Booksmart: the story of art-deco libraries in Dublin

Posted January 16, 2023 in Arts and Culture


The concept and purpose of the library in our city is changing dramatically. We meet some of the people at the forefront of these changes and those pushing for the role of the library in their communities.

Emma Kelly hadn’t a local library growing up in Swords during the 1970s.

“What served our housing estate was the mobile library service,” she says. It wouldn’t run on a regular schedule. Instead, every few weeks, it just appeared.

There would usually be a couple of adults standing outside, huddled around a Superser heater, smoking roll-ups, she recalls. The weather could be dismal, and still, she adored the excitement of running in to browse its shelves.

“It was magical when you crossed back across the road, and you might not see them again for another couple of weeks.”

The thought of a free book amazed her as a child. It still does, she says. There wasn’t the pressure to feign enjoyment of a certain story. She could be critical. “You didn’t have to justify the fact that you didn’t like it because someone had spent their money on it. You got to make the decision yourself.”

When she enrolled at Trinity College in the 1990s, the four years she spent there, she says, were four years spent in its library. Over the summers, she worked in the city’s public library service, and after graduation she took similar posts at John Moores University in Liverpool and the Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology.

Then, in 1998, she changed paths, joining the Arts Council, all the while remaining deeply infatuated by the role that the library held within a community. “All the time, I was dreaming about the public library,” she says.

This is a radical space. Nobody’s going to tell you here not to read something. The world is your oyster.”

Ten years later, Kelly experienced a moment of clarity. She had been researching how people engaged with the arts, the findings of which said that a majority did so through reading. As she processed the results, her mind went straight to her bus ride into work from Whitehall each morning.

“I saw lots of people on the bus reading books. Fiction mainly,” she says. “I had a good old gander.” Realising that a lot of time and money had gone into a conclusion that she could have drawn by people-watching on the bus, her mind was made up. She wanted to be back working in a library.

“I was saying to myself, where you make a difference is at the coalface, and I thought, I want to come back and serve the city,” she says.

Kelly took the role of branch manager in Drumcondra’s library, and fourteen years later as she sits in its cafeteria, the decision still delights her. This is a radical space, she says. “Nobody’s going to tell you here not to read something. The world is your oyster.”

“It’s the most subversive thing I can think of doing with my life,” she says.

The Drumcondra library is a bright fluorescently-lit retreat from the dull and drizzling outdoors on a Monday evening.

Situated on Millmount Avenue, between a playground in Griffith Park and St. Patrick’s Junior National School, three children in their uniforms have come straight from their last classes to scan the aisles with their mother.

An elderly man, meanwhile, goes through the fiction and DVD sections. A young woman in a black baseball cap reaches for a hardback on one of the return trolleys. At the counter is an open call for people with memories of the Tolka Flood of December 1954. In a corner is a stack of boxes, containing books that need to be unpacked.

The library had only reopened that morning, Kelly explains. They were bringing in a new set of mobile shelves, a few of which remain empty.

“When I started in the library, it was much more of the position that I envisioned it to be. But now it’s a completely different job.”

On account of its being one large rectangular room, with a small office and canteen in the back, the moveable shelves were necessary to help the space accommodate various events, be they talks, readings or the odd live performance.

The notion that a library would host an event is still quite a new concept, she says. “Even in the ‘90s, it would have been rare. These were still spaces where you came to take out books. But you wouldn’t really be engaging in any other activity.”

Smaller branches, such as Drumcondra, in particular have become more like the living room of the local community, she says. They become a community space, and for a lot of people moving into the area, it may be their first port of call.

It’s funny to see the development of library thinking over time,” says Angela Cassidy, Dublin City Council’s divisional librarian. “In the 1930s, they were a place to store books. You come in and borrow your book. Off you go. Don’t linger. But by the ’70s, they were beginning to realise people might want to sit and stay longer, do some work.”

“Do you want to see the baby’s head?”

Emma Kelly darts into the back office behind the reception desk, only to return with a miniature white clay doll’s head. More forehead than face, it is eyeless and small specks of grit are embedded into its smooth surface.

At least eighty-five years old, it surfaced on the grounds one day. Before the library stood here, she says, this was a site for waste, and every so often, decades old refuse still appears. Bottles mostly.

Opened in February of 1937, Drumcondra was one of four art-deco libraries built between 1935 and 40 across the city’s suburbs, the other three situated in Phibsboro, Inchicore and Ringsend.

“They were in newly burgeoning suburban areas that the Corporation would have been building houses in at the time,” says conservationist architect, Susan Roundtree.

The four libraries are attributed to Robert Sorley Lawrie, a Scottish architect from Aberdeen who worked in the City Architect’s office under Horace O’Rourke in the 1930s. He had been appointed as an assistant architect to the City Commissioner in 1929, along with Herbert Simms.

“It’s the local living room now. It’s where people come in to sit, read a newspaper, or meet someone they might not have seen in a while. For some people who live alone, we might be their only social interaction during a week, and you do get to know them.”

In 1933, a “major share of the work” behind the conversion of Charlemont House into the Hugh Lane Gallery was attributed to Lawrie. Later, he was credited with the design of Inchicore Library, which opened in 1937, and which was a template for the branches in Ringsend and Drumcondra.

Each one was constructed with red brick laid in English Garden Wall, corner wrap-around windows, render bands and a parapet. Their entrances however, are the feature wherein the Art-Deco design is most prominent. Around their doorways is a stepped surround, which concludes in a triangular pattern.

But, and to firmly root them geographically, the words ‘Leabarlann Puiblide’ were mounted to the breakfront in the old Cló Gaelach script.

The Art-Deco style, Roundtree says, was commonly associated with cinemas, “places of entertainment…Maybe they were trying to open up the style and ask, why wasn’t the library another place of entertainment?”

