The Bolton Library

By Ken Bergin

The Bolton Library is an exceptional collection of early printed books, manuscripts and incunabula of rare academic and bibliographic importance.

"...a collection of 12,000 early printed books, manuscripts and of the most important private libraries in Britain or Ireland."

It was collected by two bishops - Archbishop William King and Archbishop Theophilus Bolton in the early eighteenth century. It reflects the interests, knowledge and concerns at that time as they sought to build a library to encompass, as much as possible, humanity’s knowledge of the world.  The history of science, technology and medicine is strongly represented in the collection as is Irish history in the 1640-1660 period.  It includes 200 volumes of 17th century pamphlets from Dublin, Belfast and Cork.

The Bolton Library had been housed in poor conditions and had deteriorated due to the wholly unsuitable environment in which it was stored. This was despite the best efforts and hard work of many individuals and supporters of the collection over recent decades. Unfortunately, many of its oldest and most valuable elements were at real risk of being destroyed. If they were to survive for future generations they urgently needed a humidity and temperature controlled environment, preservation and secure monitoring and management.

In transferring the Bolton Library to UL the Representative Church Body of the Church of Ireland (RCBI) ensured it would be housed in optimal environmental conditions that would halt further deterioration.

Both RCBI and the University are also committed to working with partners in Cashel to develop a permanent Bolton Library Exhibition in Cashel, and this will form part of the wider ambition to make this wonderful collection much more accessible, once it has been preserved. Moving the collection from Cashel was a complex undertaking and one that the University took great care to execute. The University engaged professional restoration services to carefully remove the fragile books from the shelves before wrapping them in acid free tissue. They were then packed into special book crates for their removal to Limerick. The books, now housed in the Glucksman Library, are currently being stabilised and cleaned. On completion the Bolton Library will require considerable investment for assessment, conservation, cataloguing and promotion.

With over 12,000 early printed books, manuscripts and incunabula, the collection is of exceptional academic and bibliographical significance and is one of the most important private libraries in Britain or Ireland.  It was assessed by Professor Robert S Mattheson in his works on the collections of Archbishop William King, original collector of the Bolton Library. The collection is valuable and unique because the items in the collection themselves are rare, unique or distinctive and also because it is a corpus of knowledge collected by two Bishops in the early eighteenth century which provides an insight to the interests, knowledge and concerns of that class at that time.

The Bolton Library contains a number of manuscripts, the most significant is a medieval encyclopaedia from 1168 – 1220 and a missal which is one of only three examples of hand written missals in Ireland prior to 1500.  Significantly, it includes 18 imprints from before 1500 and 30 up to 1520 including the Nurenberg Chronicle 1493 which was the last major history of the world before the discovery of the New World, Dantae’s Divine Comedy, Venice 1512, and the Sarum Missal, Rouen 1515.

The collection contains books with Library stamps of previous ownership that indicates provenance connected with Catherine of Aragon, Francis Bacon and Abraham Ortelius.  It includes unique printings such as the Kilkenny Confederate Declaration of 1648.

The collection also has substantial elements on mathematics, astronomy, architecture, the natural sciences, medicine, literature, travel, history, law, and politics. In all, the Bolton Library will be a major addition to the University but the next chapter in this long and fascinating story will be one of hard work arresting the collection’s decline, preserving it and ultimately, making it much more accessible to our audiences – on-campus, nationally and internationally.


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