Volunteers Judy Donovan Whitty (left) and Denise Carriere are shown with some books in the circulating library at the Benevolent Irish Society in Charlottetown. [Paula Kenny]

Irish library at the BIS

George O’Connor’s dream is now a reality

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It required more than a decade but many volunteers have finally brought the dream of an Irish library to fruition.

More than a decade ago, the late George O’Connor had the dream to create a library focused on Ireland and the Irish diaspora. He and some folks developed the concept—the library would include books by Irish authors, books about “the auld sod,” and books by descendants of Irish emigrants and the places where they settled.

The group got permission to dedicate a room as the library at the Benevolent Irish Society (BIS) and found the funds to build the shelves on three walls. Slowly, O’Connor and his volunteers filled a few shelves with donations from BIS members. There were novels, history books, back issues of magazine subscriptions, genealogical material, and a lot of coffee table books. There were also a lot of empty shelves and the room remained closed most of the time.

Two unrelated events reinvigorated the project. Dr. Brendan O’Grady, supporter and long-time volunteer at BIS, had also passed away and his family donated the bulk of his personal library to the BIS—a collection numbering in the hundreds. At around the same time, the new BIS president, Mary Ellen Callaghan, put out a call to the former library committee and other BIS members to move the library project forward.

With technical support from volunteer Peter Grant and coordination assistance from Paula Kenny, a core group came together to catalogue the growing collection of books that had been further boosted by significant donations from members Patrick Fitzgerald, Michael Hennessey and BIS patron George Mullally. By the summer of 2020, almost 1700 books had been entered into the digital catalogue.

This little library was crying out to be shared with the public and so, the BIS members’ browsing library became a circulating library for the general public. The behind-the-scenes volunteers needed to be augmented by several hospitable volunteers who could greet visitors and assist them with their library loans. The team grew to eight and the library opened to the public two days each week for a total of four hours. This grew to being open daily this past summer thanks to a student employee funded by SkillsPEI. It was unthinkable to return to opening only two days a week after the summer, so the volunteer corps grew again to support what had been achieved by all these volunteers.

At least 99 percent of the Irish library books are in English and arranged like any library, with a fiction and a non-fiction sections, which includes a category for Irish language and books in Gaelige, history (both of Ireland and the Irish diaspora), biographies, drama, poetry and travel, as well as some Irish humour and music.

All are welcome to borrow or just browse the library. Borrowers do not need to be BIS members but membership is now open to anyone with an interest in Irish culture. Non-members should have identification to show to begin using the library. There is no fee to borrow books. Access to the digital library is available.

The library is fully accessible and open on weekdays from 10 am–1 pm, except on Thursdays, when it is open from  3–6 pm. Located in the Edward Whelan Irish Cultural Centre, 582 North River Road, Charlottetown.

Additional volunteers are always needed. If interested, contact Paula at 629-0340.

— Submitted by Paula Kenny

Benevolent Irish Societylibrary