It mightn't have the immediate appeal of a brewery or a big old church, but this magnificently preserved scholars' library, virtually unchanged in three centuries, is one of Dublin's most beautiful open secrets, and an absolute highlight of any visit. Few think to scale its ancient stairs to see its beautiful, dark oak bookcases, each topped with elaborately carved and gilded gables, and crammed with books. Here you can savour the atmosphere of three centuries of learning, slow into synch with the tick-tocking of the 19th-century grandfather clock, listen to the squeaky boards and record the scent of leather and learning. It's amazing how many people visit St Patrick's Cathedral next door and overlook this gem – they're mad, they don't deserve a holiday.
Founded in 1701 by Archbishop Narcissus Marsh (1638–1713) and opened in 1707, the library was designed by Sir William Robinson, the man also responsible for the Royal Hospital Kilmainham . It's the oldest public library in the country, and contains 25,000 books dating from the 16th to the early 18th century, as well as maps, manuscripts (including one in Latin dating back to 1400) and a collection of incunabula (books printed before 1500). In its one nod to the 21st century, the library's current 'keeper', Dr Muriel McCarthy, is the first woman to hold the post.
Apart from theological books and bibles in dozens of languages, there are tomes on medicine, law, travel, literature, science, navigation, music and mathematics. One of the oldest and finest books is a volume of Cicero's Letters to His Friends, printed in Milan in 1472. The most important of the four main collections is the 10,000-strong library of Edward Stillingfleet, bishop of Worcester.
Most of Marsh's own extensive collection is also here, and there are various items that used to belong to Jonathan Swift (dean of St Patrick's Cathedral), including his copy of History of the Great Rebellion . His margin notes include a number of comments vilifying Scots, of whom he seemed to have a low opinion.
Like the rest of the library, the three alcoves, in which scholars were once locked to peruse rare volumes, have remained virtually unchanged for three centuries. Don't worry though: the skull in the furthest one doesn't belong to some poor forgotten scholar, it's a cast of the head of Stella, Swift's other half. The library is also home to Delmas Conservation Bindery, which repairs and restores rare old books, and makes an appearance in Joyce's Ulysses .