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Building of the Month - August 2008

Bolton Library, John Street, CASHEL Td., Cashel, County Tipperary

Bolton Library, Cashel 01 - Representative View 

Figure 1: Erected to a design by William Tinsley (1804-85) of Clonmel the Bolton Library was built not only to house the book collection of Archbishop Theophilus Bolton (1678-1744), but also to provide a chapter house for the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist and Saint John's Rock.  While the symmetry of form, the arcaded openings, and the monolithic pilasters and pediments, all reflect the Classicism of the cathedral, stepped buttresses recall the then-fashionable Georgian Gothic style

The Rock of Cashel in County Tipperary is probably the most significant grouping of ecclesiastical buildings surviving from the medieval period in Ireland.  Its largest building, the cathedral, was abandoned in the 1750s and the medieval parish church at the opposite end of the town was upgraded to cathedral status, being itself replaced by the present Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist and Saint John's Rock (1763-88).

One of the most dynamic incumbents of the See was Archbishop Theophilus Bolton (1678-1744; fl. 1729-44), who built his Episcopal residence, now Cashel Palace Hotel, in 1732.  His patron, Archbishop William King (1650-1729) of Dublin, had left him a collection of 6,000 books on his death in 1729 and Bolton housed these in a wing of the palace.  In turn, Bolton bequeathed his whole collection, now 12,000 books, to the diocese.  The library remained at the palace until about 1820 when the Church Temporalities Act suppressed the archbishopric, requiring the vacating of the palace.  The first librarian, from 1822, was Reverend Henry Cotton (1789-1879) who had been sub-librarian at the famous Bodleian Library in Oxford.  A chapter house, designed for the cathedral by Clonmel-born architect William Tinsley (1804-85), became the library's new home in 1836 (fig. 1).  After 1909, the Dean of Cashel was directly responsible for the collection.

The cathedral close is a quiet, contemplative backwater compared with the tourist mecca of the Rock.  On passing under the gateway, the eye is captivated by the very fine Classical architecture of the cathedral.  Off to the right stands the understated library building, of two storeys and constructed of rubble limestone and sandstone.  It does, however, display fine craftsmanship in the treatment of its door and window openings and particularly the pedimented gables and corner pilasters, echoing features in the cathedral.

Bolton Library, Cashel 02 - Interior 

Figure 2: A view of the interior showing the bookcases that hold 'many items of great rarity, at least fifty not recorded elsewhere in the world, and some 800 not recorded elsewhere in Ireland'

Inside, there is a small vestibule leading to a large central room used to display some of the library's treasures.  The first floor is reached by a wooden stairs and comprises a long room dominated by tall, venerable bookcases which project into the space from the side walls (fig. 2).  Round-headed windows at each end of the first floor enhance the symmetry, the window over the entrance also affording a fine view of the Rock, emphasising the visual and historical connections between the two places.

The extraordinary importance of the Bolton Library is evident from the assessment by Bloomfield and Potts in their Directory of rare books and special collections (London 1997) with the library containing 'many items of great rarity, at least fifty not recorded elsewhere in the world, and some 800 not recorded elsewhere in Ireland'.  The gamut of European intellectual life between the late fifteenth and early eighteenth centuries is represented by manuscripts, printed books, fine bindings, maps and other items, including papyrus from the first century AD.  The oldest manuscript is twelfth century and has a thirteenth-century binding of deerskin over oak.  The collection is thoroughly European, representing the prominent printing houses of Amsterdam, Basle, Geneva, London, Nuremburg, Paris, Venice and Zurich, as well as Ireland.  Former owners of some of the material include Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536), Abraham Ortelius (1527-98), cartographer to Philip II, and Francis Bacon (1561-1626).

Bolton Library, Cashel 03 - Setting 

Figure 3: A view of Bolton Library with the adjacent Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist and Saint John's Rock.  The library is a small but perfectly formed gem to be cherished not only for its architecture, but also for its rarity as an early and extraordinary diocesan library

All photography by Shannon Images from the NIAH publication An Introduction to the Architectural Heritage of South Tipperary

Bolton Library, Cashel 04 - Introduction 

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