At the heart of Cork City is a village all of its own, an oasis of calm, a haven of reflection and a shelter for anyone who wants to come in and sit down and read or just rest. Cork City Library is open six days a week and it’s free to anyone who calls in.
By Donal O’Keeffe
“The Library is the last democratic space in Irish society,” says Tina Healy, senior executive librarian in Cork City Library. “Where else can anyone – regardless of their wealth or social standing – just walk in and sit down and read for free a paper or a book?”
If you walk in off of the Grand Parade, you’ll feel immediately at home in a place which is open to everyone, which welcomes everyone, and which is owned by everyone.
To the left, as you enter the Library’s security doors, is the Children’s and Teens’ Library. Inside, you’re struck immediately that this is a bright, airy space, with small coloured tables and chairs arranged below beautiful, cartoon lampshades. The shelves are vibrant with the multi-coloured spines of different sized books. The Librarian’s desk is adorned with pictures coloured by visitors. One particularly eye-catching picture is of Cowboy Woody with his horse Bullseye, coloured by Clara, aged 8.
Seventeen children from First Class in St Mary’s of the Isle are visiting. They are accompanied by their teacher and classroom assistant and they seem thrilled with the books they have chosen. The kids are well-behaved but at the same time bubbling over with excitement. Every day sees a different classroom visit, says librarian Eibhlin Cassidy, and she stresses that you’re never too young or too old for the library.
The shelves are crammed with familiar childhood names like the Mister Men, Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, Tintin, Asterix, Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and newer names too, like Derek Landy, Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Horrible Histories.
Librarian Mary O’Leary says literacy owes JK Rowling a debt of gratitude, because Harry Potter led so many children to The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings and so much more, making committed readers of them.
Through the main doors, past busts of Seán O Faoláin and Frank O’Connor, is the main library. This is the largest, and busiest part of the building. At the main desk, librarian Sorcha Fogarty says it’s great to see so many people still borrowing books.
“It’s a very friendly, welcoming environment, and it’s great to see people still like to come in, just to have a chat. We have some regular visitors who face challenges in life and we try – and I hope succeed – in treating people with dignity and equality.
“People love the New Fiction shelf. Audiobooks are hugely popular, as is the Larger Print section with our older readers. The majority of visitors use the internet here.”
Down the centre of the library, the pillars on one side are decorated with quotes from Frank O’Connor, and on the other WB Yeats quotes translated into a variety of languages. To the back is the Rory Gallagher Music Library. Outside is a display cabinet containing a carved stone plaque depicting Gallagher. The plaque was donated by Gallagher’s biographer Marcus Connaughton. Across the way is another display cabinet, this one containing a replica of Rory’s Fender Sunburst Stratocaster.
The way into the Rory Gallagher Music Library is decorated on one side by further Rory memorabilia and on the other by a long notice-board advertising upcoming gigs and concerts, guitar lessons, cello lessons, violin lessons and a course in making and repairing musical instruments. From within comes – appropriately – the sound of the Blues.
The music played here is chosen democratically, says librarian Bernard Cotter, by librarians and from suggestions from the public. Looking at the shelves, every taste in music seems to be catered for here. From Folk to Rock, Classical to Pop, Opera to Sean Nós, every genre is represented. Sorcha Fogarty says Cork’s music library is recognised as the finest in Ireland.
On the first floor is the Reference Library. This is a large, open room, at the centre of which are long tables. Today, perhaps thirty people sit around, reading, studying and working. Each desk is custom-built with charging ports for phones and other devices, thanks to the foresight of former reference librarian Peggy Barrett.
Librarian Eileen O’Sullivan says the library regularly hosts talks and presentations, and every day, people come in to study, to read newspapers or just to bask in the library’s sense of peace.
“You can read a vast array of journals, from the RTÉ Guide to Studia Hibernica. We cater for everyone. We index articles from journals and newspapers, to make them available to people working on projects, and we offer free digital magazines and online courses with your library membership. We offer free membership in all seven branches of Cork’s library service.”
On the library’s top floor is the Local Studies Department, where librarian Stephen Leach is on duty. Here, in the stacks, is where daily and weekly history is lovingly bound in huge leather volumes. Every Evening Echo back to 1961 is kept here in hard copy. Editions prior to that, all the way back to the paper’s foundation in 1892, are available in digital form. Every Examiner back to 1980 is here in print, and digitized right back to 1841. Here too are bound copies of the Cork Constitution from 1838 to 1923, and local papers like the Corkman, the Avondhu and the Imokilly People.
In the Reference Library, Tom Clarke is working on his laptop. He’s 56 now and he’s been visiting the library regularly since he was nine. He’s passionate about this place.
“This is a vitally important part of our city,” he says. “It’s all too easy to eliminate the idea of public spaces, and it’s very important that we don’t allow public spaces to be diminished. It’s vitally important for our democracy that we retain our commitment to the concept of a shared public space.”
The Library Service’s own long history mirrors the story of modern Ireland
Cork has long loved its library, and is this year celebrating 125 years of the Library Service. Cork was the first Irish city to adopt the Public Libraries (Ireland) Act of 1855, but it wasn’t until February of 1892 that Cork City Council empanelled a committee to establish a public library service for the city. Cork’s first City Librarian, James Wilkinson, served from 1892 to 1934, through the tumultuous times which would shape modern Ireland, from the reign of Queen Victoria, through the Great War, the War of Independence and the Civil War.
Cork’s first public reading room opened in December 1892 in the Crawford Municipal Buildings on Emmet Place (now the Crawford Art Gallery). The reading room was instantly popular, in its first year seeing as many as five hundred visitors every day. The reading room began a lending service in July 1893, and this service was so popular the library committee reported its greatest difficulty was “the inability to provide books in sufficient numbers to meet the demands of borrowers”. The reading room also held Ireland’s first library collection of children’s books.
The library service moved to Anglesea Street in 1905, to a purpose-built facility financed by the Scottish philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. In December 1920, the Carnegie Free Library was destroyed by arson attack by Crown Forces during the Burning of Cork. Everything not out on loan was lost to fire. Within days, James Wilkinson had issued an appeal to the public for the donation of books. “Our books are now in a heap of ashes; our Library but four bare walls.” By September 1924, Wilkinson had established a lending service in Tuckey Street, and by September 1930 the library – its collections rebuilt – had moved to 57-58 Grand Parade, its home to this day.
Originally published in the Evening Echo, Wednesday 27 December 2017