There is no doubt that Monsignor James O’Laverty M.R.I.A is the man who contributed most to the genesis of the library. The Irish manuscripts which bear his name are the centrepiece of the collection. His notes and letters are occasionally to be found pasted onto the inside cover of books.
A student at the College during the late 1840s James O’Laverty was born in Bright near Downpatrick. After ordination in 1852 and a curacy at Ahoghill he was appointed Dean of the College and chaplain to the Belfast Workhouse in 1857. In November of 1866 he was appointed Parish Priest of Holywood, Co. Down where he remained for thirty years until his death in 1906.
During his life his spare time was devoted to Irish historical studies. He was a supporter of the Irish Literary Renaissance and
a member of the Gaelic League. His chosen field however was the investigation and publication of the history of his own diocese. He tells us very little about himself or contemporary events but he contributed to learned journals, particularly the Ulster Journal of Archaeology.
However the bulk of his research is to be found in The Historical Account of the Diocese of Down and Connor, a substantial work in five volumes, the first volume appearing in 1878 (and the last in 1887). His proudest achievement came to fruition four years earlier when the church he built in Holywood St. Colmcille’s was dedicated. With characteristic attention to detail he had procured the foundation stone from Gartan in Donegal, the birthplace of the saint. It was said that the inspiration for the name of the new church came to him during a pilgrimage he
made to the island of Iona. His expertise on this saint and early Irish Christianity was shared with his friend Dr William Reeves, the Church of Ireland bishop. Reeves had been librarian at Armagh and became President of the Royal Irish Academy in 1891. It is fitting that his works are prominent in the O’Laverty Library.
At the centenary of his death in 2006 St Malachy’s College held a well attended seminar and exhibition in commemoration of his life and work entitled Gaelic Visions: The World of James O’Laverty.
O’Laverty’s large pinewood and glass cabinet is the most striking piece of furniture in the room and is used to house the collection of Irish manuscripts. It is intended that it will remain as a prominent feature of the restored library when restored to its former glory.