A Passion for books: The Gilbert Library


Great libraries depend on the acquisition of earlier collections gathered by enthusiasts and scholars. The dispersal of collections adds to the riches of other libraries. Nobody was more aware of this process than Gilbert himself, and for most of his life his eye was sharply focused on saleroom and auction catalogue. His personal library benefited from the collections of Sir Edward Newenham, the Putland library, Judge Christopher Robinson, James Hardiman, Daniel O’Connell and many others. In addition to this, from his teenage years he had a network of friends and correspondents throughout Europe, who were willing to seek out particular books for him. Assiduous collecting throughout his lifetime resulted in one of the finest Irish historical libraries of the period. Dublin was fortunate in not losing this library after Gilbert’s death, as Dublin Corporation committed itself to purchasing it for the city. The Gilbert Library is now the core collection at the heart of the very fine Dublin Collection at Dublin City Library and Archive, Pearse Street. Its treasures are appreciated among researchers throughout the world.

The Young Collector.

John Thomas Gilbert was born on 23 January 1829 in Jervis Street, Dublin. The son of a Catholic mother whose family came from County Meath and a Protestant father whose family hailed from Devon. From an early age Gilbert’s interest in books was apparent. As a child, on family holidays at his uncle’s house in Brannockstown, Co. Meath, he was introduced to the subject which would form his life’s work. According to the biography by his widow the young Gilbert had the use of the extensive library of Fr Murray, parish priest of Trim, a relative of his maternal grandmother’s, who was educated for the priesthood on the continent.[1] This Fr Murray has proved elusive; he was neither parish priest nor curate of Trim. However, Fr James Murray (1771-1844) was parish priest of Clonmellon, Co. Westmeath, in the diocese of Meath, from 1809 until his death on 29 January 1844. He succeeded his uncle, Fr John Murray (1751-1809), an Irish scholar, in the parish of Clonmellon. Both were from Rathmolyon, in the same barony as Brannockstown. Fr James Murray is a likely identification for Gilbert’s relative.[2] No account of Fr Murray’s library survives, and we have no way of knowing if its riches included Irish historical material, or indeed if any items from it were passed on to Gilbert.

Gilbert educated himself in Irish history, archaeology and bibliography through his intensive and widespread reading. In his early years his own library was small and could not fully cater for his needs. In 1848, at the age of 19, he became a reader at the libraries of the Royal Dublin Society (RDS) and Marsh’s, and on becoming a member of the Royal Irish Academy in 1855 its excellent library became available to him.[3] Gilbert borrowed books throughout his life, as we know from his later letters, and he was pleased to lend books to other scholars. It is likely that some of his early research was done using borrowed volumes. But many of the rare works which he needed could not be borrowed, nor even read in Dublin’s best libraries. These he had to locate and to purchase where possible.

It is notable from his letters that Gilbert had contacts in key places on the continent through the Catholic clergy. The Irish Catholic diaspora of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries resulted in a spread of archival material relating to Irish history across Europe. Irish writers published their works in continental cities from the fifteenth century. This material was often collected by the Irish Colleges in Paris, Rome, Lisbon, Salamanca and elsewhere. Irish books and archives often came on the market in Paris, Rome and Lisbon, and Gilbert showed a particular interest in acquiring some rare books which could be obtained through his correspondents in these cities. In addition, he had a particular interest in Lisbon: his father had been consul of Portugal and Algarve, and his mother’s brother, Patrick Costello, practised medicine there. In 1848 John Savage sent him a copy of O’Sullivan Beare’s Historiae Catholicae Iberniae (1621) from Lisbon, one item from Gilbert’s list of books wanted.[4]

What was so unusual in one so young was the systematic way in which Gilbert formed his collection, and the thorough manner in which he organised it for use. An early hand-written catalogue, now in the National Library of Ireland, containing over 300 titles compiled in 1848, and with additions made the following year, exemplifies this care.[5] The catalogue is in alphabetical order by author, giving full details of format, number of volumes, place and date of publication. A surprising number of contemporary editions of French literature, as well as some works in Latin and Italian testify to his command of languages. At school in Prior Park Gilbert learned Latin and Greek, French, Italian and German. Dictionaries and grammars in French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and German in his library indicate that he kept up his knowledge of European languages throughout his life.

Already his main interest is clear, and rare and valuable works of Irish history and some manuscripts form part of his early library. Books relating to Ireland from the late sixteenth century to the most recent publications of 1849 are present. He gathered seventeenth- and eighteenth-century imprints in considerable quantities. The range of places of publication is impressive: London, Dublin, Edinburgh and Glasgow for English language works, Paris, Amsterdam, Lyons, Leyden and Cologne for French and Latin books and Rome and Paris for Irish language works. Gilbert began to collect seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Irish Almanacks; items that are especially scarce because of their ephemeral quality. He had an early and abiding interest in portraits of Irishmen and women, and his catalogue of 1848 notes the books which contain portraits.

John Dunton’s Dublin Scuffle (1699), a valuable source for the late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Dublin book trade, was among his early acquisitions.[6] A life-long interest in the printers and booksellers at work in Dublin up to the end of the eighteenth century is apparent from Gilbert’s own writings; especially his History of Dublin, and two papers on Irish bibliography read to the Royal Irish Academy in 1896 and 1897.[7] He also began to purchase books printed in Dublin, the early catalogue has 43 eighteenth-century Dublin-printed titles and seven from the seventeenth century, the latter including the works of James Ussher, Sir James and Robert Ware.[8]

At this stage Gilbert showed a keen interest in contemporary works of literature, prose and poetry. The Waverley novels of Walter Scott, the poetry of Robert Burns, Byron, Keats, Shelley, Southey, Tennyson, and Wordsworth are there in modern editions, as well as works by Washington Irving, Goëthe and Madame de Staël. Books on bibliography are present at this early point in his collecting career: appropriately Dibdin’s Bibliomania and Introduction to the Greek and Latin Classics, Brunet’s Manuel du Libraire, and Lowndes’ Bibliographer’s Manual. His life-long practice of making pencilled notes inside the back covers of his books, referring to pages of interest to him in the text, was a working method developed at the start of his career. His copy of Bibliomania has one reference at the back to a portrait of St Brigid on page 196.

