Belfast Telegraph

History on our doorstep, if we read between the lines

A 223-year-old subscription library in Belfast looks forward with renewed confidence, writes Alf McCreary

When President Mary McAleese visited the Linen Hall in Belfast recently, she spoke to a large audience and paid tribute to the library.

She said: "This has always been a neutral space where people could look at the original sources of information and make up their own minds on a subject, without being influenced by anyone else."

President McAleese was speaking from first-hand knowledge, because, as she reminded her audience, she was a frequent user of the library in her earlier days in Belfast.

During the official visit, the distinguished pianist Barry Douglas gave a short recital of the works of Edward Bunting, who had attended the famous Belfast Harp Festival of 1792 and had noted down the music of the last Irish harpers before their music died with them.

It seems fitting that this music was played to an Irish president visiting the Linen Hall, which was established in 1788 - only four years before Bunting embarked on his historic project.

Since 1788, the library has been an invaluable source of information for journalists, academics, authors and also a place where members of the public can use the resources, including a busy restaurant and coffee shop.

In my own writing career, I have found the Linen Hall an invaluable source of historic records and recently I was honoured when the library accepted my donation of around 30 of my books, which were written over the past 45 years.

I was anxious to find them a good home and also to share my work with others, who may want to research some important aspects of Ulster life in the same way that I have depended on the work of others for my own books and articles.

The Linen Hall is the oldest library in Belfast and the last subscribing library in Ireland. Situated in Donegall Square, it has a great historic atmosphere, with its winding staircases, quiet reading room and thousands of books, as well as the main daily papers and recent back-copies as well.

The library is well-known for its Irish and local studies collection, ranging from early prints of Belfast and Ulster books to the 250,000 items in the Northern Ireland Political Collection, which provides a definitive account of the Troubles. There is also a genealogy section for people tracing family history.

The library's director, Brian Adgey, said: "People come here from all over the world and spend weeks working in the library to carry out research.

"We also welcome visitors from cruise liners visiting Belfast, who are looking for information about the city and its history."

The Linen Hall Library has almost 3,200 members and it is keen to increase the numbers. Adgey added: "For the first time in four years, our membership is steadily rising and this is encouraging."

The Linen Hall stages many different events, which are open to the public, as well as to members, and these are free-of-charge.

They include exhibitions and talks by local artists and writers and recitals by local musicians, all of which are proving very successful. The programme is also aimed at a wide age-range, including a children's fancy-dress party at Halloween.

The library is also planning an important evening event in December, which will be centred around a local edition of the original King James' Authorised Version of the Bible, in its 400th anniversary year.

Brian Adgey, underlining the major objectives of the library, said: "We want to maintain financial security, to share more of our resources more widely through technology, and to make the Linen Hall much more accessible to many more people."

Its many friends and supporters are delighted that it is moving firmly in the right direction.

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