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Turning Over a New Leaf

Clare Champion, Friday, 2nd February 2001

Twenty years ago, the Clare Library Service embarked on a ground breaking and innovative partnership involving community participation in the provision of library facilities. AnCO, as they were known then, were encouraged to come on board and the marriage of all three has reaped tangible rewards in several Clare centres. The flagship project was in Tulla's old Market House and Sixmilebridge, in the Old Church of Ireland building, is the fifth in line, reports Gerry McInerney.

A new chapter in what could only be described as a major success story will be opened to the people of Sixmilebridge and surrounding parishes on Friday when Environment Minister, Noel Dempsey, visits the village to give his stamp of approval to the St. Kilfinaghty Public Library Project. The state-of-the-art library, located in the landmark and imposing Church of Ireland stone building, stands as much a testimony to the foresight and enthusiasm of a local community, under the leadership of David Deighan, as it does to the innovative partnership arrangement in which the Clare County Librarian, Noel Crowley, has been the catalyst.

David Deighan and Eilis O'Nuallain in Kilfinaghty library
David Deighan and Eilis O'Nuallain, Architect in the new Library at Sixmilebridge.
Photograph: Eamon Ward.
Of the Sixmilebridge project, Noel has this to say: "This is a wonderful achievement both by the community of Sixmilebridge and Clare County Council. The restoration work is superb and nothing has been taken from the character of the old Church of Ireland building in the renovation programme", he said. "Sixmilebridge is experiencing a major boom. There is a genuine need to provide a focus for local cultural and education development and that need has been satisfied through the installation of modern library facilities. There will be 14,000 volumes available to members and six computers with internet access and we expect to have over 1,000 members. It is a fantastic development and the 1999 AIB Better Ireland Award is one of the many awards the church conservation project will win. It is a suitable location for exhibitions and special events associated with the arts, culture and learning. Sixmilebridge will now find itself as a full partner in any library developments going on", he predicted.

Mr. Crowley pointed out the Clare County Libraries partnership with local communities went back to the early 1980's when the derelict Market House at Tulla was renovated and re-opened as a modern branch library to serve Tulla and its hinterland. "This co-operation between the local community, AnCO and the library service has served the area well and the Tulla branch is one of the most used buildings in the area with 600 readers, an annual book issue of 18,000 items and 700 internet bookings", he added.

The next partnership, in Corofin, was with the Genealogical Centre and it culminated in the opening of the new library, on the site of the old police barracks, in 1992. 

Three years later a magnificent modern public library was opened in the renovated woodwork room of the old Vocational School in Miltown Malbay. Miltown has been a great success story receiving rave reviews from many quarters. With over 700 members, the library issues over 25,000 items each year and had 800 internet bookings last year alone", he said.

Meanwhile, Lisdoonvarna Library, situated in the old Iron and Magnesia Pump Room, was officially opened in November 1999. This project came to fruition through a partnership involving the Council, FÁS, Lisdoonvarna Fáilte and Lisdoonvarna Community Council and the £60,000 facility replaced the first public library in the North Clare town which was opened in 1951 by Councillor James O'Brien.

Meanwhile, Friday's official opening of St. Kilfinaghty Public Library in Sixmilebridge will bring to an end a campaign that had its origins in 1995 when the Church Conservation Committee was established. The Committee was representative of organisations in the community and its stated objective was to conserve Kilfinaghty Church of Ireland, which had fallen into a state of dereliction since its closure in 1970, and provide a library facility. This Committee was headed up by Chairman, David Deighan and the other members were Tim Crowe (Secretary), Edwin Bailey (Treasurer), Vincent Delaney, Rita Higgins, Angela McNamara, Fr. Albert McDonnell, Joan Reddan, Noel Crowley (County Librarian), Gerard Dollard (Finance Officer) while the project architect was Eilis O'Nuallain (MRIAI).

According to Chairman, David Deighan, six key tasks were immediately identified to achieve their objectives and a completion date of 2000 was set. Those tasks include the acquisition of the building, roof replacement, building and site conservation, tower restoration, library installation and funding.

But such was the scale of the project that it was beyond the means of the local community to adopt a go it alone policy and, consequently, Clare County Council agreed to be a partner in the project. Five years down the road, and after an outlay of £500,000, the imposing stone building has been immaculately renovated.

"Every time we seemed to hit a brick wall, something positive happened", explained David. "The County Librarian, Noel Crowley, was of enormous help, as he was totally committed to seeing the library in such a prestigious location. FÁS also agreed to come on board.  Local woman, Eilis O'Nuallain, was appointed project architect and conservation consultant and plans and estimates were prepared and agreed. It was then down to hard selling and fund raising.

The new Kilfinaghty library in Sixmilebridge
A view of the new library in Sixmilebridge this week.
Photograph: Eamon Ward.

An immediate appeal netted £5,000 straight off and this covered the purchase price while Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney, was magnanimous in agreeing to autograph 200 copies of his valuable collection "Station Island". This unique book sale brought in £10,000 and as a payback the Committee have decided to name the galley in the library in his honour.

Next up was the roof replacement. According to David, a specialist roofing contractor was appointed and the work, which cost £23,000 and took six weeks to complete, was met in full by Clare County Council.

The building and site conservation work got underway in February 1998 and in tandem with that was the start of up of the FÁS Community Youth Programme. Ruan man, Tim Casey was appointed Supervisor and five trainees were recruited. New floors were laid and the crypts were preserved on the advice of an archaeologist and the National Museum of Ireland. 

The Georgian windows were removed, cleaned and replaced and this delicate and painstaking operation was undertaken, on a voluntary basis, by a local craftsman. "He did an absolutely brilliant job and saved us £12,000. He was so meticulous to the conservation in every little detail, that the windows have already been lauded by conservation specialists", commented Mr. Deighan.

In 1906, a stained glass window in three panels, manufactured by the Dublin workshop of An Tur Gloine and donated by the Ievers family, was inserted into the east gable of the church. When the church was closed in 1970 that window was removed for safekeeping, restored and installed in St. Cronan's Church in Tuamgraney, the home of the East Clare Heritage Centre. Now fitted in its place is another stained glass window which was designed by Dublin glass artist, Danny Grace, and sponsored by Boart Longyear in Shannon. "The window, donated by Danny, tells the story of the former church, the conservation work and of the library. These are depicted by the sun for the spirit of hope, an image of the church, images of workmen restoring the church, the salmon of wisdom and the book of learning", David explained.

Kilfinaghty library as it looked before the restoration work began
Sixmilebridge Library as it looked before the restoration work began.
Photograph: Eamon Ward.
After that, the concentration of the Committee shifted in another direction, the restoration of the tower after a report concluded that the upper section was in a dangerous condition. Specialist work was required to carry out the repairs and the cost was estimated to set the Committee back £20,000. Tenders were sought, the contractor was appointed and work commenced initially on borrowed resources. A Friends of Kilfinaghty Public Library Project was launched and fifty people, from inside and outside the county, chipped in with their contributions. The advantages of a Government Library Tax Benefit Scheme were availed of and this brought a cheque in the post for £16,000.

The Library development was adopted as a Council Millennium Project and the Minister for the Environment, Noel Dempsey, allocated resources for the library. The doors were thrown open to the public a few weeks ago on a restricted basis. However, from next Friday onwards it will be full steam ahead.

Obviously thrilled that the venture has been completed, Mr. Deighan added: "the project created a dynamic for enterprise and development in the community of Sixmilebridge and the marvellous facility illustrates that if there's a will, there's a way".