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Booking a tour of Dublin's libraries

Trinity College is in the heart of Dublin.

Trinity College is in the heart of Dublin. Photo Credit: Ellen Creager/Detroit Free Press/MCT

Dubliners take a lot of pride in the city's reputation as a literary capital. Walk into any genuine pub in town, and you're bound to see that famous poster of Irish literary heroes on the wall. It's not idle boastfulness: Dublin can claim four Nobel laureates -- George Bernard Shaw, W.B. Yeats, Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney. Moreover, the names Oscar Wilde, Brendan Behan, Flann O'Brien and, of course, James Joyce are synonymous with the town.

Literary-minded visitors to the Irish capital have plenty of suitably bookish activities to choose from: literary walking tours, numerous literary festivals and a writers' museum.

But for me, Dublin's long and storied relationship with the book -- formally recognized in 2010 when the city was named a UNESCO City of Literature -- is most clearly defined by a group of libraries dotted around the city center:

 

The Old Library at Trinity College 

WEBSITE tcd.ie/library/bookofkells

ADMISSION About $12

By far the most famous library in the country, with its stunning Long Room. Its ground floor houses the Book of Kells, the four-volume illuminated Gospel that has been called Ireland's equivalent of the Sistine Chapel. Dating from around the year 800, it's the most treasured object in the country. Only two volumes are on display at any time, and there's often a throng of tourists jostling for a glance through the thick glass, but it's a thrill to make out the raised, 1,200-year-old ink on the vellum, each stroke applied with painstaking precision by Celtic monks.

The Long Room is a breathtaking chamber, and entering it is like stepping into a vast cathedral for the worship of the printed word, with row upon row of book-filled alcoves stretching more than 200 feet before you and high up to the spectacular vaulted ceiling. Along each side stands a row of marble busts of great writers, starting with Shakespeare on one side and Homer on the other. 

 

National Library

WEBSITE nli.ie

ADMISSION Free

After the Book of Kells, the next most celebrated book in Dublin is Joyce's "Ulysses." As it happens, the two main protagonists meet for the first time in the National Library on Kildare Street. So it's fitting that the National Library should possess the first copy of the book.

The great book is only occasionally displayed, but it's worth visiting National Library anytime. Opened in 1890, it's an exquisite piece of Victoriana: The light-filled, domed reading room is a sort of pantheon for book lovers, with winged Cupids looking down on the orderly array of desks, and sky blue and white walls curving upward.

There are regular tours of the building, but don't miss the Yeats exhibit downstairs, a showcase of his manuscripts and materials that's the largest such collection in the world.

Here you can see Yeats' typed and annotated draft of "Sailing to Byzantium"; his Nobel medal and the top hat he wore to the ceremony; even his last pair of spectacles, the left lens famously darkened. Perhaps the most evocative touch is the recording you can hear throughout the exhibition, Yeats reciting his most famous work, "The Lake Isle of Innisfree." 

 

Marsh's Library 

WEBSITE marshlibrary.ie

ADMISSION About $3.40

While the Long Room and the National Library trade in period grandeur and impressive scale, a far more intimate and discreet cousin predates them both, hidden on a quiet street behind St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Built in 1701 by Narcissus Marsh, then the Protestant Church of Ireland's archbishop of Dublin, it was the first public library in the country and remains essentially unchanged, as if preserved in a scholarly aspic.

Marsh had a famously fractious relationship with Jonathan Swift, the dean of St. Patrick's, who often cruelly caricatured the archbishop in his writing: An example is on display in the library, which might seem unfair to Marsh if Swift weren't so amusing a writer.

Compared with the Long Room, Marsh's is a modest structure, an L-shaped reading room with oak bookcases. There are three "caged" alcoves, where the rare books were kept; scholars used to be locked in with the volumes, then searched as they left, a bibliocentric forebear of airport security. 

 

Library Bar 

After a day of bibliophilic wanderings, if you're looking for someplace to relax, head for the Library Bar above the Central Hotel. Despite the name, this book-lined bar, with its inviting armchairs and couches, is most conducive to a good conversation -- it's surely the only library in Dublin where you're encouraged to talk.

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