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Dr. Marsh's Library - an 18th century treasure house.

Narcissus Marsh (1638-1713) was an English clergyman whose greatest legacy to his adoptive country is his library near St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He was, variously, Bishop of Ferns and Archbishop of Cashel, Dublin and, later, Armagh. He was also the Provost of Trinity College, Dublin.

The library was built in 1703, and opened its doors in 1707. It was the first public library in Ireland, established by an Act of Parliament. It is also notable that it is one of the few 18th century buildings in Ireland which still fufills its original purpose.

Apart from Marsh’s own collection of books and manuscripts (though the bulk of his manuscripts were bequeathed to the University of Oxford), there are subsequent collections of importance, including manuscripts from the noted Orientalist Dudley Loftus, and the library of Edward Stillingfleet (1635-1699). More recently the Guinness papers from Farmleigh House were given to the Library, but remain at Farmleigh.

The library consists of tall oak shelving with reading alcoves between. At one point the alcoves were turned into “cages” into which readers were locked, with their books, to prevent theft, which was always a problem.

The library contains over 25,000 books in a most eclectic range of subjects: theology, geography, philosophy, biblical and religious studies, medicine, law, travel and navigation. Of note is the extensive collection of Judaica in both Hebrew and Yiddish, some from Marsh’s own library and the remainder from the Stillingfleet deposit.Though much of the collection on display is bound in standard brown calfskin typical of the 18th century, there are some very fine and unusual bindings. On display at the moment are a group of tiny books in Hebrew with exquisite edge decoration with Hebrew lettering and foliate design.

Another outstanding fine binding is a copy of All the Orations of Demosthenes, Thomas Leland (ed.), (Dublin, 1756) in red Morocco leather. From the Farmleigh House Collection, it is a rare example of the kind of work carried out by the notable Dublin Parliamentary Binders in the 18th century. Much of their work was destroyed by fire in the Four Courts in 1922.

The current exhibition is “Liked and Shared”, a selection of some of the most popular items which have been posted on social media. One is a unique broadsheet or advertisement for a prodigious eater, the “Grand Devourer of Buttermilk” who gave public demonstrations of his ability to eat “12 raw cabbages and three score raw potatoes”.

Another exhibit is a copy of Joseph Glanvill’s Saducismus Triumphatus with its frontispiece showing various witchcraft and poltergeist events from the 17th century. Holythorn Press will be publishing a modern English version of this important text in the near future.

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