Historic collection turns the page at DCU’s newest library
A valuable collection from the Irish Jesuit Library has been housed in the newly created Woodlock Hall library on DCU’s historic All Hallows Campus in Drumcondra.
For those who haven’t had the pleasure of visiting DCU’s All Hallows campus in recent times, the University’s newest library will come as something of a surprise. The historic campus is known for its eclectic mix of architectural styles - everything from the stately Georgian grandeur of Drumcondra House to the neo-Gothic “Hogwarts” interiors of Senior House.
Now, All Hallows can also boast a truly modern architectural gem, in the shape of Woodlock Hall Library - an award-winning piece of architecture that has transformed the former refectory space. There’s a hush that happens when you first enter the redesigned Woodlock Hall. It is not a huge room, but it is impressive nonetheless. Bookshelves hug three sides of the space. On the left as you enter, the shelving rises to three storeys, accessed via steel-constructed stairs and walkways. The rusty red colour of the shelves and furniture gives an unexpectedly warm feeling to the library, while the tall church-like windows are a glowing declaration of its long history.
Rising above the librarians’ station is Mick O’Dea’s imposing artwork ‘The Foggy Dew’. The piece was gifted to DCU by The One Foundation and depicts 18 leaders of the 1916 Rising.
The origins of the Woodlock Hall project lay in the desire to develop the All Hallows campus, following its acquisition by DCU, and to establish a library to complement the existing facilities on the other two academic campuses.
Project manager Eánán O’Doherty from DCU Estates explains that “it was felt that Woodlock Hall, as a space, wasn’t being used to its maximum potential. At the same time, there was a desire to create an academic focal point for All Hallows, and that focal point was to be the library.”
An opportunity to advance those goals came with the signing of an agreement, in December 2019, which was to see the Jesuit Library collection at Milltown transferred to the care of DCU. “It’s a bit like the tip of the iceberg,” says University Librarian John McDonough. “What you see in Woodlock Hall is only a fraction of the total collection amounting to over 130,000 in Woodlock, O’Reilly [Library] and held offsite.”
The agreement to take on the Jesuits’ huge collection added a new urgency to the Woodlock Hall library project. Planning was already underway for the redevelopment of the space. Eánán O’Doherty had gathered a multi-disciplinary team for the project and Derry-based architects Mullarkey Pedersen were on board to design the new library.
In approaching this design task, Ciaran Mullarkey, director of Mullarkey Pedersen, says he wanted to draw inspiration from “the rich tradition of libraries in the West”, ranging from the ancient library at Ephesus, to 18th century libraries such as Trinity College’s Long Room. This was to be a library where, “book and space became architecture.” In designing the library, the architect says his team also wanted to create a design that was sensitive to the existing Gothic Revival style of Senior House.
The need to honour and conserve the existing space was not just a creative decision, there were also strict planning and heritage requirements, which brought a whole range of challenges. The regulations meant that there could be no adaptation of the internal walls or ceiling of Woodlock Hall. To get around this, the shelving was designed to be free standing. Meanwhile, the original fireplaces were retained, and remain on view in specially designed alcoves.
O’Doherty says the project team was very much aware of its responsibilities when taking on the task. “All Hallows is recognised as a heritage site and within that designated heritage there are various listed buildings including Senior House. As a duty of care we need to maintain and protect these structures and it’s important that we do it properly. That was one of the real driving factors of the design.”
Planning regulations did allow for the excavation of the floor and the installation of an air-to-water underfloor heating system. Woodlock Hall is now DCU’s first passive space and O’Doherty believes it is a template for future projects. In addition, there are plans to switch Woodlock over to a geothermal heat source drawn from the well that was recently drilled on the All Hallows campus.
As with any project of this scale, construction created large amounts of dust, and required the safe removal of large amounts of rubble - all within the confines of a working university campus. An even bigger challenge was to come in the shape of the Covid-19 pandemic, which forced the closure of the site for over three months. O’Doherty is full of praise for the project team members for the way in which they pressed on despite the difficulties they faced.
The construction phase was just one part of the Woodlock jigsaw. In parallel to the conversion work, a dedicated team of DCU Library staff spent almost six months to complete the task of selecting and cataloguing from the contents of the Milltown Collection [to create and shelve this new sub collection for Woodlock Hall. “People just see the books on the shelves but they don’t realise the whole process behind having to identify, select and describe to have them ready for use,” says McDonough.
A welcome affirmation of the Woodlock Hall project came in May 2022, when the design was one of five winners of the Architectural Association of Ireland Awards 2022. The design was also commended in the Royal Irish Architecture Institute Awards. After the years of committed work by DCU Estates and Library staff, and the major investment that has gone into the project, the constant aim of the Woodlock Hall project was to create an excellent learning environment for students. With 70 individual reading places and 18,000 items available to borrow, McDonough believes that DCU’s newest library is an ideal space for postgraduates and researchers.
“It’s very much set up in line with the more traditional approach such as in the National Library or the National Archives for the individual scholar rather than collaborative learning or collaborative research. And I think it very much complements the Cregan, because the Cregan is about informal spaces, group spaces. The Woodlock offers an alternative type of library space, just 200 metres away.”
At the official opening of the library in December 2022, Father Leonard Moloney SJ, Irish Jesuit Provincial said he was delighted that the Jesuit collection had found an “architecturally stunning” new home. Fr Moloney believes the success of the project is thanks to a spirit of genuine partnership:
“The extensive collection was always an important resource for scholarship and research, and it is great to see it being restored to its former role as a living library.
“They say books are friends but, in this case, they have helped create new friends for us in the Jesuit province. Our partnership with DCU, especially with Professor Dáire Keogh and former Professor Brian MacCraith, has been not only fruitful but enjoyable. I am grateful to them, to all the former staff of the Milltown Library, and to my Jesuit brothers, for their support in this venture which marks an exciting new era in the long history of this unique library.”
Tom Swift is University Content Editor at DCU