Cork has long loved its library, and last year celebrated 125 years of the Library Service. Donal O’Keeffe visits a village at the heart of the city.

“The Library is the last democratic space in Irish society,” says Tina Healy, senior executive librarian in Cork City Library. “Where else can anyone – regardless of their wealth or social standing – just walk in and sit down and read for free a paper or a book?”

Cork City Library is a village all of its own, an oasis of calm, a haven of reflection and a shelter for anyone who wants to come in and sit down and read or just rest. The Library is open six days a week and it’s free to anyone who calls in.

As you walk in from the Grand Parade, you feel immediately at home in a place which is open to everyone, which welcomes everyone, and which is owned by everyone.

As you enter the Library, you see to the left the Children’s and Teens’ Library. It is a bright, airy space, with small coloured tables and chairs arranged below beautiful, cartoon lampshades. The shelves are vibrant with the multi-coloured spines of different sized books. The librarian’s desk is adorned with pictures coloured by visitors. One particularly eye-catching picture is of Toy Story’s Cowboy Woody with his horse Bullseye, coloured by Clara, aged 8.

Every day sees a different classroom visit, says librarian Eibhlin Cassidy, and she stresses that you’re never too young or too old for the library. The shelves are crammed with familiar childhood names like the Mister Men, Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, Tintin, Asterix, Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and newer names too like Derek Landy, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, David Walliams and Horrible Histories.

Librarian Mary O’Leary says literacy owes JK Rowling a debt of gratitude, because Harry Potter led so many children to The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings and so much more, making committed readers of them.

Cork was the first Irish city to adopt the Public Libraries (Ireland) Act of 1855, but it wasn’t until February of 1892 that Cork City Council empanelled a committee to establish a public library service for the city. Cork’s first city librarian, James Wilkinson, served from 1892 to 1934, through tumultuous times which would shape modern Ireland, from the reign of Queen Victoria, through the Great War, the War of Independence and the Civil War.

Carnegie Free Library, Anglesea Street, Cork, destroyed in the Burning of Cork, 1920.

Cork’s first public reading room opened in December 1892 in the Crawford Municipal Buildings on Emmet Place (now the Crawford Art Gallery). The reading room was instantly popular, in its first year seeing as many as five hundred visitors every day. The reading room began a lending service in July 1893, and this service was so popular the library committee reported its greatest difficulty was ‘the inability to provide books in sufficient numbers to meet the demands of borrowers’. The reading room also held Ireland’s first library collection of children’s books.

The library service moved to Anglesea Street in 1905, to a purpose-built facility financed by the Scottish philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. In December 1920, the Carnegie Free Library was destroyed in an arson attack by Crown Forces during the Burning of Cork. Everything not out on loan was lost to fire.

Within days, James Wilkinson had issued an appeal to the public for the donation of books. “Our books are now in a heap of ashes; our library but four bare walls.” By September 1924, Wilkinson had established a lending service in Tuckey Street, and by September 1930 the library – its collections rebuilt – had moved to 57-58 Grand Parade, its home to this day.

On past busts of Seán O Faoláin and Frank O’Connor, is the main library. This is the largest, and busiest part of the building. At the main desk, librarian Sorcha Fogarty says it’s great to see so many people still borrowing books.

“It’s a very friendly, welcoming environment, and it’s great to see people still like to come in, just to have a chat. We have some regular visitors who face challenges in life and we try – and I hope succeed – in treating people with dignity and equality.

“People love the New Fiction shelf. Audiobooks are hugely popular, as is the Larger Print section with our older readers. The majority of visitors use the internet here.”

Down the centre of the library, the pillars on one side are decorated with quotes from Frank O’Connor, and on the other – WB Yeats’ quotes translated into a variety of languages. To the back is the Rory Gallagher Music Library. Outside is a display cabinet containing a carved stone plaque depicting Gallagher. The plaque was donated by Gallagher’s biographer Marcus Connaughton. Across the way is another display cabinet, this one containing a replica of Rory’s Fender Sunburst Stratocaster.

The way into the Rory Gallagher Music Library is decorated on one side by further Rory memorabilia and on the other by a long notice-board advertising upcoming gigs and concerts, guitar lessons, cello lessons, violin lessons and a course in making and repairing musical instruments. From within comes – appropriately – the sound of the Blues.

The music played here is chosen democratically, says librarian Bernard Cotter, by librarians and from suggestions from the public. Looking at the shelves, every taste in music seems to be catered for here. From Folk to Rock, Classical to Pop, Opera to Sean Nós, every genre is represented. Sorcha Fogarty says Cork’s music library is recognised as the finest in Ireland.

On the library’s top floor is the Local Studies Department. Here, in the stacks, is where daily and weekly history is lovingly bound in huge leather volumes. Every Examiner back to 1980 is here in print, and digitized right back to the paper’s foundation in 1841. Every Evening Echo back to 1961 is kept here in hard copy. Editions prior to that, all the way back to 1892, are available in digital form. Here too are bound copies of The Avondhu, the Corkman, the Imokilly People etc.

On the first floor is the Reference Library. This is a large, open room, and perhaps thirty people sit around large desks, reading, studying and working. Each desk is custom-built with charging ports for phones and other devices, thanks to the foresight of former reference librarian, Peggy Barrett.

Librarian Eileen O’Sullivan says the library regularly hosts talks and presentations, and every day, people come in to study, to read newspapers or just to bask in the library’s sense of peace.

“You can read a vast array of journals, from the RTÉ Guide to Studia Hibernica. We cater for everyone. We index articles from journals and newspapers, to make them available to people working on projects, and we offer free digital magazines and online courses with your library membership. We offer free membership in all seven branches of Cork’s library service.”

In the Reference Library, Tom Clarke is working on his laptop. He’s 56 now and he’s been visiting the library regularly since he was nine. He’s passionate about this place.

“This is a vitally important part of our city,” he says. “It’s all too easy to eliminate the idea of public spaces, and it’s very important that we don’t allow public spaces to be diminished. It’s vitally important for our democracy that we retain our commitment to the concept of a shared public space.”

When Cork’s first city librarian James Wilkinson, wrote in 1920: “Our books are now in a heap of ashes; our Library but four bare walls,” he could only have dreamed of a City Library – a century on – so important to Cork. And the man who introduced Ireland’s first children’s library would surely be heartened indeed to know that in 2017, most of Ireland’s top 20 borrowed books were children’s titles, and only one adults’ novel made the top 10.

With such an appetite for actual books among the young, let no one say these real spaces are obsolete in a virtual age.