Marsh’s Library

UNESCO – United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – defines the role of public library as ‘the local centre of information, making all kinds of knowledge and information readily available to its users’ (UNESCO Public Library Manifest) and encourages ‘national and local governments to support and actively engage in the development of public libraries’ (ibid). The Manifest also points out the importance of the public library for fundamental human values such as ‘Freedom, Prosperity and the Development of society and individuals’ (ibid) because these values ‘will only be attained through the ability of well-informed citizens to exercise their democratic rights and to play an active role in society. Constructive participation and the development of democracy depend on satisfactory education as well as on free and unlimited access to knowledge, thought, culture and information’ (ibid). Therefore, it suggests the services of the public library must be ‘provided on the basis of equality of access for all’ (ibid). Despite such importance and values, the notion of public library is relatively new to the entire human history, which saw the emergence of such things during the time of the Industrial Revolution. Marsh’s Library, in Dublin, is known for its historical value as the first public library founded in Ireland. This short blog entry would like to have a look at this intriguing place of interests from various viewpoints; the life and career of the founder of the library, his personal motivation and wider background for establishing the library, interesting things about the library for modern visitors, and a ghost story associated with the library and its founder.

Narcissus Marsh, the founder of the library, was born in Hannigton, Wiltshire, England in 1638. According to the official web site of the library, ‘His father’s name was William Marsh and his mother was Grace Colburn. Narcissus was the youngest in the family of five: three brothers and two sisters. The name Narcissus is certainly uncommon, but his brothers were given the names Epaphroditus and Onesiphorus’ ( He was ‘educated at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he graduated in 1658… was elected a Fellow of Exeter College’ (Trinity College Dublin, 2011) in the same year, was ordained in 1662, and ‘awarded the living at Swindon’ (Find A Grave, 2001). Then he ‘was appointed chaplain to the Bishop of Exeter and Clarendon and principal of St. Alban’s Hall, Oxford in 1673’ (ibid). In 1673 – or at least by January 1678 – he was ‘appointed Provost of Trinity College Dublin on the nomination of the Duke of Ormonde, Chancellor and Lord Lieutenant’ (Trinity College Dublin, 2011). It is said that he was sent to Ireland in 1679 and ‘was consecrated Bishop of Ferns and Leighlin and rector of Killiban’ (Find A Grave, 2001) in 1683. This was followed by his temporary return to England ‘Due to social unrest under James II’ (ibid) in 1689, but he soon went back to Ireland in 1691, where he further ‘held three archbishoprics: Cashel (1691-4), Dublin (1694-1703) and Armagh (1703-13)’ (Trinity College Dublin, 2011).

On top of his career in the Church, he was also known for a scholar, who ‘wrote on logic and acoustics’ (ibid) and in 1683, ‘Marsh became one of the first members of the Dublin Philosophical Society. He contributed an early paper to that Society… in which he apparently was the first to use the word microphone’ ( More controversially, his passion and enthusiasm went towards an awkward direction under the political climate at the time. It is said that Marsh ‘acquired a good knowledge of’ (Trinity College Dublin, 2011) the Irish language and ‘encouraged the Irish scholars to learn it, appointing a native speaker as a lecturer to teach them. He also cooperated with Robert Boyle, the celebrated chemist, in the production of an edition of the Bible in Irish’ (ibid). His encouragement of the Irish language was an ‘unexpected aspect of his provostship’ (ibid) because the time was when the language ‘had no place therein, and was banned out of public life, the schools, the courts etc… Since the early 17th Cent… there had been no Irish speaking upper class’ (Bräsicke, 2003).