Assembling the Library.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Gilbert’s library are the number of very rare continental editions of little-known works of Irish writers, some identified by the use of “Hibernus” with the writer’s name. An impressive set of works about St Patrick from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are present, the earliest by Richard Stanihurst (who is called “Dubliniensis” or “Hiberni Dubliniensis”), a life of St Patrick printed in Antwerp by the renowned Christopher Plantin in 1587.[9] Thomas Messingham’s (“Sacerdos Hibernos”) Florilegium Insulae Sanctorum, published in Paris in 1624, contains the lives of St Patrick, St Brigid, St Columcille and St Malachy, while another life of St Patrick, with lives of St Brigid and St Columba, by Revd. Bonaventure Baron was published in St Omer in 1625.[10] Revd. Baron (“Hyberno-Clonmeliensis”), one of the Irish Franciscan friars at Louvain, also published works in Lyons, Cologne and Rome in the mid seventeenth century and these works are to be found in Gilbert’s library.[11] It was Gilbert who provided the entry on Baron to the Dictionary of National Biography.[12]

An extremely rare and interesting work by Thomas Hibernicus or Palmeranus, Thomas of Palmerstown (fl.1267), Flores omnium, theological and philosophical extracts from a range of authors, compiled in the second half of the thirteenth century and printed in Lyons in 1567, was probably purchased from John O’Daly, the Dublin bookseller.[13] As we have seen, Gilbert corresponded with John Savage in Lisbon in the late 1840s, sending Dublin newspapers to him, and asking him to seek out certain books and manuscripts. Having purchased O’Sullivan Beare’s Historiae Catholicae through him, Gilbert also hoped to find the manuscripts of Philip O’Sullivan and a portrait, but in this he was unsuccessful.[14] The Historiae Catholicae, published in Lisbon in 1621, a very scarce volume, was in the hands of a private individual, who parted with it for a moidore [a Portuguese gold coin].[15] Gilbert offered it to Revd. Matthew Kelly, professor of French and belles lettres at Maynooth and council member of the Celtic Society, to do a new edition. According to the biography of Gilbert this offer was refused, yet letters from Revd. Kelly in 1850 suggest that he may have used Gilbert’s copy to work from.[16] The new edition, edited by Matthew Kelly, was published in Dublin by John O’Daly in 1850.[17] One of Gilbert’s copies of this edition is a presentation copy from the editor.

Throughout the nineteenth century major auctions of Irish libraries took place in Dublin. Auctioneers such as Charles Sharpe (1820-1852) of Anglesea Street[18] and John Fleming Jones (1840-1880) of D’Olier Street[19] led the way. Sharpe specialised in the sale of private libraries of the Catholic clergy, many of whom were educated on the continent and had an array of continental imprints in their collections. Libraries of collectors of Irish material also came on the market, some of which were assembled over a century of purchasing. None of what must have been an extensive collection of Gilbert’s book auction or booksellers’ catalogues have been preserved, so we cannot say with accuracy what range of sales he attended, nor what items were of interest to him, whether he succeeded in purchasing them or not.

The Putland library, built up by John Putland (1709-1773) of Great Britain Street and Bray Head, his son George (1745-1811) and grandson George junior (1783-1841), came up for auction in 1847.[20] John Putland was a prominent member of the Dublin Society, acting as treasurer from 1754 to 1772. His son and grandson were also members of the Dublin Society and of the Royal Irish Academy. We know from the distinctive Putland bindings that Gilbert acquired some of these books. The elephant motif formed part of the Putland crest displayed on the bookplate, and their books bear the elephant head on the panels of the spines. Yet, Gilbert did not attend this auction in 1847, as the titles do not form part of his catalogue of 1848. He must have purchased them later, either at another sale, or from a secondhand bookseller.[21]


Bookplate  of Lieutenant-General Daniel Charles, Count O’Connell, uncle of Daniel. (I am grateful to Anthony Pincott of the Bookplate Society for this information).

Daniel O’Connell’s legal and miscellaneous library came under the hammer in 1849.[22] The presence of his uncle’s bookplate on at least some of his books suggests that Gilbert purchased books from this sale.[23] Many other sales from this period must have attracted him, such as that of Irish history and antiquities of J.M. Ray (1850), duplicates from the Dublin Library Society (1851), the Latouche library from Marlay Park (1857), the library of Isaac Weld, Vice President of the RDS (1857), the library of Sir William Rowan Hamilton (1867), that of his friend and colleague, John O’Donovan (1867), and those of his friends Denis Florence McCarthy in 1874 and R.R. Madden in 1886, but there is no evidence of purchases. Gilbert retained a copy of Madden’s catalogue in his library, but it is unmarked.[24]

The sale of Lord Charlemont’s library and paintings in August and September 1865 was one of the great sales of the century.[25] This very large collection was amassed over 50 years in the second half of the eighteenth century. Charlemont’s commitment to Irish studies, and his patronage of writers and artists, is reflected in the holdings of his library. A priced copy of the auction catalogue is held in the Royal Irish Academy. Gilbert, and other collectors of Irish historical material, were keenly aware of the riches afforded by the dispersal of such libraries. However, competition must have been intense, the libraries of the Royal Irish Academy and Trinity College, and private collectors such as Henry Bradshaw (1831-1886) of Cambridge University and Evelyn Philip Shirley (1812-1882) of Lough Fea, Co. Monaghan, must have helped to raise prices. In fact Tony Sweeney, author of Ireland and Printed Word 1475-1700, believes that Gilbert, Bradshaw and Shirley were responsible for inflating prices to levels not reached again until the twentieth century.[26] Gilbert had a copy of the rare Catalogue of the Library at Lough Fea, presented to him by E.P. Shirley.[27]

One of the outstanding acquisitions to the library was the set of Newenham pamphlets and tracts, dating from 1650 to 1798. Uniformly bound and bearing the initials “E.N.” on most of the spines, this extensive collection of rare Dublin imprints belonged to Sir Edward Newenham, M.P., of Belcamp Hall in Coolock, where they occupied a specially-constructed alcove in one of the ground floor reception rooms. The collection, comprises over 100 volumes, each containing several pamphlets. Begun by Dr Worth in the seventeenth century and continued by the Newenhams, his descendants, it was offered for sale to Trinity College in 1884 for £63. When Trinity declined to purchase, Gilbert “having looked over the collection, purchased it at once for my own library, and so kept it in Ireland”.[28] The unique collection, specialising in political and economic topics, is an invaluable resource for the study of this period.

