I was quite dumbfounded by this item when I first saw it, but it’s actually a Minimax fire extinguisher from 1920, produced on Middle Abbey Street. In recent days it has left our family home (where it sat in the shed) for Marsh’s Library, hopefully to form a part of their forthcoming exhibition on the library in the revolutionary period.
Archbishop Marsh’s Library is the oldest public library in Dublin, and today houses a remarkable collection of books, with over 25,000 items in its collections. G.N Wright wrote about the place in his classic nineteenth century history of Dublin, but funnily enough he said that “the situation of this library is so very inconvenient and remote from the respectable part of the city, and the books it contains so obsolete, that the public do not derive much advantage from it.” Given that the library is right beside Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, it seemed a strange observation.
Jonathan Swift was a frequent visitor to the library, not surprising given that he served as Dean of the neighboring Cathedral. For those less trusted, books were to be viewed inside of one of the three wired alcoves, essentially cages. It was one way to ensure books didn’t go missing. Swift may have enjoyed the use of the library on many occasions, but he didn’t think much of Archbishop Marsh himself. As Frank McNally noted in his An Irishman’s Diary column last year:
In 1710, when the latter was in his 70s, Swift suggested Marsh had been unique, given his educational and other advantages, in having “escaped” any kind of greatness. He added: “No man will be either glad or sorry at his death except his successor”.
The revolutionary period of the twentieth century sometimes encroached on the library, as it did many aspects of life in the city. It became an unusual victim of the limited fighting around the Jacob’s factory during the 1916 Easter Rising, when bullets from a British Army machine-gun stationed nearby inflicted permanent damage on a number of books, which can still be seen today. Jason McElligott has written in the pages of History Ireland that “each book has a relatively compact entry hole of 1.5cm on its spine, but the exit hole at the back is five to six times larger.” The tragedy of the ‘1916 books’ is that they had been deposited in the library by Elias Bouhereau, a Huguenot refugee who brought them with him as he fled religious persecution in France. In this great Storymap video, Jason talks about the damaged books, and says that at the time it was noted that the books were “wounded”:
In 1920, in the midst of the War of Independence, the records of the library show that they wisely decided to invest in two Minimax fire extinguishers. The flames of the revolutionary period took out all kinds of collateral damage, and business was good for the Middle Abbey Street firm who warned the public that “day by day fires are occurring”, and “day by day Minimax…puts fires out.”
Fire extinguishers were very much in fashion in the Dublin of the time it’s fair to say. Among the things that were lost to the flames of the 1916-23 period in Dublin were big chunks of Whitelaw’s Survey, an incredibly detailed census of Dublin taken in 1798, and waxworks of Wolfe Tone and the King of England. Thankfully, the library didn’t need to use their investment.