Marsh’s Library: Oldest Library in Ireland

Updated On: November 08, 2023

Marsh's Library Dublin

Sometimes when we think we’ve discovered all the amazing places in Dublin to visit and then we come across the little gem that is Marsh’s Library. The beautiful Marsh Library is actually the oldest Library in all of Ireland.

That alone should be enough to make you want to discover all the incredible stories and books found inside. It has even seen many famous visitors over its time. From renowned writers like Bram Stoke and James Joyce. It is definitely one of the most beautiful tourist attractions in Dublin, Ireland.

Even though its the oldest Library in Ireland, it has been magnificently preserved through its three amazing centuries in Dublin. Looking nearly untouched and just as captivating as you would expect from a historical library.

Let’s explore the fascinating history of Marsh’s Library…

Marsh’s Library History

The exceptional Marsh’s Library was founded by Archbishop Narcissus Marsh in 1701. Officially opening a few years later in 1707. It is located behind Saint Patricks Cathedral in Dublin. And has the title of being one of the first free public libraries to be introduced in Europe.

The Dublin Library came nearly 50 years after the Manchester Chetham’s Library. Chetham’s Library is considered the oldest English library in the entire world.

Marsh’s Library was designed by the talented architecture Sir William Robinson. One of the last buildings he ever designed in Ireland. It’s also one of the last remaining 18th-century buildings in Dublin that is still used for its original purpose.

The Library Collection

Much of the Library’s original collection, many of which were donated by Archbishop Marsh, are still on its shelves. Marsh’s Library offers an outstanding collection of over 25,000 books, 300 manuscripts and maps dating all the way back to 15th century.

Some of Marsh’s own donations to the Library included the former collection belonging to Bishop Edward Stillingfleet, with over 10,000 volumes. The collection was considered one of the finest in England. Marsh bought the collection for 2,500 pounds at the time.

The first person known as the Marsh Library keeper was Dr Elias Bouhereau, a refugee from France. He had fled to Ireland after the Revocations of the Edict of Nantes and also donated much of his personal collection to the Library.

In the same year as its opening, Marsh’s Library was formally incorporated by an Act of Parliament known as ‘An Act for Setting and Preserving a Public Library for Ever’. This Act looked after the house and books placing them with trustees known as ‘Governors and Guardians of Marsh’s Library. The trustees were made up of religious and state officials and their successors still oversee it.

Marsh's Library Dublin
Marsh’s Library Dublin

More Recent History of Marsh Library

The first female keeper of the library was Muriel McCarthy in 1989. McCarthy continued the job for 20 amazing years before her retirement in 2011. The most recent library keeper is Dr Jason McElligott, who studied at the University College in Dublin.

When the former resident of the Guinness family, Farmleigh House was sold to the Irish State, its library ‘Benjamin Iveagh Library was donated to the Marsh’s Library in Dublin. You can view the catalogue on the Marsh Library site.

Many people have come from all around the world to check out this incredible historic Library. The Library seems to be growing in numbers and popularity. In 2013, it saw 16,000 tourist visitors, growing in 2014 to 17,187 and again in 2015 with 23,000 visitors.

Books at Marsh's Library
Books at Marsh’s Library

Marsh’s Library Design

When you step inside Marsh’s Library you’ll be truly captivated with its two long galleries shelved with unique collections of books.

The Library design is elegant, as you climb its ancient stairs, you’re transported into a room with stunning dark oak bookcases with more books than you could only imagine reading. It’s like something straight from a movie, the Harry Potter films come to mind.

Many of the original designs and fittings of when Marsh Library first opened are still evident today from the seating and the shelving. There are also bullet holes in some of the bookcases from the Easter Rising in Ireland, when the hotel next to the library was taken over.

Famous Ghost of Marsh’s Library

The historic Library is home to more than just books, it is believed that a ghost of an old man roams through the Library. This ghost happens to be of the founder Archbishop Narcissus Marsh. It really is no surprise that Marsh would return to a place that played huge importance in his life after death.

The story of Archbishop Marsh appearance in the Library involves his niece Grace. Marsh played a vital role in her life, as he raised her from she was a young child. But when Grace fell in love with a sea caption, Marsh grew very concerned for her and disapproved of the relationship. He tried his best to prevent them from seeing each other but ultimately that only grow them closer.

The couple made up their minds to run away and elope. Grace was just nineteen at the time but before she left she had written a letter to her Uncle asking for his forgiveness and explaining why she chose to leave. She left the letter in one of his books located at the Marsh Library.

While he was alive Marsh never came across the letter written by Grace that might have helped him deal with the loss of her. So the popular theory is that his ghost roams the library in hopes of finding the lost letter.

Famous Visitors

Besides its own ghostly visitor, there have been many famous people who have spent time here including Bram Stoker, Jonathan Swift and James Joyce. You can even check out their signatures found in the visitor’s book.

Bram Stroker loved to spend time and read the variety of collections at the Marsh Library during his time studying at Trinity. It is documented that the books he enjoyed reading were based on religion, witchcraft and travel.

When you visit the library, you can check out an illustrated booklet that gives you a guide to the library’s most interesting stories and facts. If you do find yourself in Dublin soon,  make sure to add this incredible place to your list of places to visit.

Also if you have visited this Dublin tourist attraction, share your experience with us below!

Other blogs that might interest you include:

Jeanie Johnston: Irish Emigrant Ship| Tayto: Ireland’s Most Famous Crisps|Dublin City: Worlds Natural Wonders in One City| Best Cities to Visit in Ireland| The Famous Book of Kells|

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