Gilbert had very specific needs when it came to book collecting. He sent lists of books or manuscripts to friends and acquaintances abroad. His correspondence led to a two-way traffic in books and information, and Gilbert always seemed generous in these exchanges. His friend, Denis Florence MacCarthy, poet and translator of Spanish drama, a fellow bibliophile, frequently sought books in libraries and bookshops in France and elsewhere. In 1877 Gilbert wrote to him: “if you go into any old book shops in France, will you try to find me a copy of the two volumes noted on enclosed slip? I would be glad to get them for a guinea a-piece … they were printed somewhere in France”.[29] In reply MacCarthy felt that there was little chance of fulfilling his order in Boulogne as “there is only one old bookshop in the town, and from my inspection of the Public Library in the Grande Rue on Sunday last, I have little hope of ever seeing them there”.[30] The two volumes referred to are Revd. John Lynch’s Alithinologia (1664) and Supplement (1667), published in St Omer. Gilbert seems not to have tracked down these books for his library, although he held others by Revd. Lynch. Writing from Paris the following year, MacCarthy offered: “if there is any book or other matter you would like me to hunt up for you, I shall be most happy to do it”.[31]

Father P.S. Dunne in St Isidore’s College, Rome, corresponded with Gilbert in 1877 when Gilbert wished to have photographs or drawings made of the portraits of Irish clergy in the Theological Hall. Gilbert also sent a list of books which were of interest to him, and which proved difficult to find. In December Fr Dunne wrote: “The reason it is so difficult to find these books is because the old libraries have been long since disposed of, and for the most part lie perdu in the bookshops”. However, by February 1878 Fr Dunne could say that “the books are all found, and will be on their way to Rome in a few days”.[32] Richard O’Flynn, an Irish emigrant from Waterford, living in Worcester, Massachusettes, was acquainted with Gilbert from reading his books. He wrote asking Gilbert to send copies of his publications, in one letter he asked for three copies of the Contemporary History of Affairs in Ireland and copies of the Facsimiles of Ancient Irish Manuscripts. In return he offered: “If I can be of any service to you in obtaining anything in the book line, you may command my services”.[33]

As Secretary of the Irish Archaeological and Celtic Society[34] and librarian of the Royal Irish Academy Gilbert’s position was unique. In these two capacities, as well as author of so many books, he had dealings with booksellers in Ireland, Britain and the continent for the sale of books and for purchasing. Among the most prominent London firms taking the publications of the Archaeological and Celtic societies, and likewise taking copies of Gilbert’s own publications as they were issued, were Bernard Quaritch, Leicester Square, and later Picadilly; Messrs Trübner & Co., Paternoster Row; and Asher & Co. Foreign Booksellers, Covent Garden.[35] These companies also specialised in publishing small editions of the works produced by historical societies in England, some of which are to be found in the library.[36]

Several other booksellers dealt with Gilbert for the publications of the Archaeological and Celtic Society and for his own works: in London Ellis & Elvey, of 29 New Bond Street, A. Heylin, of 29 Paternoster Row, B.F. Stevens, of 4 Trafalgar Square, Messrs Puttick and Simpson, 47 Leicester Square, and in Dublin M.H. Gill of 50 Upper Sackville Street and Patrick Traynor of 29 Essex Quay.[37]

Gilbert’s purchasing cannot be fully documented. Even though thousands of letters survive, they are fragmentary, mainly one-sided (to Gilbert), and are largely concerned with the business of the Royal Irish Academy and the Archaeological and Celtic Society.[38] Some, however, deal with his personal purchasing, and a number of factors emerge. The range of booksellers and literary sale-rooms which he corresponded with was very wide, and was certainly wider than we know of. Gilbert liked to bargain for the best terms from secondhand booksellers. His books were ordered by letter, or later by telegraph, and were dispatched from abroad by book post, by Globe Parcels Express, or by rail and steamer. Some booksellers sent books on approval[39] and many had his lists of wants to work from. William George, bookseller in Park Street, Bristol, kept a “Books Wanted” list and Gilbert’s list was noted there.[40] Booksellers also alerted Gilbert to items which might be of interest to him. Miss Millard, of Teddington, Middlesex, had Story’s History of the Wars in Ireland 1689-92, complete with folding plans and plates, for three guineas in 1889.[41] There is a copy in the library, but it is not known if Miss Millard made the sale.

As well as supplying Bernard Quaritch with his own books and those of the Archaeological and Celtic Society, Gilbert was evidently a very good customer.[42] In 1882 they wrote: “I forward by post as desired the volume from the Sunderland Library. I cannot make any reduction in the price – as it is so fine a copy of a rare work and only just purchased. I have not at present a copy of “Mone Hymni Latini”, but I can offer you Daniel, Thesaurus Hymnologicus, 3 volumes in 1, 8vo, hf. cf. 1855 for £1.16.0. Shall I send this to you? Both Mone and Daniel are very scarce and very dear, and much sought after. I have just bought Sir Robert Peel’s Irish Library. I intend to add to it, and to issue in about 18 months a catalogue of my Irish stock”.[43] Gilbert owned a copy of Franz Joseph Mone’s Latinische Hymnen, but not a copy of the Daniel volume.

