Sir John T. Gilbert 1829‐1898: Historian, Archivist and Librarian

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 1 April 2000




Gerard, D. (2000), "Sir John T. Gilbert 1829‐1898: Historian, Archivist and Librarian", Library Review, Vol. 49 No. 3, pp. 139-156.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

There are two ways of immortalising a city – the artistic and the scholastic. Dublin rests eternal in the imagination of millions thanks to the art of James Joyce; its history is secure for posterity thanks to the scholarship of a far less celebrated figure (at least this side of the Irish Sea) namely Sir John Gilbert, though given that surname it would be surprising if he did not appear somewhere in that mythopoeic monument (muniment?) Finnegans Wake, especially as he died in a tramcar while on a journey from Blackrock to Dublin.

Sir John Gilbert was devoted to the documentary history of his native Ireland, and a lifetime of energy and intelligence went into the publication and preservation of the records, ancient and illustrious, of his native city. He was a prodigious book collector, a bachelor, Librarian of the Royal Irish Academy for 35 years, and Secretary of the Public Record Office of Ireland. His personal library of 45,000 items was bought by Dublin Corporation, and the still incomplete bibliography of his books and articles makes an impressive appendix to this volume. This was a man dedicated to a single issue. The present book celebrates his achievement, a memorial published to mark the centenary of his death.

The papers here published cover Gilbert’s life and times, his period at the PRO of Ireland, his service as Librarian of the Royal Irish Academy, the contents of his personal library, his reforming zeal as it was applied to local archives, and his contributions to Irish historiography. In conclusion the Commemorative Lecture by Douglas Bennett is printed, “The Streets of Dublin Revisited”.

To this reviewer, and probably to the reader unfamiliar with Irish history, the analysis of his personal library, the account of his efforts to create an effective archive profession out of chaos, and his influence on Irish historiography will be of most interest. There is no space to detail the contents of his library here; suffice it to say that the social and cultural history of Dublin is its core: theatrical memoirs, biographies, histories of buildings, street ballads, early printing, sets of eighteenth century newspapers. The whole collection will be housed together with the Dublin city archives in the newly refurbished building in Pearse Street. As an archivist, active as he was in listing and publishing the documents, his greatest quality was his impartiality. Gilbert thought of himself as a nationalist, and in 1884 the city council was dominated by Parnell’s Home Rule Party, yet Gilbert never edited selectively to favour the nationalist cause but simply to exhibit the city archives as they were without apology or tendentious censorship. He was nevertheless sensitive to any evidence of neglect or slighting of Irish interests by Westminster, evinced in his article “English Commissioners and Irish Records” in 1865. This nationalism made him enemies within the British establishment’s antiquarian communities; by writing his voluminous history of the city, and his magisterial edition of the corporation records in 19 volumes, as Toby Barnard put it “Gilbert opened the way for a reorientation of the conventional histories of Ireland. He was an assiduous supplier of basic evidence rather than an interpreter; without his labours the present generation of Irish historians re‐evaluating the past could not begin to operate. He had blind spots, opposed suggestions for the publication of parish registers, the very material out of which our contemporary historians illustrate past demography, social structure and cultural evolution, yet that is a relatively minor weakness. What he left his city has perennial value.

To anyone whose acquaintance with Dublin derives from Joyce or the theatre of Yeats and Sean O’Casey, the final contribution within these pages will surely be arresting: Douglas Bennett’s “The Streets of Dublin Revisited”. It is a walking tour of the City, past and present, a lament for what has been lost since Gilbert’s day, but also an acknowledgement of the more recent care and conservation of the heritage. This city has been the victim of more internecine violence in the past hundred years than any other city in the British Isles, and has suffered needless vandalism from insensitive architects who should have known better, but its vitality is undiminished; its resurrection in the last decade has been spectacular – it is now an enjoyable experience, a creative ambience. Were Gilbert to walk its streets he would be both appalled and delighted by what he saw today; one wonders how he would respond on learning about the destruction of the Public Record Office set up by him in 1867, destroyed by bombardment during the Civil War of 1922 when all the country’s original records were incinerated.

This commemoration is well merited. Gilbert gave his all to his cherished enterprise, and though coming from an affluent business family he was always financially precarious, earning little from his publications. With the loss of his position at the PRO, and the failure of the Munster Bank it looked like ruin and the need to sell his home and precious library, saved only by a life insurance policy!As one contributor wrote: “We should salute his memory and look forward to future volumes, based on his enduring legacy”.

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