Sapientia in Libris Exsistit*

Both Marsh’s Library, attached to St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin and the Bolton Library in Cashel are rightly well-known foundations. Much less familiar to the public is the Cotton Library belonging to St Carthage’s Cathedral in Lismore, County Waterford. St Carthage (otherwise known in Irish as Mochuta) first established a monastery in his native Kerry but finally settled in Lismore in 635, dying there some two years later.
The small cathedral bearing his name, originally the abbey church of St Cathage’s foundation, has gone through a series of vicissitudes, being burnt by the White Knight at the start of the 17th century, re-roofed by Richard Boyle, the great Earl of Cork soon after, then damaged again during the 1640s before being rebuilt three decades later by the Irish Surveyor General William Robinson whose other extant works include Marsh’s Library. The greater part of the cathedral structure as seen today dates from the beginning of the 19th century when it was extensively reconstructed first by Sir Richard Morrison and then by the brothers James and George Richard Pain.
Only after they had all finished their work did Henry Cotton establish the library which now bears his name. Born in Oxford in 1789 Cotton was appointed sub-librarian of the university’s Bodleian Library in 1814, retaining that position for eight years by which time he had been admitted to holy orders. In 1823 he moved to Ireland where he became domestic chaplain to his father-in-law Richard Lawrence who had recently been elevated to the Archbishopric of Cashel. In 1834 Cotton was elected Dean of Lismore, retaining this position until the end of the following decade when failing eyesight obliged him to retire. A considerable scholar, he wrote many books, most notably Fasti Ecclesiæ Hibernicæ, a five-volume history of the Irish church including the succession of prelates and members of the country’s cathedral bodies. He died in 1879 and is buried within the cathedral grounds.

Believed to date from 1851, the library he founded can be reached by a door off the north transept of the cathedral followed by a short flight of wooden steps. It is unclear whether the room housing the library was built for this purpose or converted when Cotton made his donation. It’s not a large space and much of the north wall is taken up by a wide vaguely Tudor-esque window which provides ample light to the interior but limits opportunities for the bookcases with their charming castellations and spires. The centre of the east wall has a quartrefoil window bearing the arms of the Dukes of Devonshire (who have owned adjacent Lismore Castle since it passed into their hands in the 18th century courtesy of a Boyle heiress) and their motto ‘Cavendo Tutus’ or Safety through Caution. As if testifying to these words, the fireplace immediately beneath the window is now blocked by a display case.

The core of the collection is made up of Cotton’s own library, enhanced by a variety of gifts made over the past 150 years. Among the holdings are a 16th century English translation of John Calvin’s writings and an English translation of the Koran dating from 1734, as well as some works by the great 17th century polymath Robert Boyle. Second-youngest of the first Earl of Cork’s fourteen children, Boyle was born in Lismore and spent part of his adult life in Ireland but eventually left the country since he found it impossible to continue his chemistry research here. There are also quirky items of the sort that give any library its particular interest, not least a Victorian box with the words ‘Exceeding Great and Precious Promises’ on its cover. Inside the box are over 100 tiny scrolls, each bearing a religious injunction; the idea is that you remove one scroll every morning and then implement its directive over the rest of the day.

St Carthage’s current dynamic Dean, Paul Draper, would like the Cotton Library to be more accessible, and appreciated. At the moment there are problems concerning security and safety that would need to be resolved. In addition, some funding for the project is required since the room itself needs attention, especially the western corner of the north wall. Conditional on those issues being addressed, there’s no reason why the Cotton Library shouldn’t provide another reason to visit Lismore and its handsome cathedral.

*Wisdom resides in books