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Belfast Library Sign
Belfast Library Sign

The Oldest Surviving Subscription Library in Ireland

The Belfast Reading Library

The Linen Hall Library grew out of the Belfast Reading Society. This Society was established in Belfast on 13th May 1788. Its stated aim was

“…the collection of an extensive library, philosophical apparatus, and such productions of nature and art as tend to improve the mind, and excite a spirit of general enquiry”

The Economic Growth of Belfast Town

In the latter years of the eighteenth century, Belfast developed from a country town into an urban centre of industry, commerce and trade. As well as traditional employment Belfast had sugar refineries (in Rosemary Street and Sugarhouse Entry), an iron foundry (in Hill Street), a ropeworks (in Corporation Street) and an extensive international import/export market.

For the main part it was these enterprising merchants and ‘artisans’, who often held quite liberal views, who gathered together to form educational and charitable societies, hospitals, dispensaries and schools in the growing town – the Belfast Literary Society (1801), Natural History and Philosophical Society (1821), Belfast Poor House (1774), the Society for the Relief of the Destitute Sick (1826) and many more.

“The Belfast Reading Society….was a local expression of a widespread British, European and North American movement for self-improvement of society in its widest sense….particularly influenced in Ireland in the latter part of the eighteenth century by the liberal and egalitarian principles of the American and French revolutions”

John Killen, A History of the Linen Hall Library, 1990
A History of the Linen Hall Library
A History of the Linen Hall Library – John Killen

Growth of Belfast Societies

Many of these businessmen were not of the Established Church so laboured under certain restrictions. By forming societies, worthy in themselves, they also had an outlet for forming their own social circles and hierarchy, while providing benefits for the town.

“The Presbyterian merchants and manufacturers, who were making Belfast and the adjoining areas of Antrim and Down one of the most prosperous regions of the British Isles, deeply resented their exclusion from central and local government”

John Magee, Linen Hall Library and the Cultural Life of Georgian Belfast, 1981

Early Days of the Belfast Reading Society

Founders & Members

Two of the original founders of the Belfast Reading Society were Roger Mulholland, the architect of the First Presbyterian Meeting House, St Anne’s and the White Linen Hall, and Dr James McDonnell regarded as the ‘Father of Belfast Medicine’.

Among other early members were Henry and Robert Joy who owned papermills at Cromac and Randalstown and established the Belfast Newsletter. John McCracken owner of Belfast Ropeworks, Robert Caldwell a banker, the Leggs of Malone India merchants and Charles Brett a founder member of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce.

Other founders of the Belfast Reading Society were William McCleery a tanner, Robert McCormick a gunsmith and John Rabb a printer.

Membership & Rules

The original rules decreed that new persons to be admitted to the Society had to be recommended by an existing member and subject to a ballot – six or more black beans meant exclusion.

The subscription was one British shilling per month. A committee of 5 was to be elected to oversee the library, collect payments and fines and to purchase suitable books. Items were not to be borrowed for more than 14 days if it was required by another member and strictly never to be lent to anyone outside the Society.

The Society was non-denominational, but as Catholics were still constrained by the Penal Laws, few had the extra cash to join. However, the pioneering priest, Fr Hugh O’Donnell, we know was a committed member.

Belfast Reading Society Meetings

The first meetings of the Belfast Reading Society were held on Saturday evenings in various hostelries in the town, such as Brown’s Tavern or the Donegal Arms. However, this was considered unsatisfactory by some members and more suitable premises were sought.

A room in the Poor House in Frederick Street was suggested but this was thought to be too far out of town.

Several other locations such as a building in Factory Row and Mr Telfair’s house in the town centre proved unsuitable.

The Belfast Library and Society for Promoting Knowledge

On 11th September the Society formally changed its name to the Belfast Library and Society for Promoting Knowledge. This is still the official name of the Library today.

