In 1788 the First Fleet sailed into Botany Bay and later Sydney Cove under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip – Meanwhile in Belfast, a Library was opening.
The establishing of New South Wales and the founding of modern Australia had begun. The news did little to assuage the madness of King George III, who was probably still smarting over the loss of the American Colonies just five years earlier. Those newly formed United States grew from just three states to eleven states in the course of the year and the newly independent ears of Jefferson, Franklyn and the soon to be elected President Washington, were no doubt soothed by the latest compositions from the still prolific Mozart. The romance of his music accompanied the exit of one romantic character of history, as Bonnie Prince Charlie, the long-time pretender to the British Throne, died in Rome and heralded the birth of the most famous romantic poet, Lord Byron.
Meanwhile, in Belfast (population about 14,000) a group of gentlemen artisans decided to found the Belfast Reading Society. A couple of years later it was renamed the Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge. A few years more, in 1802, it moved into a building from which it took it’s unofficial, yet permanent, name- the Linen Hall Library.
Now, I have said before, I like libraries. I especially like the Linen Hall. It is small, by modern standards, old, by anyone’s standards, has a sweeping banister-lined staircase up to the first floor, is insulated by the soft murmuring of lost readers being helped by precise librarians and smells of history, books, knowledge. It is also home to a vast collection of Irish and local studies material that includes early Belfast and Ulster books, through to the Northern Ireland Political Collection, a quarter of a million items that form the definitive archive of the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’. There is an extensive Robert Burns collection and volumes of local genealogy sources. Amidst all those treasures are my little books. A fact that simply makes me smile from ear to ear every time I think of it. I was pleased having written them, but honestly thrilled to know they were on the shelves in the Linen Hall.
In its 232 years, the library has survived uprisings, war and insurrections and is currently seeing its way through Covid 19. It has, on occasion, slumped almost out of existence and risen to be a vibrant and vital part of the City’s cultural heartland. Through it all it has been maintained by public subscription. Nowadays it is an ‘independent and charitable body’ and relies on donations to survive. I have no doubt it will continue to thrive and now, under the leadership of its first ever female Director, and fellow-‘Larnian’ Julie Andrews and it’s first ever female head Librarian in Samantha McCombe, I am sure it will go from strength to strength.
Ian Andrew is the author of a number of books including Face Value the Publisher Weekly Booklife Best Fiction Award winner.