2012 Seminar on the History of the Book: Mark Purcell, “The private library in Ireland before the Union”

from Martha Repp

The second in the 2012 series of the Oxford Seminars on the History of the Book was held at All Souls’ College, Oxford, on 27 January, 2012. Mr. Mark Purcell, Curator of Book Collections for the National Trust, spoke on “The private library in Ireland before the Union”.

The first preconception that Mr. Purcell’s paper sought to dispel is the idea, enthusiastically promoted by seventeenth century English propaganda such as Nahum Tate’s lyrics to Henry Purcell’s ode for the centenary of Trinity College, Dublin, that, before English intervention, Ireland was an entirely uncultivated country in which books were more or less unknown, and certainly unread. There is, in fact, evidence of significant sixteenth century Irish book collections. Nor were these collections entirely confined to monasteries and religious houses: as early as 1519, the Earl of Kildare is known to have had a collection of books in his castle at Maynooth. The main focus of the paper, however, was on the period from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries.

Anyone interested in researching Irish private libraries labours under a number of distinct disadvantages. The first of these is the lack of a complete national archival record, with the destruction of the Public Record Office of Ireland in 1922. The second is the lack of extant libraries, with many of the private libraries which are known to have existed having been destroyed, sold, or otherwise dispersed. To learn about these collections, one is therefore forced to rely on evidence other than the books themselves, such as bills of sale, correspondence with book dealers or lists of subscribers in printed books, but these only tell part of the story. For example, if you want to know whether a collection was shelved with the spines facing in or out, you need to know whether the books have fore-edge titles or not. Equally, the lavishness or otherwise of the bindings can indicate the extent to which the owners were using the books to put on a show for their friends and neighbours. Historical shelf-marks can reveal how the books were arranged, and ownership inscriptions can reveal information not only about who owned the books, but about how, where, when and for how much they were acquired, and how they were used.

The difficulties raised by this lack of surviving libraries are compounded by the fact that, of the libraries that do survive, few remain in their original setting, making it harder to gain a picture of the collection as a whole. Some have been absorbed into larger collections, such as the Townley Hall collection, now part of the library of Trinity College, Dublin. Others, such as the collection of William King (1650-1729), Archbishop of Dublin and ardent bibliophile, have been split up among several different locations. Equally, many surviving libraries have not been catalogued and are in very poor condition, and few have been studied in any detail.
Mr. Purcell then went on to consider to what kinds of people these libraries typically belonged. Many belonged to important members of the clergy, typically Protestant, English implants. Scholarship and reading were seen as suitable diversions for a clergyman, and the founding of diocesan libraries was seen as a useful way of promoting the Protestant interest in Ireland. This philanthropic impulse towards the creation of libraries does not, however, always seem to have taken into account whether a library was needed or likely to be used. Landowners were also important book collectors; by the eighteenth century, there was a general consensus that reading and owning books was something that a person of quality ought to do. One preconception about book owning by landowners during this period is that the books were intended for show by insecure social climbers, and were never actually read or used. In fact, the books that survive do show evidence of use. It should also be borne in mind that in Ireland, more so than in England, many members of the landowning classes had risen from comparatively obscure origins, and that many of these were scholars, or at the very least had an interest in books. Examples here include Judge Michael Ward of Castle Ward, a lawyer and book collector, whose son was later elevated to the peerage as Viscount Bangor. The professional classes, such as lawyers, doctors or army officers, also owned books, and were perhaps even more significant as book collectors than were the landowners. Evidence from Irish sale catalogues suggests that, of the libraries offered for sale, only 12% belonged to landowners, with 60% belonging to professional men. Book ownership was not restricted to men; there is also evidence of Irish private libraries belonging to women. Books aimed specifically at children do not really exist before the eighteenth century, but there is no shortage of school and college textbooks, or of books awarded as university prizes.

The books in these private libraries may have been purchased in Ireland; Dublin had a thriving book trade, both new and second-hand. They may equally have been purchased from London and either sent to Ireland or brought back in person, or even imported directly from the continent. The nature of the books is likely to be as varied as the owners who acquired them. There was, however, a distinction between books considered “useful” and books considered “curious”, and many collectors do seem to have been aware of the age, value and condition of the books they were acquiring.

The final question considered was how these books would have been stored, and who would have had access to them. Here, the frequently used term country-house library is perhaps misleading, as it suggests that all the books would always have been stored in the country, when in practice they may also have been kept in houses in town or professional offices. In general, during the period, there is a progression from libraries being kept in private spaces or closets (Archbishop King, for example, is known to have stored his books in a complicated series of numbered boxes), to libraries being public, ceremonial and social spaces. It should also not be assumed that, in important families with large numbers of books, there was only one library or collection of books in a single location. Access to the books was not always restricted to the family; in some cases, friends or connections of the family, or even particularly favoured retainers, were given access. If this is indeed the case, it calls into question the distinction between public and private libraries, and makes the history of libraries less a history of institutions than a history of individuals, networks, and connections.

The final discussion considered all of these issues in more detail, as well as raising new questions, such as whether catalogues for any of these collections survive, and whether the situation in Ireland can usefully be compared to the situation in Scotland.