Notes on a Lecture | The Iveagh League
Libraries Curator of the National Trust, Mark Purcell, on country house libraries in Ireland, at the Irish Georgian Society lecture in the National Liberal Club
“When we think of historic private libraries we tend to associate them with the grand aristocrats of Palladian country houses but there were much earlier examples. There was a library in the now ruinous 16th century Maynooth Castle. Kanturk Castle, which incidentally was the National Trust’s first Irish property until it was transferred to An Taisce, was another case.
There aren’t that many privately owned libraries in Ireland. One of the great survivors is Clonalis, a slightly unlovely villa, but with contents going back much earlier. Ironically, it’s the library of a Catholic dynasty. Tullamore is another of the great surviving libraries. Thanks to Valerie Pakenham. Townley Hall is preserved as a building but the remains of its library are in Trinity College Dublin. The great Nash library at Caledon is only partially intact; much of it is now in Queen’s University.
Edith and Charlie Londonderry had two libraries at Mount Stewart. Their descendant Lady Mairi Bury gave them to the National Trust along with the house. The library at Castle Coole belongs to the private collection of John Belmore. It has an intensity of 18th century riches. But this library also retains all of its 20th century ‘trash books’ which makes it extremely interesting! On the eve of the Famine, there were over 2,000 Big Houses and presumably over half had substantial libraries? Plus pre Union there were the great houses of Dublin too. Some libraries disappeared in country house burnings of 20th century Ireland but many more did in major sales.
Florence Court is one of my favourite country house libraries of Ulster. I was very much involved in the rescue of the collection. The Earl and Countess of Enniskillen did not get on with the National Trust. They upped sticks in 1974 and moved the entire contents of the house to Perthshire. But in 2000 after a long hiatus the Dowager Countess came to an arrangement for many of the contents to be returned to Florence Court. My favourite book is the 1868 collection of photographs by the Kilkenny photographer John Hudson. It includes Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge which is now owned by the National Trust.
Then there is the octagonal tower at The Argory. It once housed a library. But in 1890 a servant named Tommy Sloane accidentally sent it up in smoke. The servants rescued linen and chair covers but not the books. Although there is no library as such now at The Argory, there are 8,500 books scattered all over the rest of the house. They represent a 20th century provincial collection. Like good wine, they may improve with age!”