It’s a beautiful, blue morning in Castletownroche, just coming up to 10 o’clock as the mobile library bus pulls up outside the community hall.
“Come on in, it’s so easy to join,” reads the legend on the bus.
From the “Early Starters” preschool, there’s a controlled stampede of a dozen or more small children, delighted and thrilled and shepherded by their teachers as they head for the library. They have the energy and noise and glee you only have when you’re aged three or four and headed on an adventure.
Once up the steps of the bus, they swarm for the kids’ section at the back and pick out new picture books. There’s joy, chatter and fun here and you get a clear sense of the love between the children and the young women minding them.
The books chosen are bright and colourful and feature dinosaurs and pirates and spaceships. Mr Bump flashes past in the hands of a little girl, as she joins the rush to get books stamped. The Mr Men books never go out of fashion. One delighted boy hits the jackpot with a book entitled “Dinosaur Pirates”.
Another little girl is in the arms of her teacher and she offers the visitors from the Irish Examiner a smile so generous and so warm as to melt the hardest heart. Faith Browne has special needs and cannot walk, crawl or sit up without assistance.
Her parents hope to raise €100,000 to take her to the US for life-improving surgery. So far, the campaign has raised €10,435, with €1,000 coming from Republic of Ireland soccer star James McClean through Faith’s GoFundMe page. This morning, Faith is overjoyed to see her young friends having such fun in the mobile library.
Fun is never in short supply on the library bus. Librarian Helen McCarthy and driver Jim Kiely could not be kinder or friendlier to the little kids and they give them a welcome that recognises future lifelong readers (and repeat customers).
The children clearly love the library bus and several say they always look forward to its fortnightly visits.
Later, in the creche, several of the children force the Irish Examiner reporter to read them a story until a few of them decide it would be much better fun to just beat him up instead.
Back on the bus, it’s interesting to look at the wide range of books crammed into so small a space. The kids’ section is at the back.
Along the walls, you will find murder, western, sport, horror, a hugely popular Mills and Boon selection and, of course, household names, such as Stephen King, Tom Clancy, John Grisham, Ruth Rendell, Lee Child, Neil Gaiman, PD James, Denis Lehane and James Ellroy.
The biography section is particularly well-stocked. Terry Wogan, Eva Braun and Barry Norman rub shoulders with Paul McCartney and Barack Obama. Enda Kenny sits beside the Peter Ames Carlin Springsteen biography Bruce, just as the former Taoiseach would want.
During the course of our journey, the bus stops twice at private houses, once on the outskirts of Killavullen, the other in the countryside, in the shadow of the Nagle Mountains. At the first house, a hale-and-hearty couple, Paddy and Anne, come aboard and the craic is mighty. They say the bus is something they look forward to every two weeks. “It’s like part of the community spirit,” says Anne.
At the other house, Helen goes to the door with a bag of books. She is let in by an elderly lady who lives in isolation and who sees very few visitors. The mobile library might be her only human contact for days.
Helen says this situation is replicated across the county, explaining how she and Jim call to many people living alone.
They rattle off some of the other stops on the mobile library’s fortnightly tour of duty:
Strawhall Nursing Home, Castlelyons, Conna, Ballynoe, Lisgoold, Killeagh, Gortroe, Inch, Cloyne, Churchtown, Watergrasshill, Dungourney, Ladysbridge, Ballymacoda, Ballycotton and more.
As the mobile library finishes up in Castletownroche, Jim explains that his slightly circuitous route back here along winding country roads is explained by the bus not being the most manoeuvrable and the need for the library to land with its passenger-side door facing the front of the national school.
Under the watch of teacher Anne Marie Kinsella, children pile onto the bus.
“I’ve been looking for these books for ages,” declares eight-year-old Moya, emphasising the last word, as she rushes to check out her books. She is delighted to find Hattie the Magical Vet and the latest Mariella Mystery. Mariella holds a particular fascination for Moya, as she confides “I’m a detective, myself, you know”.
When asked whether she has a Sherlock Holmes-style magnifying glass, she declares that, of course, she has. She denies owning a deerstalker hat, rolling her eyes at the notion.
“We have an obligation to support libraries, to use libraries, to encourage others to use libraries, to protest the closure of libraries,” said the author Neil Gaiman recently.
“If you do not value libraries, then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.”
Back on the main street in Castletownroche, it is obvious there is no fear of this library falling out of use and no doubt as to its value. Helen says the mobile library serves approximately 30 schools, seven creches and eight or nine nursing homes.
Picking up her romance novels, Pauline Flynn says the mobile library means the world to her.
“I don’t drive,” she says. “For me, the nearest library is Fermoy or Mallow, so for me that’s impossible.
“We’re blessed to have a library visit us once a fortnight,” she says.
Holding her books, Pauline heads down the steps of the bus and says, with pride, “We can’t speak highly enough of the mobile library service, and long may it continue.”
Since Cork’s County Library service was established in 1925, librarians have travelled to branches and voluntary centres in vans designed to transport books, rather than to be in themselves libraries accessible to the public.
Cork’s first public mobile library, designed for public access, was introduced in 1962 and was an immediate success, serving villages in south and west Cork.
By 1968, this service had expanded to six buses but, with the building of libraries in places like Ballincollig, Douglas, and Carrigaline, the mobile library service shrank to four vehicles.
In the mid-1980s, in the grip of a recession, Cork’s County Library service found itself unable to fund new vehicles and the service seemed in doubt.
An ingenious solution was hit upon with the purchase — at nominal cost — and refitting of surplus London buses.
Nowadays, Cork has a fleet of five mobile library buses crisscrossing the county. All are to be replaced soon and funding has just been allocated for a brand new mobile library for West Cork.