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IFLANET home - International Federation of Library 
Associations and InstitutionsAnnual 

64th IFLA Conference Logo

   64th IFLA General Conference
   August 16 - August 21, 1998


Code Number: 100-132-E
Division Number: V.
Professional Group: Rare Books and Manuscripts
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 132.
Simultaneous Interpretation:   No

Archbishop Narcissus Marsh and the Foundation of the First Public Library in Ireland

Muriel McCarthy
Marsh's Library
Dublin, Ireland


Archbishop Narcissus Marsh (1638-1713) built with his own money the first public library in Ireland, situated close to St. Patrick's Cathedral. The library is now one of the few 18th century buildings in Dublin which is still used for its original purpose. March's library contains four major collections: the Stillingfleet collection, the Elias Bouthéreau's collection, March's own books which also included an Oriental collection as well as mathematics, astronomy and a substantial collection of Latin Judaica; the fourth was bequethed in 1745 by bishop John Stearne, who was a major Irish collector. March's interest in collecting Irish books and manuscripts was maintained by later generations of librarians of Marsh's. There are now 25 000 books in Marsh's including 90 incunabula, 3 100 books printed in the 16th and 11 600 from the 17th century. The catalogue of the entire collection of printed books has been computerized and is now accessible through the Internet.


In the shadow of St Patrick's Cathedral in St Patrick's Close in the heart of the city of Dublin stands one of the most beautiful buildings in Ireland. This is Marsh's Library, the first public library in these islands. Readers might like to know something about the Archbishop and the foundation of his library.

Narcissus Marsh (1638-1713) was an Englishman who was sent over to Ireland in 1679 to become Provost of Trinity College. He was born in 1638 in a village called Hannington, near Highworth in the north part of Wiltshire. When he was sixteen he was entered Commoner in Magdalen Hall in Oxford where he took his degree and was then elected to a Wiltshire Fellowship in Exeter College. He decided to become a priest. He was offered the living at Swindon and was ordained by Dr Skinner, the Bishop of Oxford, although he was under age for ordination. After some difficulties Marsh took up residence in Swindon, and then discovered to his horror that in return for his appointment he was expected to marry a friend of the persons responsible for his preferment. Marsh refused to marry. He wrote in his diary he had no intention of ever marrying, but on this occasion he offered the reason that his father was opposed to the marriage and he had no wish to disobey him. He left Swindon and returned to Oxford. The Bishop of Exeter was furious and demanded Marsh's resignation as his chaplain.

At Oxford, Marsh began to work for a doctorate of divinity. His studies included 'old philosophy, mathematicks and oriental languages'. He also altered and revised a book on logic which had been published in Oxford in 1662. Later Marsh printed this book for the students in Trinity College and it remained on the course until 1782. He wrote an 'Essay touching the (esteemed) sympathy between lute or viol strings' which was printed by Robert Plot in his Natural History of Oxfordshire in 1677. Marsh's only relaxation was his great love of music. He played the bass viol. He said: 'After the fire of London I constantly kept a weekly Consort (of instrumental musick and sometimes vocal) in my chamber on Wednesday in the afternoon, and then on Thursday, as long as I lived in Oxford'. Marsh was not entirely happy about this relaxation, remarking, 'Oh Lord, I beseech thee to forgive me this loss of Time and vain conversation'.

Marsh was next appointed Principal of St Alban's Hall in Oxford by the Duke of Ormond, who was Chancellor of the University. He made a great success of this position and it was no doubt his administrative and organisational ability which encouraged the Bishop of Oxford, Dr Fell, and the Duke of Ormond to suggest a more important appointment for Narcissus Marsh, the Provostship of Trinity College in Dublin.

Marsh accepted the position, and was sworn and invested Provost on 24th January 1679. But Marsh seems to have been unhappy in Trinity. He wrote in his diary: 'But finding this place very troublesome partly by reason of the multitude of business and impertinent [useless, trivial, irrelevant] visits the Provost is obliged to, and partly by reason of the ill education that the young Scholars have before they come to the College whereby they are both rude and ignorant; I was quickly weary of 340 young men and boys in this lewd and debauch'd town; and the more so because I had no time to follow my allways dearly beloved studies'. This constant complaint continues throughout Marsh's Diary. He was basically a scholar. He disliked 'worldly business', and was devoted to prayer and study. But he was also a very practical man and realised that the buildings and facilities for students and staff in the College were inadequate. He began by building a new College Hall and Chapel and he also developed the Library. He checked and revised the regulations for administering the Library, and insisted that when the new library keeper was appointed all the books in his care must be accounted for; and the next year, when a new library keeper was appointed he insisted that the old library keeper and the new library keeper should both check all the books, requiring the old library keeper to replace the missing books or pay for them.

