Five hundred year old secret library and medieval archive in lottery bid to save rare books
BY ANTHONY QUINN
A SECRET religious library at Benburb could be in line for nearly £773,000 in lottery funding to help restore a huge collection of rare and valuable books.
Benburb Priory’s former Abbot, Fr Chris O’Brien unearthed the extraordinary collection of historic documents and forgotten rare books which had been gathering dust in the cellars of his priory.
The library, parts of which have been transported from the order’s English and Italian monasteries, contains some of the earliest and most lavishly illustrated books of medieval Christianity, as well as an extensive collection of books on Irish history and centuries-old artefacts.
Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) has given its initial support to the funding bid.
The package would include development funding of £83,000 to “protect and open up the rare collection”.
Paul Mullan, head of the Heritage Lottery Fund Northern Ireland, said: “We consider the care of this collection a high priority and we are delighted to be able to give the project the necessary support to further develop their plans to secure funding.
“This is an incredibly valuable collection, and the outlined plan will provide the proper care and public access to an absorbing historical collection.”
Within the priory cellar rooms, there are accounts of the lives of countless saints, medieval theological tracts, the collected writings of Augustine published in 1626, and books documenting miracles and legends.
The ancient texts are written in Latin, Hebrew, Irish and French.
There are also rare fictional and philosophical works dating from the 19th Century including bound copies of Dickens novels when they were serialised in periodicals.
One of the priory cellar rooms is dedicated to books on Irish literature, history and language including early copies of Bedel’s Irish bible, and the Annals of Loch Ce.
Some of the most fragile documents include lavishly detailed architectural drawings by Pugin, the father of the Gothic revival in the British Isles.
There are also copies of historic acts such as the 1695 Act for the Better Securing the Government by disarming the Papists, as well as the Acts of Settlement.
The archive of documents relating to the Servite Order itself contains details of a centuries-old dispute with the Vatican state, a collection of papers relating to the Counter-Reformation, as well as working documents on the Second Vatican Council.
Fr O’Brien has personally overseen the transportation of many of the books and documents from the Servite Order’s other monasteries throughout Britain.
A number of the books which have migrated to the Benburb priory were once housed in Italian abbeys but were moved when a wave of anti-clericalism swept through the country after reunification in the latter half of the 19th Century. Now Fr O’Brien is hoping to preserve the collection for future generations in a specially designed library at the priory.
Secret libraries found in monasteries have become a source of fascination and myth since Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose which featured a labyrinthine library and a hidden book holding the clue to a murderer’s identity.
And depending upon how much faith you have in Dan Brown’s novels, monastic libraries might contain documentary evidence of earth-shattering secrets such as Mary Magdalene’s real relationship with Jesus.
However, Fr O’Brien played down any possibility of the library containing earth-shattering secrets.
“The books will certainly be of interest to historians, and anyone who wants to discover more about the Servite Order.
“The library fills four store rooms at the minute and it would be beneficial for all to have it housed in a secure modern building.”
However, when it comes to viewing the Servite’s own archive, browsing will be strictly forbidden.
Anyone who wishes to view the secret archive will have to say what document they wish to look at, said Fr O’Brien.
If the funding is secured, the project aims to refurbish a Victorian stables building at the priory where the restored collection will be housed.
In the stables, space will be created for people to meet, view and access the collection.
Professor Gerry McKenna, chair of the Servite Library Project Board, said the HLF support for the plan was “excellent news” for the priory, Benburb and the surrounding area.
“It will allow a heritage treasure to be preserved, developed and made accessible to a wide variety of interest groups from throughout Northern Ireland and beyond.”
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