Reading in the Duke’s Ballroom

I am a thief. At the back of a cupboard in my parents’ house, in among the old school texts and the stacks of yellowed comics, there is a Peanuts book with a worn, hardback cover. It has a pink slip on the front page with a faded stamp: Raheny Library, 23 June 1981. Please return on the due date. My family left Dublin a year later, so it’s hardly the case that I simply forgot to return it in the confusion of packing and relocating to a small country town. I should probably bring it back, I think, every time I come across it. For a moment, it grips me with a Charlie Brown-sized guilt. And then, usually, I forget about it.

But I didn’t this time. Because when I came to write about a library, I began to think about community. And when I thought about community, the first that sprang to mind was one that I had left behind. In Dublin, we usually went to the library on Saturday mornings. It was one of the weekend rituals, like trotting to the newsagent along the small path dozens of children had worn through an undeveloped patch of housing estate. To a six-year old, the estate was vast, like a concrete prairie. The town we moved to, Athy, seemed more hemmed in. Passing strangers were much more likely to call you by name to ask if you were doing the messages, or remark on who you looked like, or tell you that they knew your grandfather. Until we moved there, I didn’t look like anyone but myself. And I was shy. Urban anonymity, I quickly decided, suited me much better. Even now, when I come back to Athy, strangers will tell me they haven’t seen me in ages, or give me something to pass on to my father, or continue a story that they assume I understand.

Back in 1982, I had an escape plan. The Grand Canal, I quickly learned, ran through Athy all the way to Dublin. So in those first uncertain weeks I kept an eye on it as I wandered past, wondering – in case of emergency – how long it might take to tramp along its banks all the way back home. But there was always the possibility of starting off facing the wrong direction, a conveniently insurmountable problem, so I stayed where I was.

Athy is really just one long main street, punctuated by a castle and a river. The most extended walk through the town takes you in a straight line from the Woodstock end of Duke Street, where the condemned were once marched out to Gallowshill, as far as the outer reaches of Leinster Street, where the old Grove cinema has now given way to a busy Lidl. Standing at the crossroads between them, on a hypothetically quiet day when the town is not choked with traffic, you will see a jumble of nineteenth-century shopfronts stretching out in either direction. Directly in front of you, at a right angle to Duke Street and Leinster Street, is Emily Square. The names, of course, mark ownership. This was once a garrison town, a last outpost on the borders of the Pale, and it was largely built by the first Duke of Leinster, whose wife gave her name to the market square. In the 1980s, that square was still bordered by the Leinster Arms Hotel to the east, and to the south by a grand eighteenth-century market house built by the duke. It is this building that now houses Athy community library, at the very centre of the town.

This library has become a site of controversy. In September 2011, Kildare Library Services announced a new schedule of opening hours in a number of libraries throughout the county. ‘In order to provide best value for money’, its press release ran, it would offer a ‘quality service’ to meet the ‘changing needs’ of the people of Kildare and to encourage new library users. A month earlier, according to the Leinster Leader, town manager Joe Boland had told Athy Town Council that a number of recent retirements in the county’s library service meant that it would not be possible for it to sustain current opening hours. ‘There’s A Time For Everyone At Your Local Library’, the press release said, announcing the arrival of Saturday opening in Celbridge, Maynooth and Kildare. What it did not mention was that Athy library would now be closed all weekend. Besides Kilcock, which has half the population, Athy is now the only Kildare town without a library service on Saturdays.

The only bookshop closed down around 1983. The cinema followed some years later. Now, in defending cuts to one of the town’s last remaining cultural resources, Peter Minnock, the director of Kildare Library Services, claimed that Athy had the most under-used library in the county. The solution, it appeared, was to make the library even less accessible to its users and non-users. I did not follow the logic. So I went back to visit.

Athy library is typical of libraries in those small rural towns that the Carnegie movement never reached. Instead of the Romanesque buildings found in Dublin suburbs, or the contemporary architectural showpieces that popped up in some of the larger provincial towns during the boom, most rural libraries occupy buildings constructed for other purposes: market houses, churches, courthouses. On a grey day, the streets surrounding Athy library can seem shabby. The vacant shop windows are multiplying. But the anchor for these meandering streets is the imposing stone building that divides the large market square, the oldest part of which dates to the 1740s. It was then a market house with a broad arcade. By the early nineteenth century that arcade was blocked in with stone, but the building still retained a degree of elegance until a third floor was added in 1913, leaving it fat and heavy, with a more forbidding appearance. Over the preceding century it had become the administrative centre of the garrison town, serving as courthouse and home to the borough council. This was where Lord Norbury, the infamous ‘hanging judge’, presided over the trials of those implicated in the rebellion of 1798. On the front wall, there are still two stone reliefs displaying the scales of justice, one overlaid with the Irish harp, the other with the British crown. It is in the first-floor ballroom, added by a later duke, that the library now sits.

