The Carnegie Hall
Andrew Carnegie was born at Dunfermune near Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1835. When he was scarcely twelve years of age, the family emigrated to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. Four years later the father died and as a telegraph messenger at the age of sixteen Andrew had to support his mother and a younger brother. He rose to be a multi-millionaire and distributed over £70,000,000 in gifts during his lifetime. Before he died in Pittsburgh in 1919 he said: “The man who dies possessed of wealth which he was free to distribute, dies in disgrace.”
In the same year (1919) Kenmare Library Committee directed the librarian to provide the Shamrock paper for the reading room and also to purchase a scythe tree (handle) and some “Brasso” for the library. The Carnegie Trust built Kenmare library, like many others throughout the English speaking world, shortly after the outbreak of the First World War of 1914 – 18.
The inaugural meeting of the management committee was held in the Board Room of the Kenmare Union Workhouse, on the 24th January 1916. This was the year of the Easter Rising in Dublin, an event that was to shape the course of Irish history from then onwards. In the early 1920’s the library building did not escape unscathed events of the War of Independence and of the Civil War in Kenmare. The Clerk of KENMARE R.D.C summoned the inaugural meeting. It consisted of ten clergymen and ten laymen nominated by Kenmare Rural District Council. The library committee had full powers to manage and regulate the library, appoint the necessary staff, purchase books and furniture and take all steps necessary for the regulation and control of the building. The following members were nominated: Ven. Archdeacon O’Leary, P.P. V.G., Kenmare; Mr. T. J. O’Sullivan, J.P.; Rev. Jeremiah O’Shea, P.P., Kilgarvan; Mr. John Game, R.D.C.; Rev. Wm. O’Connor, P.P., Bonane; Mr. J. Harrington, R.D.C.; Rev. James Scanlan, P.P., Tuosist; Mr. Jeremiah O’Sullivan, R.D.C.; Rev. James McDonnell, P.P., Sneem; Mr. John J. Sheehan, J.P.; Rev. P. J. Brennan, C.C.; Mr. P. W. Palmer, R.D.C.; Rev. M. Daly, C.C.; Mr. D. I. O’Donoghue, R.D.C.; Rev. Fr. Hillee, C.C.; Mr. E. I. Tuohy, R.D.C.; Rev. Fr. Dennehy, C.C.; Mr. C. A. Aldwell, R.D.C.; Rev. P. Rowan, Rector, Kenmare; Mr. Denis I. O’Sullivan, M.C.C.
The composition of the committee shows a fine balance between church and state. The numeral ten symbolic of the Decalogue which was written on stone, emphasises the unshakeable foundation of the management committee. The huge pitch pine table which was used for their meetings and which still forms part of the furniture adds to the concept of solidarity. What a pity it was not made of ancient Irish Oak, the sacred tree of the Druids, as was Craftine’s harp which revealed the long kept secret of Labhra, the Dé Danann king. He was born with horsy ears but this physical defect was kept a secret from his infancy. According to the Brehon Laws any such deformity might bar a candidate from succeeding as king. Labhra did become king by never uncovering his head in public. The barber summoned in private audience to trim his hair was immediately put to death and the king absolved himself by telling his secret misdeeds to the sacred druidical oak tree. Unknown to Labhra, Craftine the King’s bard, was presented with a new harp fashioned from the same oak. To celebrate the occasion Labhra arranged a great feast at which the bard would entertain the guests with the music of his new harp.
When Craftine struck the strings the harp spoke not music but repeated the words-“King Labhra has two horse-ears”. Labhra was distraught and his subjects were shocked. Labhra made open confession of his sins and betook himself on a long pilgrimage to a distant land to do penance, especially for the host of barbers he had put to death. The story, an allegory, foreshadowed the confessional of the later Christian era. If that pitch pine table, like Craftine’s harp, could play back the discussions that took place among those who sat round it, they would be an invaluable source of social history.
At their subsequent meetings the committee proceeded with the furnishing, lighting and purchase of books for the library. The selection of books was reserved to the clerical members. When the building was ready for public use the committee invited applications for the position of librarian and caretaker. Two names, Michael O’Sullivan (G.) of Killowen, Kenmare and James O’Sullivan of Davitt’s Place were considered at a special committee meeting and the former was appointed at a yearly salary of £30. By the summer of 1916 the library was in full operation. In those years it was a great boon not only to those who availed of the free books on its shelves but especially to those of the town who could now use the reading room which provided a variety of newspapers and periodicals. It must be remembered that back in those years, many households could not afford to buy a daily newspaper. In rural districts it was the common custom for neighbours to gather in a particular house to hear the newspaper being read out and discussed. The progress of World War I was then the main news topic. The European War influenced even the affairs of the committee when at a meeting in 1917 they granted a war bonus of £0-5s-0d per week to the librarian for the duration of the conflict.
