Book thieves, Bullet Holes and Bram Stoker: A Trip to Marsh’s Library

Silence. The tick of the clock. The sound pulses rhythmically through the air like a heartbeat. A somewhat ironic symbol as time does not exist here.

St Patrick’s Cathedral, located on St Patrick’s Close in Dublin, is a well known historical attraction.It’s huge exterior dwarfs everything else in the vicinity and every day thousands of tourists flock in droves to see it, so you’d be forgiven for thinking it was the only important site worth seeing in the area. However, just next to it, tucked behind a grey, stone wall, is Marsh’s Library, the first public library to ever exist in Ireland.

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself in Dublin for a work conference. On the journey over, I had Marsh’s Library recommended to me so, on a quiet morning on the last day of my trip, I ventured to find it.

The outside of Marsh’s Library

Outside, it is a rather unassuming place. Inside, located on the second floor, is a small but hugely impressive library consisting of two galleries connected by a small reading room. The first gallery boast an imposing vaulted ceiling. Just above the doorway at the far end, a huge portrait of the library’s founder, Narcissus Marsh, an English clergyman who had been Archbishop of Dublin and the head of Trinity College at various times, stares down commandingly over the space. The blinds are pulled down to protect the books, creating a slight haze of yellow light across the room. There is a slight musty smell, likely a mixture of parchment and dust. Silence. The tick of the clock. The sound pulses rhythmically through the air like a heartbeat. A somewhat ironic symbol as time does not exist here.

Looking around, it seems nothing has changed since it’s opening 300 years ago. The double-sided oak bookcases which stand perpendicular to the walls and line both sides of the room are the originals. Every one of the 25,000 books and 300 manuscripts remain in their same place. The shelves almost seem to bend under the weight of them all. Collectively, they hold thousands of stories but the most interesting ones of all are of the library itself…

The second gallery looking into the reading room

Book Thieves

When it opened in 1707, it was the first public library ever to exist in Ireland. This meant that, for the first time, anyone could have access to the vast collection of renaissance books on travel, navigation, theology, maths, music, medicine, law, science and classical literature. However, free access to so many important works gave thieves an easy opportunity and books began to be stolen frequently. In just a few years, 1300 books went missing. Since then, only 11 have subsequently been returned.

To combat this problem, cages were built into the end of the second gallery. If people wanted to read a book, they had to do so in these cages, where the keeper of the library could keep an eye on them from the reading room at the end of the gallery. If the keeper had to step out and no one was there to supervise the readers, they were locked into the cages until someone returned.

The lockable reading cages

Bullet Holes

If you look closely at the bookshelves in the Old Reading Room, you can see round marks in the wood. This isn’t damage from thieves hastily snatching books from the shelves, signs of wear and tear nor woodworm but bullet holes.

In April 1916, a group of Irish republicans took advantage of Britain being busy engaged in World War I and started an armed revolt to end British rule in Ireland. This began on Easter Monday, therefore becoming known as the Easter Rising, and lasted for six days. Members of the Irish Volunteer Army along with the Irish Citizen Army and 200 women from the Irish Women’s Parliamentary Organisation seized key parts of Dublin and declared an Irish Republic. However, the British soon brought in thousands of reinforcements and gunpowder and fierce fighting began in the streets of the city.

At various times during the Easter Rising, the hotel next door to Marsh’s Library was occupied by both the English and Irish. It was subsequently shot at by both sides. However, on both occasions, some of the bullets missed and fired into the library instead, shattering the glass windows and landing in the bookshelves. The Easter Rising ultimately failed, however today Marsh’s Library stands in the Republic of Ireland. It is easy to forget the conflict which fought so hard for this location status, however the bullet holes which remain in the shelves are a poignant reminder of the conflict amidst the calm tranquillity of the library today.

A painting of the Easter Rising by Walter Paget, entitled ‘The Birth of the Irish Republic’

Bram Stoker

The bullet holes are not the only notable thing about the Old Reading Room. It is here that famous Irish author Bram Stoker, who wrote the classic Gothic novel Dracula, sat in the same chairs and read during his visit in 1866. In fact, Stoker made numerous visits. Marsh’s Library currently has an ongoing exhibition about Stoker and his creation of Dracula.

Abraham ‘Bram’ Stoker was born on 8th November 1847 in Dublin. He attended Trinity College, where he graduated with a BA in 1870. Although Dracula is set in Transylvania, he borrows a lot from Irish History. The logs show that he took out books on Irish History, Folklore and European countries which includes a small entry on Transylvania. There is a lot of evidence to suggest it is at Marsh’s library where Stoker first got his idea for Dracula or, at the very least, began researching for it. However, Marsh’s Library remains largely an unaccredited and forgotten part of Stoker and Dracula’s story.

A photograph of Bram Stoker morphed into a vampire, like his famous creation Dracula.

Ghost Stories

As well as vampires, the library also has a link with ghosts.

Whilst he was Archbishop, Marsh arranged for his nineteen-year-old niece, Grace, to look after his housekeeping. According to her, Marsh was difficult to live with as he was overbearing and strict. Because of his, she decided to run away and marry her lover. On the 10th September 1695, Marsh reports in his diary that “This evening betwixt 8 and 9 of the clock at night my niece Grace Marsh (not having the fear of God before her eyes) stole privately out of my house at St. Sepulchre’s and (as is reported) was that night married to Chas. Proby vicar of Castleknock in a Tavern and was bedded there with him – Lord consider my affliction”

Before she ran away, Grace wrote her Uncle a letter explaining her departure and apologising. She left it in the open book he had been reading in his study. However, by sad circumstance, Marsh did not finish the book and returned it to the shelf. He died years later in his old age, having never seen or read the letter from Grace. As the library houses Marsh’s private collection, it is said that his ghost haunts the galleries, looking for the letter from his niece…

Marsh’s Library is open 9:30am-5pm Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and 10am-5pm on Saturday. Entrance is 5 Euros, 3 Euros for students and senior citizens or free for under 18s. You can find more information on their website, here: https://www.marshlibrary.ie/

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