Phibsboro was an anomaly amongst the four sisters, being far more traditional in its external style, Roundtree says. “When they started the branch libraries, they went with something that looks classical.”

Its windows are vertical, and don’t wrap around its corners. The entrance is arched, and while the Cló Gaelach signage features above its doorway, it is less prominent than its English title, etched in stone below the roof.

For all of its differences however, the Phibsboro branch shares much of the same plan as the others internally, Roundtree says. “And it has a lot of the original plan when some of the others have changed inside for accessibility. They have moved around the desks.”

Off the North Circular Road, the Phibsboro Library hides behind some trees in a garden that is decorated with stones, into which passages from Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake have been carved.

In contrast to the Ringsend branch, which is situated on an island in the middle of the suburb’s main street, or Inchicore, which towers over the Emmet Road, it is located at more of a remove. Although, once the sun sets, the glow from its windows is far more enchanting.

Inside, in the evenings, the room is quiet, save for the buzzing omitted from its fluorescent lights, and lining the walls are tributes to authors and artists associated with the area. There is a portrait of Phibsboro-born writer Iris Murdoch, and a painting by Una Watters of four Franciscan Friars, the authors behind the Annals of the Four Masters.

Painted in 1959, and it is one of only three of Watters’ works in public ownership. “It’s an example of a librarian with a particular talent who worked here,” says Jonathan Newman, the current branch librarian.

Newman began as a librarian in Dalkey, before he joined the Dublin City Council libraries working in a range of services, including the Central Library. He next went to the mobile library services,”going out to different areas that weren’t served by a local library close-by.” Then, in May 2021, he became the branch librarian in Phibsboro.

He was an avid reader as a child, he says, and everything had sprang naturally from that. “When I started in the library, it was much more of the position that I envisioned it to be. But now it’s a completely different job.”

The role of a library has extended far beyond simply borrowing books, he says. “It’s changed for the better. We’ve internet. People use Phibsboro for printing, and we’ve a lot more events going on, for kids, class visits, children’s book festivals, history festivals. People come in looking for information, medical forms.”

“Coming from the mobile library, a lot of this is still new to me,” he says.

“It’s the local living room now,” says Sarah Reidy, the Ringsend librarian. “It’s where people come in to sit, read a newspaper, or meet someone they might not have seen in a while. For some people who live alone, we might be their only social interaction during a week, and you do get to know them.”

Fostering a sense of community, above all else, is what makes the job satisfying, Reidy says.

Beneath an overcast winter sky, the red bricks outside the Inchicore library appear anaemic. Its signage is weathered to the point of being near-illegible. Securing the blue front gates is a lock and chain. The pale yellow paintwork on the breakfront is cracked beneath the black Gaelic lettering and the glazed timber doors have lost their sheen.

In the winter of 2019, the library on Emmet Road was closed off temporarily for refurbishment and alteration works. A new disability access ramp was to be added. So too was a platform lift and bicycle stands. Also listed on the council’s planning application for the upgrades was an extension to the building’s rear, comprising an office, toilet, canteen, multipurpose room and ancillary accommodation.

But, over the course of the pandemic, the redevelopment lost all momentum “For two years, it wasn’t used because of the Covid,” says Michael Flanagan, secretary of the Kilmainham and Inchicore Heritage Group.

“Then at the end of that, Dublin City Council made clear they weren’t going ahead with the refurbishments.”

The grass on its raised banks became overgrown, and a provisional library was opened in the neighbouring Richmond Barracks, consisting of five bookshelves.

In November 2021, a local tourism development plan, drawn up for the council by a consulting group proposed the facility be repurposed as a living history museum.

Two months later, when Sinn Fein Councillor Máire Devine queried its future, council officials said simply, “active consideration is being given to the future use of this building.”

From June through until October, a blue banner was draped over the fencing out front. “Save Our Community Library,” read the message, spray painted in gold.

“A state that doesn’t invest in education is on the wrong path,” says Zoe Obeimhen, a local campaigner for the re-opening and repair of the library. “That is fundamental to nation building.”

Obeimhen drafted a petition calling on the council to fix the public library, gathering a total of 545 signatures in the past six months. As a mother-of-four, with a son who has an ADHD diagnosis, a walkable library, sufficiently stocked is a basic need for local families.

A state-of-the-art library is in the pipeline, she points out. But that is years out. “And at the moment, we’ve only got Richmond Barracks, with its five shelves.”

“There is a lot of deprivation in this area,” Obeimhen says. “Privileged people have their own bookshelves at home. There isn’t a financial barrier. But I don’t have the same amount of money to go out and buy books for my son, to support him.”

“It is so serious to have a library, to build a culture of reading, and learning,” she says.

When Flanagan spoke with locals, he said a handful wanted the old library to remain as such. “People had read their children the books there. They were very nostalgic.”

More than simply retaining it as a library however, he says what the local consensus was that the historic building would remain a place accessible to the community. It wasn’t just a place to take a book out. Few libraries are any longer. “We had monthly poetry readings there. Art exhibitions, a whole host of things. Lectures.”

“Privileged people have their own bookshelves at home. There isn’t a financial barrier. But I don’t have the same amount of money to go out and buy books for my son, to support him.”

The public library, Emma Kelly said, back in the Drumcondra cafeteria, is a third space in society, a space to convene outside of the house and the office. “These are democratic spaces, and third spaces are becoming less and less.”

Young people, she says, are more alone than ever. “They are connecting online, which is fine, but it’s missing that actual timbre, the texture of interaction. The public library is still one of the spaces you can do that. And that’s why a lot of people come in here. For social exchange.”

Words: Michael Lanigan
Photos: Ste Murray


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