Irish Jesuits Library Sale

Jesuit library Milltown Park
Jesuit library Milltown Park

One of the most important collections of historic books, including various Shakespeare folios, a first edition of Gulliver’s Travels, signed copies of Wordsworth’s poems and medieval manuscripts, is expected to raise at least £1.8 million when it goes on sale at Sotheby’s on 7th June. The books form part of the O’Brien Collection - a historic library given to the Irish Jesuits 120 years ago.

Before putting the books up for sale, the Jesuits contacted the National Library of Ireland to enable them to review the collection and consider if they would like a number of important books and manuscript documents on long-term loan.  The National Library is accepting a number of volumes including a rare manuscript on the Kingdom of Ireland by Peter Lombard, Archbishop of Armagh, several books printed before 1500 (known as incunabula) including a book on philosophy by Boethius, dated around 1498, and Books 1-3 of the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, dated 1496. Many of these books are unique to Ireland, including the five incunabula.

According to a Jesuit spokesperson, “As a result of this consultation, the group of books and manuscripts identified above were delivered to the National Library of Ireland in late November this year”.

Several items from the collection which are of particular Irish interest are being sold in Ireland by De Burca Rare Books, Blackrock, Co. Dublin. The rest of this important collection, which is of wide international interest, will be auctioned by Sotheby’s of London.

The O’Brien Collection was left to the Jesuit Community at Milltown Park by Judge William O’Brien, a noted book collector, in 1899. William O’Brien never married or had children. During his lifetime he was a close personal friend of Sir Edward Sullivan, the Lord Chancellor. Indeed, a number of books in the collection were acquired at the sale of Sullivan’s library at Sotheby’s London between 19 May and 21 June 1890.

Sir Edward’s son was Fr. John Sullivan SJ, who converted to Catholicism and became a Jesuit. Fr Sullivan, who had a reputation for great holiness, was declared ‘Venerable’ in 2014 and approved for beatification earlier this year, 2016. He spent a short time during his Jesuit life in the Milltown Community. Justice O’Brien also became a close friend of Edward Sullivan, Fr John’s brother. Like Justice O’Brien he was a lover of books and skilled in book-binding. The judge bequeathed his library to the Community at Milltown Park on account of his friendship Edward and the family’s connection with the Jesuits.

Since then the books and manuscripts have been stored in the Milltown Park library, which had its beginnings when the Jesuits established their Schools of Philosophy and Theology in Milltown Park in the 1880s. With the Milltown Institute of Theology and Philosophy now suspended, it was decided that the Jesuit Community was no longer in a position to look after these books properly, as they require special storage conditions for long-term survival.

The spokesperson for the Jesuits added: “For some time now, we have had concerns regarding the preservation of these books and manuscripts, many of which are of such an age that they require specialist care and conservation. Furthermore, the collection has never been properly consulted by students or scholars whilst at Milltown Library. The dispersal of the O’Brien collection and the donation of books to the National Library in Ireland will now allow for these precious books to be properly cared for and appreciated.”

Proceeds from the sale will be put towards the main purposes of the Milltown Charitable Trust, including the upkeep of churches, the care of invalid priests, relief of the poor, and religious education. It will also go towards the maintenance and modernisation of the Milltown library. The main library at Milltown remains completely untouched, and after the sale it will still hold all the important and unique theology and philosophy books most relevant to the Jesuit work there.

Shakespeare folio, Irish JesuitsThe highlight of the sale is expected to be the Shakespeare folios, which a spokeswoman for the auctioneer described as “the bedrock of the literary culture in the English-speaking world”. The second (published in 1632, 30 years after his death), third (1664) and fourth (1685) will be sold. The third folio is the rarest because an unknown number of unsold copies were destroyed when the Great Fire of London ripped through the city’s booksellers in 1666. It is expected to fetch up to £50,000.

To complement the Shakespeare, there is a 1587 edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles, which is widely believed to have provided inspiration for Shakespeare’s history plays, and a 1561 edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The playwright is believed to have used the same edition as the source for his play Troilus and Cressida.

Another famous inspiration in the sale is Jonathan Swift’s copy of the Welsh pirate Lionel Wafer’s account of his travels to the western coast of South America and the West Indies, published in 1699. It is believed to have served as inspiration for Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels – a first edition of which is also included in the sale.

Other books expected to be in demand among collectors are a rare first edition of Francis Bacon’s The Advancement of Learning, one of the key texts in the development of modern scientific thought. It is expected to fetch up to £50,000. The Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493, which is described by the auctioneer as the most elaborately illustrated books printed in Europe in the 15th century. The book, estimated to fetch up to £40,000, was printed by Albrecht Dürer’s godfather Anton Koberger and is filled with thousands of woodcuts of kings, queens, martyrs and monsters, as well as early representations of towns – although Peter Selley, Sotheby’s book specialist, said many of them sprang from the illustrators’ imaginations rather than reality.

Bibliophile William O’Brien amassed the books in the 1880s and 1890s. An Irish judge, O’Brien’s previous claim to fame was presiding over the infamous Phoenix Park murder trial in 1882. The library has hardly been touched or catalogued since it was left to the care of the Jesuit community college at Milltown in Dublin, following the judge’s death a century ago.

Because the collection is rarely used by scholars and many of the manuscripts need specialist care, the Jesuits have decided to sell the library, in the hope of finding collectors who will preserve and enjoy the books.

Describing the library as a “time capsule” of late 19th-century book collecting, Selley said: “It’s a very special collection. It was put together at a time when many country house libraries were coming onto the market, so at that point you had a great choice of what to buy.”

Of the highlights, the books specialist said his particular favourite was Richard Hakluyt’s Principles of Navigation, which was printed at the end of the 16th century. “Hakluyt corresponded with many of the great explorers of the age, including Francis Drake. So it includes some of the earliest descriptions from the Age of Discovery. However, there is also a lot of conjecture in the descriptions.” The book also provides a rare glimpse into the intrigues of the Elizabethan court: a reference in the book to the Earl of Essex’s “victory at Cadiz” was suppressed entirely from the second edition, after Elizabeth I’s favourite had been executed for treason.

Collectors’ interest will be piqued by the incunabula – books printed before 1501 – which is described as one of the most important collections ever assembled. Containing 100 texts, it is a rare exploration of early modern and late medieval travel, thinking and theology. An indication of the size of the collection is that the University of Cambridge had one of the largest libraries at the beginning of the 14th century, which consisted of 122 books.

Selley said that interest in buying rare books has moved in recent years from the English-speaking world to include Asia, especially China. “The collecting fraternity is shifting,” he said. “It used to be very much the Anglo-American and European market. Then the Japanese began collecting Shakespeare folios, but that interest has been replaced by new markets in Asia.”