When Marsh was in Trinity he played a major part in the preparation for printing of Bishop William Bedell's Irish translation of the Old Testament. Bishop Bedell had supervised the translation of the Old Testament into Irish before 1641 but it had never been printed. Marsh with the help of Dr Andrew Sall and a transcriber called Denine and some others prepared the transcripts which they then sent to the Hon. Robert Boyle in London. The Irish translation of the Old Testament was printed in London in 1685.

Marsh's next appointment was to the bishopric of Ferns and Leighlin. He was installed Bishop in Christ Church Cathedral on 6th May 1683. He took up residence in his diocese, but he did not stay for long; King James was on the throne, and these were difficult days for a protestant bishop in the Irish countryside. Marsh was subjected to various threats and there were several incidents which made his position impossible. He spent many days in hard study, 'especially in knotty Algebra to divert melancholy thoughts these sad and calamitous times wherein I am forced to live far from home'. Marsh returned to Dublin and stayed in the Provost's house and a short time later left for England. He returned to Ireland after the Battle of the Boyne and resumed his duties.

In 1683 when he was Bishop of Ferns and Leighlin Marsh became one of the first members of the Dublin Philosophical Society. He contributed an early paper to that Society, called 'An Introductory Essay on the Doctrine of Sounds, Containing some Proposals for the Improvement of Acoustics'. The paper was remarkable because of Marsh's use of three new words. He used diacoustics to describe the study of refracted sound, catacoustics for that of reflected sound, and most important of all, he was the first scientist to use the word microphone.

In 1690 Marsh became Archbishop of Cashel and four years later was promoted to the Archdiocese of Dublin. He undertook his new duties with diligence and never spared himself visiting his clergy throughout his large diocese. Archbishop Marsh was made Primate in January 1703. He was now 65 years old. Even so, he continued with his work for his Church. He repaired the Cathedral in Armagh, rebuilt many churches in the archdiocese at his own expense, and he contributed large sums of money to the missionaries in the Indies.

Although many of Marsh's contemporaries regarded him as a man of learning and virtue, they also thought he lacked courage to vindicate himself and assert his authority. That view of Marsh may have been true in some areas but not in regard to his church or to his treatment of one very famous Irishman, Dean Jonathan Swift. His treatment of Swift was to have unfortunate consequences for Marsh's reputation. When Swift applied to the Irish bishops to be ordained, the bishops insisted that because of Swift's long absence in England he should provide a certificate of his good behaviour. This greatly annoyed Swift and he applied to Marsh for ordination; Marsh, however, not only insisted on a testimonial, but he also demanded that the testimonial should be provided by Swift's previous employer, Sir William Temple. This compelled Swift towrite the famous 'penitential letter'. And some years later another example of Marsh's antipathy towards Swift occurred when he delayed promoting him to the vacant prebend at Dunlavin in County Wicklow. As a result of Marsh's harsh treatment, Swift wrote an unkind portrait of Narcissus Marsh:

It would be sad to end this account of Narcissus Marsh with Swift's harsh and, I think, unfair portrait of the Archbishop. Whatever Marsh's failings may have been, he did carry out one splendid act of great generosity. He built entirely with his own money the first public library in Ireland. Primate Narcissus Marsh died on the 2nd November 1713 in the 75th year of his age. He is buried in St. Patrick's Churchyard beside his beloved Library.

The Library

Marsh got the idea of building a public library when he was Provost of Trinity College. He observed how difficult it was to use the library there. The college library was only available to the staff and students and the local booksellers' shops were only furnished with 'new Triffles and Pamphletts, & not well with them also'. Marsh said, 'And 'twas this, & this consideration alone that at first mov'd me to think of building a library ... for publick use, where all might have free access'.

Although Marsh decided to build a public library shortly after his arrival in Dublin, he did not get the opportunity to do so until he became Archbishop of Dublin nearly twenty years later. As Archbishop of Dublin and one of the Lords Justices, he took part in the Government of Ireland and received generous payment for these duties. He also lived in the Palace of St Sepulchre adjoining St Patrick's Cathedral, which had a fairly large area of land attached to it. And it was on this land that Marsh built the Library.

The Library was designed by Sir William Robinson. It was beautifully arranged. I strongly believe that Archbishop Marsh must have given very strict instructions to his architect regarding the design of a library that he intended to be open to the public. It cost Marsh 5,000 and he intended spending another 500 on it.

