11 June 2023

Rathmines Library has been
progressive and pioneering
since it opened in 1913

Rathmines Library, on the corner of Lower Rathmines Road and Leinster Road, opened 110 years ago in 1913 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

I was recalling yesterday how three buildings grace the skyline and dominate the skyline of Rathmines: Rathmines Church with its giant green copper dome, and which is celebrating the bicentenary of its parish this year; Rathmines Library; and Rathmines Town Hall, with its clock tower.

Rathmines Library had been my local library when I was in my teens, and in recent weeks I used the library for some of my research for a forthcoming publication in Limerick. With its classical façade, replete with a William Morris stained glass window, the library has been a prominent landmark since it first opened 110 years ago in 1913.

Rathmines Library opened in its present location on the corner of Lower Rathmines Road and Leinster Road on 24 October 1913. But the first public library in Rathmines opened in June 1887 in rented premises at 53 Rathmines Road. The library soon needed more space, and in 1899 moved to 67 Rathmines Road, remaining there for 14 years. Rathmines Fire Brigade later used the same building.

Rathmines and Rathgar Urban District Council applied in 1902 for a grant to Andrew Carnegie, who was making large grants of money towards building libraries around the world. An initial grant of £7,500 in 1903 was later increased to £8,500. It took the town council some time to find a suitable site for the library at 157 Lower Rathmines Road, but building work began in 1912.

The Dublin-based architect Frederick George Hicks (1870-1965) won the competition to design the new library and his partnership firm of Batchelor and Hicks of Dublin were the architects for the new building.

Frederick Hicks was born in Banbury, Oxfordshire, on 16 May 1870, a son of Joseph Hicks, linen draper, and his wife Mary. His architectural training was at the London Architectural Association School and Finsbury Technical College. At 20, he moved to Dublin in 1890 to the office of James Rawson Carroll, where he worked with Frederick Batchelor. He later worked with both William Henry Byrne and Sir Thomas Drew, before setting up his own practice in Dublin in 1895, working from 5 Saint Stephen’s Green, 28 South Frederick Street and 35a Kildare Street.

Batchelor and Hicks set up a partnership at 86 Merrion Square in 1905, and their practice continued until 1922, when Batchelor retired. Hicks continued to work until his retirement in 1945. He was president of the RIAI in 1929-1931, and exhibited frequently at the exhibition of the Water Colour Society of Ireland and the Royal Hibernian Academy.

Hicks died at home at The Tower, Malahide, on 24 April 1965 shortly before his 95th birthday and was buried in Saint Andrew’s churchyard. His former office at 86 Merrion Square has a much-photographed front door and was later the offices of GVA Donal O’Buachalla (now Avison Young), where my father was once a director until his retirement.

Hicks designed many artisan housing schemes, including many in Rathmines, and his other designs include Saint Thomas’s Church (later Saint George and Saint Thomas Church), Cathal Brugha Street, Dublin, and Saint Peter and Saint Paul Church, Kilmallock, Co Limerick.

The library and technical school next door were part of the same building, but each had a separate entrance (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Hicks’s design of the library is a fine example of neo-Georgian style architecture. The library was built in red brick and was designed to fit in with the style of Rathmines Town Hall, designed by Sir Thomas Drew, and it was intended to be an ‘ornament to the township’. The library and technical school next door were part of the same building, but each had a separate entrance.

The Baroque style façade is composed of Arklow brick walls with terracotta dressings. The library and technical school next door were part of the same building but each had a separate entrance, with the library entrance flanked by two-storey high Ionic columns.

A ventilating cupola is in the centre of the roof, and large Venetian windows provide light to the ground floor. The ground floor included a newspaper reading room, an open access lending library, a strong room and a librarian’s room. The large sunny room on the ground floor where people could read the daily newspapers was innovative in a day when newspapers were expensive for ordinary people.

A teak staircase leads up to the landing, where a handsome stained-glass window designed by William Morris depicting ‘Literature’ overlooks the stairwell. There the staircase divides into two parallel flights that lead to the first floor.

The first floor included a well-equipped reference room, with an inner room for periodicals and a lecture hall, now the exhibition room.

The Library and Technical Institute opened on 24 October 1913. During the opening speeches in the town hall, a suffragette seized the chance to shout about ‘votes for women!’ A report at the time said that Sir Thomas Wallace Russell (1841-1920), who was speaking, encouraged those present not to give attention to the woman.

In its early days, Rathmines was a pioneering and progressive library, introducing open access lending and a self-contained children’s library with its own dedicated librarian. Mary Kettle, a councillor in Rathmines, and other women councillors were interested in making the lives of poor children better. They voted to provide school meals for children and supported opening a children’s library in Rathmines 100 years ago in 1923.

Roisin Walsh, the first children’s librarian in Ireland, was based in Rathmines. She became the first chief librarian of Dublin City Council when all the authorities merged in the 1930s.

The library presented both the written word and the writers and thinkers of the day to the general public. It became a true literary workshop catering for the student and general reader in an atmosphere of peace and learning, making information, education and the enjoyment of reading available to all.

A popular free lecture series included topics from ‘Prehistoric Man’ by FE Stephens to ‘My Own Poetry’ by Senator William Butler Yeats in 1926. The future President Douglas Hyde gave a talk in 1928 on Irish folklore, and in 1931 the campaigner and academic Hannah Sheehy Skeffington spoke about Russia.

The library was used by a variety of community groups: Rathmines Chess Club had its headquarters there, the Public Health Department held clinics there, and the Thomas Davis branch of the Gaelic League held meetings there.

The library reopened in 2011 after extensive refurbishment works that removed barriers for people with disabilities and created an open, accessible and welcoming environment. A passenger lift, automatic doors, accessible signage, accessible toilets and improved furniture and shelving were installed, and significant conservation works restored the building to its former glory.

Some of the restored features include reading desks and the original floors, including the oak parquet on the ground floor, the solid pine on the first floor and the teak staircase. The literary associations with Rathmines and local writers were strengthened, re-enforcing Dublin’s designation as a UNESCO City of literature.

Today the library offers access to a collection of 35,000 items, including books, audio books, large print, DVDs and reference material. The children’s library reflects the fact that 35% of active borrowers are children. There is free Wi-Fi, space for study and research, and advice and guidance from professional staff.

Rathmines Library marked its centenary 10 years ago with a programme of lectures, exhibitions and children’s events in 2013. Today, the library stands proudly in the heart of Rathmines, on the corner of Lower Rathmines Road and Leinster Road. It is still a major part of the community and is visited by hundreds of people every day.

Rathmines Library is visited by hundreds of people every day (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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