Belfast Library Sign
Belfast Library Sign

The position of Librarian was filled by Mr Thomas Russell. He acquired new premises in Ann Street. These were opposite the Discount Office (bank), established by Waddell Cunningham in 1785. The Society remained in this location for several years. However, it is recorded in the Library minutes of 5th September 1799 “That the situation of the house where the Library is kept is inconvenient and disagreeable to most of the members

The White Linen Hall

When in 1801 the offer of a rent-free room in the White Linen Hall was received the Society was delighted. (The White Linen Hall was located in the spacet now occupied by Belfast City Hall)

On 27th May 1802 the Belfast Library and Society for Promoting Knowledge held its first meeting in a room over the central arch of the prestigious White Linen Hall. Among those attending were the Rev Dr Bruce, Dr Samuel Thompson, John Templeton and Henry Joy.

The White Linen Hall
The White Linen Hall

Support for Catholic Emancipation.

The political excitement in Belfast in the 1790’s could not fail to have an effect on the Society’s members. It would be inconceivable that any grouping of leading businessmen and professionals would not discuss the events in the town and the wider political transformations in France and America. Accordingly on 27th January 1792 with James McCormick in the Chair, the Society passed a resolution in favour of Catholic emancipation.

‘That civil and religious liberty is the birthright of every human being: that Governments were formed to secure them in the possession of these rights, and that States should be regulated so as to protect them in the exercise of it’

Belfast Library and Society for Promoting Knowledge Resolution

‘That doctrines of faith and modes of worship can neither give nor take away the rights of men; because opinion is not the Object of Government; because the modes of expressing Religious Worship ought to be left to the judgement of God and the decision of conscience; and because persecution, however it is disguised, is destructive of the equality of men and the most sacred laws of nature’

Belfast Library and Society for Promoting Knowledge Resolution

Thomas Russell

Background

One of the earliest librarians of the Society and arguably the most famous was Thomas Russell.

Russell was born on 21st November 1767 in County Cork. At an early age he joined the army and fought with outstanding bravery at the battle of Cannanore in India. However, disenchanted at the authority’s treatment of the locals, he returned to Ireland.

In 1790 he was stationed in Belfast as an officer of the 64th Regiment. Here he met like-minded people such as William Drennan, Samuel McTier and Henry Joy McCracken.

He soon became involved with the radical politics of the day. He attended the inaugural meeting of the United Irishmen in the company of his friend Theobald Wolfe Tone. Russell resigned from a short-lived post as seneschal (magistrate) in Dungannon appalled at the injustice prevalent in the court system.

“…he could not reconcile it to his conscience to sit as a magistrate on a bench where the practice prevailed of enquiring what a man’s religion was before inquiring into the crime with which a prisoner was charged”

Thomas Russell - Public Domain Image
Thomas Russell – Public Domain Image

Thomas Russell’s Beliefs

With the help of his friends Drennan and Dr McDonnell, Russell was appointed to the post of Librarian of the Society. However, Thomas was determined to do all he could to establish a more equal world for all, especially the working classes.

Russell’s articles in the Northern Star show his liberal attitudes and his strong anti-slavery stance. He realised that the government were deaf to political reform, leaving the United Irishmen no option but to take up arms.

However, his radical opinions did not go unnoticed and in September 1796 Thomas Russell was arrested and imprisoned in Newgate Jail in London. Other members of the Society to be jailed included William Sinclair, Henry Joy McCracken, William McCracken, William Tennant, Robert Getty and others. In 1799 Russell was moved to Fort George near Inverness in Scotland, where he served another 3 years.

In June 1802 he was released and sent to Hamburg in Germany. However, he returned to Ireland and, with Robert Emmett, endeavoured to rouse the Irish people to further rebellion. He was arrested in Dublin on 9th September 1803. From here he was transported to Downpatrick, where he was found guilty of high treason. On 12th October 1803 Thomas Russell was hung and beheaded. He was buried at Down Cathedral.

“As to me I can only say that in the last moment of my Liberty I was not thinking of myself or acting for myself, but for my Country”

Thomas Russell in a letter to Mary Ann McCracken

Thomas Russell was immortalised in the classic Irish ballad “The Man From God Knows Where”, written in 1918 by a Co Down housewife Florence Mary Wilson. The ballad tells the tale of Thomas Russell and the United Irishmen.

