Located in the heart of Belfast city, the Linen Hall Library – one of Belfast’s top tourist attractions – has enjoyed a fascinating history and is at the centre of the cultural and creative life of the community, writes Cathal Coyle.
Situated at 17 Donegall Square North, the Linen Hall Library is a much loved Belfast institution, and its history and collections are intrinsically linked to the story of the city.
Founded on 13th May, 1788, it is the oldest library in Belfast and the last subscribing library in Ireland. It is renowned for its Irish and Local Studies Collections, ranging from Early Belfast and Ulster printed books to the 250,000 items in the Northern Ireland Political Collection, the definitive archive of the recent Troubles.
The Belfast Library and Society for Promoting Knowledge – the official name of the institution more commonly known as the Linen Hall Library – developed from the Belfast Reading Society, which it was originally founded as.
Such reading societies sprang up in many cities, towns and villages and were particularly influenced in Ireland in the latter part of the 18th Century by the principles of the American and French revolutions.
From its beginnings, The Belfast Library and Society for Promoting Knowledge was an institution whose central aim was to run a subscription Library for the benefit of its members. There were fifteen founding members, and signatories to the original rules of the Society included Roger Mulholland, a builder and architect, who was the Society’s first President, and Robert Cary, the first Librarian.
The Society moved around Belfast from various taverns, to Robert Cary’s house, and premises in Ann Street, before the Library secured its first permanent premises in rooms below the clock tower of the White Linen Hall on the site of the present day City Hall in 1802 – hence the origins of the Library’s present day name.
In 1888, at the time of its centenary, the Library faced a crisis with the prospective loss of its home in the White Linen Hall to make way for the new City Hall. The purchase of the Library’s present main building at the corner of Donegall Square North and Fountain Street, a former linen warehouse, ensured a permanent and secure base for the library and, since 1892, this is where the library has been housed.
This was remarked upon by the current Director of the Linen Hall Library, Julie Andrews: “The fact that the Library took up residence in 1892 in a building that also played a vital part in the city’s industrial history – a Victorian linen warehouse – strengthens our thread in Belfast’s cultural tapestry.”