J.W. Sage of 4 Newman’s Row, London, also fulfilled orders for Gilbert.[44] In December 1863 they had procured the four books by Timothy Cunningham requested by him: Historical Account of the Rights of Election (1783) (7s.6d.), The Law Diary for 1764 (10s.6d.), Law of Simony (1781) (3s.6d.) and folio Reports (£2.10s.0d.). Of these four titles Gilbert retained only the first in his library.[45] They had got the books for him from other secondhand booksellers, but they insisted on charging extra for this service.[46] Orders were sent to Barthés & Lowell, foreign booksellers, 14 Great Marlborough Street, London, in 1863.[47]

James Bain, 1 Haymarket, London, got Samuel Ayscough’s Catalogue of Manuscripts in the British Museum (1782), 2 volumes, for Gilbert in 1873. “I have sent Ayscough as we can not do better as to condition. The other book, Cat. Mss. 1697, is rare and especially in good condition as the one reported. It is of course possible that an inferior copy may occur and at less price and I will let you have note of it if it does … I dare say I shall report a Clarendon shortly”.[48]

Gilbert purchased from the catalogues of the London booksellers C. Herbert, 60 Goswell Road, and Clement S. Palmer, antiquarian bookseller, The Priory, Lower Clapham, in 1877; Sotheby, Wilkinson and Hodge, 13 Wellington Street, the Strand, and Edward Daniell, book and printseller (for engraved portraits), Cavendish Square,  in 1881; and Matthews and Brooks in Bradford and Leeds.[49]

In Ireland Gilbert almost certainly trawled all the Dublin bookshops and auction rooms. In June 1877 a receipt from William Bernard Kelly of Grafton Street has survived, itemising four titles: Leadbeater’s Papers, 2 volumes (6s.6d.), Worcester’s Dictionary of the English Language (£1.5s.6d.), Carleton’s Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry (4s.0d.), and Chambers’ Encyclopedia of English Literature (16s.8d.).[50] These volumes are likely to have been bought as new books as that edition of Carleton, and Chambers, had only been published in 1876.

As noted earlier borrowing and lending books among scholars was common. Gilbert’s particular friends, William Wilde, Denis Florence MacCarthy and Revd. William Reeves had open access to each other’s libraries. Many other scholars benefited from Gilbert’s generosity. William Wilde found a copy of the old Icelandic Chronicle belonging to Gilbert on his shelves in 1874; it had been borrowed and forgotten.[51] In 1870 Francis Prendergast returned the 3 volumes of Arthur O’Connor’s Monopoly the Cause of all Evil which he had borrowed.[52]

Gilbert applied to the Royal Irish Academy in 1877 to borrow their copy of the Journal of the War of 1641, this request was granted, provided a deposit of £5 was lodged for it.[53] In August 1881 Evelyn Shirley of Lough Fea thanked Gilbert for the safe return of Queen Elizabeth’s Primer and is sending him a loan of Belling’s Annotations, published in Paris in 1654.[54] Blayney Balfour of Townley Hall thanks Gilbert in November 1889 for a book returned and says he will collect the second one at the Royal Irish Academy when Gilbert has finished.[55] In 1897 the Earl of Fingall of Killeen Castle, Dunsany, asks Gilbert to return his copy of M.T. “Light to the Blind” as he wishes to show it to a friend. We see from the Catalogue that Gilbert had a transcript made of this manuscript and labelled it Fingall Manuscripts.[56]

As Gilbert’s expertise in matters relating to Irish history and records increased, his circle of friends and colleagues working in similar areas also expanded. It can be seen from his letters that he was generous in supplying information, often devoting valuable time to checking facts for other scholars’ research. This generosity was repaid by authors when their works were published and Gilbert’s library attests to the esteem in which he was held by the presence of so many presentation copies, inscribed to him. When he was just 20 William Wilde presented him with a copy of his book The Closing Years of Dean Swift’s Life with the inscription: “J.T. Gilbert, Esq., with the author’s kind regards”.[57] The French archaeologist and Celtic scholar, Henri d’Arbois de Jubainville, visited Gilbert and dined with him while he stayed in Ireland in 1881. They subsequently corresponded on matters relating to Irish manuscripts and Gilbert sent copies of his Facsimiles to him in France. Gilbert had seven of de Jubainville’s works in his library, at least one a presentation copy, with an inscription by the author.[58] The Trustees of the British Museum sent him copies of the Catalogue of  Additions to Manuscripts (1854-75) and (1876-1881) as gifts, “the Trustees of the British Museum … request that you will be pleased to accept the same as a present from them”.[59]

He also received presentation copies from well-known historians, antiquarians and genealogists: Sir John Bernard Burke, compiler of Burke’s Peerage, E. Maude Thompson of the British Museum, Richard Caulfield, antiquarian and editor of the Corporation records of Cork, Kinsale and Youghal, Eugene O’Curry, the Irish scholar (“his affectionate friend”), historians William Hardinge, Revd. Edmund Hogan, Arthur B. Leech, and R.R. Madden, Revd. John O’Hanlon, author of the Lives of the Irish Saints, Bishop William Reeves, ecclesiastical historian and Gilbert’s friend and correspondent (“with the author’s affect. regards”), Lord Talbot de Malahide, Lord Dunraven, Charles Gavan Duffy, Samuel Ferguson, P.W. Joyce, historian of Irish placenames, and Cardinal Patrick Francis Moran, church historian.

In addition to books purchased and presentation copies received, Gilbert was given the works of contemporary historians and archivists for review. He reviewed for the London-published periodicals Athenæum, Academy, Gentleman’s Magazine, and Dublin Review.

Honing the Collection.

It is clear from Gilbert’s early collecting that he chose his library with care and maintained it for use as a working collection. The integrity of the library as it stood when he died points to the focus of his collection policy. In the introduction to the printed catalogue the editors note that “It is almost, if not altogether, lacking in what is called ‘belles lettres’”.[60] That is largely true of the final form of the library, but we have seen from Gilbert’s 1848 catalogue that it was then well furnished with contemporary literature. As Gilbert honed the collection many of the modern works were shed, nineteenth-century editions of earlier works were frequently replaced by older or rarer editions. Contemporary literature made place for books which were more essential to his work. In 1848 he sent 200 volumes to the auction rooms of John Fleming Jones, in order to make room for new acquisitions.[61]

While the Gilbert family was quite comfortable thanks to a thriving wine and cider importation business, Gilbert’s own circumstances changed as he relinquished his involvement in the business and devoted himself to historical studies. The nature of his contract work with the Historical Manuscripts Commission and other institutions allowed him to provide for his needs, without too much surplus. However, a low point was reached financially when he lost his position of secretary with the Public Records Office in 1875, when that post was abolished. This was compounded  in 1885 with the failure of the Munster Bank; Gilbert faced ruin and it looked as if his home and library would have to be sold. Sale of his life insurance policy, however, allowed him to keep his collection and continue his work. By any standards Gilbert’s expenditure on books was enormous, but as his resources were limited he needed to negotiate the best deal whenever possible. In addition, the publication of his books was an expensive undertaking and the return uncertain.

