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The Main Man

Clare People, Tuesday, 8th January 2008

Noel Crowley has finally stepped off the carousel into retirement after 32 years, but he enjoyed the journey that took him into the nooks and crannies of Clare.

Nooks and crannies are Noel's own words – they've been on his mind ever since he joined the library service as a young civil servant in the early '60s. "Every cranny, clef or nook, that might hold a bird or a mouse" – from the rhyme of the ancient mariner that bounced into Noel’s mind when he first took to the road as a librarian.

He was on the move with Cork County Library – perpetual motion for the maverick man and his books. Maverick because Noel ran a maverick service. “Should have been sacked several times,” he laughs. “Worked hard though. I’d leave Cork on a Monday and wouldn’t get back till Friday. It was a pilot service so it was a bit unconventional to say the least. You would be far more conscious of the seasons by operating a mobile library. From April to September, you knew where the bag was left at the side of the ditch. It was your job to replace the books. I even remember the Black family who worked for the travelling theatre – you’d pick them up in Ballydehob and you mightn’t see them for another year. They’d always leave the books in the last place they performed. It could be Castletownbere, Glengariff – the following year the books would appear again. While the turf was being cut, hay being saved and corn being cut, people didn’t have time to come with books. It was like mail order. We’d collect books left on the side of the road and replace them. You had to know your stock and what people wanted.”

The sacking never came – just promotion and a journey to Clare in 1975. "I was going to Leitrim and had a house booked in Ballinmore", he recalls, "but just before taking up duty, the Clare job was advertised and I got it. I came at a tremendous time because branch development of the libraries in Clare was just starting".

Noel was only Clare's third County Librarian - it was the same as it ever was where the job was concerned. Noel's predecessor, Mick Flanagan, came from Tipperary while the original of the species was Dermot Foley who hailed from Dublin.

“Dermot came in 1931 and a few weeks after his appointment called a committee meeting, during which he received a parcel. It was an Oxo box but there were no cubes, only two prime 45 bullets and a note saying ‘you’re taking the job of a good Clareman’.

“I got to meet Dermot in 1976 and he spoke of arriving off the train in Ennis and heading to the courthouse to be greeted by county secretary M.J. Carey. He was the most powerful man in Clare and brought Dermot to a sawn-off section of the council chamber and said ‘there’s your library young man’.”

Things have moved on a lot since then. In the 150 years since the Library Act passed into law, Clare has carved a special place for itself in Ireland’s library service. Hindsight is great, but it was always going to be so.

Ennis was the first town in Ireland to adopt the 1855 Library Act – the importance of libraries even found expression in the words of J.B. Knox, editor of The Clare Journal who wrote in 1855: “A free library for Ennis – books as free as the air we breath. Books to gladden our path and cheer us in our journey through life. Books free to all without restriction of price. Glorious privilege.

“Come and drink at the fountain of knowledge. Imbibe ye at the running stream of intelligence that this mind may receive that information collected through past ages, so fitted to enlarge the sympathies and the sphere of enjoyment both bodily and mental,” added Mr Knox.

“Can you see anyone even in this day to write like that. ‘Books as free as the air we breath’. He’s almost anticipating the internet. Remember this was just after the Famine”, says Noel. “The Board of Guardians identified a building and gave it over for the purposes of a new library – it was the Town Hall. If they had gone forward with their plan, the library would be where the Old Ground is now. It was the old convict depot.”

"Ennis was the first town to adopt the act and go ahead with a project. They had it costed at £806 and received one donation of £100. Unfortunately, the project was abandoned and the library was never opened." It wasn't until Dermot Foley's time that things started moving. Things haven't stopped since.

“With very little, he achieved a lot. He laid the foundation that’s only being appreciated now. He had no money, no resources, no staff. He was over in the courthouse, then Bindon Street, then in Bellview House.” The latter was once the county surgeon’s residence and every county librarian has lived there. Noel did twelve month’s there, it was far from the county library headquarters it is today.

“We had to extend some of the rooms, when we were drilling through some of the walls, turf mould fell out. That was the insulation. There were a lot of noises in the house at night. “I met Jim MacClancy who used to live there. He told me all he could remember was ‘ping, ping, ping, ping’. I was puzzled but he explained. ‘We were Finé Gael supporters and there was no way the Fianna Fáil dominated council was going to repair the roof. My mother was going around putting pots and pans where all the leaks were’.”

There are no need for pots and pans in the refurbished Bellview. Noel’s office is his old bedroom and he looks out the window at 1 Bindon Street, something that always held a special resonance.

“Number 1 was once the library,” he recalls. “The Old Ground owned 1 Bindon Street and county manager Joe Boland swapped it with the Town Hall sometime in the 1960s.” The library’s move around the corner to the refurbished and extended old Presbyterian Church came in 1975 – the year Noel came to town. Since then the Clare library service has been transformed. 30 years agrowing, with the most recent branch library opened up in Scariff.

“I was very lucky that when I came the flood was rising in Clare. Up to then libraries were very much part time – open only six hours a week. I always look at what happened in Tulla. The place was freezing, water running down the wall. The books were good – the backdrop was dreadful. “Mary McGrath told me to get the old market house. We got it, renovated it. An old historic building that was a dumping ground for a garage across the way was transformed. It was special. So is Ennistymon. They car pool from Ballyvaughan and Doolin to go to the library. When Anthony Edwards was up there the North Clare Writers Group was formed, so was the North Clare Historical Group and the Old Ennistymon Society. They all grew out of the library. It shows what a library can do. Our attitude is that no idea can die for lack of finance. If it’s a good idea we’ll find a way of doing it.”

And, it’s about more than putting books in libraries. They do more than books. The 1901 census recently went on line. The library website has nearly 2.5 million hits to its name.

Then there’s CLASP, the publishing arm of the library. A service that’s the envy of all Ireland and beyond. “I was sitting here with Anthony Edwards and we decided to apply to FAS for a Community Response Project. One condition was that no one washes the boss’s car. While Anthony was thinking up a name, I was thinking up a mission statement, which was to make resources for the study of the history of Clare more available and accessible to all. He came up with Clare Local Studies Project."

“It evolved from there and has changed dramatically. Initially it was arts related – we had an exhibition with any book we were publishing. Now it’s about IT training, making people have better prospects of getting a job. 150 have gone through and there’s a 95% success rate in relation to people being placed in jobs. They’re in the library, in the planning department, in the county museum and Shannon Town Council. One girl who went through the CLASP experience left school at Junior Cert. She came in here for six months and now she has a BA in Political Science. If any other library started now it would take them 10 years to catch up with Clare.

J.B. Knox would be proud. After all it was he who boasted of such a bright future for libraries in Clare. Noel Crowley is proud as he settles into retirement. When he came to Clare, decentralising library services was only a pipedream. Now there are branch libraries in all the nooks and crannies - Kilrush, Kilkee, Kilmihil, Cranny, Kildysart, Miltown Malbay, Ennistymon, Lisdoonvarna, Corofin, Newmarket, Shannon, Sixmilebridge, Tulla, Killaloe and Scariff. Fifteen and counting!

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