Book collecting "is the only form of collecting other than kleptomania that has a medical name attached to it", says Philip Murray. The name is bibliomania, and Murray should know: as well as being one of Ireland's leading book collectors, he is also a doctor.
He retired two years ago after a long medical career as a GP in Sligo. Since then he has been cataloguing his collection of modern first editions – probably the best such private collection ever assembled in Ireland – which is now, sadly, to be broken up and auctioned by Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers at Dublin's Gresham Hotel on Tuesday, July 12th, at 2pm.
Murray (75) told The Irish Times that he has decided to sell his collection to "relieve" his wife and three grown-up children of eventually having to dispose of the books. He specialised in collecting novels and poetry collections by 20th-century writers, including three of his favourites: the Nobel for Literature prize winners Seamus Heaney, Gabriel García Márquez and Patrick White.
The auction, which features more than 500 lots of first editions – many signed by the authors – is already attracting worldwide interest from collectors.
Estimates start at under €100 up to €8,000 for a (re-bound) first edition of Ulysses. There's a great mix of Irish, British, American and world fiction and poetry.
Among innumerable highlights is lot 71, a set of six books by Márquez estimated at €5,000-€6,000; and lot 106, a "very rare signed copy" of the first UK 1963 edition of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, estimated at €3,000-€4,000.
Irish highlights include lot 377, a signed copy of the 1925 novel The Informer by Liam O'Flaherty estimated at €800- €1,200; Lot 508, The Ballroom of Romance & Other Stories, published in 1972 by William Trevor (300-400); lot 1, copies of John Banville's first three novels, Long Lankin (1970); Nightspawn (1971) and Birchwood (1973), estimated at €800-€850; and lot 214, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín, No 43 of 75 numbered copies published by Tuskar Rock Press in 2009 (€200-€300).
Murray is also the author of Adventures of a Book Collector (Currach Press, 2011), a fascinating and enthralling must-read for anyone interested in the subject. The memoir recalls how his love of books began during his childhood in Nenagh, Co Tipperary, when Cassell's Book of Knowledge – an eight-volume encyclopaedia first published in 1930 – "contained everything an inquisitive young boy would want to know".
He also managed to get hold of DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, which was banned at the time but "somehow a copy reached Nenagh" and was "passed around the schoolyard but under no circumstances would it be brought home". He recalls that the "the salacious bits were well-marked".
The book explains how and why Murray started to collect. He describes the thrills and occasional disappointments, and evokes the lost world of Dublin second-hand bookshops and the cast of sometimes madly eccentric characters he met along the way. He chronicles his often Trojan efforts to track down a particular volume or an author’s signature.
“When I started collecting books,” Murray writes, “I wasn’t to know that it would turn into a lifetime pursuit and would give me such pleasure in both reading some great books and making many valued friendships,”.
In an epilogue, Dr Murray notes: “The saddest thing that has happened in my 35 years as a collector is the huge decline in the number of bookshops.”
Viewing for the auction begins tomorrow afternoon at 2pm in the Gresham Hotel, O'Connell Street, Dublin. Catalogue at fonsiemealy.ie