Meanwhile, Marsh’s best known achievement – the idea of founding a public library – seems to have emerged gradually from his concerns on education. While he was Provost of Trinity College, Dublin, it is said that he ‘observed how difficult it was to use the library there’ ( and complained in his diary of ‘the ill education that the young Scholars have before they come to College whereby they are both rude and ignorant’ (ibid). During his tenure, though he made ‘the revision of the regulations for administering the College library’ (ibid), nonetheless, in May 1700, he still complained in a letter to his friend in England of not having ‘any convenient room to hold an ordinary study of books’ (ibid) even at his position. When Marsh consulted his idea of a public library in the same letter, it was the time in England that saw ‘public libraries had sprouted up in industrious cities such as Bristol, Ipswich and Norwich’ (Heraghty, 2013). This momentum has only began in 1653, when Chetham’s Library was founded in Manchester, as the first public library in Britain ‘under the will of Humphrey Chetham (1580-1653), a prosperous… textile merchant, banker and landowner.’ (Chetham’s Library, 2013). In other words, emergence of public library could be accounted as a part of impact and effect caused by the Industrial Revolution to the society as a whole. Before the foundation of Chetham’s Library, it is said that ‘there was no facility for independent study in the north of England’ (ibid) and such facilities and knowledge had been mostly dominated by the college libraries like Oxford and Cambridge. In his will of 1651, Humphrey Chetham made sure that his librarians should be instructed ‘to require nothing of any man that cometh into the library’ (ibid).

In 1701-03, Archbishop Marsh established the library ‘furnishing it with his own collection of books and by the purchase of the collection of Edward Stillingfleet’ (, who became the first librarian of Marsh’s Library. It was built on ‘St. Patrick’s Close, almost hidden behind St. Patrick’s Cathedral’ (Heraghty, 2013) in Dublin City Centre. The concept of a public library – ‘allowing ordinary people access to expensive books for free — was relatively radical’ (ibid) so that its building was designed to accommodate special rooms called the cages, where ‘visitors were locked in while reading one of the libraries more expensive titles, to prevent stealing’ (ibid). One of the most interesting things about Marsh’s Library for modern visitors is that it ‘is still a library but has not added new books since the 18th century’ (ibid) so that visitors could be ‘treated to an experience of an 18th century library (for) very little has changed since the library first opened’ (ibid), which involves not only the collection of books but also ‘Both the layout and furnishings of the library — including the dark oak bookcases, seats and shelves’ (ibid). Due to the fact that it was the first public library in Ireland, Marsh’s Library ‘had been a centre of great interest for tourists and scholars from many countries’ ( and still is operating as a place of interest for preserving its historical value and atmosphere. Furthermore, this old building has been associated with a rumour of ghost story, which has been connected with the founder of the library – Archbishop Narcissus Marsh – as it follows:

‘A brilliant scholar, Archbishop Narcissus Marsh was eccentric and obstinate. He did not believe in marriage and remained a bachelor all his life. His niece acted as housekeeper in his comfortable home beside the newly-built library.
The niece, Grace Marsh, met a young minister who, though poor, was hand-some and charming. She fell deeply in love with him but dared not let her uncle know about the affair. The lovers did not get the chance to meet very often because the Archbishop always seemed to be around. So they kept in touch with each other through written messages.
Whenever they wanted to send a message they just scribbled it on a piece of paper and placed the note carefully between the pages of a book, known to them both, but seldom sought by users of the library.
In October of 1695, the young minister and the Archbishop’s niece decided to elope to England. Eleven o’clock on one early October Eve the date… for the elopement was fixed, and in the meantime the lovers continued to correspond with each other through their secret “post office.”
All during that fateful week the Archbishop’s niece was particularly anxious that her uncle should not discover their plans. She felt that he suspected something. He seemed to frequent the library more often than usual.
On the morning of the elopement, snow fell heavily in Dublin. In an inner bay of the library the Archbishop’s niece sat reading a note from her lover, which gave final instructions for the elopement that night.
On her way out, however, the note fell from her pocket. It was found next morning by a shocked and angry Archbishop. It was too late. The previous night, two figures had met at the entrance to Marsh’s library in Dublin, not a stone’s throw from busy Patrick’s Close. There was a hurried conversation, then the figures moved together.
For days after the elopement, the Archbishop was like a man in a dream. Shock was gradually replaced by loneliness, then by bitterness. It is said that he never forgave his niece for what she had done. In the months that followed his health went from bad to worse until, some years later, he died at the age of 75. It was said that he had died of a broken heart.
Now, while Dublin sleeps, the ghost of the Archbishop is said to wander through the library, searching the shelves for the secret love messages of his niece.
The Archbishop’s remains rest in a vault in St. Patrick’s Cathedral churchyard. A short distance away stands the library. How the Archbishop’s niece, Grace, and the young minister fared has not been recorded but Grace lived to be 85 years old and it is nice to know that she was, after her death, buried in the same tomb with her uncle the Archbishop’ (ibid).