The library’s strengths coincide with its owner’s priorities; books of less use or interest were quickly replaced by more relevant ones. It is known from his letters that he spared no effort when it came to tracking down items necessary to his research, and money was found to purchase them. Books and manuscripts relating to Dublin, the growth, development and governing of the city, form one of its main strengths. The social and cultural history of Dublin was an important element for Gilbert, from his earliest collecting theatrical memoirs, biographies, histories of buildings and institutions, texts of eighteenth-century plays and librettos, remained at the core of the collection. The works of Irishmen and women, especially the neglected Catholic writers, were of paramount interest to him, whether published in Ireland or the continent.

Scarce ephemeral items were collected throughout his life, and he assembled a large and varied collection. As a young man he began to collect Irish Almanacks, and in his lifetime he collected a very complete set. James Hardiman’s library provided him with a good set of rare almanacks of early date: Coats’ Almanacks, Butlers Advice from the Stars, Parker’s Ephemeris (1718), Rider’s Country Man’s Kalendar (1711), and Tom Tatler’s Astral Gazet. Watson’s Gentleman and Citizen’s Almanacks from 1729, and Wilson’s Dublin Directories from 1761, are present in a full set.

Contemporary single-sheet street ballads, poorly printed on bad paper relating to topical events of their day were amassed by Gilbert and bound into a large volume. These ballad slips give a good insight into the popular culture of nineteenth-century Dublin.[62] Small song books of the eighteenth century, published in Dublin, Cork and Newry, are rare and now very much sought after for their view of eighteenth-century Irish society. One of these, Paddy’s Resource, a book of patriotic songs of the United Irishmen, in its Dublin edition of 1798, reveals one of the ways in which the United Irishmen tried to popularise their ideals by the use of songs, sung to well-known tunes.[63] Gilbert’s bound volumes of eighteenth-century newspapers, dating from 1700 to the 1830s, provided him with much of the detailed information to be found in his writings. Some of these newspapers from the first three decades of the century are unique survivals.

Dublin craftsmanship, in the form of fine printing and fine bindings, forms another enduring strand of the collection. Gilbert’s interest in bibliography remained constant, he was aware of the importance of collecting Irish bindings representative of the finest work of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Several of the Dublin bindings from his library have been used for exhibition, both in his lifetime and since. In 1895 the Arts and Crafts Society of Ireland was founded to encourage high standards of design. Two exhibitions were held in the Royal University buildings in Dublin, the first opened on 26 November 1895, and the second on 21 November 1899.[64] The main part of both exhibitions was devoted to modern arts and crafts, but there was a retrospective section, displaying high-quality items of workmanship from the past. The bookbinding section was directed by Sir Edward Sullivan, and in 1895 Gilbert was asked to loan some of his best examples to the exhibition. Included among the volumes lent were his beautiful copies of Milton’s Paradise Lost edited by John Hawkey, in fine eighteenth-century Dublin bindings.

The Duke of Ormonde was also approached to lend items for exhibition. Gilbert had acted in an advisory capacity to the Duke in selecting and purchasing books for the Ormonde library.[65] He also spent time at Kilkenny Castle ordering, transcribing, calendaring, preparing the Ormonde manuscripts for publication, and arranging for them to be bound. In 1877 Gilbert was entrusted with the safe-keeping of some of the Ormonde documents, and with responsibility for their safe return to Kilkenny Castle.[66] In September 1895 the Duke wrote to Gilbert in advance of the exhibition: “should you think it proper and could you spare them, and should you consider the guarantees for their safety sufficient, I think you might let Sir Edward have the loan of the volumes in your possession for Exhibition …”.[67]

Of the nearly 300 manuscripts in the library a good percentage are transcripts, carried out for Gilbert in the libraries of the British Museum, the Bodleian in Oxford, the Record Office in London, the University Library in Cambridge, the Royal Irish Academy, Royal Dublin Society and Trinity College in Dublin, and in some of the ‘great house’ libraries in Ireland. The unique manuscripts relate to the history and topography of Dublin (including 8 volumes of Monck Mason’s materials for a history of Dublin, and several relating to the Dublin guilds), and to Irish historical figures and events (such as the notebooks of Judge Christopher Robinson, 9 volumes of Apothegms of Revd. Thomas Sheridan, and R.R. Madden’s collection of Secret Service documents relating to the 1798 rebellion). There are few manuscripts in the Irish language, a fact which caused great disappointment to Douglas Hyde when he compiled the Catalogue.[68]

Many of the books in the library have one of Gilbert’s two distinctive bookplates, the Gilbert crest with the squirrel at the top, or the oval with the squirrel in the centre. Very many of the books contain evidence of former owners, retaining their bookplates, written signatures or notes on ownership by Gilbert. In 1874 Gilbert corresponded with Longman and Strongitharn, ‘Engravers to Her Majesty’, in Waterloo Place, London, about ordering a set of bookplates. They sent proofs on approval, and their cost was 6s. for 100 adhesive labels, or 5s. for non-adhesive labels, but it is nor clear if Gilbert placed an order with them.[69]

Sale of the Library.

When Gilbert died suddenly on 23 May 1898 the fate of his library was uncertain. There is no evidence to suggest that he had made provision for donating it to any of the institutions with which he was associated. The decision to offer it for sale, therefore, was left in the hands of his widow, Rosa Mulholland, Lady Gilbert. Writing to Dublin Corporation in 1899 she offered to sell it for £2,500 stating that “it was always the desire of her husband that the Municipality, if possible, should acquire his valuable library”.[70] She wished the library to be accorded pride of place in the public library system: “She had a strong desire to see Sir John’s collection placed in City Hall, or other Corporate building, for the use of the present and future generation of citizens”.[71] To encourage the Corporation to make a speedy decision she pointed out that “she is being pressed by many booksellers in London to sell the library at their rooms, great interest in the sale being expressed from many parts of Europe, and more especially from America”.[72]

The Finance and Leases’ Committee of Dublin Corporation, who were in charge of publishing the city muniments, requested the Public Libraries’ Committee of the Corporation to report whether the library was of “sufficient civic interest to entitle the Corporation to purchase it”.[73] T.W. Lyster, librarian of the National Library, and D.J. O’Donoghue, antiquarian bookseller, and later librarian of University College Dublin, and both members of the Public Libraries Committee, were asked to report. They visited the library, examined the typewritten catalogue and assessed it under three headings: the manuscripts, the printed books, the condition and bindings. Their opinion was that its purchase for the city by the Corporation was desirable.

