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Chester Beatty Library – A History

Chester Beatty Library – A History –  In John Healy’s debut article, he chronicles the history of the famous library and museum

The Chester Beatty Library and museum ( known simply as the Chester Beatty ) is located in the grounds of Dublin Castle and contains one of the best collections of artefacts from East Asian, Persian, North African, Islamic and Western traditions in the world.

The collection was made by Sir Alfred Chester Beatty, born in 1875. He was a British American mining magnate and philanthropist (dubbed ‘The King Of Copper‘) who would leave the collection to the people of Ireland (more on that later). Originally housed in Shrewsbury Road in a property purchased by Beatty in 1950, the collection first went on display in 1953. It was eventually moved to the purposely renovated museum it is housed in today in Dublin Castle on February 7th 2000.

Beatty was made an honourary citizen of Ireland in 1957. When he died in 1968 aged 92 he was one of the few individuals at the time given a state funeral. He is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.

The items on display in the museum like Sacred texts, illuminated manuscripts and miniature paintings, to name some of the objects, were gathered from across the world’s religions and beliefs for this collection. The museum’s pieces are displayed in two galleries: ‘Arts of the Book’ and ‘Sacred Traditions‘. Both of the exhibits display manuscripts, miniature paintings, prints, drawings, rare books and some decorative arts.

Most of the manuscripts date to the third century with some as early as the second. One such group is the Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri regarded by many as a most important collection of early Christian manuscripts and a great reference source for Biblical students.

You don’t have to be a scholar to have an interest and curiosity in these items. You can check out Chinese snuff bottles (snuff: a mixture of tobacco and spices for ingestion via the nose ), sculptors, Japanese body armour and swords, magical amulets, ancient papyri and parchments.

The building itself is a fantastic space with an atrium height as tall as three stories and like most museums in Ireland admission is free but a donation is requested from visitors.

All access to floor levels and around the building is excellent with stairs, lifts and automatic doors to the galleries and beyond. When you have completed your visit to the galleries there is a third level (with a grand painting of Sir Alfred Chester Beatty) leading to a roof garden and a quiet space to relax your senses and digest the experience on completing the galleries.

The exhibitions start on the first floor and ‘Arts of the Book’, showing construction and techniques used in the history of writing, records and communications. This begins with the earliest known examples of Babylonian Cuneiform text and the first ever envelopes (both made from clay) circa 2600 BCE (Before Current Era). Cuneiform (which means ‘wedge shaped) is one of the oldest forms of writing known, getting its name by the use of a reed stylus cut to make the shapes in clay.

The exhibit continues on to display Egyptian papyri (using paper made from reeds) from the second century ACE (After Current Era). One document itself is about a house purchase and instructions by the buyer’s wife to offer more money to ensure they get the property!

The exhibit travels on to various items of manuscript, parchments, illuminations and prints. Some of the pieces displayed include the Quran in a large 16th century tomb (book), the thirteenth century introduction of Corpus Christi as a Christian event by Pope Urban IV, street plans of Paris (1734) and illustrations of street vendors who rose and became popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

We get reference to French Lemonade and the rise in popularity of the beverage in Dublin and London with citrus fruit readily available. Although Ireland was more disposed to lemon it was the orange which became popular in London. Interestingly enough the orange was known as the ‘Irish Harvest’ by Londoners as most sellers of orange in London were Irish!

There are further displays including Scientific Knowledge in the Islamic World (including Phases of the Moon circa 1450), The Mamluks of Egypt and Syria (1250-1517), various forms of the Quran in various scripts and illuminated versions. Other pieces include the ‘Book Of Kings’

(mythical history of ancient Iran) and pieces on ‘The Monkey King and the Tortoise’ (1595-1600).

The ‘Sacred Traditions’ gallery contains many more items and has the feel of a sacred space enhanced by the background audio. There is a Western (Europe) collection comprised mostly of Christian Manuscripts, prints and books. There are further pieces in Judaic, Islamic, Ethiopian, Chinese (including Imperial porcelain), Japanese, Buddhist,Thai and Burmese origin. I could go on even more about items like tools, pigments used, Gospels written in Arabic and Latin, etc.

The information boards give insight into the various forms of religion and belief systems for the displays and are quite informative.

The Chester Beatty contains a gift shop and book store on the ground level. Also on this level is the ’Silk Road Cafe’. This is a delight with a large selection of food items and beverages on offer and seating within and also outdoors at the entrance of the building. We are fortunate to have this collection in Ireland but this was not the original plan that Sir Beatty had in mind.

Beatty had compiled his collection over a sixty year period and had a close relationship with Britain and supported the Allies in the Second World War. He also had a special relationship with the British Museum where the collection may have ended up.

In the late 1940s Beatty had become disillusioned with Britain as the newly elected Labour Party came to power after the war ended and he found the new bureaucracy from the Government disagreeable. He decided to move to Ireland saying in an interview with the Daily Express that ‘It will be pleasanter to drink a glass of Irish beer in a Dublin garden than to spend the rest of my life buying fountain pens and filling in forms’.

Irish civil servants at the time, in particular the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, Frederick Boland and Maurice Moynihan, Secretary of the Department of the Taoiseach fully encouraged Beatty to make the move to Ireland.

Beatty had a love of Ireland (both his paternal grandparents were Irish).

He was welcomed in a way that people today might find unacceptable. He received special treatment, not least of all, exemption from the strict foreign exchange rules and the waiving of import taxes on purchases for his library.

Beatty wanted to ensure that his library would remain intact after his death and accordingly, he secured this in Ireland along with exemption from estate duties for his books, manuscripts and other library property. This secured for Ireland the Chester Beatty collection but also his patronage of the National Gallery of Ireland, the Military Museum at the Curragh, and thousands of pounds in donations to hospitals and medical charities. No other individual in the history of the state has come close to matching the gifts made by Beatty to his adopted country.

Chester Beatty Library also has a website where you can avail of a virtual visit of the collection. There are also events and workshops available  you can check all of the activities at


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