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On Tuesday morning in Inchicore, Elizabeth Kostick is first in the door of the library at 10am.

She grew up in Bluebell and has been borrowing books here since she was “10 or under”, she says.

When she was younger, she didn’t really give the library a second look. Now in her 60s, she does.

The library, built in 1935, is unusual on the outside. It’s one of a trio of art deco libraries in Dublin – the others are in Ringsend and Drumcondra – and one of the few buildings in that style in the city.

“It’s a lovely building. It’s out of this world,” says Kostick.

Art Deco in Dublin

It was a big thing for young people in its time, says local historian Seosamh Ó Broin. “The whole library was the same as television today.”

People needed a ticket to get in. Books were considered valuable, he says. Ó Broin started to visit the library when he was about 14 years old, just two years after it opened.

The building is mostly pale yellow and brown-red brick. Up a set of deep steps, on the side of a high bank on Emmet Road, the ornamental entrance of the library stands out. A tiered brickwork portal, with geometrical bands, recedes towards the plain wooden door.

The entrance is the main place where the art deco influence is visible, says Susan Roundtree, a former senior architect with Dublin City Council.

It’s the kind of style you would tend to see in places of entertainment, like cinemas or jazz halls. But art deco means different things to different people.

“It was the fantasy Hollywood world, the Harlem Renaissance, and flapper style. It emphasized geometrical decoration, and entrances in particular,” she says.

But there was nothing that radical about the plans for the Inchicore library, she says. Stepping inside, it looks like an ordinary public library with “applied decoration”.

Building in the art deco style was big in Europe and the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. But it is relatively unusual in Dublin.

The three libraries, and a fourth in Phibsborough, were designed by Scottish architect Robert Lawrie in the 1930s.

The Phibsborough library was built three years earlier and in a more classical style, says Roundtree, but the three later libraries are different. “It’s interesting, because they were trying to do something modern.”

The design is generic in some ways. “But a good one. It works on a range of sites and locations,” she said.

The building is modest. “But with carefully detailed concrete brick. It was innovative at the time,” she says. It is also one of the last examples of steel-framed windows in a building left in Dublin.

The high ceilings stand out, says Vincent McManus, who has been the Inchicore librarian for three years. “You see that less and less. There’s loads of light, you see the seasons.”

These Days

Despite its character, there are mixed opinions about the Inchicore library, says Peter Keenahan, an architect and member of the Kilmainham-Inchicore Heritage Group.

The steps stop it being accessible to everyone, he says. Every year, there’s talk of a bigger library for Inchicore.

“I love it as a building. Nobody wants to lose the building, but what possible other function could it have?” he says.

It would be difficult to upgrade it to make it friendly to those with disabilities, he says. “You would have to make so many alterations that it would lose its character.”

But there must be some way to bring it into the 21st century, he says.

“It will probably remain,” says McManus. “But it depends how forceful the [library] service is with maintaining its usefulness.”

That means running more events, too. “We can no longer rely on just lending books. We have to do more than that.”

Ó Broin says the streets outside have changed in the years since he has used the library.

An electric tram would pass by until 1939, when buses replaced it. “There was a wide range of books published on the War of Independence, and they had those,” he says.

“At those times, you didn’t get to move far from your area,” he says. This was the first proper library he was ever in.

“There was another library in the area before: the Railway Club,” he says. “Where they had social activities, and on top of that they had a library.” He and his friends would sneak in when they were kids, to look at magazines.

Kostick says the Inchicore library offers more now. “When we were young, people didn’t come in to talk to you like they do now,” she says.

Six years ago, she joined the library’s knitting group on a Thursday. She checks out DVDs she wouldn’t be able to get otherwise. “It’s bringing more to the area than it ever brought before,” she says.

Zuzia Whelan

Zuzia Whelan is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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