Paul Pollard

Historian of the Dublin book trade
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The Independent Online

Three weeks ago, on 9 June, a crowd thronged the lofty Long Room of the 18th-century library of Trinity College, Dublin. They were gathered to launch a Festschrift for Mary, always known as "Paul", Pollard. The setting was apt since she had long presided there as rare books librarian. She had been the first to occupy the post. Indeed, but for her unique attributes it would not then have been created.

Brought up in a medical family which had emigrated from Ireland to England, she too had been inclined to follow the tradition. Educated at Hawnes School near Bedford, she studied for several years at medical school. A change of direction led to her employment at Southlands Teacher Training College in Surrey. There she also trained as a professional librarian, putting the training into practice when she arrived in Dublin in 1957.

She came to work in two of its remarkable 18th-century libraries. A job at Trinity was combined with one in the smaller and - at the time - neglected library founded by the Protestant Archbishop Narcissus Marsh in 1707. Throughout the 1960s, any reader intrepid enough to investigate the books was well advised to wear an overcoat of the thickest Donegal tweed. The library, hard by the graveyard of St Patrick's Cathedral and in the precincts of St Sepulchre's, once the palace of the archbishops of Dublin but now a police station, remained her home long after it had ceased to be one of her places of work.

Devoting herself full-time to Trinity, she was appointed first Keeper of Early Printed Books: an appointment that paralleled the slightly earlier creation of a keepership of the manuscripts. Like her counterpart in manuscripts, William O'Sullivan, she fought fiercely for the highest standards of cataloguing and care. Such battles hardly endeared her to blinkered administrators, but were applauded by scholars within and far beyond Dublin. So she created a department, which became an essential centre for all enquiring into the printed culture of Ireland.

With a control of mischief and invective in the tradition of Jonathan Swift and his contemporaries, she revived the squib and verse satire. The productions, on a hand press under the imprint of St Sepulchre's and (latterly) the Trinity Closet Press, will become collectors' pieces. One signalled a foray by Pollard into public controversy. In 1972, the benchers of the Dublin inn of court, the King's Inns, decided to raise money for necessary improvements (notably to their kitchens) by selling books. Paul Pollard was to the fore - with Nick Robinson, husband of the later president of Ireland, Mary Robinson - in decrying the sale. The protests were unavailing and led to "Miss Pollard - that woman!" being demonised by some within the Irish legal world.

What's a few mouldy books when the B-enchers can eat?

When our noble justiciars can gobble up Caxtons

And belch in contentment, their bellies replete?

Through her scholarship, pluck and - sometimes - bloody-mindedness, she ensured that the books in her care at Trinity were expertly catalogued, preserved and made accessible to the interested. With meagre means, she bought discriminatingly for the library, especially Irish plays and novels. On her own behalf, she collected books for children, many of which she has bequeathed to Trinity College. Locally, her exacting standards attracted young disciples, several of whom now oversee historic libraries in Dublin. She was saddened to see favourite associates, such as Noel Jameson and Vincent Kinane, die before her.

Her wider renown as the leading authority of print in Ireland brought an invitation to deliver the Lyell Lectures in Oxford. The resulting book, Dublin's Trade in Books, 1550-1800 (by "M. Pollard", 1989), revealed her technical mastery of complex subjects - the laws of copyright, prices of paper and labour, volumes of imports and exports. Her numerous fresh insights into the social, cultural and confessional histories of Ireland are slowly being followed up.

In 2000 there appeared a second work unlikely ever to be superseded, A Dictionary of the Members of the Dublin Book Trade, 1550-1800. Besides being a biographical and bibliographical treasure-chest, it laid bare for the first time the structure and dynamics of a trade organisation in 18th-century Dublin - then the second city of the Hanoverians' empire.

Soon after Marsh's Library was built and opened, the tide of fashion floated the prosperous and smart to more salubrious quarters of Dublin. Late in the 1950s, Paul Pollard established herself in what had been a section of the librarians' original dwelling under the first-floor library. With some rooms apparently at the same level as the cadavers in the adjacent burial ground, the apartment in winter had a sepulchral chill to which only perhaps Sheridan Le Fanu could have done justice. In the enclosed area beside the library, she created a garden in which, as with the books, the choice and rare were cherished. Impatient as she was with interloping tourists who disturbed her and the birds that she loved, it was suspected that the rambling roses were allowed to grow whip-like trails so as to lash those who pried into her privacy.

The size of the group assembled in the Long Room to celebrate the publication of That Woman: studies in Irish bibliography attested to the respect and affection in which Paul Pollard was held. Moreover, the essayists - drawn from Ireland, Britain, continental Europe and North America - showed the power and reach of her influence. Diminutive in stature, she could be brisk, even brusque in manner and never wavered in her standards of bibliographical analysis and description. As a result, some at the party speculated as to which contributor would be first to receive a hand-written note, appreciative but courteously correcting an egregious error or grammatical infelicity.

Her death, within a fortnight of that celebration, prevents any rebuke. Instead there are left indelible memories of a figure who linked the 18th to the 20th century and, in doing so, saved and illumined vital aspects of Irish culture.

Toby Barnard