25th Anniversary Series Blog 3

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25th Anniversary Series Blog 3

1800s – Public Libraries & the Power of Knowledge

Early 1800s Ireland was a nation of people dejected and fervent for change, but ignorant of the means for that change. Repression and the demise of old, traditional ways led to a yearning which was to be appeased through the power of discourse and knowledge. The ancient proverb ‘The battles of tomorrow are won in the practice of today’ was an ideology which was to anchor the importance of education; empower the masses; and, as such, epitomise the inception of the public library movement in Ireland (1).

Educate that you may be free

In 1820s Ireland, poverty proved a prime obstacle to knowledge. At this time, books were elusive and newspapers scarce and expensive. With the cost of even a single newspaper prohibitive to the pocket of a labouring man, such ‘luxuries’ were the privilege of the middle and higher classes (2). Information lay far beyond the grasp of the majority of the population.

Thomas Davis

In 1829, Catholic emancipation was achieved through political agitation, which spurred a rare confidence in the people. The right to knowledge became the rallying cry of the inventors of modern Irish democracy. In 1840, Thomas Davis, Irish writer and advocate of Irish cultural revival and Irish nationalism, writes:

For God’s sake get O’ Connell to undertake, or allow others to undertake, a plenipotentiary mission to establish Repeal Reading Rooms, and give them books and good advice. Damn the ignorance of the people; but for that we should be lords of our own future’ (2).

With the nation’s passions palpable, Irish political leader Daniel O’ Connell spawned the repeal of the Union between Great Britain and Ireland, which gave rise to the Repeal Reading Rooms – a precursor to public libraries in Ireland. The Reading Rooms served as a great educational agency, and being overtly political, provided a space where information and intelligence were disseminated to the public. Although short-lived, the reading rooms served to whet the appetites of many to the power of knowledge (2).

National School System

This era simultaneously welcomed another genesis of change which was to ignite the people’s zeal for knowledge – the national publicly-funded school system, established in the 1830s. For many, though this is where their formal education began and ended, the system fostered an appreciation for learning which continued after they left school. Unfortunately, however, such desires were fleeting, as they were hampered by lack of opportunity. Little progress could be made in the absence of books, but with the rising demands of an awakened people, the government knew to address their needs (2)(3).

A Parliamentary Deliberation – of Sorts!

This encompassing inclination towards mass education and knowledge acquisition provided a catalyst for the library movement, and in 1849, the government responded by appointing a Select Committee of the House of Commons on public libraries to find the ‘best means of extending the establishment of libraries freely open to the public especially in large towns in Great Britain and Ireland’ (3).

Intuitively, the House of Commons was aware that educating the population would be of immense benefit, economically and otherwise. Additionally, the offering could serve to placate the pervasive whispers of those aggrieved by lack of opportunity.

The bill was presented to Parliament, and what ensued was a rather curious debate which would dissect the social climate of the day. However, these deliberations failed to address the actual role of libraries as a route to knowledge, and thus, actually benefit readers!

Those averse to the bill noted the unjust nature of taxes, as well as the postulation that educating the working people could result in ‘unhealthy agitation’ – rather than keeping them where they ‘rightfully belong’. A slew of opposition was to follow, citing the ability of libraries to ‘disrupt family life, spread infectious disease and become the haunts of idlers and readers of trashy novels’ (3)(4). Those in favour of public libraries suggested that public libraries would keep said idlers out of the public houses and gin mils, the apparent preferred locale of the working classes and the poor, and off the streets, thus keeping the poor out of inevitable trouble and saving the establishment a degree of hassle in return (3)(4).

Haunts of idlers and readers of trashy novels

And it is so the bill was auspiciously passed—though it came about without any mention of the many advantages of free access to books for all (i.e., the actual objective of a public library). Nevertheless, this bill would serve to form the basis for the establishment and development of public libraries to come and would prevail and be influential for over one hundred years.

