June 28, 2017

Thousands of rare books have been sold in Ireland, in the largest auction in decades


You’re reading MobyLives, so it’s a safe guess that you like books. Heck, you probably even think you love books. But, you don’t love books like Mary Colette McAlister did. The woman from Northern Ireland amassed a collection of over 25,000 rare books, which have been sold at auction, following her death last year.

The late Ms McAlister, who was from Bangor in County Down, managed to fund her “extraordinary” library by living an otherwise very “frugal” life.

The Irish Times reported that she was “happy to live on toast and margarine if it meant she could add to her collection of beloved books”.

Ms McAlister was in her 80s when she died and the auctioneer told the paper it took six men almost a week to clear the books from the vicarage she called home.

(Reports vary, though, and the Irish Times may be exaggerating a wee bit here. The Independent writes that McAlister was “a school teacher by profession,” and “came from a wealthy family, whose money enabled her book-collecting habit.”)

Many of the books concern Irish history and luminaries: a signed copy of Seán MacBride’s Nobel Prize speech (Mac Bride was a founding member of Amnesty International and activist whose mother, Maud Gonne, was a prominent radical and muse to William Butler Yeats), a rare 1777 survey of Irish road maps, a first edition of Labour in Irish History by James Connolly. The auction also includes an early edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, a copy of anti-Semitic hoax, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, The Legal Responsibility of the Drunkard by H. Norman Barnett from 1908, and Mr Keeling’s Five Years in Russia, which belonged to and was signed by Irish republican rebel Constance Markievicz.

Bargain hunters undoubtedly took note!

Ms McAlister had also purchased a volume on the book trade and records of Irish book auctions — suggesting that she was well aware of the value of her collection.

However, many of the books have been placed for auction without a reserve price.

“It’s all to be cleared,” Mr Matthews told the Irish Times.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s signed by Yeats or whoever else, I’m here to sell.”


Update: An earlier version of this article described the auction as taking in place in Northern Ireland. Mary Colette McAlister lived in Northern Ireland, but the auction is taking place in Kells, County Meath, Republic of Ireland. Both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland contain numerous municipalities called Kells. We are based in the United States, where the word “Kells” is most often used as a nickname for an unsavory R&B singer. We regret the error.



Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.