Andrew Carnegie: The Man And His Libraries

By Walter Lawler

 Kilkenny’s Carnegie Library

I begun my library career with Kilkenny Libraries in June 2003.  I needed work experience before I started my postgrad in Library and Information Studies that September, and Kilkenny county Council kindly obliged.  Laois County Council also offered me work experience, but I had firstly agreed to work in Kilkenny.  One library I worked in there was the City Library, or ‘the branch’ as it was called, on John’s Quay.  The narrow road along the quay was quaint in appearance, with its older buildings facing the river Nore. One example was the Home Rule Club Building, built around 1775.  (Originally it was a school for young ladies).  The club was set up by Catholic businessmen in the city in July 1894, with the intent being the ‘advancement of Catholic and national interests’.  Today the building serves as a social club.  The first thing that struck me about the library was its shape and design.  The Classical effect front had a semi-circular entrance flanked by limestone columns.  A tower like dome crowned the structure.  The building itself was constructed with solid concrete blocks, one of the first examples of this type of construction in Ireland.  Some of the staff told me it was a Carnegie Library.  I had heard of Andrew Carnegie and Carnegie Libraries but didn’t know much more about them.  Later that summer a function was held in County Hall Kilkenny to commemorate the Centenary of the initial founding of Kilkenny’s Carnegie Library.  I remember the evening well, County Librarian Jim Fogarty and Heritage Officer, Dearbhala Ledwidge, were two key speakers.  I learnt a lot more that night from the various speakers and informal chats about Carnegie libraries throughout Ireland and the benefactor himself.

Kilkenny Carnegie Library, 2019, courtesy of Kilkenny Libraries

In 1903/04 Kilkenny Corporation passed a resolution to adopt the Public Libraries (Ireland) Act 1855.  This Act allowed for the establishment of public libraries in towns with populations greater than 5,000.  Libraries established under the Act had to have populations greater than 5,000.  The new Kilkenny Library was to be supported from the rates (local tax) and the maximum rate that could be levied was one penny in the pound.  The Corporation approached Andrew Carnegie for a grant to aid the establishment of a free library service. Andrew Carnegie, of whom I will speak at length of, was a Scottish-born U.S. steel industrialist and philanthropist.  He provided money towards the building of Public libraries in the U.S.A., U.K. and Ireland and the English-speaking world in general.  He would build and equip the library on condition that the local authority provided the site and would maintain the service once established. £2,750 was promised by Carnegie for Kilkenny but was reduced to £2,100 because the rate struck by the Corporation was so low.  The site at John’s Quay was purchased for £600, by Lady Desart, widow of  William Ulick O’Connor Cuffe, 4th Earl of Desart.  She also paid for the furniture.  A noted local philanthropist she had established local woodworking and woollen industries.  The foundation stone was laid in 1908.  In 1910 the Library was handed over to the Corporation and was opened on the 3rd November by Lady Desart.

Who was Andrew Carnegie?

Andrew Carnegie was born in November 1835 to Margaret Morrison Carnegie and William Carnegie in Dunfermline, Scotland, in a small weaver’s cottage.  His father kept his handlooms at home but the Industrial Revolution and coming of steam powered looms put him and many others out of work.  Andrew’s mother kept the family together from the money she made mending shoes.  Andrew had a younger brother, Thomas, born in 1843.  Even when Andrew became successful, he had a slight jealousy of Thomas, who he felt was his mother’s favourite.  A sister, Ann, died in infancy in 1840.  Carnegie’s mother had a profound effect on him, she had a deep sense of industry and desire to better herself and her family.  When asked in school to recite a proverb from the Bible, Andrew gave an example of the frugality his mother had instilled in him ‘look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves’.  His classmates giggled and his school master was left speechless.  At the same time, he was influenced, in a rather different direction by his father, his maternal uncle and grandfather, Tom Morrison.  They were political radicals who wanted to abolish the monarchy and do away with inherited privilege.  His grandfather, father and uncle represented the true idealism of democracy and the rights of the people, philanthropy.  They introduced him to the writings of Burns and historical Scottish heroes like William Wallace, Robert the Bruce and Rob Roy.  This contrasted with his mother’s worldview, more aggressive, materialistic and determined to rise to the top.  Thus, Andrew Carnegie always displayed a tension inherited from the two strands of thought he witnessed growing up.

