Two owls on a coffee shop entrance and a date 1792 are the only remnants of the Cork Subscription Library on Pembroke Street. At the annual meeting of the subscribers to the Cork Library, Pembroke street, held on 4 February 1918 Michael Murphy, Solicitor and Honorary Secretary read the auditors’ report, which was published by the Cork Examiner a day later. A profit of £45 l6s 3d was made comprising £22 in additional subscriptions and £17 for the sale of waste paper.
Three years previously in 1915 the library had been put into a “good condition of repair”, with the result that there was no expenditure under repairs for 1917. The salaries of the librarian and assistant had not been increased since the war commenced. At the 1918 meeting salary rises was one of the principal themes. An increase in the subscription of 4s a year was proposed i.e. from £1 1s to £l 5s. The alternative to an increased subscription would be to cut down the supplies of papers, periodicals, magazines, etc. According to Mr Murphy, Cork Library offered advantages far greater than such libraries in other large centres, and where the subscription was up to £2 2s. Canon Tracy said that subscribers were very pleased with the manner in which the library was conducted at the time, and the committee and officials had “carried out their duty well”. As regards the increase in the rate of subscription, considering the valuable services given in the library, he was “surprised that the proposal was not more than 4s”.
On the motion of Canon Tracy and seconded by Dr E Murphy, the President of the Library, Professor William F Stockley, was unanimously re-elected, and Mr Coroner Horgan, solicitor, Honorary Treasurer. In 1905, Professor Stockley has been appointed professor of English at University College Cork. He occupied the chair until his retirement in 1931. He was president of the Cork Literary and Scientific Society from 1913 to 1915 and President of the Cork Library Committee from 1913 to 1930.
Unique in the country, the Cork Subscription Library was founded at a time when books were scarce, expensive and not easily attainable. The library catered successfully throughout its long period of use, for the reading wants of many generations of Cork men and women. The brightest and best in the intellect of Cork were closely associated with the Cork Library ever since its inception. In 1792 the library was based on Cook Street to begin with and then new premises were designed by noted architect Thomas Deane.
In 1801 the library had eight life members and 143 ordinary members. The committee for that year comprised notable Cork personages – Dean St Lawrence, President, Dr John Longfield, Vice-President; Doctors Charles Daly, Richard Walsh, J Bennett, T Bell, and Messrs A Lane, S Wiley, J Spearing, St Leger Aldworth, W Trant, T Rochfort, S Richardson, P Stacpole, Mr Maxwell, H Wallis, B Bousfield, N Mahon, and E Penrose. Dr T Westropp was treasurer.
The library catalogue in 1801 ran to a volume of 31 pages and had 627 items – History, Antiquities and Geography (146), Biography (38), Politics and Political Economy (21), Morality (13), Law (4), Divinity, Sermons (7), Metaphysics and Arts (62), Medicine, Surgery, Anatomy and Chemistry (83), Natural History, Minerology, Botany, and agriculture (26), Voyages and Travels (84), Belles Lettres, Poetry, Criticism, and Miscellany (108), Novels and Romances (25), and Dictionaries and Grammars (10). By 1820 the number of books in the catalogue had risen to 2,013 with membership growing to 385.
Any person wishing to become a member of the library had to be proposed by a library member and seconded by another. After his and their names had been exhibited for five days in a part of the library, the subscription for the year of one guinea, together with the admission money of half a guinea had to be deposited with the treasurer. The proposed member was then balloted for in Committee, and if a majority of those present appeared in favour of him, he could be admitted. On signing the rules, he was entitled to all the privileges of a member of the society. The names of ladies, however, were not posted up, but kept in a closed book. The library was to be open for members of the library to read and send for books from 11am to 5pm from 1 February to the 1 November; and from 11am to 4pm from 1 November to 1 February except Sundays, Christmas Day, and Good Friday, Members could only take one book unless an additional subscription of half a guinea for an additional book.
By the year of the Cork Subscription Library’s closing in 1938, the reading room had upwards of 20,000 volumes of general literature, the daily and weekly newspapers, periodicals, illustrated papers and magazines. The library contained a central, spacious and comfortable writing room, ladies’ rooms and gentlemen’s smoking room. The members of a subscriber’s family were entitled to the full privileges of the Library whilst the annual subscription was £2.
932a. Front façade of the former Cork Subscription Library, South Mall (picture: Kieran McCarthy)
932b. The owls of Pembroke Street (picture: Kieran McCarthy)