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Andrew Carnegie and the Irish Free Libraries

Andrew Carnegie – Pixabay

Why did a Scottish industrialist invest in education in Ireland?

Andrew Carnegie was a Scottish American, steel magnate in the 19th Century, who emigrated at the age of thirteen and his family and ended up in Allegheny City in Pittsburgh in 1848.

He worked from a young age for the Cotton factory, earning $1.20 a week but helped out in Accounts and even took evening classes to support his growing business acumen. It is the second time in his life where education informed him and gave his insights to move ahead.  

He became exceptionally successful in the steel business eventually gaining a near monopoly of steel production in the USA. And in 1901 sold the Carnegie Company and its holdings to John Pierpont Morgan’s Federal Steel Company for 480 million dollars.  

He donated between the years 1897 and 1913 and paid for the building of some 80 libraries in Ireland. Sixty-two of the libraries built have survived. Numerous imposing redbrick buildings, with an imposing edifice (including the Rathmines Library) with the embossed wording ‘Carnegie library’ were built.

Image by Birgit Böllinger from Pixabay

Why did he value education so highly?

He became exceptionally successful in the steel business eventually gaining a near monopoly of steel production in the USA. And in 1901 sold the Carnegie Company and its holdings to John Pierpont Morgan’s Federal Steel Company for 480 million dollars.  

Carnegie had given money for libraries before, but he was now to devote himself to a philanthropic career, and it was not long before Ireland was to benefit. In History Ireland it states that by early 1905 he had pledged $39.3 million dollars for 1,200 libraries in English-speaking countries, and of this money $598,000, was specifically for Ireland.

The scheme started properly in 1900 with a promise of £1,000 towards the library in Banbridge, County Down. The scheme gained momentum in 1901 reaching its peak in 1903 when gifts totalling over £49,000 were promised. Carnegie continued to pay grants for libraries until 1913 when the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust was set up. Thereafter the trust formulated its own policy but honoured promises that had already been made by Carnegie.

Where are the libraries situated in relation to the population?

Sixty-six libraries were built of which 62 survive today. They are concentrated in the Dublin area, the Belfast area, Waterford, east Cork, Kerry, and west Limerick. There are no Carnegie libraries in twenty-one of the thirty-two counties in Ireland. The greater number are in the Dublin area, as would be expected due to the greater population and the greater valuation of a capital city.

The ‘Gospel of Wealth’

“Andrew Carnegie believed that the main goal of philanthropy should be to support the system that made wealth possible,” according to Leslie Lenkowsky, a retired professor at Indiana University and philanthropy expert. It revealed that Carnegie was not the first benefactor of wealth in America, in fact he was following on from Vanderbilt, Cooper and Leland Stanford did in what the author calls the ‘Social Darwinism of his generation.’

To quote Andrew Carnegie himself, the ‘best gift that can be given to a community was the establishment of a public library’.

Andrew Carnegie
Limerick by Joyce Kelly
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