Marsh’s Library

One of Dublin’s Hidden Gems:

This is one place I have been meaning to visit for years and I finally got around to it this summer when an exhibition of early medical textbooks ‘Hippocrates Revived’ was opened. The library is the oldest public library in Ireland, founded in 1701 by Archbishop Narcissus Marsh (1638-1713). An Act of Parliament of 1707 declared itself ‘An Act for settling and preserving of a public library for ever’ and so Marsh’s survives in much the same form to this day. The main change is that the library’s entire catalogue is now available on line, something that Archbishop Marsh could scarcely have envisaged.

I love being in old libraries even if you are not allowed to touch the books without surgical gloves. As you walk into the library, the wonderful old musty books smell hits you and you know that you have mysteriously stepped back a couple of centuries in time (at this point the computers in the office are not visible so the image is perfect). The bookcases are of beautifully aged polished oak with gabled tops decorated with bishops’ mitres. All right, I admit that the oak would have been quite young when the library was first built, but you take my point about the atmosphere I am sure. You feel that the Archbishop himself might just appear from around a corner at any moment.

Apparently, the books are still shelved pretty much as they were when Marsh and the first librarian Elias Bouhéreau originally arranged them. And the library still has the three cages where readers were locked in with valuable books or books that were too small to be chained to the desks. A skull now reposes tastefully on a desk in one of the cages. I assume it is not the sole earthly remains of a long dead scholar, but then you never know…

‘Hippocrates Revived’ is not for the faint of heart; there are plenty of detailed woodcuts and engravings illustrating the texts (showing you exactly what not to attempt at home) from several centuries of medical knowledge. It is truly amazing to have it brought home to you so clearly quite how far we have come in our store of medical science. In a not so serious vein I was rather taken with The Pisse-Prophet; or, certain piss-pot lectures by Thomas Brian (1679).  Here the author takes issue with certain doctors (aka quacks) who claim to be able to diagnose illness by studying the urine of the patient. I am sure that this volume (‘sold by Ben Thrale at the sign of the Bible at the lower end of Cheapside’) was well worth the money at the time.

I hope not to leave it too long before I make another visit to Marsh’s Library. For further information on the library and any current exhibitions see www.marshlibrary.ie

This piece was previously published on Hand and Star in 2010.

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