The buildings in the photos below will be familiar to most readers as the Government Buildings Complex on Kildare Street and Merrion Street in Dublin 2. It’s where we see Enda, Leo and the rest make statements, greet leaders from other countries, answer awkward questions and pose for photos. This great building was once the Royal College of Science for Ireland (RCScI) – a largely forgotten institution. The building was opened in 1911 by George 5th to great fanfare but the events of the subsequent decade led to its amalgamation with UCD in 1927. Its library is now held in UCD Library Special Collections.
The Royal College of Science for Ireland was established in 1867 to, according to a parliamentary report, ‘supply, as far as practicable, a complete course of instruction in science applicable to the Industrial Arts, especially those which may be classed broadly under mining, agriculture, engineering, and manufactures.’ It had been known as the Museum of Irish Industry, established in 1854 and original premises was 51 St Stephen’s Green, now occupied by the Office of Public Works.
It was a multi-denominational college which admitted men, and women, from a variety of social backgrounds. The Royal College of Science for Ireland was a sister college of the Royal College of Science, Kensington, London and many of those who taught in Dublin went on to teach at the London college.
Its library, now in UCD Special Collections, is a great reflection of the breadth of subjects taught. It contains, as one might expect, books and journals relating to areas such as botany, geology, chemistry, zoology, physics and maths. It also contains material on subjects which no longer part of the science curriculum like mining and mineralogy.
Interestingly, many of the texts are in other languages, mainly French and German, which demonstrates that there was an expectation that 19th century students would be able to read multiple languages. I’m not sure we could expect that from today’s student cohort!
There are also a lot of materials relating to what was known as the industrial arts such as catalogues of exhibitions, including the Great Exhibition of 1851, and other subsequent exhibitions in Britain and Ireland. There are many very fine books within the collection which were clearly expensive to purchase at the time. Some of these books were 17th and 18th century publications which were purchased retrospectively in the 19th century. Many of the books in the collection contain plates with illustrations or maps. The institution seemed to have no shortage of money and this is reflected in the richly illustrated works purchased.
One such work, a 10 volume set entitled Les Arts au Moyen Age was purchased for £57 in 1855. According to an inflation calculator, this is the equivalent to £5,814 in 2017 – a lot of money for a multi volume set!
This amazing library remained in the Merrion Street buildings until UCD began its move from the city centre to Belfield in the 1960s. The library was then moved to the Science Building in Belfield and following its construction in the 1970s, to the main library building, now the James Joyce Library. By the 2000s much of the library had become dispersed because of the various moves.
Luckily in 2011 we received a grant from the Wellcome Trust to identify all RCScI books and journals and to carry out a conservation report. This was followed by the consolidation of the book collection in UCD Library Special Collections. Library staff are currently working on the consolidation of the RCScI journal collection in the library store.
It is fitting that this wonderful Victorian science library, from one of Ireland’s most important, but largely forgotten, educational institutions is held intact in UCD Library. The Royal College of Science for Ireland library is a legacy of the great 19th century era of scientific learning and discovery. It amalgamation with UCD in 1927 bolstered UCD’s scientific education and it from this foundation that UCD’s College of Science of 2017 has and continues to grow and flourish.
It’s a pity we don’t still have the building but apparently the then Taoiseach Charlie Haughey directed that the last of the UCD’s students and academics be moved from Merrion Street in the late 1980s. The topic of refurbishing the buildings for use as the Department of the Taoiseach arose in a Dáil debate in 1990. Haughey described the building as a rabbit warren to which Pat Rabitte responded ‘I take offence to that’! Politicians…