Young Thomas and Andrew Carnegie aged 6 and 13 respectively.

The year 1848 was a year of starvation across much of Scotland, the Carnegies, while living in poverty did relatively better than most of their neighbours.   Tired of their lot in 1848 the Carnegie family emigrated to Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, where two of Margaret’s sisters lived.  Initially they lived in equal poverty in the city.  Andrew, after only 5 years schooling went to work stoking boilers in a textile factory 12 hours a day.  In 1849 he moved job and became a messenger boy in a telegraph office.  He delivered telegrams to important businesspeople in the city and ingratiated himself with them and became familiar with the ways of business in the city.  His father failed at his hand weaving, in contrast to his son.  William died age 51 in 1855, a broken man, you could say, like many others, a victim of the Industrial Revolution.    Andrew then took a job on America’s leading railroad, The Pennsylvania.  It was here he came under the influence Thomas A. Scott, superintendent of the railroad’s western division.  He became a kind of father figure to the teenage boy.  He hired Andrew as a personal assistant and telegrapher.  He was paid the sum of $35 a month, a major step up from when he arrived in the US.  With Scott’s help Andrew learned the complexity of railroads, America’s fastest growing industry.  At this time, he promised his mother that some day they would ride in a coach, she replied what good would that be if the people in Dunfermline couldn’t see them riding in one!  That became a goal of Andrew’s, to return to Scotland with his mother and make her wish come true.  The family moved to a better part of Pittsburgh and his mother could now hire a servant.  Carnegie learnt that cutting costs would look after profits, an adapted version of his mother’s saying.  Like a modern-day Michael O’Leary, along with Scott, he ran his trains fast and full.  This also involved cutting wages and demanding 13-hour days, avoiding strikes and firing those who threatened to strike.  Actions not consistent with a man who would become noted for philanthropy, however they can be looked at as traits and example inherited from his mother.  Carnegie foresaw that iron rail bridges would replace wooden ones and formed a company to make them.  In 1865, Carnegie left the Pennsylvania Railroad to pursue his other interests.

Margaret Carnegie Morrison, Andrew’s mother, left. His wife Louise Whitfield Carnegie right

Andrew moved to New York that same year.  It was at this time that he vowed to work only two more years and donate a lot of his wealth to philanthropy.  Things didn’t go to plan and he would work 30 years more.  However, his pledge was a sign that the voice of his father, maternal uncle and grandfather were beginning to reawaken in him.  After a visit to the UK he saw the Bessemer process for steel making for the first time.  He realised the days of brittle iron was numbered and setup steel works in Pittsburgh.  At this time his old mentor, Thomas A. Scott, ran into financial difficulty as he lost money in his railroad investments.  He called on Andrew Carnegie for a dig out.  Carnegie had received his first loan from Scott, the later had backed him in all endeavours.  Carnegie refused to return the favour and said he would not endanger his own financial position by putting finance into what he felt was a sinking ship.  Scott was struck by paralysis 5 years later.  Carnegie wrote a letter seeking to mend fences, his treatment of Scott haunted him.  He now ran his steel empire through telegrams from New York.  He was ruthless with competition and worked his men hard, firing crews who fell behind.  His workers worked 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, the only holiday they got was 4th July.  Not too much benevolence on show here.  He was given the tender for products such as the Brooklyn Bridge.  In 1881 Carnegie returned to Dunfermline with his mother and the town put on a great welcome for them.  They rode in a carriage through the town, as he had promised his mother as a teenager.  Andrew at the reins and his mother up on top, dressed in her best black silk.  Carnegie donated money for a public library to be built in Dunfermline, the first of many to come all over the English-speaking world.  He bought the Homestead Steelworks, Pennsylvania in 1883, and found himself, at times, running into trouble with the Steel Unions in the town.  Carnegie had entered a partnership with a coal tycoon Henry Clay Frick, a capitalist driven by money and power.  He was a manager who became a Chief Executive for Carnegie.  In 1887 Andrew Carnegie, 51, married Louise Whitfield, the daughter of New York City merchant John D. Whitfield, and 21 years his junior.  As an older woman Louise was to confide that Margaret Carnegie was the most unpleasant woman she had ever known.  When the Duquesne Works, Pennsylvania, opened in 1889, it began to beat Carnegie at his own game- innovative technology that cut costs and threatened his markets. They could roll continuously from ingot to rail and avoid a reheating process that was costly to Carnegie.  Carnegie was very concerned about this level of competition, he decided to circulate a note to the various railroads warning them not to use the steel from the Duquesne Works, as their steel was inferior, the phrase he use was the steel lacked ‘homogeneity’, which really meant nothing scientifically.  He managed to scare off the railroads from buying this new kind of a steel process.  Within a year Frick scooped up the Duquesne Works for Carnegie. It was the greatest industrial bargain of the 19th Century. Carnegie called Frick a “marvel.” Carnegie and Frick promptly introduced at their other mills the same process they had warned against at Duquesne.  This is another in a list of examples of Carnegie’s ruthlessness in business.

