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Updated: Feb 17

Figure 1: Carnegie Library Gates, Church of the Ascension, Gurranabraher (photo Dee Murphy).

‘If Andrew Carnegie were alive today, he would smile with pleasure on the earnestness of the efforts of philanthropists like Bill Gates, who seem devotedly intent on identifying the root causes of human problems and then attacking them.’[1] Carnegie’s philanthropic career began in the 1870s. A number of years later, when he was fifty years old, he began distributing his wealth (then the largest fortune in the world) in earnest. Rather than give his money to the needy, Carnegie’s philosophy was to empower them. ‘He was intent, instead, on building institutions through which the poor could improve themselves and, in the future, avoid the need for alms.’[2]

Andrew Carnegie left a visual reminder of his charitable legacies; buildings serving as libraries and named for him. He ‘donated his first library in 1881 to Dunfermline, Scotland, his birthplace.’[3] The laying of the memorial stone was a significant event in the city. ‘A half-day holiday for local businesses and factories was declared, and crowds of 7,000 people gathered to welcome Andrew Carnegie and his mother.’[4] Carnegie was born in Scotland in 1835, emigrated to America thirteen years later and by 1901 had amassed a fortune from his steel enterprise, selling his holdings to J.P. Morgan for $480 million.[5]

A year later, ‘like many cities and towns in the then United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Cork’s first purpose-built public library was funded by benefactor Andrew Carnegie.’[6] The concept of library services was not unfamiliar in Cork, although these facilities were provided by private institutions, usually charging high subscription rates. The exterior of 12 Pembroke Street in Cork City reveals the history of the building.[7] Over the doorway are the words ‘Cork Library’, the year of its foundation; 1792, which is framed by a pair of owls symbolising ‘the owl of Minerva, who carried wisdom back to the Roman goddess Minerva’.[8]

Figure 2: Old Cork Library, Pembroke Street (courtesy Bookshelf Coffee).

Over a half century later, the first steps to a public library service in Ireland were enacted. In 1855, the Public Libraries (Ireland) Act empowered boroughs and towns with populations more than 5,000 to establish free public libraries, and museums or schools of science and art. Plans for a public library in Cork City began in earnest shortly after In September 1855, Sir John Gordon announced that ‘the Town Council of Cork, anxious to be in a position to support the valuable Schools of Science and Art already established’ in the city, were holding a meeting on 18 September 1855 to consider the provisions of the new act.[9] The council ratified the legislation and Cork became the first city to adopt the Act. However, it was a further thirty-seven years before further developments ensued. In 1892, Cork Mayor, Daniel Horgan brought ‘a matter he had in his programme … it was the establishment of a public library in Cork’.[10]

With a new fervour and the appointment of Cork’s first City Librarian, James Wilkinson, a public reading room was opened in the Crawford Municipal Buildings, Nelson Place in 1892.[11] Although all libraries had to be available to the public free of charge, the institutions had to be supported by rates; and the maximum amount which could be levied was one penny in the pound. In Cork, ‘a public libraries rate of ½ d in the £’ was agreed for the city.[12] In May 1893, Miss Baker of Fort William, Cork donated a number of ‘works of reference’; including the Annals of the Four Masters, Hume’s History of England and Journals of the Irish House of Commons.[13] Shortly after in July 1896, ‘the library also provided the first collection of children’s books in any Irish public library service.’[14]

In the intervening years, the cramped conditions in Nelson Place (Emmet Place) were not conducive for providing a library service. The news that ‘Carnegie offered a grant of £10,000, in July 1902, to Cork Corporation to build a library’ was timely and broadly welcomed by the officials and public of Cork City.[15] Plans for the new building were overseen by Henry Albert Cutler, the city surveyor of Cork. Shortly after the design was approved, Cutler left Cork bound for Belfast following his election as City Engineer in September 1903.[16] A month later, 21 October 1903, Andrew Carnegie travelled to Cork ‘to receive the freedom of the city … and to lay the foundation of the new Free Library’.[17] He also received the freedom of Waterford and Limerick during this period.

Work began on the new building on ‘Anglesea Street, at a right angle to the rear of the river-facing Municipal Buildings, which would formally become Cork City Hall in 1906.’[18] The contract for construction was awarded to Patrick Murphy and many of the materials were sourced locally. The building was complete two years later and on 12 September 1905, Mayor Joseph Barrett officially opened the Carnegie Free Library. The Irish Examiner gave a thorough description of the building,

