The Ghost of Marsh's Library
Close to Patrick Street Corner, where the legendary Biddy Mulligan plied her trade 'for forty-five years' on the famous Dublin street called The Coombe, the spire of St Patrick's Cathedral towers high above the two plates in the flag-stones that mark the supposed resting place of Jonathan Swift and his beloved Stella. And just around the corner stands the eighteenth century building that houses Marsh's Library, one of the first free public libraries in Europe.
It is a place of ghosts, the ghosts of the Dean and Stella, of Michael Moran the ballad singer who became Zozimus and who died in lodgings in Patrick Street, of Quakers and Huguenots who built strange houses here, of saints and drunkards and money-lenders and street-traders and slum-dwellers who existed ten-to-a-room in the festering homes of the Liberties.
But Marsh's Library has a particular ghost of its own, the ghost of an old man who has been seen at midnight browsing through its ancient bookshelves, the ghost of its founder, Archbishop Narcissus Marsh.
Marsh was Archbishop of Dublin from 1694 until his appointment to Armagh nine years later, but the transfer did not terminate his interest in Dublin and in 1707 he founded his library, on ground belonging to the House of St Sepulchre, then the Palace of the Archbishops of Dublin.
The occasion is recalled in a transcript 'An Act passed 1707 for settling and preserving a Publick Library for ever, in the House for that purpose built by His Grace Narcissus now Lord Archbishop of Armagh, on part of the Ground belonging to the Archbishop of Dublin's Pallace, near to the City of Dublin.'
For a hundred years after its opening Marsh's Library was the only free library in Dublin, and in 1739 Walter Harris, in It's edition of Ware, said of it: 'I am under the necessity of acknowledging from long experience that this is the only useful library in the kingdom, being open to all strangers and at all reasonable times'.
It is perhaps not surprising that Narcissus Marsh should return after his death to a place apparently so close to his heart in life, or that the spectral figure seen sometimes searching through the old volumes in the inner gallery of the library has been identified as his.
A popular explanation of the archbishop's ghostly appearance concerns a favourite niece of his, a girl whom he had reared from a child. When the girl fell in love with a sea captain, the archbishop strongly disapproved and tried to prevent her from seeing the man. The young couple then made up their minds to elope and the girl, doubtless to assuage her conscience, wrote a note to her uncle, pleading for his forgiveness, and placed it in one of his books in the library.
Archbishop Marsh, however, never found the note that might have consoled him for the loss of his beloved niece, and the popular theory to account for his spectral presence in the old rooms he once knew so well is that he returns in death in an endless search for it.
From Irish Ghosts by John J. Dunne, published by Appletree Press.