In February 2012, the county library director told a meeting of Kildare County Council that this library had the lowest level of use in the county despite having the most money spent on it. The decision by Kildare library services to cut its hours, he continued, was an attempt to maintain best service on the scant resources available. In response, a local campaign was begun to sign up new library users and to pressurize the library service into reversing its decision on opening hours. At the time of writing, that decision remains under review, but the curtailed schedule remains in operation. This meant that the only morning I could visit was Friday; the library is closed to the public all other mornings. I’d considered visiting of an evening, to see the traffic of after-work visitors, but it opens after 5 only once a week. Otherwise, it is available on weekday mornings for ‘scheduled time’ – events programmed by the library or other groups. There seemed to be nothing scheduled when I visited, but on Mondays over the following weeks there would be children’s theatre workshops and songwriting classes, and family events with drumming, puppets, and storytelling. For a moment, I wished I were nine and I wondered how many other visitors had the same thought.

Seen together, the images can seem melancholic; there is a preoccupation with old age, funerals and wakes, the end of things. But the town itself never ages.

After a short flight of stairs, the lobby – it is called a reading room, but it is really a lobby – is clean and bright, and lined with photographs by John Minihan of the town and its people. Minihan spent his childhood here before he migrated to London at the age of twelve. When he began work as a staff photographer at the Evening Standard in the sixties, he also began, on visits home, to obsessively photograph the place he had left behind. There are thirty years, or more, of such photographs, black and white impressions of lost faces, many elderly. Seen together, the images can seem melancholic; there is a preoccupation with old age, funerals and wakes, the end of things. But the town itself never ages. Pictures taken of Athy in the sixties and seventies show streets that never seem to change.

I wondered if I would be alone here, early on a Friday morning in May, but there are already two students in place when I arrive. At this time of the morning, most of the visitors to the main reading room are elderly. They come in a continuous lone stream, some unloading supermarket bags full of books before moving to the privacy of a side room to load them up again. There is one pregnant woman. Another woman in her thirties comes in dragging a cloth bag spiky with corners; it seems to have a whole family’s worth of books. I begin to seriously doubt the statistics provided by Kildare county council. And then yet more students arrive. By eleven o’clock, the young families are here and a gentle buzz has spread itself around the reading room.

Where I sit, I have the old ballroom’s balcony to my back; at the other end of the long room there is a large arched window set close to the ceiling. It is a reminder of the room’s original purpose: the ballroom’s ceiling is high, maybe three times as high as the squat, green bookshelves around the walls. On a sunny day like this, the window sends a clear and fresh light through the white room; ‘lapidary’ is the word I think of, unexpectedly, and a bit pretentiously. The constant beeping from the librarian’s issue desk suggests other words, less elegant ones. I move away to work in the quiet of a side alcove, like a wallflower at the dance.

Reading is a solitary activity, but the library is a social space. It is a funny contradiction, and one I used to resolve by spending as little time in libraries as possible. But this modern community library is far from the place I remember. In the straitened 1980s, Athy library was still housed in a dark room in the courthouse building across the square. To a small child, it seemed very likely that the librarian had taken inspiration from the magistrates who preceded her. Getting to the appropriate shelves meant clattering through a series of low chairs and tables that were always too closely spaced. Clattering back in the opposite direction was not encouraged. Straying from child to adult sections was not allowed. Supervision was total. The strange darkness was a product of the building’s Tudor Revival architecture. At the back there was still what looked like a barred cell sitting open to the air.

As a child, I read for independence. I don’t know whether adult guidance is a good or a bad thing for young readers, but I avoided it as much as possible. Of course school books were tainted, especially those with Celtic heroes and approved vocabularies. I never liked being handed a book to read; what I wanted was to hunt them down. So I pillaged the library and read curled up in armchairs, or on the strait of carpet between twin beds, or sitting in the garden all through an untypical Irish summer. There was no quality control, I’m sure of that; I happily read the back of cornflakes boxes at the breakfast table. I read and re-read every book in my collection until I could have easily re-created them in the printless dystopia my family always seemed to be hoarding against. I wrote half a novel and lost it. I typed someone else’s and kept it. I forgave my dog when he bit me, but not when he chewed the back cover off a paperback.

A reading past can seem as foreign as any other. My first birthday in Athy coincided with my first communion, which seems the only likely reason why I asked for a large children’s bible that had been sitting in the window of the local bookshop for weeks. The religiosity lasted no longer than the bookshop. Soon the cinema went too, and then there was nothing left to stem the small-town feeling that everything of interest happens somewhere else. There was little on hand to connect a private imaginative world to the surrounding community. So as a seven-year-old, I held stubbornly to the fairytale logic that I did not really come from here anyway, I belonged somewhere else. I did so in spite of the fact that, if I ever closed my book and looked around me, the stories in front of me were the only ones I had.

It is easy now to ignore local horizons. But sitting here in the new Athy library reminds me that it was in this room, when the ballroom was in its last days, that my father saw his first play, The Barretts of Wimpole Street; he was taken to it by his older brother, Jack. It was billed as a comedy, an unlikely one perhaps, since it was based on the frustrated romance between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. A Broadway hit of the 1930s, it must have made its way to the local amateur dramatic group around the early 1950s. Or possibly their revival was inspired by the 1957 film of the same name starring John Gielgud and Jennifer Jones, with its ominous tagline: ‘What strange passion twisted their lives?’ Whatever its popularity once, it is now almost entirely obscure. It really belongs to a lost world, along with the more usual local diet of Hopalong Cassidy and Old Mother Riley, the last of the music hall acts to transfer to the screen.

