Literary Lifeline: The Carnegie Bookcases

The Carnegie Library Bookcase

On a visit to any of the Great Lighthouses of Ireland, you might spot a beautiful bookcase, placed carefully in a corner or on a shelf. Far from just a nifty wooden box for storing books, these historic cases were a lifeline for many lightkeepers and owe their existence to a certain Mr Andrew Carnegie.

From Poverty to Philanthropy

Andrew Carnegie (1835 – 1919) was one of the best known philanthropists of his time. Born to poor parents in Dunfermline, Scotland, at just 13 he and his parents emigrated to the United States. On arrival, young Andrew worked in a cotton factory in Pittsburgh and soon afterwards became a telegraph messenger boy.

When he was 20, his father died and Andrew alone was left to support his mother and younger brother. At this time he became a telegraph operator in the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, rising up through the ranks to the post of superintendent.

Andrew Carnegie

Shrewd and forward-thinking, Andrew then bought shares in the first company set up to run railway sleeping cars, and bought oil-rich land in Pennsylvania State. These investments soon yielded a profit, laying the foundations of his huge fortune.

After the American Civil War, Carnegie became an iron manufacturer, building a great steel works in Pittsburgh and enjoying renown as a prominent industrialist. In 1901 he sold all his shares and business property and retired with a fortune of over 100 million dollars, making him one of the world’s richest men.

And if you thought the name sounded familiar… New York’s world-famous Carnegie Hall is named in his honour!

Carnegie once said that “a man dies disgraced if he leaves millions of dollars which he could have used in his lifetime for the benefit of mankind.” In this belief, he began to give his money away, in a manner that mainly involved helping people to help themselves.

Carnegie Libraries

Carnegie is best known for building and equipping more than 2,500 libraries in Great Britain, the United States, and other English-speaking countries; establishing these libraries cost over 60 million dollars. On the island of Ireland, Bangor Library, Co Down, Rathmines Library in Dublin and Kilkenny Library are among the many boasting Carnegie heritage.


Carnegie Library

Company for the Keepers

In those early years of the 20th century, before the advent of radio and television, the lighthouse keepers around our coasts lived relatively lonely lives, and in many cases served six-week periods of duty at a time.

Consequently, the Carnegie libraries in coastal towns granted a special concession to the lightkeepers by providing each station with an oak bookcase which was regularly re-stocked with a new selection of books. This generous supply of books continued well into the second half of the 20th century and no doubt shortened many a long night.

Now that all the lighthouses are automated and without resident keepers, the fine old oak bookcases that remain in the keepers’ dwellings continue to bear silent witness to the great generosity of Andrew Carnegie, philanthropist extraordinaire.

See one of these exquisite bookcases for yourself, visit or stay in one of the Great Lighthouses of Ireland.



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