The collection of Marsh’s Library was greatly enhanced by the first librarian – Élie Bouhéreau. He was a Huguenot who fled France with his family to escape persecution in the late-17th century. The Huguenot community found sanctuary in Ireland, and were given the use of the Lady Chapel of St Patrick’s Cathedral as a place of worship. Élie was appointed by Archbishop Narcissus Marsh as the first librarian of his new library. This was a great coup for Archbishop Marsh, not only was Éile a highly intelligent person who was ideal for the job, but he had also managed to smuggle out his vast and important collection of books and manuscripts, which he agreed to bequeath to the library upon his death.
His books remain there now for all to see in the Reading Room that connects the two galleries. They are still shelved together in their original bindings. However these volumes also tell another story than that of their contents and Élie Bouhérau – if you look closely at some of the volumes you can still see bullet holes. A legacy of stray fire during the tumultuous 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin.
One of the most remarkable features of the library are the lockable cages at the end of the second gallery. They served as small reading areas, scholars wishing to peruse any of the valuable books would find themselves locked in to prevent them stealing any copies. Perhaps a more effective security system than a library fine! Outside the library you can find the elegant gardens, once the private demesne of the library keeper now it serves as a bright burst of greenery after being in the elegant book-filled gloom of the interior.
Today Marsh’s Library is a rewarding visit, with an ever-changing exhibition that highlights different aspects of the collection throughout the year. If you can, please consider leaving a donation in the collection boxes in the library – the funds go towards the conservation and upkeep of the precious books.