Between a Rock and a Hard Place: GPA Bolton Library

Bolton Library
Is the sun setting on GPA Bolton Library?
© IrishPhilosophy (CC BY 2.0)

One of Ireland’s most visited sites, the Rock of Cashel, was in use up to the mid-Eighteenth century. To replace the cathedral there, a new one was built (1749-1784) on the site of a medieval church. The Church of Ireland Cathedral of St John the Baptist now stands next next to an unassuming chapterhouse, which houses the Bolton book collection, which the International Dictionary of Library Histories calls “one of the great treasures of the Church of Ireland” and “probably one of the finest collections of antiquarian books in Ireland outside Dublin.” The Directory of Rare Books and Special Collections (London 1997) says that, “The [Bolton] collection contains many items of great rarity, at least fifty not recorded elsewhere in the world, and some 800 not recorded elsewhere in Ireland.”

The Collection

Photography is not permitted in the library, but the Heritage Council report on the Library contains images of the interior and of many of the books mentioned below.

The collection includes 11,000-12,000 items. These include fragments of papyrus, 15 manuscripts predating 1701, 45 books printed before 1501 (incunabulas), letters, maps and 200 pamphlets. The oldest manuscript, on vellum, dates from the 12th century and includes an early example of the use of zero. The finest Irish manuscript comes from the hand of Dermot O’Connor of Limerick in 1716, and includes translation of French heraldric rules into Irish. The most notable of the incunabulas is probably an uncoloured copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle (1483).

There is a manuscript copy of Geoffrey Keating’s history of Ireland, Forease Feasa ar Erin from 1716, which also includes heraldic rules translated to Irish. The library also holds a first edition of Philippi O Sullevani Bearri Iberni [Philip O’Sullivan Beare], Historiae Catholicae Iberniae Compendium (Lisbon 1621). Original historical documents include a copy of the Proclamation of Kilkenny (1648) is held there (the only other copy is in Oxford), as are two pamphlets produced by the Confederate Catholics in the same year and a manuscript account of the 1640s rebellion by Ulick de Burgh, all unique to the Bolton collection.

Bolton Library 1600s correspondence
Correspondence from the 1600s in Bolton Library (cropped) © Bernard Goldbach/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

From the same period, comes John Colgan’s Acta Sanctorum Veteros (mentioned previously on this blog). An earlier Franciscan, William Ockham, is represented with his Commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences (Lyons 1495), and the Dominican writer on natural law Francisco de Vitoria (Reflectiones Theologicae). Pivotal works by Dante and Machiavelli are here, a first edition of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and a Dublin edition of Erasmus from 1712.

The strongest aspect of the collection is in later philosophy, particularly the development of Rationalism, Scepticism and Philosophical Materialism. Four volumes of the first edition of Spinoza’s Opera Opera Posthuma (Amsterdam, 1677) and his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670) and ten items by Pierre Bayle are in the collection. Along with the early translation of Descartes made by the friend of Locke, William Molyneux (Six Meditations, London, 1680), there are many volumes relating to Irish philosophy, including works by Robert Boyle, John Toland, Jonathan Swift, Francis Hutcheson, Joseph Boyse and William King. It would be surprising if the latter was not included. The collection is partially his.

A History of the Library: a history of people who loved books

William King, as noted previously, was an avid collector of books. When he died some 6,000 volumes passed to his friend, Theophilus Bolton. Bolton was born in Borisool, Co. Mayo around 1678 and graduated from Trinity in 1698. After various posts in Dublin including one under Swift in St Patrick’s Cathedral, he became Bishop of Clonfert in 1722 and Elphin in 1724. The Bishop of Elphin who tried to persuade Francis Hutcheson in 1726 to conform to the Church of Ireland, based on the dates involved, was Bolton. He was acknowledged as the best ecclesiastical lawyer of his generation (“Who but Lord Bolton was mitred for merit?” asked Swift) and was aligned with Swift and King in the church politics of the time.

Like his patron King, Bolton was a book addict. When he built the episcopal palace in Cashel his huge library was housed in the “Long Room”, a room modelled after the library in Trinity. When he died in 1744 he left his library to the diocese, to be kept there for ever for the use of future clergy. However (unlike Marsh) he made no provision or bequest to ensure its survival.

The old episcopal Palace, Cashel
The episcopal palace, once home to the Bolton Collection,
now a hotel © IrishPhilosophy (CC BY 2.0)

The first attack on the library took place in 1798, when it was plundered for fuel by soldiers billeted at the Palace to counter the 1798 Rebellion. That marked “the beginning of the woes that have beset this library” (International Dictionary of Library Histories). An examination of the library in 1822 by Henry Cotton, son-in-law of a new archbishop, found that the collection had suffered from neglect, with many volumes destroyed by damp or in dire need of repair. The collection was moved in 1835 from the Palace to the new chapter house. In his next 40 years as librarian Cotton revived the library and instituted it as a lending library.  A catalogue was printed in 1873. However the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1869 reduced the income of the Church of Ireland and over time the library once again fell into neglect.