It was just a flash of metropolitan glamour...

It was in this room, too, that his older brothers came to dances in the 1950s, until a custom-built dance hall on the outskirts of town drew the trade away from the Duke of Leinster’s ballroom. On its opening night in 1961, the new hall had a revolving stage which delivered out of the darkness Victor Silvester and his Ballroom Orchestra. The London impresario of the waltz and the quickstep, and a world ballroom champion in 1922, Silvester had only just received his OBE. And although this was the dawn of the sixties, he was still leading his radio band in full dress tie and tails. The orchestra played strictly to rule, with a rhythmic propriety that probably suited a local audience trained at afternoon classes in the old ballroom. Once his orchestra had played its piece, the musicians rotated out of view again and into a waiting obscurity. It was just a flash of metropolitan glamour; a local band took the stage to finish the night.

By the end of that decade, the local dance bands would disappear too. The old ballroom in Emily Square closed down. By the 1970s, it was home to what the Leinster Leader coyly described as a ‘lady’s foundation garments manufacturers’. It fell into semi-dereliction, and for a while it was in danger of being demolished. In 1975, Kildare County Council finally bought the building from the Duke of Leinster for £9,000. By the time my family moved to Athy it was behind scaffolding, and it stayed like that for years. Until the mid 1980s it still housed the urban district council. And then there was the Freemasons’ lodge on the top floor. On a floor below that, in 1944, three local young farmers had formed a group that would later become Macra na Feirme and launch the Irish Farmers’Association. Years later again, as the building followed the fortunes of a local depression, the rear of the eighteenth-century market house would be stripped to accommodate a fire station.

So this was a place of local initiative; but for a long time it was also home to an administrative power that often felt at odds with the locality. It is tempting to draw parallels with the current situation. Perhaps it is enough to note that as I sat considering the stories of the Duke of Leinster’s ballroom, the traffic through the most under-used library in the county was becoming too busy for comfort. On my way out, I stopped again to look more closely at the Minihan photographs. This time I noticed, at the very centre of the group, a picture that I remember being taken in front of this building in 1987. It is a town portrait, though not the same one published in Minihan’s Athy book, Shadows from the Pale. This version is much cheerier; the few hundred people grouped in the square are laughing and waving for the camera. I am at the back of the crowd between my two older brothers, almost invisible because I am so short. All you can see of me is a hand up in the air, at rigid full stretch, as if to say, I am here.

Six years later I was leaving. A career guidance teacher suggested I become a librarian – or a career guidance teacher. I did not become a librarian or a career guidance teacher, but in working as an academic I did become a professional library-haunter. What I loved about research libraries was that the trails they opened to me were endless. I could go anywhere.

Prompted by challenges to the funding of public library systems throughout Britain and Ireland, this year the Carnegie UK Trust commissioned a report on the use of public libraries and popular attitudes to them. The figures for Ireland show that 79 per cent of respondents said that libraries were ‘very important’ or ‘essential’ for communities, the highest proportion across the five jurisdictions in these islands. But only 51 per cent had used a library in the last year, a figure that suggests we are more attached to the idea of libraries than to the reality of them.

And often, when a library is threatened, a community rises, as it has in Athy and in various parts of England. The most prominent recent English casualty was the historic Kensal Rise library, opened by Mark Twain in 1900, which was emptied of its book collection under cover of night after local opposition to its closure. Perhaps feelings run so high because these former market houses or meeting-rooms scattered across country towns and villages are places that preserve a certain idea of community life. A public library is local and it is democratic; of all the state’s cultural institutions, the library service is probably the most accessible to the majority of its citizens. Statistics of use can tell only part of the story. And a central principle of community librarianship enshrines that very point: that a library should be led by need, not by demand.

What is the need in this town? It supports two large secondary schools, four primary schools, and a number of smaller schools in the surrounding townlands. Since 2001, it has been part of RAPID (Revitalising Areas by Planning, Investment and Development), a scheme targeting fifty-one of the most disadvantaged areas in the country. As more than one local respondent to the library cuts argued, the library services’ decision goes entirely against the aims and spirit of the RAPID project, which gives local communities significant input into plans for their own areas. As state resources shrink, with funding for the RAPID scheme halved from an already modest €9 million in 2009, such communities demand continued support. They may not get it.

When I visited the library as a child, it was generally for escapism. And perhaps I spent more time playing outside in the cells than I did in the dank reading room. I did not pay attention to it, any more than I paid attention to a sense of community, or history, or belonging. It was simply there. In the hotchpotch of a building at the centre of the town that houses the current library, I now realize, is stored nearly three centuries of community life. And I also realize by now that the stories I grew up on, about the town I refused to belong to, long ago seeped in without my noticing. So I understand that this place is its natural heart and its best resource – under-used or otherwise. On the day that I visited, at least, it was clearly busy and needed. It was a good thing to see, and it was also a disheartening one.

This essay was first published in The Dublin Review (Winter 2012-13).

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