Sunday, March 10, 2013

Remembering the Allen Library, Dublin

One good thing about writing a blog-- one justification for it, perhaps-- is that you can write about stuff that hasn't been written about much, if at all. People sometimes assume that everything, but everything, is to be found somewhere in the vast tracts of cyberspace. But when you actually go online looking for information or for discussion about some specific subject, you often find this is not the case. (For instance, this blog gets a lot of hits from people looking for material on the Irish writer John D. Sheridan, who was a fairly prominent Irish writer in his day but about whom there is next to nothing on the internet.)

In 2001, after months of unemployment, I spent eleven months attending the Allen Library FÁS course in North Richmond Street, Dublin, beside Croke Park stadium. To those who don't know, I should explain that FÁS is an Irish government body that provides training for unemployed people. The Allen Library is an archive and "library" (although it is not open to the public) belonging to the Christian Brothers, a religious congregation. The building that housed it had once been a school, and is now home to a community of Christian Brothers.

Unemployed people who attended the Allen Library were given training in library work, many of them (me included) going on to work in libraries.

These eleven months in my life are like a page torn from a book. For a few years after leaving the Allen Library, I did occasionally cross paths with people I had met there. But it's been many years since that happened. I don't know anyone I met in the Allen Library now. I don't have their contact details or know what they are doing today. I never come across any reference to the Allen Library. Apart from my memories, and the goodbye card I was given on my last day, it might never have happened.

That kind of situation always makes me sad
, in the way that abandoned houses make us feel sad.

During my time in the Allen Library, dozens of trainees passed through its doors. The scheme operated for some years before and also (I imagine) for some years after I attended, although it's finished now. I imagine that some of those people may have browsed the internet for references to their old stomping ground, and found next to nothing. (But why should that matter, anyway, you might ask? It just does, at least to me. I like things to be chronicled and commemorated.) Perhaps some Allen Library "alumni" will be cheered to come across this account.

I started my stint in the Allen Library in the least cheerful circumstances possible. Between attending the interview for the course and receiving the letter telling me I was accepted-- a mere matter of days-- my mother died. This was in January. It was something of a miracle that she actually experienced a final Christmas with us. That makes my memories of starting in the Allen library so much more vivid. It seems like a new epoch in my life.

Despite my mother's death, and despite the fact that I was surrounded by Christian books and materials all day long, I was most definitely non-religious at this time. I felt pretty bleak about my own life and I was angry at God, my anger taking the usual form of doubting His existence. At the same time, I was taking a keen (but purely intellectual) interest in Judaism and, to a lesser extent, Mormonism.

I do, however, remember some moments where a religious idea or mood penetrated my indifference. I remember at one time coming across a quotation in a book of quotations (there was plenty of opportunity to browse the books) which I have never been able to find again but which struck me as true and interesting. It ran something like this: "The Catholic Church has survived through so many centuries because of its deep distrust of all enthusiasm". (By "enthusiasm", of course, the writer meant the kind of shallow and unbalanced zeal which quickly burns itself out, whether in an individual life or over several generations. Even back then, the sobriety and calmness of Catholicism impressed me, without my thinking of it much.)

I also remember coming across a pamphlet which celebrated the dedication of the Irish people to the Mass through centuries of persecution. This made me feel ashamed (illogically) that I did not attend Mass myself, despite being entirely free to do so. It also planted the germ of an idea in my mind; the idea that attending Mass could be a privilege and a joy, rather than a tiresome duty.

Finally, on an occasion when one of the brothers was giving us a tour of the building, and showing us the upstairs bedroom where the Order's founder Blessed Edmund Rice had slept, he unexpectedly asked us to join him in a prayer. I remember feeling embarrassed and flustered, and annoyed at myself for feeling embarrassed and flustered. Though I was an agnostic, tending towards atheism, I experienced an unpleasant sense of having been conditioned by modern society, when I realized that simply joining in a prayer mortified me.

The Allen Library was hard work. The course did give us skills, and it did lead to employment in my case and in many others, but it definitely got something back from the trainees. We did a lot of cataloguing of books and archival material (writing in pencil on index cards), as well as data entry of the records into a computer database. I found it quite gruelling a lot of time. Worst of all was the "checking", a regular stint of going through index cards that other people had written up, and checking their accuracy. This was tedious beyond words. I remember making long visits to the bathroom just for a respite.

Mind you, I was making a big effort to be dilligent, since I had been on the dole for months before this, and in school and college I didn't have the reputation of being hard-working. Nor had I ever had a part-time or weekend job. I wanted to give myself a reputation for being industrious. If I say so myself, I did achieve this.

