Kieran’s Our City, Our Town Article,
Cork Independent, 18 May 2023
Recasting Cork: The Future of the Public Library
May 1923 coincided with more of a focus by the Corporation of Cork in their search for a temporary public library for the city. The Cork Examiner’s columnist with the pseudonym Periscope outlines on the 15 May 1923 the search for a temporary library space and newspaper reading room.
The Cork Carnegie Library adjacent Cork City became a casualty of reprisal burnings by Crown forces in the city on the night of 11 December 1920, at the height of the War of Independence. The building and the stock on site – approximately 14,000 books – were engulfed by the fire in the neighbouring building, the City Hall.
Considering the competing urgent demands placed on the local authorities in the wake of this decimation of the city centre, the pursuit to re-establish the library service was due largely to the herculean efforts of the then librarian, James Wilkinson.
In early May 1923 the old Tuckey Street Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) station, owned by the Office of Public Works, was examined and in its first initial inspection was found to be unsuitable because it was a mere burnt out shell and the cost of repair was deemed too high. In addition, it is also recorded that the upper portion of the front wall was leaning inwards. The fire had burnt right out the bearings on this wall, thus leaving the joist holes open, and making some serious pinning and repair works necessary.
On 4 June 1923 a meeting of the Corporation’s Library committee had the attendance of councillors Professor Stockley, Sir John Scott and Mr Mulligan. It was decided to have a premises on Cornmarket Street made into a temporary reading room at once. In conjunction with City Librarian James Wilkinson, the City Engineer Joseph Delany presented plans to those present for a temporary library and reading rooms in the old Tuckey Street RIC Station. After some discussions the report was to be sent to the Corporation meeting to adopt the proposals and to have tenders invited for the necessary works and alterations without delay.
On 10 January 1924, on the examination of the tender of Messrs Coughlan Brothers, builders and contractors, their costs were found favourable and in particular for the creation of an extra upper floor and roof. Nearly two weeks later, the Commissioners of Public Works officially wrote to the Corporation proposing to surrender their interest in the former RIC Barracks. By 11 February 1924, tenders were invited from competent contractors for the making and supplying of furniture and fittings for the temporary public library.
By 8 July 1924, the columnist Periscope wrote a detailed description of the new temporary library and its three floors. It had been formally opened on 10 June 1924. The reading room was on the ground floor and just off the street, as it was by far the most visited room in the building.
A wide, easy staircase gave access to the lending library. Periscope reports of spacious bookcases; “Here the arrangements for prompt service are admirable, and every inch of space has been used to the best advantage. The borrower will have access to the open bookcases and can choose the desired book from any of the shelves”.
A smaller room was devoted to the purposes of a juvenile library with bookcases of a suitable height. Periscope notes that is noteworthy that in the previous Carnegie Library – of the average circulation of 93,000 volumes, 10,000 were issued to children under fourteen years. Periscope asserts his view on a juvenile section: “This excellent idea of a library for the children is certain to have a good effect in getting the youngsters into the right line of reading, a most important point when one remembers and considers the appalling trash children sometimes get hold of haphazard”. On the top floor was the Reference Library, where the visitor could pursue his or her research.
Fine flat-topped tables of pitch-pine and oak were supplied by the Minister Arcade. Reading stands and chairs, and the bookcases for the juvenile department were supplied by Grants. The Reading Room tables and the counters and bookcases for the Lending Library were supplied by Coughlan Brothers.
Periscope also emphasises that everything perished in the library fire in 1920 and over 15,000 books were destroyed from the flames. James Wilkinson issued an appeal for book donations, which yielded an extraordinarily generous response from the national and international community. Since 1921 many donated books had been accumulated. By September 1922 5,400 books were held in storage and by June 1924 there were 10,500 donated books and more purchased from cash donations and public funds. So the temporary Library started with well supplied with books in all departments. Indeed, by September 1924 full borrowing services were resumed.
The accession ledgers in which acquisitions to stock were recorded continue to be housed by the Central Library’s Local Studies Department and make for fascinating insight into the history of reading in Cork city. Some notable donors were Charlotte Bernard Shaw, wife of the playwright George Bernard Shaw; Mrs W B Yeats, wife of the poet, and novelists Edith Somerville, Lennox Robinson, Daniel Corkery and Annie M P Smithson.
A letter written by James Wilkinson in 1923 to the superior of St Brigid’s Convent, Sydney, apologising for the delay in acknowledging receipt of the order’s financial donation, captures the turmoil of this historic period: the delay “was due to the fact that the cheque and list of donors was transmitted by Professor Alfred O’Rahilly at a time when he was an interned prisoner, who sent the cheque on to me, but not the list of names”.
1202a. Former site of Tuckey Street RIC Barracks, now the present day site of the St Vincent de Paul (picture: Kieran McCarthy).
Upcoming walking tour with Kieran:
Saturday 20 May 2023, The Northern Ridge – St Patrick’s Hill to MacCurtain Street; Tour around St Patrick’s Hill – Old Youghal Road to McCurtain Street; meet on the Green at Audley Place, top of St Patrick’s Hill, 2pm (free, duration: two hours, no booking required, finishes on MacCurtain Street).