Capel Street library

Capel Street library

In Brief

Molly's request for another Paul de Kock book makes Bloom think, "Must get that Capel street library book renewed or they'll write to Kearney, my guarantor." The public library on Capel (pronounced KAY-pəl) Street, one of the first two in the city's history, was approaching its twentieth anniversary at the time represented in the novel. Bloom has secured the backing of a nearby businessman to obtain borrowing privileges, which were not extended to just anyone. The library is mentioned also in Wandering Rocks (Miss Dunne has borrowed a Wilkie Collins novel), Ithaca (Bloom has borrowed an Arthur Conan Doyle book for himself), and Eumaeus. The street itself surfaces in characters' thoughts in Cyclops and Nausicaa.

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From a point in the very center of Dublin, the largely commercial Capel Street runs northward from the River Liffey for a little over a third of a mile, ending near the southern terminus of Dorset Street. It is easy to imagine Bloom walking half a mile down one of his favorite shopping streets and turning into Capel to borrow books. Gifford notes that a book and music seller named Joseph Kearney had a Capel Street shop across the street from the library, but his address for the library is mistaken (it was at 106, not 166), so Kearney's shop would actually have been several blocks away.

Many lending libraries in Ireland, and around the world, still require young people to have an adult "guarantor" in order to receive a borrowing card, but it would be unusual today to require that of someone over 18 years of age. Bloom's need to have a local businessman co-sign his borrower's application reflects the pervasive poverty in 1904 Dublin, where financial solvency could be expected of only a small percentage of the population. In his foreword to Joseph O'Brien's Dear, Dirty Dublin (1982), Hugh Kenner observes that "by 1908 when shortage of funds closed the entire system down only 6,000 books were on loan to about that many cardholders" (ix). The libraries had to impose stringent terms to keep their books from disappearing or being damaged. The notice from the Lending Department reproduced alongside this note specifies that "Application will be made to the Borrower for the return or value of the Book, if the same be not promptly returned; and in case of refusal or neglect, proceedings will be taken to recover the same." If a borrower does not agree to pay for damages caused to a book, "application will be made to the Guarantor."

The Public Libraries Act of 1855 allowed for the establishment of free public lending libraries in Dublin, but the Corporation did not form a committee to do so until 1883. Two run-down Georgian tenement houses in Capel Street and Thomas Street were obtained for the purpose, to serve the north and south sides of the city respectively, and they opened within hours of each other on 1 October 1884.

The Dublin City Council website, from which two of the photographs on this page are taken, notes what a momentous development in the life of the city this was: "To mark the occasion, the Library Association of the United Kingdom held its Annual Conference in Dublin for the first and only time. Conference delegates attended the opening ceremony. Patrick Grogan, formerly a librarian at Maynooth College, became the first librarian at Capel Street. The staff was composed of a librarian, three library assistants, and a hall porter. The Capel Street library proved popular with the inhabitants of what was then a heavily industrialised area of the city. A newsroom had to be constructed at the rear of the building to accommodate 400 readers. A Ladies Reading Room was opened on 24 May 1895 and attracted a monthly attendance of 780. The daily average of books issued in 1901 was almost 300 volumes. In 1902 the daily average attendance in the newsroom was 1,200."

Bloom's ability to take books home for two weeks, rather than having to look at them in a crowded reading room, marks him as a relatively prosperous and privileged member of Dublin society.

JH 2017
Imposing notice of the strict lending terms at the Capel Street library, date unknown, held in the Zurich James Joyce Foundation. Source:
1965 photograph of a room in the Capel Street library, held in the Dublin City Council Photographic Collection of 146 images of "Vanishing Dublin." Source:
1978 photograph of the exterior of the library, held in the Dublin City Council Photographic Collection of 146 images of "Vanishing Dublin." Source:
Detail from Hanni Bailey's simplified street map of Dublin, showing central Dublin with the location of Bloom's house marked in red and the location of the Capel Street library indicated in blue. Source: Chester Anderson, James Joyce.