Four special commemorative stamps for the Carnegie libraries in Ireland

Published in Issue 6 (November/December 2019), News, Volume 27

By Felix M. Larkin

 

Ireland is often referred to as ‘the Land of Saints and Scholars’, and a number of saints have featured on Irish stamps, most recently Our Lady of Fatima and St Kevin of Glendalough. There have been few scholars, however. This deficiency was addressed in August 2019 when An Post launched a set of four stamps commemorating the Carnegie libraries in Ireland.

Libraries are the foundation of all scholarship, where books, newspapers, photographs, prints and drawings—and now digital material too—are lovingly preserved for posterity. And they are preserved not only for use by the élite scholar labouring away in universities, in an ivory tower (so to speak), but for everyone with the curiosity to want to learn more about history, literature and a host of other things—or, indeed, for those just wishing to enjoy the pleasure of reading and being enriched by it. Libraries are fundamentally democratic centres of learning, open to everyone—and free. T.W. Lyster, the first director of the National Library of Ireland, wrote in 1903 that ‘in that wide world of the record of mankind which we call a Great Library, all things, good and evil, fall into their true place, are seen in their true proportion’. Thus keepers of libraries may with truth inscribe above their doors the words of the governor of the city in the New Atlantis: ‘We maintain a trade, not for gold, silver, or jewels, nor for silks, nor for spices, nor for any other commodity of matter, but only for God’s first creature, which was Light’. The idea that the trade of a library is in Light is an appealing one, for Light—or, in other words, enlightenment—comes from scholarship and the pursuit of truth in scholarship.

It is therefore right and proper to celebrate the place of libraries in our country, and throughout our country—and this set of stamps does that. It also recognises that at the roots of our public library network in Ireland are some 80 libraries that were funded by Andrew Carnegie between 1897 and 1913—just a small part of his philanthropic efforts in the United States, Britain and Ireland. Carnegie was born in Scotland, emigrated to the United States in 1848 at the age of twelve, and rose—without the benefit of much formal education—from very humble origins to become the richest industrialist in America, surpassing in wealth even John D. Rockefeller. In the last decades of his life he devoted himself to philanthropy—Carnegie Hall in New York City being perhaps his most famous project—and his contribution to Ireland was the libraries that are celebrated in these stamps. His philosophy in this regard was that ‘surplus wealth is a sacred trust which its possessor is bound to administer in his lifetime for the good of the community’. He died 100 years ago, in 1919, and An Post is to be commended for using the centenary of his death to celebrate the libraries that he gave to Ireland.

A characteristic of the Carnegie libraries is that, apart from their contribution to scholarship and learning, they were invariably housed in beautiful buildings—architectural ornaments in the towns and cities in which they were located. It is appropriate that these institutions trading in Light should have buildings as least as grand and as imposing as the buildings of those who trade in gold, silver and such like—banks, other big corporates, etc. The stamps issued by An Post show four of the 80 buildings that comprise the Carnegie libraries in Ireland, and they are representative of the types of buildings that Carnegie built as libraries. The exquisite drawings of these buildings, by Dorothy Smith, reproduced on the stamps mirror the excellent design of the buildings themselves. The final design of the stamps was by Anne Brady of Vermillion Design.

In its stamp issuance programme, An Post is assisted by a Philatelic Advisory Committee, which I have the honour of chairing. What we, as a committee, try to do is to showcase the very best of Ireland and the Irish in recommending who or what should be noticed in a special way by a stamp or stamps. We are always open to suggestions about suitable subjects for stamps: just let us know by writing to An Post. Our work is complemented by the work of An Post’s Stamp Design Committee, under the chairmanship of Mick O’Dea RHA, which is tasked with translating our ideas for stamps into the beautiful objects that we see on our envelopes every day and which stamp-collectors all over the world greatly admire and covet. All stamps are ultimately subject to approval by the government.

Felix M. Larkin is chairperson of An Post’s Philatelic Advisory Committee.

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