Today I visited the Falls Road Library and then travelled across to the Shankill Road Library to see the refurbishment work which is becing carried out by Libraries NI and funded by my department. In both cases the work will really improve the appearance of the buildings and enhance the facilities for users.
The Falls Road Library is a Carnegie library and opened in 1908., while the Shankill Road library was built in 1928 but in both cases Belfast Corporation demonstrated a regard for quality and art.
Above the door of the Falls Road Library there is a set of beautiful sculptures by the Ulster sculptor Rosamund Praeger (1867-1954), who lived in Holywood and whose work can be found in varous parts of Belfast, including Belfast City Cemetery and First Presbyterian Church in Rosemary Street.
In the case of the Shankill Road Library, the main room upstairs was designed as a museum with appropriate lighting to protect artefacts. The contents of that museum were later handed over to the Ulster Museum and are probably in storage. Even more surprising was the discovery that a sculpture entitled Early Sorrow, by the Belfast sculptor Patrick MacDowell (1799-1870), used to stand on the top landing.
The name of Patrick MacDowell may not be familiar to many people in Belfast today but his work probably is. It includes the statue of the original Black Man, the Earl of Belfast, which stands on the rotunda in Belfast City Hall, and the white marble scene of the dying earl and his mother, which is inside the entrance of the City Hall. There is a third sculpture by MacDowell in the City Hall and that is the bust of Sir James Emerson Tennent, which is also on the rotunda.
Tennent, who was MP for Belfast from 1832 to 1845, became a patron to MacDowell and played an important role in the development of his career. Ironically there are two streets across the road from Shankill Road Library, Tennent Street and Emerson Street, and these were named after Sir James Emerson Tennent.
I was told by the librarian Mark Knowles that this beautiful sculpture is now in storage in the Ulster Museum but that it may be placed on loan to the library when the refurbishment is completed and I hope this can be a long term loan. It is good to get art out of the stores and visible to the public and what better place than the library which was the former home of this wonderful sculpture.
I understand that the Ulster Museum also holds the artefacts which were in the old upstairs library and again it would also be good to consider whether some of these artefacts can be brought back and exhibited in the library. If they are not being exhibited in the Ulster Museum or any of the other national museums then surely it is better to look at alternative places where they can be seen and enjoyed, rather than staying in storage.
The refurbishment of the library is a contribution to the development of a Shankill Cultural Quarter and wll complement the improvments at the Spectrum Centre across the road. The return of the MacDowell sculpture and other artefacts would also contribute to the development of a cultural quarter.
The Belfast councillors who built these libraries, are often portrayed as hard headed Ulster businessmen who had little regard for art and culture. The fact that they wanted people to enjoy the works of such great Ulster sculptors as Praeger and MacDowell says otherwise.