It wasn't all hard work though. One practice that the tutors in the Allen Library instituted was to have "reading time" every Wednesday afternoon, for the last hour and a half or so of the day. The reasoning was that there was no point in being surrounded by books if you never got to read them. I thought (and think) that this was wonderfully civilized. I think every employer on Earth should have "reading time"!

One of the books that I read during one session of "reading time" was the autobiography of G.K. Chesterton. I was not a fan of Chesterton at the time, and it would be many years before I developed an enthusiasm for him, but I do remember laughing out loud at one story in the book. I also remember, in one of the archive boxes that we were given to catalogue, coming across a card with Chesterton's autograph written on it (though "drawn" might be a better term, since it was so carefully and stylishly inscribed).

I came across some other good stuff in the archive boxes. There were hundreds and hundreds of these boxes and it was a genuine lucky dip as to what you found. Probably the most remarkable thing that I discovered was a withered stalk in an envelope, which was all that was left of a flower that the Irish nationalist Erskine Childers had given to a female friend before he was executed. I put it in a little plastic wallet, and felt proud to have played a part in its history. There were also letters written by Irish nationalists before execution, letters from other Irish nationalists written from prison, and a psaltery that belonged to Daniel O'Connell, one of the most prominent figures in Irish history, and the man after whom Dublin's main street is named.

Smell is the royal road of memory. When I remember those archive boxes, I remember the smell that is probably most redolent of my whole time in the Allen Library-- the smell of the latex gloves that we had to wear while handling them, and of the powder with which the gloves were lined. I remember, too, the way the scent would cling to your hands afterwards, even after you had washed them. It was a pungent but not unpleasant smell.

As well as reading time, we also had regular parties, lunches and field trips. Every time somebody celebrated an important birthday, or got a job, or was leaving for some other reason, we seemed to have a celebration. We would run tables together in the main workroom, which had a mural of Da Vinci's Last Supper on one wall. (Everybody agreed that it was an awful mural, though I didn't see much wrong with it.) These feasts would often go on for a couple of hours. Usually, some of the Christian Brothers would join us; one of them was quite an accomplished raconteur.

One memory that always lingers in my mind is when the woman who ran the project said, "We eat together more than most families, at this stage." This is a poignant memory for two reasons; one, because it is sadly true, since so many families do not eat together (my own rarely did); and two, because the "we" of that sentence no longer exists, even in the most residual way.

The team that was in charge of the project (and who were employed by the government training scheme, rather than the Christian Brothers) were all-female, until one man was hired towards the end of my stay. The lady who ran the project might have been in her thirties or forties, but the four ladies who assisted her were all, I guessed, in their twenties. I was rather fascinated by this. I imagined, perhaps idyllically, that they were like sisters. From a man's point of view, there seems to be a rapport between women, and especially women of a certain age group, that is different from anything a man will ever experience. Perhaps I was simply projecting. Perhaps they were just colleagues, not particularly close, and never kept in touch afterwards. But I prefer my daydreams of an all-girls-together everlating bond.

I got in trouble in the Allen Library once. For tea-breaks, the trainees and the "tutors" (as they were called) would sit down together in separate rooms and share tea and biscuits. I never joined them, for two reasons. The first was that I was too shy. The second was that there was a rota for washing up, and I was terrified I wouldn't do the washing up properly, or I might drop a cup, or some such disaster. I really was this socially akward at the time.

Sometimes I would go and walk around the streets outside during tea-breaks and lunches. But at other times, I would write on the training computers. (There was only one internet computer, and we were given a half-hour "internet time" each week-- it already seems quaint.) Unfortunately, at one point, I began to write satirical "parliamentary reports" of the conversation that was taking place behind me, making the Allen Library a kind of mock parliament with a lower house (trainees) and an upper house (tutors). In the mock reports, I referred to the tutors as Lady N----, Lady A----, and so forth. I also made the mistake of saving this on my floppy disk (remember those?), which was kept in a box with other peoples' floppy disks.

One day I came back from a lunch-time walk to find that some middle managers from FÁS, the government training scheme, were waiting to speak to me. I was given a print-out of my parliamentary report and asked if I had written it. I protested that it was my own personal floppy disk that had been obviously accessed by somebody else, but this didn't go down too well. They didn't exactly take my head off, but they did give me a rather solemn lecture.