“To sum up, the Collection, as a whole, represents half a century of devotion to books, careful selection, and most liberal expenditure on the part of a man supremely fitted for the task of gathering a valuable library relating to the history of Dublin and Ireland. In our opinion it will be a matter of deep regret if the opportunity of acquiring it be allowed by the Municipal Council to lapse”.[74]

The Finance and Leases’ Committee decided to accept the asking price of £2,500 for the library. On 27 February 1900 they recommended that the Municipal Council approve the purchase at that price, and that a loan be sought under the Public Libraries’ Act.[75] The Corporation itself was in favour of acquiring the collection “being of the opinion that every effort ought to be made to prevent so valuable a collection of books and manuscripts being scattered by public auction”.[76] Lyster and O’Donoghue considered that if the purchase should be approved that “Sir John Gilbert will in a sense have acted as the Librarian of the City of Dublin during many years of his studious life. During those years his knowledge and power of selection will have been at work on behalf of the City’s Library”.[77] It was hoped at the time to build a central reference library and municipal museum at Lord Edward Street which “would allow the Gilbert Collection to be fittingly housed and made available to the public”.[78] This proposed library was not built but the Gilbert Library was housed in the new library erected in Great Brunswick Street, later Pearse Street, which became library headquarters.[79]

The decision of Dublin Corporation to purchase the library shows their foresight in relation to the public libraries. The library of John T. Gilbert was one which fitted comfortably into their view of Ireland’s cultural independence. He was the historian of Dublin who, throughout his working life, showed the importance of the city by preserving, organising and making available through the published Calendars, the records relating to the city’s past. The Corporation intended the library to “form the nucleus of a distinctively Irish collection”.[80] The purchase was also approved by the newly-formed Library Association (Cumann na Leabharlann). When presenting the first issue of their journal, An Leabharlann, to the public libraries they acknowledged “the progressiveness, repeatedly shown by the Corporation of Dublin with respect to the Public Library movement generally, and of its spirited action in securing the Gilbert Library for the nation”.[81] Assessing the library in the Irish Book Lover the unnamed writer also praised the Corporation: “thanks to the munificence and public spirit of the Dublin Corporation, it remains intact in the city of his birth, an enduring memorial to his taste, energy and skill, and a mine of wealth to future students”.[82]

A catalogue of the Gilbert Library was commissioned by the Corporation and money approved for its compilation and publication, which was inserted in the estimates for 1902.  Dr Douglas Hyde, the Irish scholar, and later to be first president of Ireland, was chosen for the task. In this he was joined by D.J. O’Donoghue, who had already examined the library to assess its value for purchase. For several reasons, including the deficiency of the penny rate to provide adequately for the library service, and the shortage of men and materials due to the First World War, the Catalogue did not appear until 1918.[83] This Catalogue is highly valued in its own right as representing a fine Irish historical library and is very much in demand among scholars as a bibliographical resource.

All images courtesy of Dublin City Library & Archive (www.dublincitypubliclibraries.ie )

[1] Rosa Mulholland Gilbert Life of Sir John T. Gilbert LLD, FSA, London, Longmans, Green & Co., 1905 (hereafter Gilbert Life), p.8.

[2] Complete Catholic Directory, Almanack and Registry, compiled by W.J. Battersby, Dublin, 1836-1848. Revd. A. Cogan The Diocese of Meath, Ancient and Modern, Vol. II, Dublin, Joseph Dollard, 1867, pp.291-293. Freeman’s Journal 7 Feb. 1844. NLI: Ms.G228 Copy of Keating’s Eochair-sgiath an Aifrinn, scribe: Eoin Ó Muirreadh (Revd. John Murray, P.P.), 1801. I am very grateful to Peter Folan, former librarian of the Dublin Diocesan Archive, for his help in the search for Fr Murray.

[3] Gilbert Life, pp.16-17.

[4] Gilbert Life, p.17.

[5] NLI: Ms.648 Gilbert Catalogue of Books c.1850. The date of 1848 is given in pencil in Gilbert’s writing inside the front cover, and additions to the catalogue are dated 1849.

[6] John Dunton, The Dublin Scuffle, London, printed for the Author, 1699.

[7] John T. Gilbert A History of the City of Dublin, 3 volumes, Dublin, McGlashan & Gill, 1854-59. ‘Irish Bibliography’, first paper read 22 June 1896, second paper read 14 June 1897, in Gilbert Life, Appendix, pp.437-442.

[8] James Ussher Britannicarum Eclesiarum Antiquitates, Dublinii, ex officina Typographica Societatis Bibliopolarum, 1639; Veterum Epistolarum Hibernicarum Sylloge, Dublinii, 1632. Sir James Ware De Praesulibus Lageniae sive Provinciae Dubliniensis, Dublinii, ex officina Societatis Bibliopolarum, 1628; Rerum Hibernicarum, Dublinii, John Crook, 1662; The Hunting of the Romish Fox, Dublin, by J. Ray for Will. Norman, 1683. Robert Ware Foxes and Firebrands, Dublin, by Jos. Ray for Jos. Howes, 1682.

[9] Richard Stanihurst De Vita S. Patricii Hiberniae Apostoli Liber II, Antverpiae, Christophorus Plantinus, 1587.

[10] Revd. Thomas Messingham Floregium Insulae Sanctorum sev Vitae et Acta Sanctorum Hiberniae, Parisiis, ex officina Sebastani Cramoisy, 1624. Revd. Bonaventure Baron The Life of the Glorious Bishop S. Patricke, Apostle and Primate of Ireland, St Omer, for John Heigham, 1625.

[11] Revd. Bonaventure Baron Panegyrici Sacra-Prophani, necnon Controversiae et Stratagemata, Lugduni, Joannes-Antonius Hugvetan et Marcus-Antonius Ravaud, 1656; Metra Miscellanea Epigrammatum, Coloniae Agrippinae, Johannes Busaeus, 1657; Metra Miscellanea, Romae, Ludovic Grignani, 1645.

[12] Dictionary of National Biography, ed. by Sir Stephen Leslie and Sir Sidney Lee, reprinted Oxford, Oxford University Press, 22 volumes, 1921-1922.

