Since I started researching my genealogy in 2011, I’ve spent a lot of time in dusty old libraries. It’s kind of a requirement; there are a number of records indexed and available online these days, but at some point, due to some brick wall, we all find ourselves sitting in front of a microfilm reader, searching hour after hour for our own John Smith. This week’s 52 Ancestors prompt is “At the Library,” and I’m taking a detour from my research to highlight my favorite library to date: Trinity College Library, a legal deposit or “copyright library” in Dublin that is best-known as the home of the Book of Kells, the Book of Durrow and the Brian Boru Harp.
The main chamber of the Old Library, known as the “Long Room,” was constructed between 1712 and 1732, and it houses 200,000 of the library’s oldest books. This is the portion of the library that I visited in 2017, and it’s just as the name implies: a two-story rectangular room with shelf after shelf of books. Each shelf, in turn, is capped with a marble bust of a prominent philosopher or writer, including William Shakespeare, Aristotle, Jonathan Swift and Socrates. At the center of the room is the Brian Boru Harp–a wire-strung cláirseach that dates to the thirteenth or fourteenth century–as well as a copy of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic.
The Book of Kells, c. 800 AD
A low-lit gallery off the main chamber houses the Book of Kells and the Book of Durrow, two illuminated manuscripts containing the four Gospels that were written and bound c. 800 AD and c. 700 AD, respectively. The Book of Durrow is the oldest completed Insular Gospel book, but the Book of Kells’ illustrations and ornamentation surpass it in extravagance and complexity. The decoration of each combines traditional Christian iconography with ornate, swirling motifs. Figures of humans, animals and mythical beasts, together with Celtic knots and interlacing patterns in vibrant colors, enliven the manuscript’s pages. Many of these minor decorative elements are imbued with Christian symbolism, further emphasizing the themes of the major illustrations.
The Book of Durrow, c. 700 AD
I cannot describe how it felt to be in the same room as the Book of Durrow and the Book of Kells, two manuscripts that I studied in history class after history class in college. I cannot describe how it felt to simply stand in a seemingly endless room of books, or to be inches away from what many consider to be the oldest existent harp in the world; I am at a loss for words. I can say, though, that the Trinity College Library in Dublin is the coolest place that I have been (and probably the coolest place that I will ever be). As far as library’s go, it’s pretty impressive; maybe I’ll find an ancestor’s work among the library’s collection one day, too.