BUSTLING BISHOP AND HIS BOOKS

 

One of the more sardonic descriptions of the good Dubliner used to be that he never climbed Nelson's Pillar (nor can he or she now); never saw the Book of Kells and never visited Marsh's Library. There are many, less studious, versions of the same. But not to have visited Marsh's Library is a failure to which many must confess.

In the current Autumn issue of History Ireland, a very good one, the Library is given a lively and informative going over by Muriel McCarthy, the present librarian. What a progression of jobs the founder, Narcissus Marsh, star of the Established Church, held. Provost of Trinity College, Dublin as a stepping stone. He wasn't happy there.

The young scholars arrived at the college "both rude and ignorant", the town was "rude and debauched", but, above all, his duties kept him from "my always dearly beloved studies". He wasn't to be the only Provost or Fellow of that seat of learning who found the students a nuisance, and had little time or them. He did advocate and foster a study of the Irish language. First because he had a scholarly interest in language, but also because he could, in Irish, communicate with the majority of the people and propagate "the reformed religion". Four years later, 1683, he was off to Ferns as Bishop. Troubled times for him with James on the throne, and he returned to Dublin, to the Provost's house and then to England. After the Battle of the Boyne, he was back as Archbishop of Cashel.

Then on to the Archdiocese of Dublin and so to the Privy Council and seven times appointed Lord Justice. God bless us, how they dealt out the cards to each other in those days! He helped draft the Penal Laws. Writes Muriel McCarthy: "He was obviously terrified of the Pope and the possibility of Catholics gaining power or influence in Ireland." Indeed! The good that men do, says Shakespeare, "is oft interred with their bones".

But the good that this man did is a library of significance, which he had built himself, and which was eventually made up of four major collections, including his own. As late as 1941 a great addition of manuscript material relating to Irish antiquities was received: the Dean Webster Donation.

A sparkling tale, well told by Muriel McCarthy. Now go and see it beside St Patrick's. Other fine articles: The League of Women Delegates and Sinn Fein by Margaret Ward, and reflections on the Bantry Bay Summer School - would we have got hell from the French if the 1796 fleet had brought victory? That's for another day.