The Library is now one of the few 18th century buildings left in Dublin which is still being used for its original purpose. The books are housed on the upper storey. The lower storey was designed as a residence for the Librarian who could therefore absorb all the damp in the building while the books were safely preserved upstairs!

The Library is furnished with magnificent dark oak bookcases each with a carved and lettered gable topped by a mitre. But the bookcases are a little different from the usual bookcases in this type of Library. The carved and lettered gable at the top gives a more elegant appearance to the entire Library and the pannelling and detail of the woodwork is superb. The First Gallery is 60 ft long and the Second Gallery is 76 ft long. At the end of the Second Gallery are three wired alcoves usually called 'The Cages'. These were intended by Marsh for the protection of the smaller more valuable books, although the charming story that readers were locked in these 'cages' as a security measure is also part of the Library's history. Another protective measure was the use of chains on the lower shelves of the bookcases throughout the entire Library. These chains were removed on the advice of the Librarian in the middle of the eighteenth century.

In 1705 Marsh purchased the library of the late Bishop Edward Stillingfleet (d.1699). This library contains nearly 10,000 books and Marsh paid just over 2000 for it. The Stillingfleet Collection, the most important in the Library, was acquired by Marsh very soon after the building was erected. Bishop Edward Stillingfleet had been Dean of St Paul's and later Bishop of Worcester. He was one of the best known preachers and writers of his day. Pepys in his Diary records that he went to hear Stillingfleet preach at Whitehall. Stillingfleet was known for his good looks and he was nicknamed 'the beauty of holiness'. But Stillingfleet was also one of the most influential divines in the Church of England in the seventeenth century. He acted as spokesman for the Anglican Church during a period of great religious conflict. Stillingfleet was renowned for his controversies with atheists, Roman Catholics, Protestants, and other religious groups. He preached sermons and wrote extensively on these disputes. His most famous controversy was with John Locke on the doctrine of the Trinity. Stillingfleet's book Origines Sacrae has been described by Sarah Hu as a work of immense erudition. In its day, it was reckoned one of the best defence of religious belief in general and of Christianity in particular. Stillingfleet was also a superb book-collector; indeed, he had continued to collect books to within a few weeks of his death. His library was regarded as the best private library in England. Dr Richard Bentley described it 'as the likes of which there was not anywhere in the world'. Ninian Wallis, after it had come to Ireland, referred to it as 'this golden fleece'. There was consternation in England at the proposed sale, and many attempts were made to find an English buyer - even King William was approached. But Marsh was successful, and the Stillingfleet Collection was brought to Dublin and placed in the First Gallery by Archbishop Marsh and the first Librarian Dr Bouhéreau in 1705. The Stillingfleet Collection contains books on a wide range of subjects including theology, history, the classics, law, medicine, and travel.

The second collection in the Library belonged to Elias Bouhéreau, a Huguenot refugee who fled from France in 1685 and came to Ireland in 1697. Archbishop Marsh appointed Bouhéreau the first librarian in 1701. His books, which he donated to the Library, relate to protestant theology and controversy and also to the protestant Académie of Saumur which he had attended. It is interesting to note that three of the most renowned scholars in the Académie of Saumur, Moise Amyraut, Louis Cappel and Taneguy Le Fèvre, were Bouhéreau's teachers. A prize book given to Bouhéreau when he was in the Académie has been signed by Amyraut and Le Fèvre.

Bouhéreau's library represents a typical scholar's library of the seventeenth century. Religious controversy, history, politics, science, medicine and many of the classical authors are well represented. There is also a considerable number of books relating to the French protestants and the Edict of Nantes. Dr. Bouhéreau's collection constitutes a unique source of information for the study of Calvinism.

Bouhéreau's library also represents his interest in modern medicine and intellectual developments in seventeenth century France. This can be seen in his purchase of the first issue and later issues of the Journal des Scavans, his medical prescriptions, and the latest publications on medicine and related subjects. Bouhéreau's only publication was a translation from Greek into French of a work by Origen, Traité d'Origène contre Celse, published in Amsterdam in 1700. It was mentioned by such notable French scholars as Bayle and Le Clerc.

The third collection consists of Marsh's own books, which he left to his Library at his death. Marsh's private collection is slightly different because it illustrates his special interest in oriental material including Arabic and Hebrew books.