[13] Thomas Palmeranus Hibernicus Flores Omnium penè doctorum qui tum in Theologia tum in Philosophia Hactenus Clarrerunt, Lugduni, Theobaldus Paganus, 1567.

[14] Gilbert Life, p.18, letter from John Savage 20 March 1848.

[15] Don Philip O’Sullivan Beare Historiae Catholicae Iberniae Compendium, domino Philippo Austriaco IIII, Ulysippone excusum a Petro Crasbeeckio regio typographo, 1621. Marks of earlier ownership are present on this book, a bookplate of Charles de Bachi Marquis d’Aubaïs, and a stamped crest with the words Alsassiana Bibliotheca.

[16] Gilbert Life, p.17; pp.21-22.

[17] Don Philip O’Sullivan Beare Historiae Catholicae Iberniae Compendium … edidit notulisque ac indicibus illustravit Matthaeus Kelly, Dublinii, apud Johannem O’Daly, 1850.

[18] Wilson’s Dublin Directories 1820-1852. Collection of catalogues in the Royal Irish Academy 1820-1851 (Fr.C/cats).

[19] Pettigrew & Oulton The Dublin Directory 1841-1846. Thom’s Irish Almanac and Official Directories 1847-1880. Collection of catalogues in the Dublin Corporation Public Libraries Dublin & Irish Collections (DCPL) 1840-1877.

[20] Bibliotheca Putlandia, Catalogue of the Extensive and Valuable Library of George Putland Esq., deceased, the entire Collection having been formed from 1749 up to about 1816, Dublin, Charles Sharpe, 19 July 1847 (RIA).

[21] The titles include Sir William Petty’s Political Survey of Ireland (1715), Marcus Hieronymus Vida’s Albae Episcopi (1701), two volumes of Luke Lively’s The Merry Fellow (1756-57), three volumes of Mrs Pilkington’s Memoirs (1748, 1754), A Collection of Acts and Statutes (1702), Boethius’ Consolationis Philosophiae (1671), Pervigilium Veneris (1712), Mendico-Hymen [and 8 other separately-printed long poems, bound together], (1730 &c.) and The Gentleman Instructed (1723).

[22] Catalogue of the Law and Miscellaneous Library of the late Daniel O’Connell Esq., M.P., Dublin, John Fleming Jones, 22 May 1849 (DCPL).

[23] Peter Gale, An Enquiry into the Ancient Corporate System of Ireland, London, Richard Bentley, 1834. Revd. George Oliver, Collections Towards Illustrating the Biography of Scotch, English and Irish Members, Exeter, W.C. Featherstone, 1838. Valor Beneficiorum Ecclesiasticorum in Hibernia, Dublin, for Edward Exshaw, 1741.

[24] Catalogue of the Valuable Library of the late Dr R.R. Madden, to be sold by auction on Monday, 6 December 1886, by Messrs Bennett and Son, 6 Upper Ormond Quay, Dublin.

[25] RIA: Ms.12 R 8 Catalogue of the Important, Extensive and Valuable Library of a deceased Nobleman, of great Literary and Artistic Taste, 11 August 1865, 27 September 1865. Lord Charlemont was a founder member of the Royal Irish Academy and its president from 1785 until his death in 1799. He was also a member of the Dublin Society and the Dublin Library Society, as well as Fellow of the Royal Society and Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in London.

[26] Tony Sweeney ‘Compiling an Irish Bibliography: the highs and lows’, lecture to the Rare Books Group (Library Association of Ireland), 27 May 1998.

[27] Catalogue of the Library at Lough Fea, in Illustration of the History and Antiquities of Ireland, London, privately printed at Chiswick Press, 1872. Only 100 copies were printed.

[28] Gilbert Life, pp.308-9, letter from Gilbert to Revd. Dr Reeves, 12 Apr. 1884.

[29] Gilbert Life, pp.241-2, letter from Gilbert to D.F. MacCarthy, 15 July 1877.

[30] Gilbert Life, pp.260-1, letter from D.F. MacCarthy to Gilbert, 18 July 1877.

[31] Gilbert Life, pp.226-7, letter from D.F. MacCarthy to Gilbert, 26 Jan. 1878.

[32] RIA: Ms.12 O 20, letters from Revd. P.S. Dunne to Gilbert, 4 Aug. 1877, 27 Aug. 1877, 21 Feb. 1878. Gilbert Life, pp.226-7.

[33] Gilbert Life, pp.298-9, letter from Richard O’Flynn to Gilbert, 1880.

[34] The Archaeological Society was founded in 1840, the Celtic Society in 1845, they were amalgamated in 1855 as the Irish Archaeological and Celtic Society. Some publications date to before the amalgamation and were attributed to one of the societies only. Gilbert was secretary of the Celtic Society, and became joint-secretary, with James Henthorn Todd, of the new society.

[35] NLI: Ms.1599 Letter Book of J.T. Gilbert, f.3 to Quaritch, ff.41-43 to Trübner & Co., f.59 to Asher & Co. NLI: Ms.10,722 Fifty Letters to J.T. Gilbert, letters from Quaritch 3 Dec. 1859, July 1862, Oct. 1862, 6 July 1863, 26 Oct. 1863, 24 Dec. 1863; letter from Asher & Co. 9 Mar. 1889. RIA: Ms.12 O 20, letter from Quaritch 15 Dec. 1877.

[36] For example Thomas Carve’s Itinerarium was published in a limited edition of 100 copies by Quaritch in 1859, Revd. Frederick George Lee’s Glossary of Liturgical Terms in 1877, and Select Pleas of the Crown 1200-1225 was printed by Quaritch for the Selden Society in 1888. Trübner & Co. printed Peter Levins’ Manipulus Vocabulorum of 1570, for the Early English Text Society in 1867, and Henry O’Neill’s Sculptured Crosses of Ancient Ireland in 1857 and his Ireland for the Irish in 1868. Asher & Co. published Alexander J. Ellis’ Only English Proclamation of Henry III (1258), a reprint from the Philological Society’s Transactions in 1868.

[37] NLI: Ms.10,722 Fifty Letters to J.T. Gilbert, letter from Ellis & Elvey, n.d. NLI: Ms.8261 (1), letter from Heylin 18 July 1855. RIA: Ms.12 O 20, letter from Stevens 19 Nov. 1881; from Gill 25 Nov. 1881; from Traynor 14 May 1887; from Puttick & Simpson 14 July 1889.

