The Bolton Library

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Features, General, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2008), Medieval History (pre-1500), Volume 16

The library and cathedral framing the Rock of Cashel. (NIAH)

The library and cathedral framing the Rock of Cashel. (NIAH)

The Rock of Cashel in County Tipperary holds probably the most significant grouping of ecclesiastical buildings surviving from the medieval period in Ireland. Its largest building, the cathedral, was abandoned in the 1750s and the medieval parish church at the opposite end of the town was upgraded to cathedral status, being itself replaced by the present cathedral, completed in 1783.
One of the most dynamic incumbents of the see was Theophilus Bolton (1678–1744; archbishop from 1729), who built his episcopal residence, now the Cashel Palace Hotel, in 1732. His patron, Archbishop William King (1650–1729) of Dublin, had left him a collection of 6,000 books at his death in 1729, and Bolton housed these in a wing of the palace. In turn, Bolton bequeathed his whole collection, by now 12,000 books, to the diocese. The library remained at the palace until about 1820, when the Church Temporalities Act suppressed the archbishopric, requiring the vacating of the palace. The first librarian, from 1822, was the Revd Henry Cotton, who had been sub-librarian at the famous Bodleian Library in Oxford. A chapter house, designed for the cathedral by Clonmel-born architect William Tinsley, became the library’s new home in 1836. After 1909 the dean of Cashel was directly responsible for the collection.
The cathedral close is a quiet, contemplative backwater compared with the tourist mecca of the Rock. On passing under the gateway, the eye is captivated by the very fine classical architecture of the cathedral. Off to the right stands the understated library building, of two storeys and three bays (or openings), with walls of more modest and utilitarian rubble sandstone and limestone. It does, however, display fine craftsmanship in the treatment of its door and window openings, and particularly the pedimented gables and corner pilasters, echoing features in the cathedral. There is also the classical arrangement of nine-over-six pane windows to the first floor and six-over-six pane windows to the ground floor.
Inside, a small vestibule leads to a large central room, used to display some of the library’s treasures. The first floor is reached by wooden stairs and comprises a long room dominated by tall, venerable bookcases that project into the space from the side walls. Round-headed windows at each end of the first floor enhance the symmetry, the window over the entrance also affording a fine view of the Rock, emphasising the visual and historical connections between the two places.
The extraordinary importance of the Bolton Library is evident from the assessment by Bloomfield and Potts in their Directory of rare books and special collections (London, 1997): the library contains ‘many items of great rarity, at least 50 not recorded elsewhere in the world, and some 800 not recorded elsewhere in Ireland’. The gamut of European intellectual life between the late fifteenth and early eighteenth centuries is represented by manuscripts, printed books, fine bindings, maps and other items, including papyrus from the first century AD. The oldest manuscript is twelfth-century and has a thirteenth-century binding of deerskin over oak. The collection is thoroughly European, representing the prominent printing houses of Paris, Geneva, Nuremburg, Basle, London, Venice, Amsterdam and Zurich, as well as Ireland. Former owners of some of the material include Catherine of Aragon, Francis Bacon and Abraham Ortelius, cartographer to Philip II.
The Bolton Library is thus a small but perfectly formed gem, to be cherished for its architecture and, more particularly, for its rarity as an early and extraordinary diocesan library.

Barry O’Reilly is an architectural historian. Series based on the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage’s ‘Building of the month’.


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