Marsh’s Library itself houses four main collections, consisting of 25,000 books relating to the 16th, 17th and the early part of the 18th centuries. The Governors and Guardians of Marsh’s Library also owns the Benjamin Iveagh Library at Farmleigh House. There are:
- 80 incunabula (books printed before 1501)
- 430 books printed in Italy before 1600
- 1,200 books printed in England before 1640
- 5,000 books printed in England before 1700
As one might expect, there is a large collection of liturgical works, missals, breviaries, books of hours of the Sarum use, bibles printed in almost every language, a great deal of theology and religious controversy. These collectors were men of scholarly tastes, and the scope of the subjects is surprisingly wide and varied. There are books on medicine, law, science, travel, navigation, mathematics, music, surveying and classical literature in all the collections. A separate room is reserved for books and periodicals relating to Irish history printed in the last hundred years. The most important collection is the library of Edward Stillingfleet (1635-1699) who was Bishop of Worcester. In 1705 Narcissus Marsh paid £2,500 for his library of nearly 10,000 books. Stillingfleet’s library was regarded as the finest private library in England in the later part of the 17th century. Stillingfleet was one of the most influential divines in the Church of England. He acted as spokesman for the Anglican Church during a period of great religious conflict in the 17th century. His noble library is a great tribute to his scholarship and knowledge of books. Archbishop Marsh left all his books to the library. He was particularly interested in science, mathematics and music, and many of his mathematical books are extensively annotated by him. Marsh was also interested in oriental languages and rabbinical and medieval writers. He collected books in Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish and Russian and his collection of Latin Judaica is particularly important. Elie Bouhéreau, a Huguenot refugee who fled from France in 1695, became the first librarian. His books, which he left to the Library, relate to France and to the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes and its aftermath and the religious controversies of the 17th century. Dr Bouhéreau’s collection constitutes a unique source for the study of Calvinism in 17th century France. His medical books are also of great interest. John Stearne (1660-1745), Bishop of Clogher, bequeathed his books to Marsh’s in 1745. These are similar to the other collections, but among them is the oldest and one of the most beautiful books in the Library, Cicero’s ‘Letters to his Friends’ printed in Milan in 1472. In addition to these four collections there are about three hundred manuscripts in the Library. The most important is a volume of the Lives of the Irish Saints, dating from about 1400, and written in Latin. There are also medical, theological, legal and music manuscripts. The music in manuscript consists of fantasias for instruments and virginal, lute and lyra viol music by composers of the first half of the 17th century. There are also rare 16th century madrigals printed in Venice, Antwerp and London. To study and examine the books in Marsh’s is to explore Europe’s great cultural heritage. Marsh’s Library is a treasury of what might be called the European mind; it is a rich source for studying the history of ideas, the birth of new ideas, the rise of science, and attacks on Christianity.