Stephen has spent hours of his young manhood reading arcane medieval texts in "Marsh's library," a library of old books and manuscripts adjacent to St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin. "For whom?" has he done this, he wonders: "The hundredheaded rabble of the cathedral close." Marsh's Library is located within the high stone walls of the cathedral "close," but the complex of buildings lies within the Liberties. As Gifford puts it, "St. Patrick's close was at the heart of a teeming slum."
Marsh's library, the first public library in Ireland, was built in the first decade of the 1700s at the instigation of Archbishop Narcissus Marsh, a former Provost of Trinity College, Dublin. Most of its 25,000+ volumes are from the 1500s, 1600s, and 1700s, representing many different fields but with a particular emphasis on theology. It holds several hundred older manuscripts and books. Gifford interprets the "stagnant bay" in which Stephen remembers sitting as a reference to the "wire-cage alcoves where readers could be locked while they read particularly valuable books." These three cages were built in the 1770s to reduce thefts. However much spiritual elevation Stephen may have experienced while reading, he has been surrounded by Dublin's huge and hopeless underclass, and "Beauty is not there."
He was reading the prophetic writings of Joachim of Fiore, which hail from the late 1100s, but he seems to have encountered them in a book published much later. Gifford notes that, "Apparently spurred by W. B. Yeats's short story 'The Tables of the Law,' Joyce visited Marsh's Library on 22 and 23 October 1902 to consult a volume in Italian and Latin that includes a text purportedly by Joachim as well as biographical notes of uncertain reliability."