Joe Connolly: Libraries – Celebrating the Past

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Joe Connolly

Joe Connolly

This year 2016, one hundred years after ‘The Rising’, many events are taking place – ‘Celebrating the Past’. One occasion I wish to recall is the 90th anniversary of the Kildare County Library that was established in 1926.

The 1855 Public Libraries Act was the first ever piece of legislation to establish rate supported Libraries in Ireland. Dundalk, County Louth opened the first free public library in 1858. County Kildare and many other counties were hampered by this legislation as it required having towns with a population of at least 5,000.

One man, Andrew Carnegie, born in Dunfermline, Scotland in 1835 contributed more to the setting up of libraries in the English speaking world than any other person in history.

The Carnegie family emigrated to Pittsburg, Pennsylvania when his father’s work as a Hand Weaver became outdated. Andrew worked as a telegraph operator and attended evening classes, when a local dignitary, Col James Anderson opened his personal library of 400 books to local boys every Saturday morning. Andrew availed of this opportunity and by 1881, self taught, was a multi-million dollar Philanthropist and decided to use a large part of his wealth setting up Public Libraries in the U.S. and Europe. By the time of his death in 1919 he had funded over 2,500 libraries in English speaking countries, including 66 in Ireland.

After his death a Trust Fund was established to contribute money to public libraries. Following the Local Government Act of 1925 and a grant of £2,000 from this ‘Carnegie Trust’ the Kildare County Library was established on the 3rd March 1926. Mr Michael Smyth was appointed Chairman of the Finance and Book Selection Committee.

By agreeing to receive this Carnegie Trust the Kildare County Council had to approve a number of conditions including – “the Librarian appointed be a person recognised by the trust as a trained and competent Librarian at a salary of not less than £250 per annum”. Many interesting debates took place at council meetings questioning: “should this amount of ‘Rate Payers’ money be spent on a librarian? We need to be careful we do not appoint one who – only hands out books, labels and dust them.”

Debates recorded in local Newspapers:

“Why should we add to the Rates Bill the salary of a librarian, which will be an additional burden upon the shoulders of an impoverished public?”“Because a good, sound commonsense librarian is just the very person most needed to us to-day”,
“It will be his duty to tell us what to read, in order to improve – our minds, our bodies and our pockets”,
“We want our general out-look widened, and learn what other nations are doing”,
“We need to read about Russia and its experiences about doing away with capitalists and study the Danish system of farming”,
“When we enter the library he should be a guide, philosopher and friend”.

The setting up of this new service was against the background of falling population in the Newbridge. With Independence the barracks was abandoned and in 1926 there was a drop of 34% on the 1911 Census. Finally it was agreed to go ahead with an appointment and the post was advertised. There were nineteen applications – fifteen from County Kildare, three from Dublin and one from London. The first Kildare County Librarian was Mr John Connolly, then living at Curragh View Kildare. John, educated at De La Salle, Kildare and Newbridge College came from a well known horse racing family where his uncle Thomas Connolly, trained the winners of three Irish Derby’s’ and by a twist of faith John’s father was born in New Orleans.

When the library was established a deputation from the Newbridge Town Commissioners approached the library committee with the view of using the Town Hall as a Book Repository. Before the annual rent of £20 per annum was agreed there were two requirements: an extra window fitted in the large room storing the books, and a combustible stove installed in each of the rooms.

John Connolly took up duty in January 1927 and was required to spend a number of days, each week, training in the public library in Tullamore. The first library assistant appointed was Mr Tom Wilmot, Newbridge. There were a number of books donated, including 53 volumes of fiction from Mrs Roantree, Newbridge. With 300 books on display in that first year the library grew to 65,000 in 1967. There were many difficult years. A report from the Leinster Leader 1941: “The library committee complimented the library staff on the excellent work done during a period of exceptional difficulty – the Second World War was at its height. The curtailment of traveling facilities, closing of valuable sources for the supply of books, price increases and suspension of the road transport service cut off many centers from headquarters. These difficulties were overcome in Kildare County Library where they issued 210,000 volumes that year.

The library remained in the Town Hall for ten years. In August 1936 the present County Library Headquarters was opened. John Connolly remained Kildare County Librarian for forty-one years, retiring in August 1968. He was succeeded by Séamus O’Conchubhair, Donal O’Gorman was appointed in 1985 and the Breda Gleeson in 1992. Marian Higgins is carrying out the duties at present.

(c) Joe Connolly

About the author

After a De La Salle, Kildare education I joined the Army Signal Corps as an Apprentice. Then following two years with the E.S.B. Communications Department I joined the R.T.E. Outside Broadcast technical section in 1968. I moved into production and worked as a senior Lighting Director on all major shows, including seventeen years with “The Late Late Show”. On early retirement I set up “Playlight” Lighting Company. I published a history of Drama from 1884 up to and including 50 years of the Kildare Drama Festival 1958 to 2008 – Pure Drama from Behind the Spotlight.Both books are in stock online with www.kennybooks.ie

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