In May 1798, British authorities preemptively arrested senior leaders of the United Irishmen in Dublin at the beginning of a summer-long rebellion that killed tens of thousands. It resulted in repeal of the Irish parliament, direct rule from London, and more than a century of additional uprisings.
Also in May 1798, London book publishers Robert Laurie and Jason Whittle produced a new edition of An Hibernian Atlas: or General Description of the Kingdom of Ireland, which first appeared in 1776, the year of another revolution against Britain. The book’s full subtitle described the detailed information contained between its leather-bound covers:
Divided into Provinces; with Its Sub-Divisions of Counties, Baronies, &c. Boundaries, Extent, Soil, Produce, Contents, Measure, Members of Parliament, and Number of Inhabitants; Also the Cities, Boroughs, Villages, Mountains, Bogs, Lakes, Rivers and Natural Curiosities Together with the Great and Bye Post Roads. The whole taken from actual Surveys and Observations By Bernard Scale, Land Surveyor and beautifully engraved on 78 Copper Plates by Messrs. Ellis and Palmer.
The book contained 37 hand-colored maps: a general map of Ireland, four province maps, and 32 county maps; with the county maps colored by baronies, the provinces by counties and the general map by provinces. An imprint at the foot of each map read “Published 12th May, 1798”.
Today, one of the 1798 editions of An Hibernian Atlas is among 173 rare books believed stolen from the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh. More than 590 maps and 3,230 plates from another 130 antiquarian books are also missing from the library’s special collection.
As if the theft of this historical material was not bad enough, it turns out that library officials were warned in 1991 (Yes, 27 years ago!) that the valuable collection of centuries-old maps and rare books would be much safer and better preserved in more secure, nearby research libraries, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. Nothing happened, except the suspected crime.
Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish immigrant who forged his fortune in Pittsburgh’s 19th century steel industry, endowed 2,509 public libraries in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. His mission was to make books and other cultural material more widely available to the working class, including those who toiled in his mills. In Ireland, 80 branches were opened between 1897 and 1913, a decade before the island’s partition in the finally successful revolution against Britain. Many survive today.
In Pittsburgh, the missing books and maps were pilfered from the Carnegie’s “main branch,” which opened in 1895. The library and adjoining Carnegie music hall and art gallery are very familiar to me. My father introduced me to culture here in the 1960s. I researched Ireland for a book about my Kerry-born grandparents at this library, and it is now part of the collection.
A 1798 edition of An Hibernian Atlas was listed for $8,500 (7,125 Euros) on Abe.Books.co.uk, as I published this post. Another online dealer offered a 1809 edition for $2,453. Several dozen copies of various 18th and 19th century editions of the book can be found at libraries around the world. Trinity College Dublin has also made it available online.
It’s a shame, however, that the copy is missing from my native city’s Carnegie library. It also appears to be a very serious crime.