Edgar Thompson Steel Works, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Owned by Andrew Carnegie)

The 1870s and 1880s saw a series of strikes and riots across America, by disillusioned workers who saw themselves as little more than waged slaves. Carnegie, tapping into the radical side of his forebearers, wrote an essay championing the rights of workers to form unions. As he did so in 1886, labour leaders throughout the country called a nationwide strike for an 8-hour day. Carnegie wrote a second essay, reaffirming his faith in labour. He proposed a new commandment “Thou shalt not take thy neighbour’s job”. While to labour leaders it was a modern-day Magna Carta, to employers and industrialists it seemed outrageous and appeared to threaten their right to manage their businesses as they saw fit. Carnegie’s own partner, Henry Clay Frick, was vehemently opposed to the former’s new stance and writings. To him and other wealthy industrialists, labour was a commodity that had no rights. Carnegie’s new views were put to the test in 1888 – at his Edgar Thomson Works when the union resisted his efforts to reduce the cost of labour. In his autobiography, Carnegie recounted the role he played. How he closed the plant and settled down in New York to wait it out. He saw himself as he wanted to be remembered- the benevolent employer. Carnegie eventually met Union reps in Pittsburgh, and shortly thereafter a contract was signed essentially giving Carnegie what he wanted. Once again in reality Carnegie was the tough businessman casting aside his idealism and destroying the union, by starving workers into submission. The next year, in March 1889, Carnegie gave Braddock, Pennsylvania, home of the Edgar Thomson works, a magnificent library. It was more than reading rooms and included an elaborate community centre with a music hall and a gymnasium. Quite the library! Despite speaking of the obligations of the wealthy “The Gospel of Wealth” to give back to the community, Carnegie was still a mass of contradictions. In 1892 Carnegie had trouble at his Homestead Steel plant. The Homestead Strike was a bloody labour confrontation lasting 143 days that year, one of the most serious in U.S. history. The conflict grew out of a labour dispute between the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers (AA) and the Carnegie Steel Company. Carnegie left on a trip to Scotland before the unrest peaked, opening a library in Aberdeen to wild applause. The arrival of a force of 300 Pinkerton agents from New York City and Chicago was used to supress the strike. Also, non-union immigrant “scab” labour was used instead of Homestead employees. Carnegie had returned to the US at this time. Carnegie’s reputation was permanently damaged by the Homestead events. His image as a radical reformer, so carefully cultivated, was in shambles. He continued to expand his steel empire, by 1900 Carnegie was producing more steel than the entire steel industry of Great Britain. Quite astounding given the position of Great Britain as a major industrial power at this time. Periodically in 1898, 1899 and again after the turn of the century, workers tried to reorganize and at each juncture, Carnegie was able to foil their efforts, largely because he had an elaborate system of corporate spying. In every Carnegie mill in Duquesne, in Braddock, in Homestead all the mills up and down the Monongahela Valley, Carnegie had men working for him who kept his subordinates well informed on the initiatives of troublesome workers and would-be organizers. Yet Carnegie returned to Homestead in 1898 to dedicate a library. He was buoyed that day by his gift of a grand building that housed, like the one at Braddock, a library, a concert hall, a swimming pool, bowling alleys and a gymnasium. Eventually Carnegie sold Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Steel Company to J. P. Morgan in 1901 for $480 million. It became the U.S. Steel Corporation.