Marsh's interest in languages began in Oxford where he studied oriental languages and rabbinical and medieval writers. He was part of a learned circle that specialized in oriental studies in Oxford. The members of this group exchanged gifts with each other, and an example of this can be seen in a charming inscription to Marsh by a member of the Buxtorf family in a Hebrew Bible printed in Venice in 1615. The librarian of the Bodleian Library also gave handsome gifts to Marsh including Edward Pococke's Arabic version of Hugo Grotius's De veritate religionis christianae (1660). Archbishop Marsh appears to have been a friend of Dr Pococke's judging from a letter he wrote to his friend Dr Thomas Smith in which he mentions 'the distinguished orientalist, Dr Edward Pococke'.

It is interesting to note the extent and provenance of Marsh's original oriental collection which contained both printed books and manuscripts. He donated all his oriental manuscripts, consisting of over 700 items, to the Bodleian Library. The choicest of these superb manuscripts were purchased for Marsh at the auction in Holland of Jacob Golius's famous collection in 1696. Marsh also purchased manuscripts and printed books from the widow of the Dublin orientalist, Dudley Loftus. We know from his correspondence that he purchased Hebrew books from a Mr Aron Moses and that Frances Guise, widow of Oxford orientalist William Guise, presented him with books when he was Bishop of Ferns and Leighlin in 1690.

There are superb Bibles, Mishnas, Targums, Talmuds, oriental grammars, dictionaries, lexicons, and some poetry in the collections. Many of the Hebrew books were printed by the famous Daniel Bomberg in Venice and the well known Jewish printers in Amsterdam. The Jewish writers include Moses ben Joseph Kimchi, R. David Kirrichi, Moses ben Nachinan, Moses ben Jacob Kimchi Kotensis, Menasseh ben Israel, Elias Levita, Ben Naphtali Issachar Lar-Kohen, David ben Isaac de Pomis and Levi ben Gershon. Catholic writers such as Guillaume Postel, Jean Morin, Richard Simon and Gilbert Genebrard made fine contributions to Hebrew studies, and they are also represented in the collections.

Marsh also collected books in the Persian, Armenian and Russian languages. Although most of the books in Arabic and in the lesser eastern languages are devoted to religious subjects, Marsh and Stillingfleet also collected books which reflect their wider interests such as mathematics and astronomy. In addition to these subjects there is also a fine collection of grammars, dictionaries and lexicons. In 1994, Professor Popkin told us that when an Israeli scholar studied our oriental collection, he said it was the biggest list of Latin Judaica he had ever seen or heard of.

The fourth major collection was bequeathed in 1745 by John Stearne, the Bishop of Clogher. Bishop Stearne is the only major Irish collector in the Library and a considerable part of his collection relates to Ireland. But it is interesting to note that there are some very important books of Irish interest in both Marsh's and Stillingfleet's collections. Marsh also showed great interest in Irish manuscripts. After he had purchased Stillingfleet's collections, it was suggested that he should also buy his manuscripts. Marsh refused to do this because he considered that, as they mostly related to English affairs, they were not worth buying. In the Dudley Loftus Collection, purchased by Marsh in 1695, there are many manuscripts relating to Irish history. These include O'Hussey's Grammaticæ Hibernicæ Rudimenta, an Irish Latin dictionary (1662), Royal grants in Ireland, 1604-31, and Thady O'Doyne's letters and surrenders, 1559, 1590, and 1606.

Archbishop Marsh's interest in collecting Irish books and manuscripts was maintained by the librarians of Marsh's when they tried to build up the Irish collection in the early part of this century. From the small annual book purchasing fund 20 (never increased) they managed to buy a collection of books and periodicals relating to Irish history printed within the last hundred years. The Library received a valuable donation of manuscripts in 1941. All told, there are 25,000 books in Marsh's. There are 90 incunabula (books printed before 1501), 3,100 books printed in the sixteenth century, and 11,600 from the seventeenth century.

It is easy to forget that in the early eighteenth century Marsh's would have been regarded as a modern library with the latest books and a modern classification system. To study and examine the books in Marsh's is to explore a world which has been one of the hallmarks of Europe's great cultural heritage. Marsh's has been used by scholars for nearly three hundred years. It was always intended to be a working library, and it continues to be so, but it is not used by scholars as often as it should be. This is probably due to the fact that we do not have a printed catalogue of all the books in the Library, although we do have some printed sectional catalogues. In the last few years we have attempted to inform scholars of the wide-ranging contents of Marsh's by a series of exhibitions, with accompanying illustrated catalogues, on subjects such as Early European Printings, Travel, Medicine, Natural History, Botany, Irish History, and Classical Antiquity. However, a new and exciting project has just been completed: the catalogue of the entire collection of printed books has been computerized. It is now accessible to readers through the Internet, which opens the Library to international scholarship. Marsh's can now become a major centre for seventeenth-century studies.