The first list of papers selected by the committee for the reading room included The Kerryman, Cork Examiner, Leader, Sketch, Catholic Bulletin and the London Illustrated News. However, the list was revised from time to time reflecting the rapid political changes that evolved especially from 1916 to 1926. In 1917 there was the threat of conscription by the British Government. In 1917 those interned after the Easter Rising were released from English jails and in 1918 Sinn Féin won a resounding victory in the General Election. In May 1918 the library committee discontinued the London Illustrated News and substituted the Freeman’s Journal. In that year also, the committee had a new chairman in the person of P. J. Marshall, P.P., V.G., who played a very dominant part in the affairs of the library for many years after. The composition of the committee had changed radically as well. 1920 had transformed the reading room papers. Irish Ireland seemed to have taken over, as the list by this time included An Lochrann, Scéal Nua Éire Óg, Misneach and The Shamrock. This list was supplemented with the Irish Catholic, The Messenger of the Sacred Heart and the Dublin Herald. The librarian was directed to procure a list of “Anglo-Irish” authors of the Young Ireland period so that their books would be available in the library for the readers, and books like Our Irish Heritage and By Strange Paths were also ordered. It was not until 1926 that the anti-climax set in. In that year the librarian was ordered to arrange for the following publications to be on the table of the reading room – the weekly London Illustrated News, the weekly edition of the English Times, The Irish Field and Dublin Opinion.
By 1926, the wall map of Ireland had been replaced by the new post-Treaty edition showing the geographical and political divisions of Irish Free State and Northern Ireland. Nobody took a great deal of notice. Our geography lessons were still more concerned with the carve up of Europe after World War I but we did learn to name the six northern counties. Our history continued to be concerned with the Battle of Clontarf and “Stand Ye Now For Erin’s Glory”, the Battle of the Boyne, Kinsale, etc., the various Sieges, the Penal Laws, Catholic Emancipation and Repeal. Partition was beyond our comprehension and was more associated with what the house carpenter erected in the kitchen. But the new Department of Education had issued their edict that the poor old national schools were to revive the Irish language and a new corps of inspectorial entrepreneurs rattled the drooping latches of those aged buildings and tramped the sagging floor boards disturbing the itinerant rodents that had squatted underneath. The new police force, The Garda Siochana had already settled in, but not as yet in the former R.I.C. barracks which was still a burned out shell.
Prior to the building of the library, the Band Room, now the Commercial and Workingmen’s Club, had been the centre of local social activities for almost sixty years. After 1916 they gradually shifted to the Carnegie Hall and especially so, from 1926 onwards. In Nov. 1916 the committee refused the use of the library rooms for dancing but in May 1918 Cumann na mBan were granted the use of the hall for first-aid classes. In Feb.1920 with P. J. Marshall, P.P.,V.G., in the chair the committee refused to grant the use of the hall to the Irish Club. Later on the 1st May in the absence of the chairman this decision was rescinded and the Irish Club was granted the use of the hall for Irish classes. I remember attending some of the classes. The fee was 2d per class. In July 1920 the hall was granted to local concert parties and in the following August a special committee meeting was held to make regulations for the holding of dances as follows:
That at least 50% of the dances be Irish dances.
That the rooms be properly washed and disinfected after each dance by the organising committee.
All dancing to be on the ground floor. The second floor may be used for catering-teas only.
The dance committee would be held responsible for any damage to the library or furniture and would pay a fee of £1.
However with the rising tension of the War of Independence social activities ceased altogether and the British garrison used the library as an outpost during the seven months prior to the Truce in July 1921. As the Civil War escalated in Kerry in 1922, it was used as a military post by Free State Troops when they occupied Kenmare for the first time in late summer of 1922. Shortly after, when the Republican forces attacked and re-occupied Kenmare it was badly damaged. Later on in September before the Republican forces withdrew it was burned down. The burned out shell was now in a dangerous state and the committee instructed the librarian to have some of the walls pulled down as a safety precaution. At a sitting of Tralee Circuit Court on 3rd December, 1923, the Co. Court Judge awarded £3,000 damages for the destruction of Kenmare Carnegie Library and the committee appointed Mr. Butler, a Dublin architect, to proceed with the re-construction of the building.
In 1925 when Mr. Sean O’Farrell was County Commissioner for Kerry all Carnegie Trust Libraries were amalgamated under the administration of the Kerry Co. Council through the appointment of a Co. Librarian at a salary of £250 p.a. By the end of 1925 the library was back in business once more and social activities were gradually emerging from the sombre atmosphere created locally by the Civil War. In 1927 the Golf Club was granted the use of the hall for dancing to 5 a.m. The question of allowing a piano into the hall was discussed in committee and it was decided to seek a ruling from the Co. Librarian. In 1928 the committee had before them complaints from anonymous custodians of town morality.
It concerned a book, The Sultan’s Slave, which somehow had escaped the vigilance of the committee and had got on the library shelves. They were satisfied that the complaints were well founded and requested that the book and any others by the same author should be withdrawn from circulation throughout the county. Copies of the resolution were forwarded to the Co. Librarian and the Dean of Kerry.
