Armagh Robinson Library (formerly Armagh Public Library) is the oldest public library in Northern Ireland and, along with Trinity College Library and Marsh’s Library in Dublin, it is one of the three most significant heritage libraries in Ireland. It was founded in 1771 by the then Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, Richard Robinson, later first Baron Rokeby, who provided the purpose-built building which the Library is still in, as well as his collection of 8,000 books, pamphlets, manuscripts, prints, gems, medals and coins. It is an independent body with charitable status, incorporated by Act of Parliament in 1773, and received Accredited Museum Status in 2001.
The Library houses important material of interest to local, national and international scholars, as well as being a visitor attraction for members of the general public. Today the Library has 43,000 books, of which 17,519 are pre-1800. This includes books owned by the poets John Donne and Ben Jonson, as well as Jonathan Swift’s own personal copy of Gulliver’s Travels with annotated corrections by the author. The Library also has the largest known collection of books of one of the most important book collectors of the early 17th century, Edward Conway, 2nd Viscount Conway (1594–1655). This includes the manuscript catalogue of his Library at Lisnagarvey (Lisburn, Co. Antrim), where his house was burnt by rebels in 1641. An 18th-century creation, the Library collections (which include works on architecture, classics, law, mathematics, medicine, philosophy, science, theology and travel, as well as maps and atlases) are particularly strong on the ‘long eighteenth century’ and include most of the key authors of the Enlightenment period.
The print collection contains 4,350 prints (the ‘Rokeby Collection’), which are a rare example of an intact 18th-century print collection in institutional hands. The collection comprises 15th- to 18th-century prints, including those by Vouet, Mellan, Goltzius, Hogarth, Piranesi, Bartolozzi, Woollett and the Sadeler family. In 2015 the Library received the music collection of the neighbouring Church of Ireland Cathedral of Armagh, Ireland’s ecclesiastical capital. Amounting to approximately 4,000 pieces, it includes music from a variety of composers, ranging from Michael East (Este) (c.1580-1648), Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) and Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) to 20th-century composers such as Herbert Howells (1892-1983) and John Ireland (1892-1962), as well as Armagh-born Charles Wood (1866–1926), who was Professor of Music at Cambridge University.
Armagh Robinson Library is open on weekdays from 10am–1pm and 2pm–4pm. Entry is free. The online catalogue, accessible via the Library’s website, includes a great part of the collection, though there are other catalogues and finding aids which can only be consulted in the Library itself.
Image: © Brian Mason, used with permission