In the last decade of the eighteenth century the young Daniel O’ Connell spent many a long evening in Dublin city centre. His favourite building was the Dublin Library Society premises on Eustace Street, which was later to find its permanent home at 24 D’Olier Street, in a building designed for it by George Papworth, the son of an English stuccoist. The D’Olier street building was to remain the society’s home until the library closed in 1881.
O’Connell declared that if the library stayed open until 1am he would be found there. As it was, it closed at10pm. It was in the Eustace Street premises that O’Connell‑ making copious notes ‑ slowly made his way through the works of such writers as Gibbon, Adam Smith and Boswell. It seems he bonded emotionally and politically with the institution, serving as one of its vice-presidents from 1822 to 1842.
Unlike most libraries of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century the Dublin Library Society was not a circulating library. Circulating libraries were commercial ventures which contributed greatly to the spread of reading and what was known at the time as “the dissemination of knowledge”. However, the range of titles available there fell far short of the requirements of scholars and intellectuals. John Archer’s bookshop had provided a space in Dublin where discriminating readers could access a wide range of newspapers, pamphlets, periodicals and the latest specialist books in a number of languages. Archer was one of a number of successful eighteenth century Dublin booksellers. (The bottom was to fall out of the city’s book trade with the passage of the Act of Union in 1800 and the application of British copyright laws to Ireland.)
Archer was undoubtedly sympathetic to intellectuals and their needs but, for all that, his premises were a shop, not a library. What was required was a new institution devoted to serious literature both contemporary and ancient. The only other serious libraries in the city were Marsh’s and Trinity, both of which had limitations either in terms of range or access. There had, it seems, been several earlier attempts to establish private libraries in Dublin, one as early as 1754. However, these private libraries do not appear to have prospered. (The Linen Hall Library in Belfast is a library which has survived from that era. It was founded by artisans in 1788 and still functions as an important research library.)
The Dublin Library Society had been established in 1791 to meet the needs of the city’s serious readers. Membership was one guinea per annum. (O’Connell says he paid two guineas in 1796.) A large number of books was acquired and by 1818 the library had 1,200 members. The 1820s and 1830s were its most successful period. During that time there were some political and some practical matters that absorbed the attention of the library’s administrators. The practical matter of shrinkage (thieving) which libraries, and indeed booksellers, have experienced over the centuries was one issue which came to a head in the 1830s. It was hoped that increased stamping with the society’s seal ‑ a harp surmounted with shamrocks – would reduce the thefts, which it was felt were being carried out by both staff and readers. Political matters did not usually obtrude blatantly. However, in the heady atmosphere of the 1820s O’Connell organised a successful campaign to have the anti-Emancipation and increasingly sectarian Dublin Evening Mail excluded.
Politics had also affected the affairs of the library in the preceding decade. Some of the society’s established figures objected that the area set aside for debate within the library was coming under the control of “persons fond of change” who were turning it into “a political newspaper club”. It was impossible for the library to remain aloof from the new politics that was emerging in a city that found itself without both its parliament and the Catholic Emancipation that had been expected to accompany the Union of 1800. The worries of the old hands were not misplaced and they were duly forced out of their positions in 1811. The new mood was further established by the election of John Philpot Curran as president in 1813, after which membership rose steeply. When, in the following decade, Lord Cloncurry became president, the library’s popular prestige grew further. Cloncurry had been involved in the 1798 rebellion and enjoyed great popularity in the city as a ’98 patriot.
The library’s decline began in the 1840s. The reasons are not entirely clear but may have been connected with the demands of the repeal campaign, which left those involved in promoting and opposing it with time for little else. Very few books were purchased in the 1840s and 1850s and by 1854 membership had declined to several hundred. The decline and general loss of interest was entrenched when in 1854 the Rev JB MacDonnell, provost of Trinity College, was elected president. His passion in life was billiards rather than books. He had a billiard room installed in the library and some little time later a second one.
At some point after this The Alliance and Dublin Consumers Gas company took ownership or some form of interest in the building. The decline of the library continued apace. Money went missing, there were debts to the Gas Company and efforts at retrenchment failed. The society’s final president was Mountifort Longfield, the first professor of political economy at Trinity, who was the main force behind the Dublin Chess Club which met at the library.
In its final few years the library’s former name was abandoned and it became the D’Olier Street Club. In 1881 the by then inevitable closure occurred and some ten thousand volumes were sold off. Books which were originally purchased for the Dublin Library Society still turn up at antiquarian book auctions, distinguished by their stamp featuring the shamrock festooned harp. (There are conflicting accounts of the time-line during this final phase. According to one account the D’Olier Street Club only came into being after 1881 and the Gas Company acquired the building in 1884 on payment of a purchase price of £5,000. The original construction cost in 1818 was £5,600.)
With the closure of the library, the Gas Company moved into the building and began various extensions of their premises. Some decades later, in the 1930s, the company completely renovated the building refacing the original flat-fronted Georgian edifice with polished granite and black marble. The interior was also radically changed, resulting in what is now the city’s finest Art Deco building. The rear of the Gas Company premises, which fronted onto Hawkins Street, was remodelled in Tudor style at the same time.
In 2001 the Gas Company moved out and sold the building to Trinity and it now houses the college’s School of Nursing and Midwifery.