It was some big event in Trinity College Dublin (TCD) in the late 1950s in connection with the appearance of a number of literary titles including, ‘The Doubtful Guest’ by Edmund Gorey; a story about a character with a surreal bird-like appearance sporting a wavy university-style scarf who is a guest at some aristocratic household in which he finds himself in weird surroundings. My father, as a member of the College academic staff, was involved in some publishing beano and came home from work one day and presented me with a miniature penguin (in the form of a teddy bear not the live creature I hasten to add) as a gift along with a stand-up poster with a fiddly base showing yet another penguin; I guess it had something to with a well-known publishing house using this distinctive black motif but being about 3 or 4 years of age at the time I was much taken with these gifts all with a common birdy theme to them. So, in a way apart from various early reading books for children, ‘The Doubtful Guest’ for me was a really grown up offering then. I was thrilled when my father gave me this book though I have to confess that I loved the oversized hardback volume more for the illustrations inside as the storyline was a tad too advanced for my tender brain.
All those years ago in distant childhood, I recall numerous visits to TCD with my father who had himself been an undergraduate there in the early 1940s and after a brief, ill-fated spell in teaching at a Cambridge prep school worked in Trinity for his entire career becoming Research Librarian of the University. For further details, please see https://www.tcd.ie/trinitylongroomhub/events/forthcoming/biography.php
I recall the atmospheric Long Room, aka the Old Library which dated from the early 1700s where as a kid I found the appeal of playing hide and seek among the great tomes of learning more attractive than the act of reading. My father was horrified as I would squeal with delight when I raced up and down the rickety spiral staircases within the Long Room. At that very young age, I always associated this venerable inner space with having great fun: a case of the law of unintended consequences coming into effect as this was not what my father had intended on these visits to TCD as I was misbehaving.
On entering the Long Room, I recall my father struggling with one of the antique keys with its intricate but oversize shape as he had to jiggle it in the ancient lock of the outer door before it finally yielded. He would push open a tall outer door slowly and then hasten through a darkened atrium towards an inner door where he had to wrestle with another antiquated key to get inside.
By now we had entered the inner sanctum of the Long Room and stood at the entrance to this – my childish sense of wonder and deep internal perspective took over at this point – as I saw all this as a vast enclosed space given over to a store of so many old books. As if by instinct, I felt that momentary reverence was required.
My father would stroll the full length of this enormous inner chamber reaching the other end of the Long Room to open up the set of doors at the eastern entrance. I could tell that my father relished this quiet period in the silent semi-darkness of the Long Room while he got on with his early morning ritual. The hushed gloomy grandeur of this enormous space devoted to the intellect was tinged with an air of smugness as the Old Library - a restrained masterpiece in granite by the Irish architect, Thomas Burgh - was slightly larger than its equivalent at Trinity College in Cambridge designed by Christopher Wren. In subsequent conversations with my father about this, I could detect an emotion from him he rarely exhibited that of an air of triumph akin to putting one over on an academic rival; TCD had in its own way trumped at least one of its two Oxbridge sister colleges.
The reality of daybreak little by little impinged upon the Long Room disturbing the peaceful slumber of this place and a very weak sunshine mixed with dust and early morning noises gradually became more evident. It seemed as if even light entered the Long Room only with permission of a morning evoking a slightly eerie atmosphere where this majestic collection of tomes placed on high shelving that reached to the vaulted wooden ceiling. All this was presided over by a number of white marble busts of lifelike dimensions of various luminaries from the world of the arts, sciences and philosophy, including Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle peering down from solid, six-foot high wooden pedestals that flanked both sides of the internal central corridor of almost the entire 213-foot sweep of the Long Room. I presumed that if ever colours had to be ascribed to learning then it would be in terms of browns, greys and blacks with a smidgen of yellow.
As I watched him, my father would then go over to the glass display cases in the centre of the Long Room containing the Book of Durrow and the Book of Kells, dating from the 7th and 9th centuries. My father opened them and, having donned a special pair of gloves for the purpose, then turned the vellum pages of these lavishly-illustrated ancient bibles & carefully placed weighted sashes over the turned page so that both books remained open at new places to be viewed. Meanwhile several yards away, Brian Boru’s Harp remained undisturbed behind its dilapidated display case and required no such attention but to me it appeared forlorn as several of the strings were torn asunder.