[38] RIA: Ms.12 O 19,  John T. Gilbert, Collection of transcripts of manuscripts, copies of title pages and correspondence. RIA: Ms.12 O 20, John T. Gilbert, Letters, notes, papers and extracts. RIA: Ms.23 L 58, Collection of letters to and from Gilbert. NLI: Ms.10,722 Fifty Letters to J.T. Gilbert. NLI: Ms.1599 Letter Book of John T. Gilbert. NLI: Ms.8261 (1) 38 letters to Gilbert 1853-59. NLI: Ms.8261 (2), 21 letters to Gilbert 1863-1879. NLI: Ms.811, John T. Gilbert, Historical Manuscripts Commission Ireland Letter Book. NLI: Ms.5929, Autograph letters of John T. Gilbert.

[39] RIA: Ms.12 O 20, letter from Quaritch 14 June 1877, saying that he was forwarding books telegraphed for by Gilbert and would send his new publication Paleographia di Montecasino on approval.

[40] RIA: Ms.12 O 20, letter from William George 5 Aug. 1880.

[41] RIA: Ms.12 O 20, letter from Miss Millard 2 Dec. 1889.

[42] RIA Ms.12 O 20, letter from Bernard Quaritch 14 June 1877.

[43] RIA Ms.12 O 20, letter from Bernard Quaritch 20 Jan. 1882.

[44] RIA Ms.12 O 20, letters from J.W. Sage 17 Nov. 1863; 19 Nov. 1863.

[45] RIA Ms.12 O 20, letter from J.W. Sage 5 Dec. 1863.

[46] RIA Ms.12 O 20, letter from J.W. Sage 8 Dec. 1863.

[47] RIA Ms. 12 O 20, letter from Barthés & Lowell 30 Nov. 1863.

[48] NLI: Ms.8261 (2), letter from James Bain Feb. 1873.

[49] RIA MS.12 O 20, letters from Clement S. Palmer 9 June 1877; from C. Herbert 24 Nov. 1877; from Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge 4 Apr. 1881; 22 Dec. 1881;  from Edward Daniell 18 June 1881. Invoice head for Matthews and Brooks in the Gilbert Library.

[50] RIA: Ms.12 O 20, receipt from William Bernard Kelly 8 June 1877.

[51] Gilbert Life, p.200.

[52] RIA: Ms.12 O 20, letter from Francis Prendergast 16 Feb. 1870.

[53] RIA: Ms.23 L 58 (1), letter 141, 19 June 1877.

[54] RIA: Ms.12 O 20, letter from Evelyn Shirley 21 Aug. 1881.

[55] RIA: Ms.12 O 20, letter from Blayney Balfour 16 Nov. 1889.

[56] RIA: Ms.12 O 20, letter from the Earl of Fingall 15 Apr. 1897.

[57] NLI: Ms.648 Gilbert Catalogue of Books. William Robert Wilde The Closing Years of Dean Swift’s Life, Dublin, 1849.

[58] Henri D’Arbois de Jubainville Les Premiers Habitants de l’Europe, Paris, Ernest Thorin, 1889.

[59] RIA: Ms.12 O 20, letters from the Trustees of the British Museum 6 Dec. 1877; 12 Aug. 1882.

[60] Catalogue of the Books and Manuscripts Comprising the Library of the late Sir John T. Gilbert, LL.D., F.S.A., M.R.I.A., compiled by Douglas Hyde & D.J. O’Donoghue, Dublin, Browne and Nolan, 1918 (hereafter Gilbert Catalogue), p.1.

[61] Gilbert Life, p.367.

[62] Ballads include The Emigrant’s Farewell to Ireland, The Fenian’s Welcome to Ireland, Johney I Hardly Knew Ye, Lines Written on the Most Dreadful Fire that Broke out in Chicago in America, A Much Admired Song entitled Lannigan’s Ball, Murphy the Blighted Potatoe, A New Song Simpathising with the Fenian Exiles, A New Song on Garibaldi’s Arrest in Attempting to enter Rome, The Sorrowful Lamentation of the Ship Eliza bound from Belfast to Queebeck laden with 200 Passengers, The Velocipede.

[63] First published in Belfast in 1795, and reprinted in 1796, it was also published in Philadelphia in 1796 and New York in 1798. The Dublin edition of 1798 is expanded to include a song on the death of Lord Edward Fitzgerald and the Wake of William Orr.

[64] Freeman’s Journal 26 Nov. 1895; 27 Nov. 1895; 21 Nov. 1899.

[65] RIA: Ms.12 O 20, letter from the Duke of Ormonde 22 June 1888.

[66] Gilbert, Life, p.245.

[67] RIA Ms.12 O 20, letter from the Duke of Ormonde 25 Sept. 1895

[68] Gilbert Catalogue, p.xiv.

[69] RIA: Ms.23 L 58 (1), letters from Longman and Strongitharn letter 125, 26 Oct. 1874; letter 129, 30 Nov. 1874.

[70] Dublin Municipal Council Reports (hereafter Reports), 1899, no.74, p.425.

[71] Reports, 1899, no.74, p.426.

[72] Reports, 1899, no.74, pp.425-6.

[73] Dublin Municipal Council Minutes (hereafter Minutes), 11 June 1900, p.306.

[74] Reports, 1900, no.32, p.395.

[75] Reports, 1900, no.32, p.400.

[76] Reports, 1899, no.74, p.425.

[77] Minutes, 11 June 1900, p.310.

[78] Reports, 1900, no.207, p.705.

[79] Máire Kennedy “Plans for a Central Reference Library for Dublin 1883-1946”, An Leabharlann, 2nd ser., Vol. 7, no.4, 1991, pp.113-125.

[80] Reports, 1903, no.64, p.197.

[81] An Leabharlann, Vol 1, no.2, June 1905, p.189.

[82] “Great Irish Book Collectors: Sir John T. Gilbert”, Irish Book Lover, Vol. 10, 1918-19, pp.56-57.

[83] Máire Kennedy “Douglas Hyde and the catalogue of the Gilbert Library”, Long Room, no.35, 1990, pp.16-27.


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