Watch: Secret 500 year-old library and medieval archive in Tyrone monastery rescued by conservationists

An ambitious £1.2million project to save a secret religious library of rare books and fragile documents dating back to the 16th Century is nearing completion.

Surrounding by dusty stacks of books and papers, a busy team of professionals and volunteers have been working in the cramped cellars of Benburb Servite Priory to save the valuable collection for future generations.

In some cases, the painstaking process involves wiping each page of the rare books with a special cleaning solution.

The news should excite fans of Dan Brown and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Secret libraries found in monasteries have become a source of fascination and myth since the novelists featured their labyrinthine libraries hiding earth-shattering secrets.

The priory archive also contains personal documents relating to the priests who resided there. One of the most remarkable former priors was the exorcist priest Father Peter Rookey, who discovered his remarkable gifts while assigned to Benburb in 1948.

After a quiet first year, word began to spread that miracles were happening when the young American priest prayed.

Soon people were descending on the sleepy village in their hundreds and healing services had to be moved from the small chapel to be staged outside.

In 2012, one of his successors, Fr Chris O’Brien unearthed the collection of historic documents and forgotten rare books, which had been gathering dust in the cellars of the building.

The library, parts of which had 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.

The priory secured funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to establish an interactive library, museum and coffee shop in the Victorian Stables at the priory, work upon which has almost been completed.

Sean Madden, Collection Conservator, who has been co-ordinating a team of volunteers, said: “Some of the books are covered in 300 years of dirt, which has become heavily ingrained.

Debris from people’s hands have driven the dirt into the parchment, which gives it that nice, lovely, old look, but that actual dirt causes damage to the manuscript.”

A team of volunteers have been tasked with examining the collection of documents and archiving them.

The priory has around 20,000 manuscripts, books and archive items, consisting of a number of valuable collections including some unique material dating back to the 16th century.

Currently the books and artefacts are spread over five disjointed sites within the grounds and are at risk of deterioration.

The core of the collection is a unique and extensive set of Servite and Marian books as well as records from 16 Servite communities including those of over 300 friars. As well as monastic heritage, the volumes also detail local history from pre-Plantation until the present, and the paths travelled by some of the items themselves.

Paul Mullan, Head of Heritage Lottery Fund Northern Ireland, said: “This library collection is extremely valuable and we consider securing its future as a high priority for HLF support.

“We are delighted to be able to make this award. The well-developed project will not only conserve these historic volumes and artefacts, but will also open them up to the public. People will be free to go and see some of the amazing items collected over the centuries. The collection is such a rich source of heritage.”

At its peak in the 1960s about 100 priests and students lived and studied at Benburb. In more recent times the Priory has been a focal point for the promotion of cooperation, learning and support between the communities.

The Priory hosts over 25,000 visitors each year and is the regular meeting place for over 30 community, scholarly and cultural support groups. It hosts support meetings for older people and cancer patients, hosts a theatre school for young people and helps recent former prisoners by providing them with support and work within the Priory.

The Servite Order dates from 1233 in Florence, Italy. It has a rich history through its evolving locations in mainland Europe, England, United States, Australia and the developing world. Over time, there was a considerable transfer of books, manuscripts and archive material from country to country, with the foundation of a Servite community in the UK dating from 1864 when some Italian Friars came to London. Some of the books have been in a Servite library for over 400 years and would initially have been stored in Florence, Vicenza or Innsbruck.

The £1.2million project has also received funding from: the Garfield Weston Trust, the Foyle Foundation, All Churches Trust, Dungannon & South Tyrone Borough Council, Ulster Garden Villages, the Servite Trust and the Friends of Benburb. The Library and Museum will be fully functional by the beginning of 2017. The project can be followed on the Servite Priory Library website.