Soundings from Northern Ireland


Mary Leahy

Springhill, the former Conyngham family estate, now a National Trust House

Thirteen American librarians were awarded grants by the British Council to participate in a Library Study Tour of Northern Ireland from 25 January through 4 February of this year. The trip took us through twenty plus libraries: subscription, academic, public, and special. At each location we were welcomed with tea and scones and then with tours, special exhibitions, and presentations.

While en route to the various cities we saw the beauty of the rugged Irish coast with its smugglers' coves and rock strewn shores, the natural wonder of the Giant's Causeway complete with double rainbow, Dunluce Castle, a thirteenth-century Norman fortress which hangs precipitously on a cliff, its dining room lost to the sea in the seventeenth century, and Springhill, the seventeenth-century home of the Conyngham family.

The first evening in Belfast was spent dining and getting to know each other. From the outset we knew the group was compatible not only the Americans with each other, but also with their Irish hosts. The Americans were a true cross section of the country from Washington, Oregon, California, New Mexico, Illinois, Texas, Florida, Virginia (two representatives), Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts (two representatives). A warm and friendly spirit lasted throughout the entire trip.

The next morning we walked to the British Council for a briefing by David McKittrick, a reporter for the London newspaper, The Independent. He gave an overview of the Troubles in a disinterested and scholarly way. That afternoon we went on a tour of Belfast with famed author and historian Jonathan Bardon. We drove through the city in a tiny "coach" viewing the famous political murals that cover the houses in The Falls and Shankill, the Harland and Wolff shipyard, the Grand Opera House, the Prince Albert Clock Tower, and the magnificent City Hall built in 1906 with its Queen Victoria and Titanic memorial sculptures.

The first libraries we visited were at Queen's University in Belfast. The university's original building is nineteenth-century neo-Tudor modeled on Magdalen College, Oxford. Queen's libraries have expanded over the years as student enrollment increased. It is now at 13,000. There are separate departmental libraries for Agriculture and Food Science, Veterinary Science, Medicine, and Science. We spent most of our time in Special Collections, Archives, and the Seamus Heaney Library, the latter a multidisciplinary library with approximately 250 computers available for students on a first come, first served basis. The day we visited every computer was in use.

The Belfast Central Library with its spectacular collection of rare books is extraordinary. The Natural History Collection consists of some 10,000 volumes and reveals a methodical effort to find rare books with impeccable provenance in pristine condition. We saw Pierre Joseph Redouté's Les Roses, Paris, 1817-1824, from the library of the Duc D'Orleans and bound by Simier, Relieur du Roi; and Redouté's Les Liliacees, Paris, 1802-1816. In the Ornithology Collection the library has "nearly complete sets of Elliott, Gould, and Levaillant." There was an Audubon, too. Thomas Watson, the Associate Director, was our guide and showed us incunables, fine press holdings (the library has a full run of the Cuala Press), Irish and English fine bindings, eighteenth-century books and anything else we wanted to see. And what we saw was marvelous!

The Linen Hall Library, located in the center of Belfast, is the oldest library in the city. It is the only subscription library in Ireland. Established in the eighteenth century "to improve the mind and excite a spirit of general enquiry," its Northern Ireland Political Collection contains thousands of items relating to the Troubles.

The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in Cultra, Holywood is 177 acres of restored houses, churches, stores and other buildings that have been painstakingly moved to the site in an effort to show how things looked at the turn of the century. We visited the grounds and the Museum, but the Archives captivated our group. In the Archives there are 70,000 photographs from the Harland and Wolff Company, the shipbuilders of the Olympic and the Titanic. It was there that we saw the plans for the Titanic and the albums of Titanic and Olympic photographs printed from original negatives. Full sets of these were provided for the oceanographers who have been exploring the wreckage of the Titanic and to the art directors of the current film. The archivist, who had just seen the movie, was astonished at the accuracy of the sets and the attention to the smallest detail. I ordered several photographs and received permission to do a Titanic exhibition for BMC students.

Then it was on to Armagh to the southwest of Belfast, where we went to the Armagh Library founded in 1771 by Archbishop Richard Robinson. The Greek inscription over its entrance translates "the medicine shop of the mind." Armagh means "high place" and from the ninth through the twelfth centuries there were thousands of scholars in the city. In the library, we saw Robinson's collection of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century books. Curators now collect in three areas: Jonathan Swift, Church History, and St. Patrick. While there we saw a first edition of Gulliver's Travels with marginalia in Swift's hand, a manuscript folio on vellum, St. Gregory the Great, thirteenth century, and a Dutch missal of the thirteenth or fourteenth century. Then we went on to the Observatory, also founded by Robinson in the eighteenth century, but still a working Observatory with astronomers doing research on flare stars, the Magellanic clouds, and theoretical astronomy. Here we were shown clocks and telescopes from George III's Collection and more books from the fifteenth century.

Richard and Rosalind Mulholland entertained us for lunch in their magnificent ancestral Georgian home in Ballyscullion Park, a familiar name to many American service men and women who lived on this 600 acre property prior to the Normandy invasion.

From there we went to the Seamus Heaney Archive at Bellaghy Bawn. We had a tour of the exhibition spaces filled with signed broadsides, manuscripts, and rare books, and even a desk with Heaney's boyhood schoolbag. Heaney, a friend of K. Laurence Stapleton, Mary E. Garrett Alumnae Professor Emeritus of English, has visited Bryn Mawr on several occasions. Many of us were fortunate to meet him on his last formal visit to the College in 1982.

Springhill, now a National Trust House, was opened especially for the American group. It has about 3900 rare books in its library, only a portion of those that were once there. The collection has books from as far back as the sixteenth century. The house was built by the Conyngham family in the seventeenth century and had two wings added in the eighteenth century.

The baker's dozen Americans were astounded at what the British Council had done for us. Their astute and advance planning made memorable things happen. Doors were opened that are usually closed for visitors. Our vitae preceded us so the curators knew our institutions and collecting interests. That enabled them to bring out their treasures and to tailor special exhibitions just for the group, which gave them and us great pleasure.

The beauty of Northern Ireland with its primroses, pansies, and mahonia bushes in full bloom in February is something not to be forgotten. I will remember fondly my American colleagues and the Irish librarians and curators, their hospitality, their knowledge, and their pride in the holdings of their institutions. While I have cited only a few of the libraries visited, we found the same warmth and graciousness in every location.

One can only hope that peace will come in this year to this ancient and beautiful country and that nothing more will happen to destroy the treasures of its heritage and its people.

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