Curioser and curioser

AT A time when our public servants are coming under the microscope it is perhaps appropriate to remember the important contribution the majority of them make to the fabric of Irish life.

This is certainly true in the case of our national county and academic librarians who, despite scant resources when compared to their international colleagues, provide the public with a service that is second to none and one that is often not fully appreciated by their patrons.

Their achievement is all the more remarkable when it is realised that our public library system is relatively modern and that their advent was not always greeted with open arms. Books were regarded as dangerous to faith and morals, not to mention the national ideal, and were treated with suspicion.

Librarians had to walk on eggshells to survive the censorious scrutiny of church and State alike. The suitability of potential candidates for the post of county librarian could be determined by reasons that had little or nothing to do with the skills of librarianship.

If a librarian did not meet the required criteria, the outcome indicated the inherent prejudices in the Ireland of the time, resulting in events that would not legally happen now but were not unusual then. In his absorbing new book The Curious Case Of The Mayo Librarian, Pat Walsh highlights such a case.

In July 1930, Letitia Dunbar Harrison was chosen by an interview panel for the post of Mayo County Librarian. The Mayo County Council refused to ratify the appointment, defying a specific instruction from the Department of Local Government.

The resultant furore was so intense it almost brought down the Cumann na nGaedhael government. The reasons given for the refusal were that the appointee was a graduate of Trinity College Dublin and that her knowledge of Irish was inadequate.5

Walsh takes us through the ensuing events step by step. Using contemporary newspaper reports, Mayo County Council and Government minutes, as well as correspondence and personal memoirs, he unveils a fascinating panorama of the social and political realities - and prejudices - of the time.

Public meetings were held up and down the county and were a major source of popular entertainment. The twin spectres of Cromwell and souperism were often invoked and the honour and purity of the Catholic Mayo Gael were rigorously defended. Mayo County Council was suspended but the Government found itself pitted against the all powerful Catholic Church.

The Curious Case of the Mayo Librarian is just that, “curious” – and occasionally “curioser and curioser” – but always intriguing, entertaining, and informative. Indirectly, it is a well deserved recognition of the vital contribution the men and women who staff our public libraries make to Irish society.

 

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