Going North and Back in Time

Kinsale BookshopIn the next couple of blog entries, I intend to talk about some things I found while in Ireland, and this week will be about books. I’ll do this by moving through the three places I visited, a village and two cities, starting on the southern coast and moving north to Cork and then on up to Dublin.

Kinsale, County Cork

On the southern coast of Ireland is the fishing/tourist village of Kinsale, a delightful place to see with some brightly colored houses and sailboats on the water. On my last day in Ireland, I took the bus down to the coast, to walk around, have lunch, and see what I could find. One of the things I found was the Kinsale Bookshop, a local book store down one of the narrow streets.

Seeing the store, I decided to follow up on an idea I’d had in Cork but had not managed, to ask a local store for recommendations. I went in and asked the woman working to suggest books I might buy, and she asked what I like. I named three writers: Kate Atkinson (British), Isabel Allende (Chilean), and Ann Patchett (American). The shopkeeper then showed me several books, and I ended up buying Old Filth by Jane Gardam and Amongst Women by John McGahern, two books and writers I had never heard of. Maybe I’ll come back and mention them at some point in the future.

Shandon, Cork

The city of Cork is a fairly large city in the south of Ireland, with the River Lee running through the middle. To the north of the city, the land suddenly rises up in a steep hill (not something you want to walk up very far with a suitcase, I’ll tell you from experience). On the left side of that high land, as you look north, is a region called Shandon (from the Irish An Seandún, meaning “the old fort”).

At the top of the hill in Shandon is a church with a high tower, St. Anne’s, built in 1722. The church isn’t very large inside, but is famous for the tower and the bells. Inside the church are the expected sets of pews, and on one side is a small group of pews facing the center. Up against the wall behind them is a long glass case with books.

The books inside this case, to American eyes at any rate, are very old. The case contains, for instance, a King James Bible printed in 1671, not so long after it was first translated in 1611. Finding religious books was not a surprise, even if their age was, but I was surprised to find nonreligious books as well.

One of the books, printed in 1710, was called The Art of Spelling and Reading English with Proper and Useful Lessons for Children. There were also medical books and a math book in French, La Geometrie Practique (followed by a very long subtitle), an edition from 1693. All of the books were quite old, and apparently their age was the connection, though this glass case behind pews in a small church seemed a most odd place to find them.


Going farther north, back up to Dublin, in the heart of the city is the old Dublin Castle (which no longer looks much like a castle), the old seat of power. Next to the Castle is a building holding one of the jewels of the city, the Chester Beatty Library. It began with Alfred Chester Beatty, who collected old books as well other objects, and it is now both a library that can be used by scholars as well as a public museum, displaying some of the amazing things Beatty gathered over the years.

Although this is not a very large museum, I didn’t have time to see it all, and thus I need to go back. The Chester Beatty Library was definitely one of the finer things I found in Dublin (a city with many fine things), and it didn’t seem to be something that most tourists would be going to.

Most of my time was spent in the exhibit Arts of the Book, with a fantastic display of ancient books from (as best I remember) China, Japan, India, ancient Egypt, and the medieval Islamic world. Incorporated into the exhibit were excellent displays on how books were both bound and illustrated. A part of the exhibit that most struck me was a long (very long) meticulously painted scroll from Japan telling a mythological tale of a monster who kidnapped and ate young women. It was done in panels, something like a modern comic strip, and the story was so gruesome that I knew I was looking at an early expression of the same impulse that would someday lead to the Friday the 13th movie series. Humans are humans.

There was also a set of religious documents, and in that exhibit I saw old Korans and Christian documents from around the year 200, written on papyrus, with early letters from St. Paul.

In European history, not long after the collapse of the Roman empire, it is said that monks from Ireland crossed over to Europe and carried learning back to a continent gone dark, that the Irish helped to keep civilization going. This attachment to books and language is part of an old tradition in Ireland. You can see evidence of this from more recent times with places associated with Jonathan Swift, William Butler Yeats, or James Joyce. I would also cite the fact that while I was in Cork, the city was holding the Cork International Short Story Festival.

Whatever else Ireland may be, it is a land of books.

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