“We have more work than the Paris ateliers can handle”

Some fascinating detail in the Irish Times today [subs req] of the history of three rare books, the property of Ireland since 1802, which have recently been returned to the Irish College in Paris after spending 60 years in a Dublin bank vault – “they are believed to have been spirited out of the Latin Quarter for safe-keeping at the beginning of the second World War.” Their return is timed to coincide with the inauguration of the renovated college library on September 22nd, as well as “the Irish government’s €1 million project to restore the old library’s collection of 10,000 volumes, to which the Bibliothèque Nationale de France has contributed several tens of thousands of euro.” It’s also part of a series of events under the new director of the Centre Culturel Irlandais, Sheila Pratschke.Some of that fascinating detail

When Sheila Pratschke, the director of the Centre Culturel Irlandais, which is part of the Irish College, recently hand-carried the three heavy volumes back to Paris, they were insured for €100,000. To celebrate their return to the college library, which was designed by the royal architect François-Joseph Bélanger and opened in 1776, the Taoiseach will officially inaugurate the restored library on September 22nd.

Ireland inherited at least two of the three rare books from their fellow Celts, the Scots, by Napoleonic edict. All of Paris’s English-speaking colleges were confiscated during the French Revolution. Napoleon Bonaparte had a soft spot for the Irish College, where his youngest brother Jérôme and stepson Eugène studied, and where Empress Joséphine and Madame Récamier used to dance.

So when Napoleon decided to restore the Irish College to the control of Dr John Baptist Walsh in 1802, he forcibly merged the pre-revolution English and Scottish colleges with it. He gave the contents of the English and Scottish libraries to the Irish, who’d lost their own books in the revolution.

This explains why the Flemish Psalter, circa 1500, and the chronicle of the descent of the kings of England from Adam and Eve until Richard III, are inscribed with the seal of the Scottish College.

[Does Alex know? – Ed]

There are, of course, other psalters lying about..

But back to Paris..

The project is being supervised by the Irish College librarian, Carole Jacquet. Most of the 14th-17th century books are in Latin. Those published in the 18th and 19th centuries are in French, English and Irish. They include an Irish dictionary printed in Paris, complete with the fada, séimhiú and old Irish lettering.

Some 500 of the 10,000 books have already been cleaned. Not all – perhaps only 2,000 – will need work. “It’s a huge job,” says Pratschke. “The only way to do it is to throw money at it.” About 20 professional book restorers are working full-time. “We have more work than the Paris ateliers can handle,” she adds.

Some of the books are cleaned with very delicate brushes, some with a hand-held mini-hoover. Dirt is picked out of the cracks between pages with tweezers. Muriel McCarthy, an expert at Marsh’s library, next to St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, has been consulted.

The project includes the sorting and storage of countless cardboard boxes of archives now kept in the vast cellars beneath the Irish College.

And on the old library, from the Centre Culturel Irlandais website

The Old Library of the Centre Culturel Irlandais, built between 1772 and 1775, is located above la chapelle Saint Patrick. It is one of the few surviving libraries of the many colleges, convents and monasteries which were situated in the Montagne-Sainte-Genevieve area of Paris until the end of the 18th century.

The original library collection was entirely lost during the French Revolution. The current collection consists of almost 8000 volumes comprised of printed books and manuscripts, half of which were written or published between the 15th and 18th centuries. The main themes of the collection are theology, history, geography, philosophy and music.

The Library was completely restored between 2000 and 2002 as part of the overall renovation of the Collège des Irlandais. The collection was catalogued for the first time in the 1970s by Monsieur Maurice Caillet, former Inspector General of Libraries. Two distinct periods were identified: works from prior to 1812, mainly in Latin, and works dating from later than 1812, in English and French. This typed catalogue assisted in the development in 2006-2007 of a computerisation project. As a result, a catalogue referencing the complete library collection is now available on-line. A preservation project (dusting of books, dressing of bindings etc.) has also been undertaken, as well as an environmental audit to improve conservation conditions in the library.