Once Upon an Irish Library

In my earliest memories, my bibliophile mother was reading to me, taking me to libraries, teaching me respect for books and the power of the imagination. So of course, when I travel, these are things that mark my path through a new place. Where is the nearest bookshop? Donde esta la biblioteca? Point me to the books. Oh so easy to do, in bookish Ireland.

Here’s a quick peek down the stacks at the famous: Trinity College, the new: McClay Library, Queen’s University Belfast, the private: Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, and the old: Russell Library, NUI Maynooth.

Trinity College, Long Room. Courtesy of NYTimes Travel.

Trinity College, Dublin. This goes on most tourist checklists: Founded in 1592 as one of the Queen’s universities – and the oldest in Ireland. If you recall from my travel planning, I was loathe to pay 8.5 euros to see one page of an ancient  illuminated manuscript. Then I realized in order to see the famed Long Room, I had to pay up … and in I went. While the Book of Kells, penned in the year 800, is pretty epic .. the Long Room was for me. There, under high cathedral ceilings, I turned up my collar against the cold, and stared. Stared as though my eyes could not open wide enough.

A small exhibit marched along the middle of the room (that is indeed: long) – illustrations from long ago texts, explained in digitally reproduced images on giant posters among the stacks. A sedate velvet rope across each section was the only thing that stopped me from reaching out my bare hand to touch the spines of books. Tall books, small books, fat books. Leather or cloth, titles lettered in gold filigree or india ink. Wooden ladders leading high into the ceiling, to the uppermost shelves. I half expected Hermione to walk by me and release a book into the air, so it could nestle itself into place on the shelf.

Chester Beatty Library, Dublin. Courtesy of budgettraveladventures.

Chester Beatty Library, Dublin. While on the bus into Dublin, I sat next to a fellow book nerd who was most assuredly, a leprechaun. Before she disappeared into the city, she pointed me toward my next literary destination. Her eyes lit up as she talked about the private collection of Chester Beatty. I remembered seeing it noted as one of the free attractions in Dublin (and who doesn’t like free?), but didn’t know the details. She pressed her tiny gloved hand upon my arm, and insisted that I go. So I did.

Never ignore the advice of a leprechaun. The Beatty collection is tucked into the grounds of Dublin Castle (also free that day), and Paula and I wandered in and grabbed a floor plan. Sir Alfred Chester Beatty is in fact a native New Yorker who was later named Ireland’s first honorary citizen for his contributions to the country. Room after room displayed original texts, paintings, drawings, artifacts from Japan, Spain, Egypt, Korea. Eyes wide (again) and jaw wide open (again), we spent a long time walking through the collection, and admiring this man. What a beautiful way to share all of his precious collections with the world, and for free. Lonely Planet called the Chester Beatty Library the best in Ireland, and possibly the best in Europe. It has my vote, too.

C.S. Lewis Reading Room, McClay Library. Courtesy of QUB.

McClay Library, CS Lewis Reading Room, Queen’s University, Belfast. Again, on the advice of a good-natured Irish citizen, I found my way to the McClay Library at Queen’s University. Walking onto campus with my friend Nacho, he pointed out the greenhouse, and the gym in the distance. He mentioned the old library and the new, and I said, “we have to go to the new one.” He raised an eyebrow and said .. “you want to go to the library? Now?”

On the flight from Chicago to Dublin, my Irish seatmate Alan took note of the book in my lap and my interest in Belfast, and recommended the McClay Library. With a personal connection to it’s history and endowment, he mentioned that I should see the C.S. Lewis Reading Room … with the map of Narnia … and the door fashioned after the wardrobe. Again: eyes wide, jaw open. He chuckled and handed me his business card, in case I needed an in once I arrived. With a smile he turned and said, “I don’t think you’ll have any trouble.”

And I didn’t. Nacho announced us as a pair of study abroad professionals and the librarian opened the glass partition. The smell was new: new desks, new carpet, new gigantic Dell desktops. Students everywhere, studying for exams, not paying us any attention. Up the stairs and pushing through double doors, there was the reading room, guarded by a hand carved wooden door and standing open. Huge book nerd moment. You could practically see the lamppost in the distance, the snow gathering at the door. In the very modern circular room, a smooth glass tabletop protects a map of Narnia, and C. S. Lewis quotes adorn the walls. With the light dying outside the window, we had to move along .. get on to the Christmas market before the White Witch came calling.

Russell Library, NUI Maynooth. Courtesy NUIM.

Russell Library, National University Ireland Maynooth. This last one, a true bonus. While visiting the NUI Maynooth campus, my dear guide Jodi led me into another brand new library – just opened the day before. While winding our way up the stairs she narrated the history of the place, and I confessed my life as a book nerd. She laughed, and mentioned an older, much older, library on campus .. we’d need an appointment .. would have to call ahead .. but maybe. Call it the luck of the Irish, but we were admitted later in the day.

Stowing our bags, coats and malicious intentions towards books at the entrance, we walked upstairs and were asked to sign a guestbook. When I turned around, I was rewarded with a room that resembled it’s longer cousin in Dublin, with the air of the academic, and far less pomp and circumstance. High ceilings and short shelves with a wide table along the middle. This library clearly used more often, with foam book rests scattered about: You could picture a researcher here with white gloves, carefully turning pages. We saw family bibles more than a foot tall and as wide as my hand, tiny books with white cloth ribbons holding the bindings together – small bows along the spine like shoelaces. No mythical creatures hiding in the stacks, no swish and flick of a wand over a text. But it was magical all the same.