When Dean Charles Wolfe was appointed in 1961 he found the roof leaking and the books damaged. To save the library he was forced to sell hundreds of books from the collection, many of which was bought by the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Huntington Library. The building was again open daily and in 1973 a new catalogue was published, the first since the 19th century. However twenty years later a new Dean, David Woodward, found that the library was again suffering from damp. Determined efforts meant that within three years the library had been restored with new heating installed, funded both locally and by donations from GPA (Guinness Peat Aviation, who by 1986 had donated a total of IR£100,000 including IR£36,000 used to conserve the books; Irish Times 13 Dec 1986). The project to develop the library was curtailed by Dean Woodward’s untimely death in 1994.

His successor Dean Philip Knowles built a partnership with the University of Limerick to jointly manage the collection while acting as voluntary curator of the library for 15 years. Lack of funds continued to plague the library. A survey by the Heritage Council in 2007 (pdf) found that the 45 incunabulas and 15 pre-1701 manuscripts repaired in the 1980s were, once again, being attacked by mould. Major structural works would be required to make the existing building a suitable home for the collection and in addition extensive restoration of the books would be needed. In 2010 the Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works (OPW), Dr Martin Mansergh TD, announced that the library building would be taken in charge by the OPW, with the books jointly managed by the OPW and UL (see here and here).

However, four years on, this has not happened. The OPW does not have the funds required to repair and maintain the library building (Tipperary Star, 4 May 2014) resulting in a proposal to preserve the collection by moving it to Limerick (Tipp MidWest Radio, 17 July 2013). Renewed calls have been made to keep the books in Cashel, perhaps moving them to the defunct Cashel Civic Offices Tipp MidWest Radio, 20 Jul, 2014).

Given that funding for existing collections like the National Library is still being cut (, 4 Sept, 2014) the future for the GPA Bolton Library looks bleak. The words of Ken Bergin, librarian to the special collections in UL and academic curator to the Bolton Collection, ring true: the history of the Bolton Library is a “history of very well-intentioned people who really loved books and who have been trying to save it for decades. And it’s never worked.” (Mary Leland, Irish Times, 10 Dec 2007).

Rock of Cashel
Rock Of Cashel
© Wikicommons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Update: 16th February 2016

Kathryn Hayes reported in the Irish Times today (16 Feb 2016) that “A rare national treasure of early printed books and manuscripts dating from the 13th century [the Bolton collection] has been placed in the care of the University of Limerick, where work is under way to restore the collection.” The article goes on to describe the library holdings and the restoration process that will be carried out in the Gluckman Library, Limerick, under the supervision of Ken Bergin. The Irish Times also carried a gallery, including pictures of the library, holdings and of the transfer process and a later letter from George Cunningham (chairman of the University of Limerick (UL) library development committee in 1990) which outlined the efforts of UL and the Deans of Cashel in caring for the library.

A post on the blog for Glucksman Library (Breen (2016)) gives some additional details and states:

UL has committed to supporting a permanent exhibition from the collection in Cashel, working with Tipperary County Council, the Office of Public Works and local bodies.

The process to dry out the books alone will take six to eight months (Ken Bergin quoted in the Irish Times).

References and Further Reading

The catalogue for the Bolton Collection is available on the English Short Title Catalogue. Search under the Library Name “Cashel Cathedral Library” (or see here).

Catalogue of the Library of the Dean and Chapter of Cashel (1873) – on Google Books.

Flickr Gallery: Bolton Library, Cashel, Co. Tipperary, Ireland

History Ireland – The Bolton Library.

The Heritage Council Report on the GPA Bolton Library, 2007.

R.S. Matteson, A New York Yankee in William King’s Park. A talk about Mr. Matteson’s research of Willliam King’s library, which centered on the GPA Bolton Library.

Leland, Mary (2007) “Between a rock and a hard place”. The Irish Times; Dec 10, 2007, p. 12 (accessed on ProSeek).

Irish Times (1986) “Cashel library saved”. The Irish Times, 13 Dec 1986: A9. (accessed on Proseek).

Kathryn Hayes (2016) “The rescue of Cashel’s magical but mouldering library” The Irish Times, 16 Feb 2016 [online]

Irish Times (2016) “Gallery: See the rescue of Cashel’s magical but mouldering library” The Irish Times, 16 Feb 2016 [online]

George Cunningham (2016) “The Bolton Library, Cashel and Limerick” The Irish Times, 2 March 2016 [Online].

Michelle Breen (2016) “University of Limerick to care for Cashel’s Bolton Library”, Glucksman Library, University of Limerick (blog), 15 Feb 2016.

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