Thomas Russell Blue Plaque
Thomas Russell Blue Plaque

Amended Society Rules

On 1st January 1795 the Society endorsed a set of amended rules. One of these officially permitted women members. Not a principle universally accepted at the time.

On 1st November 1789 Mary Ann McCracken took the place of her brother Henry Joy, who had been executed in Cornmarket for his role in the Rebellion.

Library Donations

As the Society was self-funded, all donations, grants and bequests were gratefully accepted. Indeed, it is recorded in October 1793

“That the Rev Jas Bryson and Doctor McDonnell be requested to solicit Donations of Books from such persons as they think proper and the thanks of the Society shall hereafter be puplickly returned for all Donations”

Some of the book donations for 1788-1798 included

  • Curry’s History of Ireland – Mr R Cary [benefactor]
  • hysical and Literary Essays – Mr Wm McCleery [benefactor]
  • Donaldson’s Military Tactics – Dr McDonnell [benefactor]
  • Amsterdam in 1735 (very elegant) – Mr Geo B Madden [benefactor]

Growth of the Society

In 1823 George Benn describes the Society

“It consists of a library containing nearly 4,000 volumes, a small museum and some philosophical apparatus. Some of the books are rare, but in general approved modern works”

George Benn, 1823

Over the years the Library acquired a vast array of books and periodicals. However, other artefacts and specimens were also collected and displayed for the use and knowledge of library members.

“This Society intends to collect such materials as will illustrate the antiquity, the natural, the civil, commercial and ecclesiastical history of this country…..Donations of Books, Models of Machines, Specimens of Minerals, Animals and Plants will be thankfully received”

However, by the 1830’s space and finances became an issue. With the founding of the Natural History Society in 1829 and the opening of a permanent museum in College Square North, the Society’s Museum artefacts found a new home freeing additional space within the library.

Society Entry in the Belfast Street Directory 1840
Society Entry in the Belfast Street Directory 1840

Support for the Promotion of Knowledge

The Society also sought to ‘promote knowledge’ in practical ways. Through the determination of the pioneering educator Dr John Campbell, a motion was passed for the establishment of a Free School in Belfast for the sons of the poor.

In addition, Society members John Templeton, Robert Simms, Dr Stephenson and Henry Joy were the founding fathers of Belfast Academical Institution in College Square.

Preserving the Music of Ireland

The Society also had an interest in compiling the ancient music of Ireland as itinerant musicians and traditional folksongs were fast disappearing.

At the Belfast Harp Festival in July 1792 these old melodies were copied out by Edward Bunting, assistant organist at St Anne’s Church. This resulted in the important work Ancient Irish Music published in 1796.

Relocation of the Belfast Reading Society 1888

By the 1840’s the Society had amassed a collection of over 8,000 books.

“This society now contains upwards of 8,500 volumes on history, biography, voyages, travels encyclopaedias [French and English], works on natural philosophy, natural history, science and the arts; dictionaries, maps, charts, reviews, magazines, philosophical and scientific journals etc…..a register of the weather is kept by the librarian”

James Adair Pilson, The Rise and Progress of Belfast, 1846
Linen Hall Barometer
Linen Hall Barometer

In 1888 the Society was forced to find new premises as the White Linen Hall was being demolished to make way for the erection of Belfast City Hall.

Linen Hall Library
Linen Hall Library

The Library found its current location just across the road in a linen warehouse on Donegall Square North purchased for £6,750. It must have been a mammoth task packing and unpacking the stock that now numbered over 40,000 items. The new situation had some added attractions.

“Since the removal to the present premises many additional improvements have been effected, adding largely to the convenience and utility of the institution, including a tea room. Ladies room (fitted up with mirrors), cloak room, lavatories etc. Facilities also are afforded for chess players”

Belfast Street Directory 1898

The New Premises

This linen warehouse had been designed in a Classical style by Charles Lanyon in 1865 for the firm of Moore & Weinberg.

