Marsh Builds Ireland’s First Public Library

Marsh’s Library, Ireland’s first library open to the public, acquired and preserved several extensive collections of books, including the finest private library at that time in England. The library’s founding was revolutionary, given its mission of free and open access to all, which included disenfranchised, and uneducated, Dubliners.

Summary of Event

Dublin prospered economically during the resplendent eighteenth century Georgian era. New suburbs spread beyond the city’s old medieval walls, and new bridges crisscrossed the River Liffy to accommodate the bustling city’s expansion. Dublin also gained cultural attention, attracting playwrights such as Willipam Congreve. Jonathan Swift was dean of Dublin’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral from 1713 to 1745. George Frideric Handel conducted the first public performance of the Messiah in Dublin in 1742, and Archbishop Narcissus Marsh opened Ireland’s first public library, Marsh’s Library, located behind St. Patrick’s Cathedral. [kw]Marsh Builds Ireland’s First Public Library (July 9, 1701)
[kw]Library, Marsh Builds Ireland’s First Public (July 9, 1701)
[kw]Public Library, Marsh Builds Ireland’s First (July 9, 1701)
[kw]First Public Library, Marsh Builds Ireland’s (July 9, 1701)
[kw]Ireland’s First Public Library, Marsh Builds (July 9, 1701)
[kw]Builds Ireland’s First Public Library, Marsh (July 9, 1701)
[g]Ireland;July 9, 1701: Marsh Builds Ireland’s First Public Library[0100]
[c]Education;July 9, 1701: Marsh Builds Ireland’s First Public Library[0100]
[c]Cultural and intellectual history;July 9, 1701: Marsh Builds Ireland’s First Public Library[0100]
Marsh, Narcissus
Stillingfleet, Edward
Swift, Jonathan

Dublin also was a rich and lively city for the Protestant Ascendancy, those of English background who were Protestant. However, for Dublin’s Catholic poor and for the majority of the rest of the country, life was mostly one of abject poverty. Ireland had been a colonized country for more than five hundred years. The Battle of the Boyne Boyne, Battle of (1690) (1690) saw the Catholic king James II defeated in Ireland by the Protestant king William III, resulting in an era of Protestant preeminence. The Irish parliament Parliament;Irish (whose members were mostly of the Protestant Ascendancy) passed extremely harsh and discriminatory penal laws that curtailed the Catholic population’s ability to own land, forbade them from pursuing professions such as law and medicine, and outlawed their right to a Catholic education. The majority of Ireland’s population became ignorant, poor, and deprived. Indeed, many of Ireland’s people had to attend school surreptitiously, hidden behind hedges from the police, or they had to flee to Catholic France.

Shortly after his arrival, the deeply pious Marsh discovered that there was no public library in Dublin. There was a library, but it belonged to Dublin’s Trinity College. Only students and staff had access, and if a student wanted a book, he had to find a member of the staff to stay with him while he did his research. Marsh believed a public library would make it easier for students to take full advantage of their education, and easier for Dubliners to educate themselves. For Marsh to establish a public library in Dublin was revolutionary, and he stipulated that all be given free access.

Marsh was born in Wiltshire, England, in 1638. Early in his life, he had been fascinated by science, mathematics, music, Asian languages, and medieval history. Throughout his years, he collected books in Hebrew, Arabic, and Turkish. He was educated in Oxford and sent to Ireland as provost of Trinity College in 1679. From the beginning of his tenure at Trinity, he showed concern for the students and the quality of their education, believing it to be substandard. Soon after arriving in Dublin, Marsh was intent upon opening a public library. Finally, in 1700, he wrote a letter to Dr. Thomas Smith, a friend in England, asking for help in recommending books. Marsh explained that his living quarters at the archbishop’s palace lacked a library, and he complained that his own books lay about in disarray in three separate, inconvenient rooms. Approval for the building Architecture;libraries of the library was granted to Marsh on July 9, 1701. In 1707, the library was formally incorporated by an act of Parliament (“An Act for Settling and Preserving a Public Library For Ever”).

Known originally as the Library of Saint Sepulchre, the Marsh Library in its earliest form was stocked primarily with Marsh’s own books. The holdings were greatly expanded in 1705 after Marsh purchased the nearly ten-thousand-book collection of Edward Stillingfleet, the bishop of Worcester, who at one time engaged in a major controversy with the philosopher John Locke on the doctrine of the Trinity. Stillingfleet’s collection, believed to be the finest private library in England at the time, attests to Stillingfleet’s wide-ranging scholarship and knowledge of books.

In 1745, John Stearne (1660-1745), bishop of Clogher, bequeathed his books to the library, including one of the oldest in the collection, Cicero’s Letters to His Friends, which was printed in 1472. The library also inherited the collection of Elias Bouhéreau, a medical doctor and Huguenot (Protestant) refugee from France in 1695 and the library’s first librarian. Also, to this day, the library holds vast numbers of medical, theological, legal, and music manuscripts dating to 1400, as well as rare sixteenth century musical compositions from the Continent. Writer Jonathan Swift was a Marsh Library governor, but he did not contribute any of his books to its collection. Bram Stoker, author of the novel Dracula, studied in the library, and James Joyce mentions the Marsh Library in his novel Ulysses (1922).


An interior view of Marsh’s Library in Dublin, Ireland’s first library open to the public.

(Library of Congress)

The establishment in 1701 of Marsh’s Library, the first public library in Ireland, immediately impacted Dubliners, providing a vast intellectual and cultural resource to the disenfranchised and subjugated. It also provided a home for preserving some of the greatest literary treasures of the past, part of Europe’s great intellectual and cultural heritage. The interior of the library, with its outstanding dark oak paneling, provided a place where anyone could request a book to read. To a colonized population that was forbidden an education, the library offered possibilities for social and political change.

As of the early twenty-first century, the library contained four major collections of more than twenty-five thousand books on the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries; more than five thousand books printed in England before 1700; and twelve hundred books printed in England before 1640. The volumes cover law, medicine, travel, mathematics, navigation and exploration, music, science, and classical literature. Many are in Latin, the universal common language of scholars from earlier eras, but many others are in English, French, Italian, and Greek. A separate room in the library houses books and periodicals relating to Irish history.

Further Reading

  • Battles, Matthew. Library: An Unquiet History. New York: Norton, 2003. A history of libraries as well as the forces in history that try to destroy information and communication.
  • Gillespie, Raymond, ed. Scholar Bishop: The Recollections and Diary of Narcissus Marsh, 1638-1696. Cork, Ireland: Cork University Press, 2003. A detailed account of the life of Narcissus Marsh, who was both clergyman and scholar. The editor’s introduction covers religious and political contexts. Includes Marsh’s letters and diary.
  • Harris, Michael H. History of Libraries in the Western World. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1995. A general survey of library history, originally published in 1984.
  • McCarthy, Muriel. Marsh’s Library: All Graduates and Gentlemen. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2003. Traces in great detail the history of the Marsh Library and recalls Marsh’s life, his determination to build a library for the Irish public, and the library’s establishment. Also provides accounts of the building’s many famous readers.
  • McCarthy, Muriel, and Ann Simmons, eds. The Making of Marsh’s Library: Learning, Politics, and Religion in Ireland, 1650-1750. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2004. This book contains the scholarly papers presented at the 2001 conference on the making of Marsh’s Library to celebrate the tercentenary of the library.

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