The planned opening of Athy’s new library in the architectural gem which was the Dominican Church prompts me to hand over this week’s Eye on the Past to my daughter Carol, from whose article ‘Reading in the Duke’s ballroom’ the following extracts are taken. The full article appeared in No. 49 of the Dublin Review five years ago.
‘When I came to write about a library, I began to think about community. And when I thought about community, the first that sprang to mind was one that I had left behind. In Dublin, we usually went to the library on Saturday mornings. It was one of the weekend rituals, like trotting to the newsagent along the small path dozens of children had worn through an undeveloped patch of housing estate. To a six-year-old, the estate was vast, a concrete prairie. The town we moved to, Athy, seemed more hemmed in. Passing strangers were much more likely to call you by name to ask if you were doing the messages, or remark on who you looked like, or tell you that they knew your grandfather. Until we moved there, I didn’t look like anyone but myself. And I was shy. Urban anonymity, I quickly decided, suited me much better. Even now, when I come back to Athy, strangers will tell me they haven’t seen me in ages, or give me something to pass on to my father, or continue a story that they assume I understand……….
Athy library is typical of libraries in those small rural towns that the Carnegie movement never reached. Instead of the Romanesque buildings found in Dublin suburbs, or the contemporary architectural showpieces that popped up in some of the larger provincial towns during the boom, most rural libraries occupy buildings constructed for other purposes: market houses, churches, courthouses. On a grey day, the streets surrounding Athy library can seem shabby. The vacant shop windows are multiplying. But the anchor for these meandering streets is the imposing stone building that divides the large market square, the oldest part of which dates to the 1740s. It was then a market house with a broad arcade. By the early nineteenth century that arcade was blocked in with stone, but the building still retained a degree of elegance until a third floor was added in 1913, leaving it fat and heavy, with a more forbidding appearance. Over the preceding century it had become the administrative centre of the garrison town, serving as courthouse and home to the borough council. This was where Lord Norbury, the infamous ‘hanging judge’ presided over the trials of those implicated in the rebellion of 1798. On the front wall, there are still two stone reliefs displaying the scales of justice, one overlaid with the Irish harp, the other with the British crown. It is in the first-floor ballroom, added by a later duke, that the library now resides……….
Reading is a solitary activity, but the library is a social space. It is a funny contradiction, and one I used to resolve by spending as little time in libraries as possible. But this modern community library is far from the place I remember. In the straitened 1980s, Athy library was still housed in a dark room in the courthouse building across the square. To a small child, it seemed very likely that the librarian had taken inspiration from the magistrates who preceded her. Getting to the appropriate shelves meant clattering through a series of low chairs and tables that were always too closely spaced. Clattering back in the opposite direction was not encouraged. Straying from child to adult sections was not allowed. Supervision was total. The strange darkness was a product of the building’s Tudor Revival architecture. At the back there was still what looked like a barred cell sitting open to the air……….
When I visited the library as a child, it was generally for escapism. And perhaps I spent more time playing outside in the cells than I did in the dank reading room. I did not pay attention to it, any more than I paid attention to a sense of community, or history, or belonging. It was simply there. In the hotchpotch of a building at the centre of the town that houses the current library, I now realize, is stored nearly three centuries of community life. And I also realize by now that the stories I grew up on, about the town I refused to belong to, long ago seeped in without my noticing. So I came to understand that this community library is Athy’s natural heart and its best resource.’