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Dublin: City of Books

Book of Knell, Illustration by Emily Knapp

From the grand libraries that are full of wonder, to the small second-hand books stalls and independent libraries with cosy armchairs, book-lovers cannot dream of a better place than Dublin. Not forgetting the lovely people that welcome you with a smile and all the fun you will have in Ireland’s capital, my first impression of Dublin was sheer amazement at its fantastic books collection. It is no surprise then that Dublin has been a Unesco City of Literature since 2010.

It all started when my dear friend who studies at Trinity College, Dublin, opened the door of the Old Library for me. The visit starts with a permanent exhibition on the treasures it contains, with a strong focus on the Book of Kells, a richly decorated copy of the four Gospels of the life of Christ from the ninth century. The exhibition provides useful details about the making of the book and its exceptional aesthetic and symbolic characteristics in a very approachable manner. The enlarged colour reproductions are also useful to unpack the intricate arrangement of details that fill the pages. Unfortunately, the contrast with the two original manuscripts on display at the end of the gallery is slightly anti-climactic, due to the necessarily feeble lighting that preserves them, which does not do justice to their rich polychrome. Yet their aura is still very much felt. You then proceed to the library itself, an impressive high-ceilinged gallery flanked by dark wooden shelves with thousands of old and precious books. These include the official declaration of Ireland’s independence, which is currently on display, as well as a large collection of medieval manuscripts.

Trinity’s library is only two minutes away from other important libraries such as the National Library of Ireland. The NLI currently has an interesting show on William Butler Yeats with impressive scenography, probably aimed at a younger audience. It can boast the world’s largest collection of manuscripts by the Irish poet and so the display of a diverse range of primary material is a great way to delve into his world. A few steps away is Merrion Square where W. B. Yeats and Oscar Wilde lived. An unsettling statue dedicated to Oscar Wilde now stands in the gardens, in case you ever wanted a portrait with the artist!

But for me the most impressive literary landmark of all was the Chester Beatty Library, right by Dublin Castle. Set in a light and modern addition to the Clock Tower Building, the CBL hosts a breath-taking collection of manuscripts, books, religious texts and has a strong focus on Islam and the East. Chester Beatty (1875-1968) was a wealthy American mining engineer with a special interest in the different cultures and religions around the globe. His private literary collection is so vast and full of well-preserved gems, that it is hard to leave once you have entered Ali Baba’s cave. The permanent exhibition ‘Arts of the Books’ will appeal to all students of art history and presents treasures from major centres of literary production such as China, Japan, Persia, India and Europe. The amount of finely decorated masterpieces and their world-wide origin truly makes you wonder how he managed to collect so many of them! I was also delighted to come across in the intimacy of a small, quiet room, Chinese jaded books – the library owns the largest collection of these items outside of China, outstanding manuscript Qu’rans and woodblock prints by Hiroshige and Hokusai.

After so many wonders, we finished off our literary journey with a relaxed Sunday stroll on Don Laoghaire’s pier and Sandycove, which leads to the Mortello tower. The 1804 defence edifice built against Napoleon has become the James Joyce Museum. Although the Irish author only stayed there for four nights, the building had a strong influence on him as he set the opening of Ulysses there. I recommend you pop by people’s park market, where you will find a nice spot to buy second-hand books, and who knows, maybe the view on the Irish sea will inspire you to write about Dublin?

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