Public Libraries (Ireland) Act, 1855

The bill gave rise to the Public Libraries and Museum Act (1850) and was entered in the statute books. The Act was extended to Ireland in 1853 but had no immediate effect, since it only allowed municipal authorities with populations of 10,000 and upwards to establish libraries, of which few such sized authorities existed in Ireland (2). The Act was replaced in 1855 by the Public Libraries (Ireland) Act, which remains today the principal Act for Ireland. It was an adoptive Act which proved somewhat more effective, as it applied to any borough council or Board of Municipal Commissioners of towns with populations of 5,000 or over, a more reasonable figure for Irish demographics (2)(4). While the act was welcomed with interest in the press, it was slow to penetrate at a ground level.

House of Commons

Challenges Encountered by The Public Library Movement

The decade in which the Public Library (Ireland) Act reached these shores—the 1850s—was a stark and bleak period, marred by extreme poverty, as the nation was dealing with the after-effects of the famine and the demise of its traditional culture. Ireland was poor and agricultural, unlike its neighbour, who had embraced the industrial revolution – a more inviting climate in which to establish the benefits of books. But in Ireland there existed a predilection towards education and its advantages in the face of such adversity. In the late 1800s, following his travels of the country, Edward Wakefield announced the Irish ‘anxious, nay eagerly anxious for the education of their children’(5).

Anxious to educate their children

Literature & Illiteracy

Considering that employment prospects of young Irishmen and Irishwomen of the 1800s were limited to that of manual work not requiring literacy or numeracy, such as the likes of farm labourers, domestic servants, spinners and labourers, the level of demand for literature was quite remarkable. Secular private schooling and informal education offered through ‘hedge schools’ and small one-teacher establishments provided by members of the clergy and delivered in the chapels of rural developments, as well as the national school system of the 1830s, all lead to this thirst for knowledge (5). Despite such advances and ambitions, however, illiteracy levels amongst the population remained high and thus a restriction towards the library movement, particularly in the early to mid-century (6).

1861 Census Ireland

The late 1800s welcomed many organisations – namely the aforementioned Repeal Reading rooms as well as the Literary Revival – whose aim was to address such difficulties. Thus, the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw an improvement in literacy rates and gave rise to a greater scope for the public library movement.

Celtic Twilight

In the latter half of the 19th century and early 20th century, the public libraries movement encountered a somewhat competing force. With library visitation being viewed in Ireland as a rather English pursuit, the newly founded Literary Societies and the Irish Literary Revival served to offer an alternative (2).

This era saw Ireland alight with prolific literary talents, whose artistic contributions and provocations would cast their influence far beyond their field. W.B. Yeats was a driving force behind this movement, and together with many of his contemporaries, sought to reignite a traditional Irish lifestyle articulated through the written word.

In 1892, Yeats founded the National Literary Society. Douglas Hyde served as the society’s first president – and would later become the first President of Ireland. In 1893, while the libraries movement was striving to form a reading society in English, Hyde, Eoin MacNeill and Father Eugene O’ Growny founded the Conradh na Gaeilge (Gaelic League), whose aim was to revive the dying Irish Language (2).

In 1904, Yeats, Lady Gregory and Edward Martyn founded the National Theatre of Ireland – the Abbey Theatre – the venue by which their literary gifts took form and life. In 1909, Irish dramatist and poet Lennox Robinson became manager of the Abbey Theatre; later Robinson would be appointed to a role of great significance in the development of public libraries in Ireland (2)(3).

Yeats Hyde Robinson

This literary movement tapped into the country’s brewing passions for an Irish Celtic heritage revival, while also serving to rouse a nationalistic spirit (2). With the burgeoning public library movement imminent, such radical and modernistic thinkers and intellectual heavyweights seized the opportunity to bring knowledge to the people by advocate for the movement, thus serving the population in a meaningful way (1). The decades to follow would result in a flourishing of public libraries throughout the country. Openly embraced by such progressive and proactive leaders of Irish society and promoters of ‘all things Irish’, public libraries would soon become the literal stomping grounds of all-night celebrations of Irish culture.