By 1930 social functions were in full swing in the Carnegie Hall. Applications for dances, whist drives and concerts poured in from Kenmare Social Club; Town Development Committee, Regatta Committee, Golf Club, Ladies’ Golf Club, the Bankers, G.S.R. Headquarters Staff, Kenmare Hurling and Football Club, Kenmare Commercial and Workingmen’s Club, etc. A note in the minutes at this time instructed the librarian to purchase one hair broom. By the early 1930’s cultural activities were reaching new heights. Bowyer and Westwood the Light Opera Company, Anew McMaster and his Shakesperian Players, Frank O’Donovan and his variety shows, William Dobell, Harry’ Lenten. All these returned each year to grace the stage of the Carnegie Hall together with our local Kenmare Dramatic Society which had been established.
At a special committee meeting in August 1931 it was decided to tighten the regulations governing the granting of permission for holding dances in the hall, including those laid down in 1920. Only six all-night dances would be allowed yearly. During the summer dancing was to extend from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. and in winter from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m permission for such dances would have to be granted in the first instance by the library committee. The organisers would then have to seek the sanction of Archdeacon Marshall who had added his particular stipulation namely – the names of the three matrons. These ladies of impeccable local standing would sit-out the dance (in the hall) and observe that everything was in proper order.
It happened that selected delegates of a local committee called at the presbytery to obtain final permission for their dance. It was granted, but through an unusual oversight on his part, the P.P. forgot to ask for the names of the three matrons. The boys were gone like a bullet, leaping through the old stile next to the entrance gate. He suddenly realised his omission and called after the disappearing deputation. “You did not name the three matrons?” One lad who lagged behind turned back. “I beg your pardon, Archdeacon,” said he. “You did not name the three matrons, to be sure,” he repeated. Your man looked up again. “Couldn’t I do one Archdeacon,” he murmured. “To be sure now, you could not,” and the Presbytery door closed with an ominous bang. You who still recall those days must surely hum: “I dreamt I dwelt in Marble Halls, Scenes that are Brightest, and in Happy Moments Day by Day.” All echoes of happy memories.
Michael O’Sullivan, Librarian and Caretaker
So far I have referred but casually to Michael O’Sullivan (G.) the first librarian and caretaker appointed in the spring of 1916. His report to the library committee in September, 1916 reads “I beg to report that I have lodged in the Munster & Leinster Bank, Kenmare, the sum of £0-4-0d to the credit of Kenmare R.D.C., being fines from persons who carried away books and did not return them in due time.”
He was known simply as Mike (G.) even though many years later a gentleman who had a tendency to indulge in Malapropisms referred to him as the Liberian.
Mike always reminded me of Charles Dickens’ Mr. Pickwick and he became a kind of personal institution dwarfing the very library itself. He walked with a tumbling waggy gait, his large watchchain and pendant swinging to and fro like a pendulum across his ample paunch. His large head jerked forward as if pursuing a moving point ahead. But it was his volubility and power of invective, when annoyed, which surpassed anything I ever heard. Picturesque adjectives and expletives rolled out like a cataract. When the library was burned down in 1922 most of the books and furniture were saved especially through the efforts of the Archdeacon and stored in the Military Barracks at Kenmare Workhouse. In October 1922 the library committee rented an upstairs room from Mike Coffey, Main St., and served as a temporary library until the Carnegie was re-built. In this shadowy and cramped book-lined room, exuding the atmosphere of The Old Curiosity Shop, Mike now resembled an enlarged Mr. Pickwick.
One night as I reached the top of the narrow steep stairs I was greeted with a tornado of ornamental language. At that moment a young girl scurried past me like a scalded cat, and disappeared down the stairs. Her companion was still undergoing third degree as Mike flicked through the pages of her returned book. She too made a quick exit. I was alone with the Librarian. He called me over to the table and flicked through the pages once more pointing out thumb marks and daubs. Suddenly he jerked up his head and glared at me over spectacles perched on the tip of his nose saying-“Not only did she pizzle on it but she shakoed on it as well.”
But years later I got to know him intimately and with all his bluster he was a great soul. His books were his pets and the Carnegie his only baby during his many years as librarian. 1930s it was a delightful experience with Archdeacon Marshall in the chair, when the librarian read his monthly reports at our meetings. Mike and P.J. were extremities of two extremes. Still, even the ascetic and rigid theological face of the chairman often relaxed into smiles when Mike, in an outburst of ornate language completely forgot the presence of the Venerable P.P. V.G. Perhaps he deliberately left himself go at times. He was a superb impresario and always his own man. He received no salary for nine months during the turmoil of 1922-23 and passed to his eternal reward in 1941.
© 1982 Kenmare Literary & Historical Society
Now(Feb 2009) the hall is being restored and in full use again.