The entrance to the building is quite unobtrusive, but the carved drapes of linen and the ‘hand of Ulster’ betray its original purpose. The changes made to the interior were carried out by the Belfast firm Young and Mackenzie. The work was carried out by Messrs Campbell and Dixon of Clifton Street.

Linen Hall Entrance
Linen Hall Entrance
Linen Hall Floor at Entrance
Floor at Entrance
Linen Hall Library Stairway
Linen Hall Library Stairway

A Yorkshire stone staircase leads up to the first floor from a tiled hallway. Here the centrepiece is a magnificent sweeping staircase. The shelving is all dark wood but the rooms are bright and airy with large windows looking over the busy streets. The upper window panes have painted stained glass portraits of famous men in the fields of literature and science. The transformation was lauded and the library prospered in it’s new location.

“The transformation of the building from a linen warehouse into a series of spacious, well-lighted and cheerful compartments for reading, reference and writing have been effected very happily”

Northern Whig 24th March 1892
Linen Hall Interior Staircase
Linen Hall Interior Staircase
Members Reading Area
Members Reading Area
Linen Hall bookshelves and window seats
Linen Hall bookshelves and window seats
Linen Hall Library Window
Linen Hall Library Window
Relocation of Linen Hall Library - Northern Whig 24 Mar 1892
Relocation of Linen Hall Library – Northern Whig 24 Mar 1892
The Society in Belfast Street Directory 1898
The Society in Belfast Street Directory 1898

The Linen Hall Library in the 20th Century

Fear of Closure and Public Support

In the later half of the twentieth century financial concerns and the negative effect of the Troubles on the city as a whole resulted in a Library in decline. There was even fear of a permanent closure.

However, a public campaign and allowing free reference access, increased the Library’s profile. This was so successful that the upper floors of an adjacent property were leased to permit the Library to expand. Construction began in 1999 and was completed by September 2000.

Linen Hall Extension on Fountain Street
Linen Hall Extension on Fountain Street

The Linen Hall Library Collections

The Linen Hall Library, as it is commonly known, is famous for its Irish collection, especially early printed histories of Belfast. It has a wide range of works in Irish, as well as extensive holdings of historic maps and photographs.

The Society also maintains and preserves newspapers (dating back to 1783), journals and archive material.

Linen Hall Bookshelf
Linen Hall Bookshelf

The earliest book held by the Library is De Anima (Book of the Soul) by Avicenna, a Persian philosopher and polymath (an individual whose knowledge spans a substantial number of subjects). It was printed in 1490. It also has the first printing of the American Declaration of Independence outside of the USA.

In more recent times the Library has amassed a huge collection of 250,000 ephemera relating to the latest Troubles in Northern Ireland.

The Cave Hill Diamond
The Cave Hill Diamond

The Linen Hall Library Today

“From these small beginnings the present Linen Hall Library has grown into one of the most creditable institutions in the city. Strictly non-denominational and non-political it faithfully adheres to the object of its working-class founders – mental Improvement and the promotion of knowledge”

S. Shannon Millin, Sidelights on Belfast History 1932

The Linen Hall Library continues to be the cultural centre of Belfast, both physically and creatively. It holds regular events, book launches, lunch-time talks, exhibitions and work-shops.

It is free to visit and there are also organised ‘behind the scenes’ tours. There is a gift shop and a café decorated with a Celtic mythological theme.

Just opposite the City Hall, the Library is well worth a visit to immerse yourself in books, learning and centuries worth of Belfast history, and to understand why Belfast gained the title the ‘Athens of the North’.

Gallery

Henry Joy McCracken
Henry Joy McCracken
Linen Hall - Harp on display
Linen Hall – Harp on display
Linenhall view to City Hall
Linenhall view to City Hall
Portrait on window
Portrait on window
Linen Hall Meetings Room
Linen Hall Meetings Room
Exterior View of Linen Hall Cafe
Exterior View of Linen Hall Cafe
New Fountain Street Staircase
New Fountain Street Staircase
The Liberty Tree book cover
The Liberty Tree book cover
Linen Hall Cafe
Linen Hall Cafe

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