Centenary celebrations for seat of Ulster learning

THE year 1888 saw a number of significant anniversaries. Firstly, it was the year of the tercentenary of what the News Letter called the great symbol of “the spirit of British patriotism”, namely the defeat of the Spanish Armada during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.
The bicentenary of the landing of William III at Torbay and the English Revolution and all the “advantages” which “flowed” from William’s reign throughout Britain and its Empire and “the privileges he secured for his subjects” which were “shared by every class, without distinction of party” was also celebrated that year.
An anniversary of a more modern character was the centenary which had just been celebrated in Belfast in May 1888 to mark the foundation of “The Belfast Library and Society for the Promotion of Knowledge” which we know today as the Linenhall Library, by the Belfast Reading Society.
The creation of the library in the 18th century had crossed all “party” lines and differences, and embraced the whole community of Ulster, after all, declared the News Letter, after all “in the Republic of Letters all sections of the community stand on equality, and merit alone, has pre-eminence”.
Considering the foundation of the library the News Letter remarked that “popular knowledge” had been in its infancy in 1788 time and that while there “were great men and great writers then – men whose genius has not been surpassed since” their works and influence had been limited.
“Only a small proportion of the population could read. There were no State-paid schools and no compulsory education laws,” observed the paper’s correspondent. And this inevitably meant that “the development of the intellectual power of the people was almost entirely left to themselves”.
Even for those who had acquired an education had not adequate means of “cultivating their taste of knowledge”. It was a time when “literary institutions” were non-existent, except in capital cities, when newspapers had only been “within the reach of the few” and books were “scare and costly”.
1024px-Linen_Hall_Library_BelfastIt had been in this comparative “dark age” that the Linenhall Library (or as the News Letter termed it, ‘The Belfast Library’) had been established in 1788. The men who promoted the project, “being men of education” and “knowing the pleasures of reading”, had sought to extend knowledge and learning “as widely as possible” through their library.
The founding fathers intended by that the library would acquire “philosophical apparatus and such productions of nature and art as are calculated to enlarge knowledge”. In addition to this museum function the pioneers aimed to provide a programme of adult education and the library even served as Belfast’s first meteorological station. All-in-all “a most laudable”, acknowledged the News Letter.
Not much was known of the “operations” of these gentlemen during the first few years of the life of the society, remarked the News Letter, and the first location of the library at that time was somewhat sketchy.
By 1888 the library was located in the rooms below the clock tower in the White Linen Hall which was on the site of Belfast City Hall. Faced with having to make way for the City Hall the library’s current buildings, which had been a linen warehouse designed by Lynn and Lanyon, were purchased. The library finally moved to their Donegall Square North premises in 1892.
Like many institutions of its time it “had a small beginning”. But small as the library may have been at its inception “it was highly appreciated”. According to the paper in 1888: “Many persons otherwise deprived by their limited means and the high price of books, of the privilege of reading, had their aspirations satisfied. There intellects were cultivated, the tendencies of their characters moulded in a right direction, and thus they became more qualified to discharge the duties of their station, or for advancing to a higher one.”
Being the only institution of its kind in Belfast at that time it received a large measure of support from the townsfolk as a whole. The numbers of subscribers of the library was “great enough” not only to “maintain it in efficiency” but also allowed the committee of the institution to make constant additions to its collection of books.
In 1819, the earliest year in which there was a record of the number of books held by the library, there were some 3,210 volumes “on the shelves”, by 1888 the library possessed some 25,000 works. Today in the 21st century the library holds an estimated 250,000 volumes “and many thousands of more ephemeral items”.
The important place that the library held within Belfast was beyond doubt remarked the News Letter. Indeed, a century after the library’s foundation, the importance and popularity of The Belfast Library to its townspeople was illustrated in the centenary conversazione being held at the Ulster Hall at which the largest number of works of art, portraits, original maps and ornaments “illustrative of Belfast” in the 17th and 18th centuries that had ever been brought together.
Items relating to the News Letter in years gone by included a beautiful cameo photograph of Mr Alexander Mackay Jnr when he was aged 35 which had been loaned by the Misses Mackay of Fortwilliam. Alexander Mackay had purchased the News Letter from Mr Francis Joy, who had founded the paper in 1737, in 1798.
The Mackays also loaned to the organisers of the centenary conversazione copies of the paper from 1783 and 1805, notably the latter edition contained an illustration of the Battle of Trafalgar, and there was also an edition from 1849 which include a report of Queen Victoria’s visit to Belfast which had been printed in gold.
Among the treasures of local portraits the most valuable exhibit was undoubtedly of the Mall, crowded with well-known Belfast celebrities of the period (about the end of the 18th century) which then hung in the boardroom of the Harbour Commissioners and a fine portrait of Anna, second Countess of Donegall. The ancient insignia of office, which was preserved at the Town Hall, comprising a mace of 1637, and other valuable objects, together with the original charter of the town was also on shown by “the great courtesy” of the Lord Mayor (Sir J H Haslett, JP). Meanwhile, the Water Commissioners will lend rare old maps.
The News Letter summed up the importance of the library to Belfast society by declaring: “Few men, not even the wealthiest, can be altogether independent of a public library. The Belfast Library possesses many ancient and most valuable books. The series of works in this town is among the most interesting sections. Considered merely as a reference library it is invaluable. Its usefulness will continue and probably increase.”

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