Most people go to Dublin for the pubs, the music, the people-watching, the bookstores, the strolls along the Liffey, the buskers, the great cathedrals, the history, the grand literary tradition, the lovely accents, all that green.
Last spring my husband and I went there for those reasons, too. But we also went there for the quirky, nerdy museums that only a certain kind of bookish introvert could love. Such as, ahem, us.
Dublin abounds in libraries and museums, and you may already know the famous ones: the lovely old library at Trinity College where the Book of Kells is displayed in a glass case; or the National Gallery with its room of Jack B. Yeats paintings, and its oh-so-lovely Paul Henry landscapes, or the National Photographic Archive down in Temple Bar.
But for true book lovers, there are lesser known museums worth a visit.
Head around the corner from St. Patrick's Cathedral, down a stone staircase, across a rainy courtyard, under an ivy-twined arch, up a steep staircase. Here you'll find the oldest public library in Ireland.
Its rooms are long and narrow, with ancient books and the crisp, dry smell of old leather and brittle paper. It was built in 1701 and is, today, perhaps more museum than usable library. (You can still look at books there, just as James Joyce did, but you have to make your request in advance.
The books are ancient and valuable, and some are falling apart. The inventory is searchable online at www.marshlibrary.ie/)
The library's interior has remained unchanged for 300 years, with dark oak bookcases, wooden ladders to reach the high shelves, old leather-bound books, domed ceilings to let in natural light, and three locked cages. They are more respectfully referred to as "wired alcoves," or "stalls," but cages they truly are. A hundred years ago, or 200, or 300, when people requested small, valuable books, books that could be easily concealed about one's person, they were locked in while they did their research to make sure that the books did not disappear.
These days, of course, the cages are kept shut; nobody studies inside them anymore. We peered through the wire fronts to see a cozy enough space with a reading desk, a shelf of old books, and, in one of them -- wittily, of course -- a human skull.
The library was a beautiful place, with that rich, bookish hush of old-fashioned libraries. I would not have minded being locked in there, not one bit, though I would have requested a cage not already occupied by bones.
Chester Beatty Library
This modern space in ancient Dublin Castle is a rich homage to books from all cultures and of all types. It houses a marvelous collection of manuscripts -- vellum, papyrus, illuminated manuscripts of the Quran and the Bible -- and centuries-old hand-bound books with leather-and-gilt covers and marbled end sheets and hand-set type.
Chester Beatty was an American mining engineer and an avid collector of books and manuscripts. He moved to Ireland in 1950 and opened his library four years later. In 1957 he was named the first honorary citizen of Ireland. The library moved to Dublin Castle in 2000.
At one time, books were so revered they were treated as almost holy, bedecked with jewels and gold leaf, painstakingly put together, one by one, in a process that could take weeks, even months.
As I walked past the glass display cases of these beautiful artifacts from around the world, my mind kept repeating one word: Kindle.
National Print Museum
A little way outside of the city center, along the Grand Canal, the National Print Museum is perfect for the wanderings of a couple of longtime newspaper reporters.
It's a place ripe for nostalgia, with big old printing presses, great wooden cabinets with skinny drawers packed tightly with lead type and space bars, the smell of metal and ink, filtered sunlight, old brick walls, and worn wooden printers tables. You can trace the history of printing here, from letterpress to linotype to computer.
But this museum is actually quite active, hosting lectures, classes and workshops. Some of the old presses are still in use, and while we wandered around in our nostalgic haze, a young woman laboriously (and happily) hand-set type for a project of her own.
On a wall hangs one of the few remaining original 1916 proclamations that declared Ireland a republic. It was printed secretly on a Columbian printing press in Dublin, and read aloud by Padraig Pearse from the steps of the General Post Office to mark the beginning of the Easter Rising. Not the same printing press, but a replica, is on display here. You stare at it and feel the thrill of revolution.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune books editor. She is at 612-673-7302.