Ailbhe Darcy explains her love of libraries in the latest addition to our collection of short essays in our Writers’ Rooms series. Darcy was born in Dublin in 1981. She studied for her PhD and MFA at the University of Notre Dame in the US, and taught there and at the University of Münster in Germany. She is now a lecturer in creative writing at Cardiff University. Imaginary Menagerie (Bloodaxe Books, 2011), her first book-length collection, was shortlisted for Ireland’s dlr Strong Award. Darcy’s second collection, Insistence, was published by Bloodaxe in 2018 and was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize and the Irish Times Poetry Now Award. It won the won the Pigott Poetry Prize, Ireland’s largest poetry prize. It also won the Roland Mathias Poetry Award, the English language poetry category of the Wales Book of the Year Awards, and went on to be awarded the overall prize, Wales Book of the Year 2019.
This table, so far as I know, is the only table within easy walking distance of my current home where just anyone can sit and read and write. It isn’t always covered in plastic toy bricks, but it isn’t always available either; and when it’s available, it’s often full.
Rhiwbina library is easily the ugliest building in Rhiwbina, but at least it has the words LLYFRGELL RHIWBINA LIBRARY on the front of it, so there’s no denying it’s a library. The only other public library within easy walking distance is in Llanishen, but we’re supposed to call that a hub. It doesn’t have a decent table. On Sundays and Tuesdays, both libraries are closed.
I was lucky, growing up. I lived close to the Carnegie library in Dundrum, built in 1914. It had big tables and a beautiful spiral staircase and could boast that W.B. Yeats had attended its opening. I’ve loved many libraries since. The old Whitechapel library in London, where I used to go, is gone. I have a photograph of myself working in the public library in South Bend, Indiana, two days before Christmas. My husband is behind the camera, our baby is in childcare, and I am happy. It is my thirty-second birthday. Look at the size of that coffee!
Between America and Wales, we lived in Germany. Then, as now, we rented a place in the suburbs, but I was unemployed and had time to cycle into the city centre almost every day. My destination was the Stadtbücherei Münster, a modernist extravaganza that caused uproar when it was built. It was designed with real attention to the variety of ways that public libraries are used. It has many, many tables; my favourite was in the nose of the building, jutting out over the city.
I wonder where people are supposed to go to read and dream and write, when there aren’t any libraries or all the libraries have turned into hubs. In Llandaff, half an hour’s cycle from my home, there’s a Victorian mansion called Insole Court. It was built, of course, with coal money. It, too, housed a public library for a while, but in 1988, Cardiff Council threatened to sell it to developers. Locals clubbed together to save it, and now it’s open to the public. In theory, anyone can wander in and sit in the reading room and write, but it takes a certain sense of entitlement and a degree of self-regard to actually go ahead and do it. Visitors pop in from time to time to admire the painted walls and the Burgess-style wood carvings; they apologise for interrupting me.
Until recently, our local leisure centre had a lounge where anyone could sit. There were tables and sofas. I’d see teenagers in there after school and think: well done you, for finding it. But they’ve refurbished the leisure centre, and now only paying customers can access the lounge. So the lounge is empty, apart from a television nobody is watching, and I don’t know where those teenagers go.
To put it mildly, my privilege is not afforded to everybody: the privilege to loaf, to daydream, to hang out, to use public space for my own ends, to footle, to mess about, to change which section I see of the world, to be absorbed in my books, to flâneuse. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from children, it’s that all of us are born with the intention to do all of this for ever and ever; but only some of us remember that intention as adults, and very few are given the space and time and freedom to act on it. Here’s to the parkourists, the squatters, the urban explorers, the graffiti artists, the high wire walkers.
The room in which I write is a small, portable utopia. Anyone can write here, but very few do. To write is childlike: to take up space, as if one were entitled to it; to waste time, as if time were unlimited; to make something, in the deluded confidence that everyone will be delighted.
I’m often reminded of the fragile nature of my own access to public space. I’m reminded of it every time a man turns up to come onto, nag, chide, hassle or berate me – as they sometimes do, and have done since I was about nine. These men offer a perpetually recurring reminder that I am a woman, and therefore only recently and tenuously tolerated in public space at all.
I am one of the lucky ones. I had a desk of my own, growing up. My Dad, who is very kind, and noticed that I wasn’t using the desk to write, added extra planks of wood to it, to give me masses of workspace. It didn’t prevent me from abandoning my desk for elsewhere, but Dad’s carpentry wasn’t in vain: he sits at that desk himself now. He published his first book, The Allyear Garden, a year ago.
And today I have a desk of my own, which I bought at an Ikea in Germany, with help from my family, feeling wildly self-indulgent. It takes up half our front room. When I mislay a thought, as I usually do, I can find it again at my desk.
I could call it my ‘writer’s room’ but that would be a half-truth, since this isn’t the room where I write. Instead, it’s where I store everything that is adulthood, so that I can leave it behind and go out into the world with my notebook. To dream and play and learn and re-invent, I find that I need something more than private space. A room of one’s own isn’t enough.
Ailbhe Darcy’s Writers’ Room piece is a part of a Wales Arts Review series.