Though the story above has a convincing tone of telling, it would be appropriate to remind readers of following few points; (1) as it has been already mentioned, Marsh’s Library was built in 1701, therefore, 1695 is too early for setting this story to take place. (2) Similarly, contrary to the description of the Archbishop’s later life in grief, as it is already mentioned earlier, Narcissus Marsh continued to work as the Archbishop of Armagh, after the establishment of the library, and ‘served (there) until his death at 74 ten years later’ (Find A Grave, 2001) in 1713, which was 18 years later since the elopement in question. Finally, it would be illustrative to add some extra information regarding to the elopement of his niece Grace from another source, as it follows:

‘While Marsh was Archbishop of Dublin and living as an old bachelor in the Palace of St. Sepulchre he arranged for his niece, young Grace Marsh, to look after the housekeeping for him. Grace was only nineteen and probably found the Archbishop’s life style and strict discipline rather depressing. On the 10th September 1695 this rather sad entry appears in his Diary. “This evening betwixt 8 and 9 of the clock at night my niece Grace Marsh (not having the fear of God before her eyes) stole privately out of my house at St. Sepulchre’s and (as is reported) was that night married to Chas. Proby vicar of Castleknock in a Tavern and was bedded there with him – Lord consider my affliction”’ (

In addition, if Grace was nineteen years old at the time of her elopement, the year of her death could be roughly calculated to 1761, though both sources chose not to mention it but coincidentally began their closing lines with the same sentence: ‘it is nice to know…’

Thus, this short blog entry had a look at Marsh’s Library in Dublin, Ireland, from various viewpoints. At first, it looked at biographic information of Narcissus Marsh, the founder of the library, who was born in Wiltshire, England, in 1638, educated at Oxford, and extended his career mainly in Ireland and settled there since 1691 for being appointed three successive archbishoprics henceforward. It also briefly looked at Marsh being known as a scholar on logic and acoustics, and an advocator for the Irish language. Then it moved to the main topic of this entry, Marsh’s Library, and found the main motivation for the library in Marsh’s personal concerns on education and regulations of the College library, while he was Provost of Trinity College, Dublin. In wider picture, the time was coincided with the emergence of public library as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution in Britain that gave the first example in 1653, when Chetham’s Library was founded in Manchester. Subsequently, it looked at Marsh’s Library itself, especially focusing on interesting things for visitors today. The library was built in 1701-03 with the collection of books provided by its founder and its first librarian. However, it ceased to add new books during the 18th century and, along with the building’s unique features like special rooms called ‘the cages’, it is known for preserving what was there in the 18th century with very little changes since then. Finally, it examined the ghost story associated with the library and its founder Narcissus Marsh and his niece Grace. Due to the nature of this sort of story, little could be confirmed as facts i. e., Grace’s elopement on 10 September 1695, and their sharing of a burial site. Additionally, it also pointed out a potential gap between the ghost story and the real life of Narcissus Marsh regarding to his later life, in which he continued to serve as the Archbishop of Armagh until his death in 1713.

Bräsicke, Lars (2003), About the Irish Language, Gramadach na Gaeilge – The Irish Language (last updated 03/09/2003, electronically accessed 19/11/2013)

Chetham’s Library (2013), A Brief History of Chatham’s, History (electronically accessed 09/11/2013)

Find A Grave (2001), Narcissus Marsh – Memorial (electronically accessed 03/12/2013)

Heraghty, Michael (2013), Marsh’s Library, Choose Ireland – Dublin (Electronically accessed 07/11/2013)

Marsh’s Library (year unstated), Narcissus Marsh, Home – Research (electronically accessed 06/11/2013)

Trinity College Dublin (2011), Narcissus Marsh, History of the office – Former provosts (last updated 06/09/2011, electronically accessed 05/11/2013)

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (2013), UNESCO Public Library Manifest, Communication and Information (electronically accessed 11/11/2013) (2013), A Dublin Ghost Story, ireland, the emerald isle -ghost stories – The Haunted Library (electronically accessed 12/11/2013)

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