The Library

The history of the library at Glenstal is not surprisingly intimately bound up with the history of what is still a relatively young monastic community and reflects the strivings of that community at various stages of its developments. For the community of six Belgian monks arriving at Glenstal Castle, the former residence of the Anglo-Irish Barrington family in 1927 it was in Dickens’ phrase ‘the best of times, it was the worst of times’. The best because every new foundation calls forth enthusiasm and support, the worst because it was taking place in a country still coming to terms with independence, the aftermath of a civil war and in a world economy soon to be devastated by the Wall St crash. Pioneers don’t make good librarians and while there were a number of men of very high intellectual calibre among the founding fathers (Idesbald Ryelandt, Bede Lebbe) most of their energies were poured into establishing a monastery, an art school and a boys secondary school at a time of economic stagnation not to mention WWII.

• Nothing left in the Barrington collection apart from one Latin dictionary

• Growth of collection reflects the needs of the community. First for the training of clerics and novices, then liturigical work, then ecumenical and protestant theology, various other academic interests

• Nucleus formed around the purchase of the contents of a bookshop in Limerick. Vincent Scully of Mantle Hill near Golden Co. Tipperary, Leon Ó Broin, Finbarr Donovan, nearly 11,000 volumes have been given since the library opened two years ago.

• Moves to various locations in the monastery, the collection eventually outgrew them. Finally housed in an 1930s prefabricated concrete building which has been condemned as unsuitable for books in a 1996 report by the Conservation Department in Marsh’s Library, Dublin.. These are now in need of extensive restoration and conservation.

• The library collection has grown steadily from its humble origins in 1927 and is now one of the largest private libraries in Ireland holding approximately 58,000 volumes, manuscripts and nearly 100 journal runs. The focus of the library is primarily theological but it contains substantial holdings in the areas of Irish history, Irish literature, biography and art. It also houses a collection of antiquarian books ranging in date from the 15th to the 19th centuries, as well as the monastery archives.

• Though primarily a working library, the Glenstal collection contains a number of very precious and significant items. These include a fifteenth-century illuminated manuscript Book of Hours (one of three to survive from late medieval Ireland), manuscripts by contemporary Irish calligraphers, rare facsimiles of the eighth-century Book of Durrow and the ninth-century Book of Armagh and papers and parchments relating to the Glenstal estate from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries.

• The large early printed book section contains a 1576 abridgment of French legal procedure, a first edition (1654) of Sir James Ware’s De Hibernia et antiquitatibus ejus as well as a first edition (1705) of the English translation of this work Of Ireland and its antiquities. The theological section contains sixteenth and seventeenth century folio editions of the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, William Durandus, St. John Chrysostom and St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Important modern works include an autographed first edition of James Joyce’s Chamber Music and Arthur Griffiths The Resurrection of Hungary, with a long dedication by the author. The collection also contains autographed books by Edmund Burke, Daniel O’Connell, W. B. Yeats, Winston Churchill, Paul Durcan and Seamus Heaney

The New Library

The new monastery library was blessed and opened by Abbot Christopher on June 22nd 2001. Designed by architects Richard Hurley and associates, Dublin and built by Tom Hayes Ltd, Killaloe, it represents the second phase of the monastery’s development plan. Architecturally the new building is very striking with the exterior echoing many existing features of the castle, monastery and guesthouse. The interior is no less impressive with the combination of white oak fittings, glass and fair face blockwork creating a calm, peaceful environment that is ideal for study. In 2002 it was awarded the annual award of the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland.

The new building has a capacity of 120,000 volumes and is connected to a large number of databases and electronic resources via the Internet with all study carrels being provided with power points and IT sockets.

At present seven external students are pursuing full time postgraduate degrees in theology using material from the Glenstal collection. In October 2002 an MA course in liturgical studies in association Mary Immaculate College, Limerick commenced. The courses will be taught by members of the community and will take place in the O’Brien lecture room. The facilities are already being used by the MA in Chant and Ritual song programme conducted by the Irish World Music centre of the University of Limerick. From September 27th to 29th a major academic conference, The Irish Benedictines: A History, commemorating the 75th anniversary of the foundation of Glenstal, took place in the library.

What is the purpose of a monastic library?

While the purpose of this conference is to launch a joint initiative between the monastic and ecclesiastical libraries of Munster with UCC and UL I am sure that I am not alone among the librarians in thinking that the function of a monastery library is not the promotion of academic endeavour or intellectual life. This is not to deny the academic achievements of the various Munster monasteries but to reassert the primary function for which the monastery exists: the praise and worship of God and the building up of his people. Without becoming too precious about this I think that it is fair to say that a monk’s approach to a book differs from that of an academic and monastic reading from academic research. In Chapter 49 of the RB St Benedict outlines this approach Lectio Divina or sacred reading has been terribly important. This is the slow, meditative reading of the scriptures in which the object is not the accumulation of knowledge or information but an encounter with the living God. It is an approach very much at variance with how we usually read or study; normally the goal is to conquer the text, to master it and extract from it all we can before moving onto something else, in Lectio divina the text of scripture gradually conquers you, becomes part of you, becomes the means by which to hear the ‘voice of the Lord, full of power’.

If not as an academic exercise how then does Glenstal view the MEMOLIB project? In context of hospitality and of gratitude. Inside the door, plaque recording the opening of the library. With a quotation from the Book of Wisdom



It is also an institution that owes a great deal to the generosity of many benefactors over the years. Important collections of books have come by way of bequest and donation, as have many furnishings and fittings. The new library building is itself the most recent expression of our benefactors’ generosity and the community is deeply grateful to all of them.

The new monastery library provides, for the first time, an adequate home for the books and for all who come to use them. It is our hope that those who come here will find it a place of refreshment and peace and that the resources they find here may, in the words of the late Cardinal Basil Hume, OSB, help us to strive towards a civilisation of love.