National Library of Ireland

Dublin, Ireland | C.1877

Photo Credit: David Maguire

The island of Ireland is about one tenth the size of Texas. To put that into perspective, you could fit almost 100 Irelands into Australia. Its population—the Republic and Northern Ireland combined—is around 6.7 million people, which would place it at #53 on the list of the world’s largest cities, not countries. And yet, this tiny isle has produced some of humanity’s finest published authors, poets, and playwrights. James Joyce. Oscar Wilde. Samuel Beckett. Jonathan Swift. George Bernard Shaw. William Butler Yeats. Eavan Boland. Bram Stoker. Seamus Heaney. Frank McCourt. Anne Enright. Iris Murdoch. Colm Tóibín. To name but a few. With such a profound literary heritage, it’s fitting that one of Dublin’s most impressive and often-frequented buildings is its remarkable National Library.

Much like the prodigious works and notable characters whose art is preserved upon its hallowed shelves, there is nothing average about this library. For starters, this library does not lend out its treasures. Instead, you may peruse most of its collections within one of its many reading rooms.

Home to a stunning array of rare books and historical records, alongside many of the notebooks in which the country’s finest works were drafted, the library boasts 10 million artifacts available to view (on-site or in its growing digital archive). Many of those records are sought after by the thousands of people who visit each year to trace their family history. Chances are good that you’ll find the obscure article or image you’re seeking. After all, the library’s records, gathered for over 140 years, constitute the most comprehensive collection of Irish documentary material in the world, with every page preserved in order to represent the country’s history, its heritage, its memory, its story.

But it would be impossible to tell any story in true Irish form without adding a pinch of the absurd, a wink that the audience may or may not fully comprehend. The history of Ireland’s “memory keeper”— as the National Library is called—delivers. With such a robust story to tell and with so many records to keep, severe shortage of space became an issue for the NLI during its earliest days. Further properties in the vicinity were acquired, including numbers 2 and 3 Kildare Street (previously part of the Kildare Street Club—a private social club dating back to the 18th century). The architect of the library and the Kildare buildings, Thomas Newenham Deane, was known for adding sculptures of “whimsical beasts” to his structures, most notably the billiard-playing monkeys on the Kildare Club building. One monkey is leaning over the table taking a shot; another is chalking his cue; still another is watching idly. Who actually sculpted these sophisticated, competitive primates? It may be difficult to get a straight answer, as this remains a longstanding controversy among Dubliners.

Regardless, the next time you visit the wonders of the National Library of Ireland, after exploring the legendary whimsy in the pages of Joyce or Wilde, or the beasts created by Jonathan Swift or Bram Stoker, step outside and seek out another form of immortal genius: the monkey billiard game that will never end.

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