The style, which is Elizabethan, is handsomely treated, and is sufficiently academic to indicate the idea of the work. The front is a pretty one, to which the beautiful entrance, balcony, and tower lend attractive effects. The interior arrangements are also well conceived, and ensure the best possible utilisation of space consonant with the general features of the structure. At the main entrance from Anglesea street is a loggia, or vestibule which opens into a large open hall, 30 feet by 20 feet, the floor of which is laid in the class of mosaic known as terrazzo executed by Italian workmen. Beyond this hall and in line with the entrance is the lending department, furnished in the most up to date manner. Its dimensions are 60 feet by 30 feet and will afford accommodation equal to any demand that may be made on it. This is the central position of the building, and inasmuch as there is here only one storey an adequate idea will be gathered of its roomy and spacious character. This part of the building is lighted mainly from the roof. To the left of the library and occupying equal space with it is the newsroom, lined along the sides with neatly designed newspaper stands, the floor space being occupied by tables for the readers. The corresponding area to the left of the lending department is devoted to the reference library, except that a space at the southern side is partitioned off into a store room or work place for the library attendants. Flanking the entrance loggia on the ground floor are the librarian’s offices on the left and the ladies’ reading room on the right, and over these respectively are the Librarian’s apartments and the juvenile reading room... The furniture too is of the best pattern, and practically the whole of it has been executed in Cork. The notice case in the vestibule, beautifully worked in mahogany, the counter in the lending library, also mahogany, the bookstalls and bookcases in the lending library, as well as the counter in the juvenile reading room were all executed by Mr. John Callanan, Cork. Indeed, the whole work of the library was done as far as possible locally. The artistic iron railing which surmounts the enclosing walls of the grounds was made by Mr. Buckley, Cork, and the beautiful entrance gate is the work of Mr. Watson, Cork. The carrying out of the contract reflects every credit on Mr. Patrick Murphy, contractor.[19]

Figure 3: Postcard showing the position of the library in relation to the City Hall.[20]

The building became an important part of Cork’s infrastructure for the next fifteen years. However, with burgeoning hostilities following the Irish War of Independence, which began in January 1919, the library’s demise was imminent. On 11 December, ‘Crown forces, particularly Black and Tans and Auxiliaries in the centre of Cork City were in an unusually agitated mood early in the afternoon.’ [21] This situation was exacerbated when, after sunset, a convoy of Auxiliaries was ambushed at Dillon’s Cross by ‘A’ Company, 1 Battalion, 1 Cork Brigade. Two auxiliary cadets died, and this surely was the match that lit the fuse for the destruction of the commercial heart of Cork City.[22]

Captain Phillip Herbert Cadoux-Hudson of the Royal Hampshire Regiment was in command of a curfew party on the night of 11 December 1920. Shortly after 2200 hours, he observed Grant’s Drapery shop on fire. An hour later, he came ‘upon one Auxiliary policeman standing in front of a jeweller’s shop … he was about to break the glass in order to set fire to the shop.’[23] Another member of the curfew party, Lieutenant Henry Cleaveland Phillips passed Cash’s which was on fire. He observed that ‘some Auxiliary police were heaping empty boxes and dress models on the flames.’[24] The carnage continued during the night, and the City Hall and Carnegie Library were also reduced to rubble. In all, an estimated ‘2.8 % of the rateable property of the city had been burned - greater destruction in one evening than in the week-long Dublin Rising of 1916.’[25]

Figure 4: Shell of the library (top) and mid demolition (below) (Courtesy of Irish Examiner).

William Roche of Roches Stores, who was living in Boreenmana Road, woke on Sunday morning oblivious to the devastation that had been wreaked the night before. Shortly after 8 am a friend notified him of the events of the previous night, including the arson of his premises at Merchants Street and Patrick's Street. Roche recalls that it was a still, clear, frosty morning, unusually quiet, no traffic or person visible. He eventually reached the Carnegie Free Library on Anglesea Street. ‘I had a feeling of one in a dream. It was burning peaceably and one could say, beautifully.’ [26] Two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary stopped and questioned him, both apparently having consumed alcohol. Roche made his way to Parnell Place which was intact, but it was the sight of Patrick's Street that astonished him, the destruction of the tall buildings not only changed the landscape of the street but also let in more light.

Figure 5: Pillars and gates of the burnt-out Carnegie Library, post December 1920.[27]

Over the next number of years, Cork City was rebuilt, although it took substantially longer to rebuild the Cork City Hall and a new public library. ‘Ten years after the burning of the Carnegie Library, a new purpose-built library was opened to the public … fronted by nos. 57-8 Grand Parade, in September 1930’. Prior to this, library services were delivered from temporary premises, located at 2 Tuckey Street. Today, if you look closely, the pillar caps of the gates of the Carnegie Free Library are preserved and can still be seen in Tuckey Street at the entrance to the car park to the rear of the current Cork City Library.

Figure 6: From the pillars of the old Carnegie Library can by found in Tuckey Street (courtesy of Reading the Signs).