It must also be noted that in 1891 Andrew Carnegie donated the finance towards the building of Carnegie Hall. It was designed by architect William Burnet Tuthill and is one of the most prestigious venues in the world for both classical music and popular music. Over the first two decades of the new century Carnegie engaged in more philanthropy, and diplomacy on occasion when began to lobby men like Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany to ease tensions in Europe. In 1913 Carnegie recounted his own meeting with the Kaiser — and how he hailed him as “our strongest ally” in the cause of peace. His wife Louise recalled how the War which begun in 1914 broke him. Although he lived another five years, the last entry in his autobiography was the day World War I began. Louise herself died in 1946, aged 89. The couple had one daughter, Margaret. A native of Manhattan, New York City, from 1934 to 1973, she was a trustee of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a grant-making foundation. The foundation was established by her father in 1911. From 1973 until her death in 1990, she was an honorary lifetime trustee.

The interior of Carnegie Hall, 2020

Carnegie’s Libraries
A total of 2,509 Carnegie libraries were built between 1883 and 1929, including some belonging to public and university library systems. 1,689 were built in the United States, 660 in the United Kingdom and Ireland, 125 in Canada, and others in Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Serbia, Belgium, France, the Caribbean, Mauritius, Malaysia, and Fiji. Between 1897 and 1913, Carnegie promised over £170,000 to pay for the building of some 80 libraries in Ireland (Northern Ireland and the Republic). Sixty-two of the libraries built have survived to the present day.
Below is a list of the Carnegie Libraries built in the Republic of Ireland, 56 in total, some no longer function as libraries, as of 2020. It’s the impressive legacy of a complex individual, who was torn by different influences throughout his life.

Cork
• Anglesea Street, Cork, foundation stone laid 1903; destroyed in the Burning of Cork.
• Ashe Street, Youghal, County Cork – former Quaker meeting house.
• Millstreet, County Cork.

Dublin
• Balbriggan, County Dublin (1905)
• Ballsbridge, Dublin (1929)
• Ballyboden, County Dublin (1911)
• Blackrock, Dublin.
• Cabinteely.
• Clondalkin, County Dublin
• Dalkey, County Dublin
• Dublin City, Charleville Mall, North Strand.
• Churchtown Road, Dundrum, Dublin.
• Dún Laoghaire, County Dublin.
• Garristown (1912)
• Glencullen, Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown, 1907.
• Lusk, Dublin (1908)
• Malahide (1909)
• Pearse Street, Dublin City Public Libraries and Archive
• Pembroke, Anglesea Road (1929)
• Rathmines (1913)
• Sandyford.
• Shankill (1912)
• Skerries, Dublin, Strand street. 1911, still in use as a library.
• Swords, Dublin (1908)

Kerry
• Caherciveen.
• Castleisland.
• Dingle, County Kerry.
• Kenmare, County Kerry.
• Killorglin, County Kerry, 1909.
• Listowel, County Kerry.
• Tralee, County Kerry.

Kilkenny
• Kilkenny city, John’s Quay, 1910, still in use as a library.

Limerick
• Athea (1917)
• Askeaton, County Limerick.
• Ballyhahill, County Limerick.
• Ballysteen, County Limerick.
• Broadford, County Limerick.
• Clouncagh, County Limerick (1917)
• Croagh.
• Feenagh, County Limerick.
• Kilcolman.
• Kildimo, County Limerick.
• Limerick city, 1906 – now the Limerick City Gallery of Art.
• Newcastle West, County Limerick.
• Pallaskenry, County Limerick.
• Rathkeale.
• Shanagolden, County Limerick.

Louth
• Drogheda

Waterford
• Ballyduff, County Waterford.
• Cappoquin, County Waterford.
• Lismore, County Waterford, 1910.
• Tallow, County Waterford.
• Waterford City Library, foundation stone laid 1903 – first Carnegie library in Ireland and still in use

Wicklow
• Bray, County Wicklow.
• Enniskerry.
• Greystones.

Carnegie, age 77 in 1913.

 

 

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