunger strike in London in October 1920.

When my former colleague asked the congregation how they could throw these books in a skip, they told him that they had offered them to others but that there had been no interest.

The fate of those books came to mind this week with news of the apparent plunder of prints, sketches and books from the library at All Hallows College in Dublin, many of them very valuable indeed.

Included in what one rare-book expert described as a grand theft is at least one 15th-century incunabulum – one of the earliest books printed rather than handwritten. There were also prints by Raphael and engravings by the 18th-century Italian artist Piranesi, featuring his trademark scenes of Rome.

It was also announced last week that the college is to close, because of the decline in vocations and the fall in demand for some of the courses at the college, such as theology, ethics and social justice.

All Hallows is believed to be just one asset-rich and cash-poor institution facing this fate.

The asset-rich description applies both to the college’s lands and to its library. How did it obtain these rare works? Carolanne Henry, a spokeswoman for All Hallows, says the library acquired many of its more valuable items through bequests over the 172 years of its existence.

The college was established in 1842 by the Vincentian congregation, which had itself been founded on the ideals of St Vincent de Paul, from Maynooth, 10 years earlier. (Members of the original congregation founded by St Vincent de Paul were in Ireland during the Cromwellian period of the 1640s.) The Irish Vincentians created All Hallows when they took over and renamed Drumcondra House.

Three years ago the college began an inventory at the library that brought to its attention many valuable items, including some of the now missing prints and books. Asked about the origins of such treasures, Henry says that “current financial records do not include their provenance”.

Church sources say that such archives and libraries in institutions and dioceses around Ireland tended to be maintained in an “extremely loose” way. An exception is the Dublin archdiocese, where management of a large and valuable archive was “very tight”.

Most religious congregations have a library or archive, generally in Dublin.

The Irish Jesuit Archives, believed to be among the foremost of any congregation in Ireland, and with records going back to 1575, are maintained at the congregation’s house on Leeson Street in Dublin. The Jesuits also have an extensive library, containing 139,000 volumes, at the Milltown Institute. It is said to be one of the finest theology libraries in Ireland.

It was at the Jesuits’ house on Leeson Street that Caravaggio’s Taking of Christ lay undiscovered for 60 years until 1993. It had been bequeathed to the congregation in the 1930s by Mrs Marie Lea-Wilson, who did not know it was a Caravaggio.

The Redemptorists have libraries in Dublin, Belfast, Dundalk, Limerick and Esker (in Galway). These include books from the 1500s. The congregation is currently creating an online catalogue.

Perhaps the greatest of all such libraries in Ireland is the one at NUI Maynooth. In the Russell Library there, 800-year-old Bibles, including some on vellum, sit with others that are among the first ever printed, from 1482. There also is an Old Testament in Irish that was printed in London in 1685.

Among its collection of 15th-century books is the earliest printing of Maurice O’Fihely, an Irish Franciscan known as Mauritius Hibernicus. His commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle by Scotus was printed in Venice in 1497.

But the best-kept secret in theological libraries has to be the Central Catholic Library, on Merrion Square in Dublin. It is a comparatively young subscription library, but it also has fascinating material.

Founded in 1922 by Fr Stephen Brown, a Jesuit, who said it was to be “a well spring . . . of information and inspiration regarding every subject that concerns our Faith”, it holds more than 100,000 publications, including 54,000 books. About 2,100 of these date from before 1850.

It is a lending library and also has a reference section that includes an Irish Room. It holds a large collection on many aspects of Irish history, both religious and secular. The library also houses the collection of the late auxiliary bishop of Dublin James Kavanagh, who died in 2002.

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