Legislative Restrictions

There proved to be three great limitations to the development of public libraries in Ireland: the Public Libraries Act 1850 related only to metropolitan or urban areas, the levied rate of a half penny in the pound per annum proved insufficient to fund library development, and there was no provision made for capital grants for buildings. Such restraints necessitated amendments to the 1850 Act in order to further public library development over the next fifty years (2)(4).

Evaluation of the situation in Ireland led to three key changes to the Act of 1850 – the levied rate was raised to one penny in the pound per annum; parishes were allowed to group together to meet population requirement; and crucially, the Act of 1902 allowed rural districts to establish public libraries. Despite improved legislation, local authorities were slow to follow. The reality was monies raised from rates enforced on unwilling ratepayers were just barely enough to run a library and were thoroughly insufficient for acquiring a building for such a purpose. By 1880 there had only been two public libraries established under the act in Ireland: Dundalk in 1858, and Sligo in 1880. Cork was the first city to adopt the Public Libraries (Ireland) Act 1855, but it was not until 1892 that the rate was implemented (2)(3).

The advancement of the public library system seemed futile under such austere circumstances—until the benevolence of a Scottish-born, American philanthropist and millionaire helped to steer the movement into more promising times.

By Laura Flanagan, Fingal Libraries


Next Monday, July 22nd: Libraries in Rural Ireland, American Philanthropist, Newspaper Rooms and much more!


We hope you join us!


For your interest:

Fingal Libraries Local Studies and Archives is a repository of photographs and documents, private and donated collections, encapsulating visual and literary snapshots of Fingal and the Dublin area through history.

It is a treasure trove for anyone looking to unearth the rich culture and heritage that is the region of Fingal. Staff are exceptionally knowledgeable and always willing to help in your research.

Thanks to Catherine, Brian and Karen for allowing access to archives for this blog series.

Research material used in the blog series can be found through the Encore catalogue on Libraries Ireland website:

University of the People: celebrating Ireland’s public libraries: the Thomas Davis lectures 2002. An Chomhairle Leabharlanna. 2003 Call No. 027.4415

Public libraries in the 21st century : defining services and debating the future / Anne Goulding. 2006. Call No. 027.44

A history of literacy and libraries in Ireland : the long traced pedigree / Mary Casteleyn. 1984. Call No. 027.0415 Ireland

Irish Carnegie Libraries : A Catalogue and Architectural History / Grimes, Brendan. 1998. Call No. 027.4415

Dublin Libraries : A Pictorial Record / Lennon, Sean. 2001. Call No. 027.0418

Another invaluable resource during research included the Irish Newspaper Archive, available for use on public PCs at your local Fingal Library.


(1) Kiberd D, The Library and Imaginative Freedom. In : McDermott N. (ed) The University of the People: celebrating Ireland’s public libraries: the Thomas Davis lectures 2002. Dublin: An Chomhairle Leabharlanna; 2003. p.79-89.
(2) A history of literacy and libraries in Ireland: the long traced pedigree / Mary Casteleyn. 1984.
(3) Grimes B, Carnegie Libraries in Ireland. In : McDermott N. (ed) The University of the People: celebrating Ireland’s public libraries: the Thomas Davis lectures 2002. Dublin: An Chomhairle Leabharlanna; 2003. p.31-41.
(4) Hardiman N, Haunt of the Idlers or Centre for Learning? Public Libraries 1849-1949. In : McDermott N. (ed) The University of the People: celebrating Ireland’s public libraries: the Thomas Davis lectures 2002. Dublin: An Chomhairle Leabharlanna; 2003. p.13-29.
(5) Ó Gráda C, School Attendance and Literacy before the Famine: A Sample Baronial Analysis. UCD Centre for Economic Research, Working Paper Series 2010. 2010. Available from: https://www.academia.edu [Accessed 7th July 2019].
(6) Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (HMSO), Census of Ireland 1861: Part II, Report and Tables on Ages and Education (volume I). 1863. Available from: https://archive.org/details/op1248752-1001 [Accessed June 30th 2019].