Getting back to the books

The days are getting shorter, the students are back in school or college, and tourists are looking for somewhere warm. Among the top ten, most visited, free attractions in Ireland last year was the Chester Beatty Library, and maybe now is a good time to get back to the books.

Home to a rich collection of manuscripts, prints, icons, books and other art forms, collected by the mining magnate, Sir Alfred Chester Beatty, over many decades, this library was voted best European library in 2002 and shouldn’t be missed.

Chester Beatty built a library at his Dublin home for his private collection fifty years ago. After he died in 1974, the collection was bequested to a trust for the public’s benefit. Now housed in the 18th century Clock Tower Building on Dublin Castle’s grounds, the library offers a breathtakingly diverse collection of books of all ages, shapes and content, as well as manuscripts, papyri and works of art such as Chinese jade books and deluxe woodblock prints.

Among the gems in the first floor collection worth keeping an eye out for are: Decretum Gratiani, a Latin text on vellum, with glosses, dating from circa 1300AD; colourful scenes on cotton canvas from Bhratayadda, the old Japanese poem about epic conflicts; a treatise on geometry from 1215AD; and a book from 1533AD made with binding from recycled waste, as many books were during the Reformation because of the destruction of monastic libraries and the discarding of liturgical texts, thus providing cheap materials.

Religious text highlights, mainly on the second floor, include a Greek text on papyrus of St John’s Gospel (circa 150-200AD), and a codex of the Book of Numbers and Deuteronomy from 150AD, the earliest surviving manuscript of any part of the Bible in the world.

Chester Beatty, who collected Chinese snuff bottles and stamps as a boy before moving on to European and Asian manuscripts, rare books, and Oriental art as an adult, was attracted to decorated books, especially if they had beautiful illuminations. They were not always first editions, but were often the finest. His eye for taste will be evident in the two hours (three if you have time) you should give to the library. The library also regularly gives free talks, tours, and new exhibitions, so it’s best to check in advance what is happening. This Saturday sees a free lunchtime tour of the art of Edo Japan.

Many scholars regard Chester Beatty as the last great private book collector. Given the breadth of collection and resources, they say, it may not be repeated again. This library is history in the making.

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