In later years, my father told me that he always thought it a quirk of Irishness that TCD as a bastion of Queen Elizabeth I’s pioneering 16th-century vessel of English Protestantism set within a Catholic Irish sea was to some extent represented by symbols more in keeping with ancient Celtic traditions. Strange thing this conceited assimilation of another’s cultural symbolism considered at other times to be inferior or anathema to that of the conquering, colonial power and then passing it off as representative of one’s own. A sort of intellectual sleight of hand that my father felt was inherently dishonest and arrogant at the same time. He wondered why no one else seemed to notice these social incongruities or even cared.
With my father’s early morning ministrations completed, the Long Room housing TCD’s Old Library was now open for the academic business of the day.
They say that you are brought up within and then go on to survive the battleground of childhood presided over by one's parents and in my case it was over the thorny subject of learning as my mother possessed her own firm views about book reading also. On more than one occasion she expressed the opinion that the self-assured, alma mater atmosphere of TCD in the late 1950s/early 1960s smacked of elite Anglo Protestantism and she yearned for a more egalitarian Irish approach to the subject. So when not being carted off to TCD as a youngster with my father, my mother would avail of the opportunity and take me on expeditions to the public library in Pearse Street in a less salubrious part of Dublin but it was an eye-opener for me. You see up to then – perhaps by this time I was eight or nine years old – reading was very much for me an edifying process in which I became absorbed in as a means of learning, to better myself as it were. It was all very serious. The idea that reading was done as a means of enjoyment would have been foreign to me even at this tender age, even shocking. Until my dear mother took a hand that is. On those dreary and often damp winter evenings before we even had TV in the house, she and I would find ourselves in the brightly-lit slightly stuffy atmosphere of the enormous public library in Pearse Street. All of a sudden, I discovered the world of novels, picture books and best of all, books geared for a particular age group of children. The passage of time has sadly erased many names of these books geared for childhood from my withering brain but I do recall in spades that it was incredible fun. And it was this childish breakthrough combining these two very different approaches to learning inherited from my parents that led to a lifelong passion for reading and discovery. Then when I was about 10 years old, I was privileged to be introduced to yet another form of literature as my mother along with my Scottish grandmother gave me my first comics: the ‘Beano’, ‘Dandy’, ‘Eagle’ and others became staple weekly fare when I could afford just one of them that complemented the rather po-faced publication, ‘Look and Learn’ I was also very fortunate to receive – all this added greatly to the idea that reading could be so exciting and entertaining.
Through my parents and subsequently on independent forays outside the home, I came to know about the many different bookshops in Dublin at the time as I visited them regularly even from a tender age: The Eblana Bookshop on Grafton Street, Hodges Figgis initially on Dawson Street then relocating to St. Stephen’s Green, the Brown Jacket Bookshop jutting out on to Lower Baggot Street and wedged between a Polish restaurant and a large showroom selling agricultural equipment, Fred Hanna’s also on Dawson Street, even Easons on O’Connell Street where I was often scolded by the staff for ‘memorising’ the publications on sale and the beloved Parsons on Baggot Street Bridge where Brendan Behan, Patrick Kavanagh and other characters from the Irish world of literature frequented. It is sad to note that just about all these emporia to books are no more having succumbed to age, infirmity, and the inevitable and relentless march of progress that must destroy as it recreates.
But as a youngster these bookshops in Dublin were my alternative playgrounds as it were as I would make a beeline for them on many occasions – luckily where we lived in Fitzwilliam Place was only a short walk away from the city centre to these glorious refuges of discovery, learning, excitement and so much more where I would browse and read for ages. I felt so supremely happy being in these places. I was also free from any adult supervision – an added thrill. It cost me nothing as pocket money was always in short supply - so long as I didn't buy an actual book - but there was a magical universe at my fingertips. I only had to reach out and touch it and it would come to me.
All this I have come to realise is something I have so much to be grateful for: I only wish my parents were still around to know how much I owe them.
©Nicholas Mackey October 2013
(This article first appeared in Red Room October 2013)