From housing some fascinating historical documents to playing a major role in Irish history, the Linen Hall Library in Belfast is definitely worth a visit. Check out our guide to this important building as we trace its history and find out what there is to see here.
Also take a look at the second part of this article: Tours of the Linen Hall Library & How to Get Here.
History of the Linen Hall Library…
The library was created in 1788 as the Belfast Reading Society. This was during the historical period of “enlightenment” which encouraged discovery and knowledge amongst the upper classes in society. It was a huge success and interest grew amongst the wealthy class of Belfast, and in 1792 was known as the Belfast Society for the Promotion of Knowledge.
The Society was a home to many with radical thought, and those inspired by the French and American Revolutions of the late 18th Century, and thus the society attracted many members of the United Irishmen Movement, who rose against the British government in 1798.
This rebellion was quickly crushed, and one of the Belfast Society members Thomas Russell was executed. The Library escaped destruction by Government forces however, due to the membership of the Society by many Conservative members, and those loyal to the Crown.
For a time, the society went into decline, as the Society had no permanent home, but this was rectified in 1802 when the Library procured its first proper home. This was in the clock tower area of the White Linen Hall, which is where the City Hall stands today.
The Library suffered some lean years in the 19th Century, and as a result a loss in members; particularly students who were asked not to attend Queen’s University. As the 100th year anniversary of the Library approached, its fate looked doomed, as it had to make way for the erection of a new City Hall. However, a permanent home was found, in a warehouse designed by esteemed architect Sir Charles Lanyon (who constructed the famous Lanyon building on Queen’s University Campus) at 17 – 19 Donegall Square North.
This building was previously used as a workplace for the construction of linen, the new home derived its name from its previous industry. This led to a period of mass reformation of the library, in terms of the change of its ownership from private to public, and the mass collection of books, from early Belfast and provincial journals. Belfast was always a divided city, but the Library tried to incorporate cultural events to highlight both cultures, and held an Irish Harp Festival at the time.
It’s fair to say that the Library suffered a huge decline in the years following the War of Independence in Ireland, and subsequent Civil War. Belfast had its own share of troubles at the time, with many religious pogroms and street fighting being common.
The Library still held major esteem as the public library system was slow to be encouraged by the Government and up to the end of WW2 it was still in high regard, attracting playwrights, artists and novelists to its fold, as well as a large array of political material collection.
However, poor strategic policy led to further decline and in the years following the troubles in the late 1960′s, the library had to depend on Government aid to continue, due to dwindling memberships. The old building was crumbling, and the organisation suffered from money problems and closure seemed inevitable, and the threat of leasing of the property to the public library service.
At the start of the 1980′s a “Save the Linen Hall Campaign” effectively saved the Library. The City Council offered grant funding to the library and the governors made the decision to allow free public access to material and promote Irish studies, study of Politics and Culture. The move was a success and it had almost 4,000 members by the late 1990′s.
During the mid 1990′s it was plain to see that a lack of space was hindering the revival of the library. This was remedied in 1995 with the acquisition of a lease on part of the neighbouring property at 48-50 Fountain Street, which gave the Linen Hall Library almost 50% extra room.
The Heritage Lottery Fund, together with public generosity enabled the connection of both buildings, and with 3 million sterling in raised funds, the Millennium extension was officially opened in 2000, which links the two buildings, provides more space, and allows for increased membership and visitors to the Library.
What to see at the Linen Hall Library…
It’s estimated that the linen hall has possibly 250,000 volumes of books. Not only does it have a free public referring service and a book lending service for adults and children, but it also hosts many collections of huge importance.
It’s the main focus for Irish and Local Study in the North of Ireland, and has a huge collection as well as early Ulster and Belfast publications, with newspapers dating back to the early 18th century. In addition it has a huge manuscript collection, historical maps, archived material, and a huge testament to the Political situation in Northern Ireland from 1968, with over a quarter of a million items relating to “The Troubles” from both sides of the divide.
The Library also has many genealogy collections, poetry material by esteemed writer Robert Burns and Art in Northern Ireland.
Find out more about the Linen Hall Library Collections.
If you’re planning to spend a night or two in Belfast, we have your accommodation covered. Check out our list of hotels in Belfast.
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