Furthermore, the gates, ‘the work of Mr. Watson, Cork’, are also still visible. [28] ‘The ornamental work of gates and railings, which are quite worthy of note (especially the gates) was all executed in the city, and are creditable specimens of the ironworkers’ craft, both in design and finish.’[29]

Figure 7: Irish Examiner report.

Benjamin Watson, born in Halifax, England, was a Methodist ‘Whitsmith’ in Cork City.

Figure 8: 1901 Census, Robert Street, Cork City.[33]

He had premises located at 6/7 Robert Street and his business is advertised in the 1891 Guy’s Street Directory under a number of categories, including; ‘Art Metal Workers’, ‘Bellhangers, Blacksmiths & Locksmiths’ and ‘Iron Founders, Metal Workers, etc.’.[30] He died on 9 September 1911, six years after his gates were unveiled.[31] The entrance gates in Fitzgerald’s Park are also the work of Mr. Watson, and these originate from the same era as the Carnegie gates.[32]

Figure 9: Guy's Cork Street Directory, 1891.

The Church of The Ascension, built under the direction of Bishop Lucey, located in Gurranabraher, was opened on Ascension Thursday 19 May 1955. ‘The main gates to the church originally belonged to the old Carnegie Library … for many years they lay rusting in the Corporation yard at Anglesea Street until 1955 when Fr. Horgan procured them for the church. Two houses at number seven and eight Mount Eden Terrace were demolished to make way for the gates.’[34]

Ironically, the centenary of the Burning of Cork was commemorated in 2020, again during precarious times; the enemy on this occasion, the Covid pandemic. The ornamental ironwork, the product of master craftsman Benjamin Watson, now over 115 years old, are once again beginning to show signs of age. Luckily, a grant of €15,000 has been approved by the Heritage Council to restore them to their former glory.[35] Hopefully, in another 100 years, future generations will celebrate the end of the pandemic and the efforts of this generation will ensure that the Carnegie Library gates are still standing proud.

Figure 10: Gates at Church of the Ascension (courtesy of Dee Murphy).


[1] Ellen Lagemann and Jennifer de Forest, ‘What might Andrew Carnegie want to tell Bill Gates?’ in Ray Bacchetti and Thomas Ehrlich (eds), Reconnecting education and foundations (Standford, 2007), p. 49. [2] Ibid. p.50. [3] Ruth J. Edens, ‘”A Substantial and Attractive Building”: The Carnegie Public Library, Sumter, South Carolina’, The South Carolina Historical Magazine, vol. 94, no. 1 (Jan. 1993), p. 35. [4] Simpson & Brown Architects, Dunfermline Carnegie Library: Conservation Management Plan (2021), p. 34. [5] Richard S. Tedlow, Giants of Enterprise (New York, 2001), p. 71. [6] John Mullins and Liam Ronayne, A Grand Parade : memories of Cork City libraries 1855-2005 (Cork, 2005), p. 10. [7] [8] R. James King and Ruth H. Hooker, ‘The Cover’, Libraries & Culture, vol. 40, no. 2 (spring 2005), pp. 176-185. [9] The Southern Reported and Cork Commercial Courier, 13 September 1855. [10] Cork Daily Herald, 13 February 1892. [11] Nelson Place now known as Emmet Place. [12] Cork Constitution, 21 December 1892. [13] Cork Daily Herald, 9 May 1893.itunes [14] John Mullins and Liam Ronayne, A Grand Parade, p.1. [15] Brendan Grimes, Irish Carnegie libraries : a catalogue and architectural history (Dublin, 1998), p. 121. [16] [17] Irish Examiner, 24 October 1903. [18] [19] Irish Examiner, 13 December 1905. [20] [21] The burning of Cork (1960). RTÉ Radio 1, Available at: (Accessed: 21 November 2020). [22] For details of activity of ‘A’ Company [23]Proceedings of a Court of Inquiry, Victoria Barracks, Cork 13 December 1920 by order of Brigadier General H.W. Higginson. This is the first of two inquiries into the Burning of Cork, this inquiry was specifically to investigate the activities by British soldiers, WO35/88 (39/622/1). [24] Ibid. [25] Martin Frederick Seedorf, ‘The Lloyd George Government and the Strickland Report on the Burning of Cork, 1920’ in Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, vol. 4, no. 2 (summer 1972), pp. 59-66. Published by: The North American Conference on British Studies [26] James N. Healy, The story of Roches Stores, (Cork, 1981), p. 21. [27] [28] Irish Examiner, 13 September 1905. [29] Evening Echo, 12 September 1905. [30] Guy’s Cork Almanac and County and City Directory, 1891 (Cork, 1891) p.301, p. 302, p. 320. [31] Death certificate for Benjamin Watson, Cork 1911. [32] [33] 1901 Census, Robert Street, Cork City. [34] David McCarthaigh, The Gurranabraher story : A history of the place and its people, (Cork, 1997), p.26. [35]

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