The Farnham Gardens, Farnham Street, Cavan. Courtesy of Cavan Library Service.

The Big Librarian Conference of 1940

The Library Association's eight annual conference was held in Cavan in 1940 where they discussed everything from preserving culture to the effects of modern technology. It gave the county a chance to promote itself too as Jonathan Smyth finds out in his latest Times Past column...

In May 1940, Cavan was chosen to host the eight annual Irish Library conference. The journal of the Library Association of Ireland, An Leabharlann, said that the event was taking place during grim times, but felt that it would be as 'successful’ as any of its ‘predecessors', so long as they got cooperation from the county councils. That year, it was all happening in the Farnham Arms Hotel, Cavan. The conference was a major boost for the town, receiving publicity in The Anglo-Celt and in An Leabharlann. The Librarians were delighted with the Minister for Local Government who gave permission for the gathering. It ran from May 24 to 28.

When the conference came to Cavan, the library service was in its 10th year in Cavan. In the early days, there had seen a change of three County Librarians. The first was Mr Guise Browne, 1930 to 1932; followed by Miss Mary B. Clarke, 1933 to 1936; and Dennis Long, 1937 to 1940. Mr Long returned to his native Cork as County Librarian in 1940, where he established a new children's department and bought 'suitable books' for the 'grow more food' campaign. Miss Bríd Sheridan became the acting County Librarian for Cavan from 1940 to 1942. She was officially appointed Co Librarian in 1948 and stayed at the helm of the county until she retired in 1977.


The evening before the conference saw the guests sit down to a fine meal eaten in the Farnham Arms Hotel, on the Friday evening of May 24. It gave the delegates who travelled from every part of Eire a chance to eat, meet, greet, and reacquaint with old friends. The librarians were entertained to a picturesque talk on the county’s history, given by the Bishop of Kilmore, the Most Rev Dr Lyons. About Cavan, he told them, that they had arrived to ‘a territory rich in religious and historical associations, with wonderful traditions of saint and scholar and patriot kept alive on its hillsides and in its valleys and scenery, fascinating in its beauty - delightful woodlands, heather-clad mountains and the little lakes gleaming like jewels in the laps of the hills.’

Apart from the county’s beautiful imagery, the bishop reminded the visitors that out of the mountain range of North-West Cavan, there came the source of the mighty Shannon and, giving them a scare, he told them that in the same region there lay the ominous ‘Plain of Adoration’ associated with Crom Cruach. But thankfully St Patrick had put a stop to the sacrifice of humans on that hill.

The library, said the bishop, had a function to find good literature for the public to read. Books were ‘silent friends’ and when necessary, could be ‘shut up’ quickly, something not always achievable with one’s friends, joked the bishop. Then again, said he, the way a person handled a book could give an indication to their character. If they pitched a book about the place, might they do the same to them? To which the whole room roared in laughter.

On Saturday morning, May 25, the conference was officially opened, in Cavan Courthouse. In the following days, the library fraternity discussed many topics, two of them were: the ‘Irish in America,’ and ‘Oral Tradition'.

Irish in America

Anyhow, things got underway with the Monday session spent listening to Mary Walsh, BA, Dublin who read her paper. It was based on the months she spent ‘in the principal cities of the United States and Montreal and Ottawa'. From the adventure, said Walsh, she had seen the US ‘going through the first period of setback of her history'. This setback, said she, saw them ‘beginning to doubt the wisdom of their hectic rush for wealth and success and they were taking an interest in human problems'.

The Americans were beginning to look at libraries as more than ‘book distribution agencies and the same thing applied in Ireland'.

‘We must get closer to the people,’ touted Walsh. The public needed access to information to live better lives. When abroad, she investigated the market for books on Ireland and its history, Miss Walsh went to the new Afro-American University in Washington. Its president, John Donovan, was himself an Afro-American, noted Miss Walsh.

Senator F. Baxter from Cavan wondered how anyone could ‘develop a cultural life, unless the economic and social structure was sound underneath'. Speaking up, Mr Doyle of Limerick, emphasised the need to work with progressive movements in Ireland.

What surprised me most was Professor Hackett’s paper on Oral Tradition and the County Library. Hackett was not impressed by ‘modern culture’ and the technical advances that threatened native cultures. Bearing in mind this was 1940, I wonder what he might have made of our present century. He also encouraged the librarians to embrace and promote books in Irish. Eighty years later, Irish libraries still play an important part as influencers of culture in communities across Ireland.


The attendees were drawn from the four corners of Ireland and being my curious self, I wanted to see who attended. The delegates included: Rev S.J. Brown, S.J., Chairman, Catholic Library Committee, Dublin; Rev J. Murphy, C.C., Wexford; Mrs H. Butterly, Co Co, Co Louth; Mr P.J. Hartley, Commissioner for Leix, Co Westmeath; Miss N. Connolly, Library Association of Ireland; Miss V. Carey, Co Librarian, Leitrim; Mr D. Doyle, Co Librarian, Limerick; M.A. Veale, Secretary, Cavan Board of Health; Miss M.B. Clarke, Co Librarian, Louth; Mrs M. Mulvey, Dublin Co Library; Miss F. Harrison, Hospital Library Council; Mrs M. Connolly, Wexford; Miss J. M. MacLeod, Co Librarian, Carlow; Miss M. Cahill, Acting Co Librarian, Leix; D. Long, Co Librarian, Cavan; Miss E. Kehoe, Co Librarian, Wexford; Mrs J. Campion, Co Librarian, Kerry; Miss K. Ronaldson, Co Librarian, Mayo; Miss J. Ronaldson, Miss B. Gaynor, Co Library, Sligo; Mr J. Lambert, Co Librarian, Sligo; D. Foley, Co Librarian, Clare; S.J. Maguire, Co Librarian, Galway; C. Anderson, Dublin City Libraries; P.J. Stephenson, do; T. Harden, Co Co, Carlow; Sean McGurl, Co Co, Meath; Miss Roisin Walsh, Chief City Librarian, Dublin, and Senator Patrick F. Baxter, Cavan.


Times Past: The President’s right-hand man