Archbishop Marsh established the Library by Act of Parliament in 1707, furnishing it with his own collection of books and by the purchase of the collection of Edward Stillingfleet. The collection of Elie Bouhéreau, the first librarian of Marsh’s Library, was also added during this time.
Narcissus Marsh was born in Wiltshire, England in 1638. His father’s name was William Marsh and his mother was Grace Colburn. Narcissus was the youngest in the family of five: three brothers and two sisters. The name Narcissus is certainly uncommon, but his brothers were given the names Epaphroditus and Onesiphorus.
Marsh was educated in Oxford. He was ordained in 1662 and was sent to Ireland as Provost of Trinity College Dublin in 1679. He was appointed successively Bishop of Ferns and Leighlin in 1683, Archbishop of Cashel in 1691, Archbishop of Dublin in 1694 and Primate of Armagh in 1703.
Marsh was basically a scholar, and was devoted to prayer and study. While he was Provost of Trinity College, Dublin, he wrote in his diary: “But finding this place very troublesome partly by reason of the multitude of business and impertinent visits the Provost is obliged to, and partly by reason of the ill education that the young Scholars have before they come to College whereby they are both rude and ignorant”. He loved working out mathematical problems and wrote “Thy name be praised O Lord for all thy mercies, this evening I invented a way to find out the Moon’s distance from the centre of the earth without the help of its parallax”.
Nevertheless, Marsh made many practical contributions to Trinity College during his tenure as Provost, including the active promotion of the Irish language, the start of building the new College Hall and Chapel, and the revision of the regulations for administering the College library.
In 1683 Marsh became one of the first members of the Dublin Philosophical Society. He contributed an early paper to that Society, called “An Introductory Essay on the Doctrine of Sounds, Containing some Proposals for the Improvement of Accousticks” in which he apparently was the first to use the word microphone.
The idea of a library first occurred to Marsh when he was Provost in Trinity College and observed how difficult it was to use the library there. In May 1700 a letter from Marsh to his friend Dr. Thomas Smith in England explains that he intends building a public library and asks for Dr. Smith’s assistance in “recommending him choice books”. He explains that although the Archbishop’s house, St. Sepulchre’s, where he lived “may well be called a Palace for the stateliness of all the public rooms of reception, (it) has no chapel or library, belonging to it, or even any convenient room to hold an ordinary study of books, so that mine lay dispersed in three distant rooms”.
While Marsh was Archbishop of Dublin and living as an old bachelor in the Palace of St. Sepulchre he arranged for his niece, young Grace Marsh, to look after the housekeeping for him. Grace was only nineteen and probably found the Archbishop’s life style and strict discipline rather depressing. On the 10th September 1695 this rather sad entry appears in his Diary. “This evening betwixt 8 and 9 of the clock at night my niece Grace Marsh (not having the fear of God before her eyes) stole privately out of my house at St. Sepulchre’s and (as is reported) was that night married to Chas. Proby vicar of Castleknock in a Tavern and was bedded there with him – Lord consider my affliction”. Grace lived to be 85 years old and it is nice to know that she was, after her death, buried in the same tomb with her uncle the Archbishop.
Narcissus Marsh died in 1713 and is buried just outside his library, in the grounds of St Patrick’s Cathedral.