Afterwards (ironically, during a break) I went into the room where the tutors were having tea and said, "I'm sorry for my parliamentary report". I was told not to worry about it, and noticed to my confusion that they could barely keep from laughing. I concluded that it was one of my fellow trainees who had found the offending report and complained. (I didn't apologize to them since I didn't think they had any business accessing my disk in the first place, whatever might be said for the trainers doing so.)

There was an epilogue to the little controversy. When my time came to leave the Allen Library, and everybody signed a farewell card for me, I was amused that two of the tutors had signed themselves "Lady N" and "Lady A", while one of the trainees put "lower house" after her name, in brackets. Ha ha ha.

On a darker note, I was in the Allen Library when I first heard of the 9/11 attacks. I was entering the data on the pencilled index cards onto our computer system. Someone came in to announce that a plane had flown into the World Trade Centre in New York, and soon a television set had been set up and everybody was gathered around it. Everybody except me, that is. Partly through shyness, partly through contrarianism and a kind of disdain of hysteria, I kept working through the whole thing.

I remember the moment that one of the Christian Brothers came in to announce that the second tower had been hit. I remember the exact phrase he used, half-wonderingly and half-ironically: "The end of the world!". I was frightened, and frightened of showing that I was frightened, though I'm not sure what I was frightened of exactly. Who knew what else might happen? People were making phone calls to loved ones in America to make sure they were unharmed. Someone said something about the European Parliament being targeted.

I think we all remember the emotions of the days following 9/11, and I won't try to evoke them again here. But something that one of my fellow trainees said, either the next day or a few days later, did stick in my mind. He said that he had gone to Mass, even though he was not a believer, because he felt he had to do something. It is extraordinarily interesting that God and religion seem to be indispensable in times of stark tragedy. Of course, it doesn't prove anything. But it suggests quite a lot.

And now all the tea-things of the Allen Library heritage project have been washed for the last time, and there are no more celebratory lunches, and all the routines and sights and sounds and smells of its daily life survive only in the archive boxes of memory. I don't know if the ladies of the upper house ever kept in touch with each other. I don't know if any of the trainees I knew kept in touch with each other. Nothing in my life now harks back to that eleven months I spent there.

There is a strange and unique poignancy to closed shops, and defunct businesses, and offices that have been shut down. Families pass away, but that is a tragedy and acknowledged as such. They are remembered by their descendants, and usually live in family folklore. Political parties and sporting clubs and entire nations break up-- but people write books and articles about that. But what happens to the life spirit of newsagents and tenant's associations and training courses, when their day is done? Who laments them?

But who knows? Perhaps someone else who passed through the doors of the Allen Library, in this period of its life, will come on this post and feel some glow of nostalgia, or of fellowship. I hope so. In any case, I keep them all in my prayers.


  1. Lovely post M ... I hope some of your Allen Library Alumni find it and make contact ... it's certainly nice to think that someone might ...

  2. I hope so, too. And by the way, Father, I am keeping your own situation in my prayers every day. Thanks for your kind words.

  3. Another fine piece of writing and thinking. Thanks as ever.

  4. Thanks for you blog post! I am a very brief Allen Library alum, although I think from quite a few years after you had been there. It's nice to see it acknowledged. I think it is(was?) one of the only places to get any kind of qualifiction in library/archival studies, apart from the Masters.

  5. Yaayyy! I wrote this post mostly hoping that people like yourself would come across it. Thanks!

  6. M, most enjoyable read which I came across by accident. Having been involved right at the start in setting up and putting the Allen Library Project together way back in the mid 90s it is great to read a post like this one concerning the Library. Memories...Indexation, checking, wash up rota - did they tea trolley still exist ?. One of the elderly Brothers there during my time commented that he always got 'great satisfaction from how the project was a benefit to people' and that in itself made it worthwhile..

  7. You are one of the pioneers! Yes, it seemed to me a great shame that there was nothing written about the Allen Library project on the internet, that I could see. I know there is a pamphlet that was published by the Project...though I admit I never read it. I am always more interested in the anecdotal side of things, rather than the more business-like aspect. I think they had the tea-trolley though I don't remember clearly.

  8. Thank you for your amazing blog on Allen library! I share the same sentiments. I missed the place.

    1. Thanks Lola! I'm sorry I nevermind replied to this.

  9. Worked there as a fás trainee in the late 90's for a year I think. Met the best of people & had the best time. I had a brutal time keeping if I remember but the people who ran it were so kind. Beautiful building & was one of favourite jobs I had.

    1. Great to hear from you, unknown. Yes, the building was lovely. And they were very tolerant! At one point I got browned off and read a book for a few days and nobody bothered me!