Longford Library: Mary Carleton Reynolds
Photo by: Shelley Corcoran

Building the Arts scene in Longford through the library

It has often been said that the library is the last remaining institution of society where you leave class, politics, religion, everything at the door. Age, gender, race, money do not place you above or below anyone. Once you step through those doors, you are equal to everyone else in the building.

It was that sense of welcome and belonging that outgoing County Librarian Mary Carleton Reynolds was so eager to instill in the local community when she first walked through the doors of Longford Library in December 1991.

Since then, her welcoming smile, unforgettable colourful power suits and statement jewellery that reflect her bright and joyful personality have been part and parcel of the local Arts scene.

Friendly, enthusiastic and always ready to stop and chat with anyone who crosses her path, the Leitrim woman retired at the start of this month feeling happy with all she and her library team have accomplished.

Early Career

“I went to University in Aberystwyth, which was the place for Librarianship at the time. And I absolutely loved it from the get-go.

“I’ve always felt that culture is transformative in people’s lives from reading a particular book or poetry or seeing a nice painting, going to a play or whatever. You really just transform everything.

“If you’re trying to analyse how you’re feeling or you want a pick me up, I’ve always loved poetry. I love old-fashioned poetry like Yeats. But I also love modern poetry. And it depends on your mood. As a child, I always read and we always loved books in our house, so that’s where it all started from.”

After qualifying from Aberystwyth University in Wales, Mary started working in Dolphin’s Barn, Dublin – an area with a lot of challenges where “the library was like a beacon”.

“Meeting children and giving them an experience of storytelling and books… I found my calling,” Mary reflected.

“I was involved in NALA, the National Adult Literacy Agency and I just felt that anybody who reads is never bored, never lost. You’re never alone. It’s so uplifting.”

She soon moved on in her career, moving to Swaziland in southern Africa where she lived and worked for three years.

“That was an amazing experience. And again, I worked in the University library there and I was headhunted from there to set up a resource centre to work with women in the most remote rural parts of Swaziland and I loved that. I just love people. We went there for a year and ended up staying for three years,” she recalled.

When she came home, she had no desire to return to Dublin, particularly after being away from her family for so long and so she returned to rural Ireland with hopes of working close to home.

“I’m from Leitrim but my mother is from Longford, so Longford was always our local town. And my dream job was to be a county librarian,” Mary explained.

She was only home a week when she got word of a “big job” advertised in Longford and things very quickly began to fall into place.

“I rang up the local appointments commission because it was a national appointment and they said the closing date is Wednesday and this was Monday morning and I hadn’t even put together a CV or anything,” Mary laughed.

“I said I won’t have time to get all the stuff in and they said if I put in my application I could let it follow. So I did the interview then and a month or two later, I got word I got the job.”

In fact, Mary walked straight into the role of County Librarian – her dream job and a role she has held and cherished for three decades.

“I didn’t think I had a chance. I thought it was too good to be true, particularly to get a job at that level after jaunting around Africa for three years. I thought that experience wouldn’t count.

“I was really lucky because the job had been advertised in June and the woman who got the job was from Limerick and she couldn’t make up her mind about whether she’d move to Longford or not.

“Eventually, she decided she wasn’t going to move and so the job had to be advertised again and that’s how I ended up applying. It was obviously meant to be.”

Longford Library

She began her new appointment in December 1991 and loved it from the very moment she walked through the doors.

“Longford was a very different place then. It was a big shock to my system coming back and working here after Africa and after working in a very developed service in Dublin,” she said.

“And I was actually the first County Librarian for Longford because, before that, Longford and Westmeath were a joint library. So I started here and I absolutely loved it from the first day I started working. I had a vision for the service and how we could get involved with schools and community groups.”

Mary dove right into the thick of it, bringing communities together, using her experience in Africa and her understanding of culture and the importance of the arts to realise her vision for Longford Library.

“I think Longford is a wonderful place. I love this county. I think it’s a great county and I just think people need to have more confidence in it. And the community spirit of this county is incredible,” she said.

“And I just discovered wonderful people. The first thing I did was start up a Longford Writers’ Group and people like Tiernan Dolan got involved in the Writers’ Group and that was fantastic because there were so many people interested in writing.

“My focus was very much on showcasing Longford and Longford people and giving an opportunity to Longford people – young and old – to experience it all.

“I remember my first experience of bringing a children’s writer out to one of the Granard schools. I remember the writer – it was Tony Hickey and he wrote a book called the Matchless Mice,” she recalled.

“I had known Tony in Dublin and I invited him out to Aughnagarron National School and the children mobbed him. He was like a superstar. He was so chuffed.

“Some of the children said to me they thought all the writers were dead because they had never experienced meeting a writer.

“The Irish writing scene was a very small field. So that really struck a chord with me that people thought they would never meet a living writer. So we started bringing more and more writers to the county and people really responded to that.”

Building the Arts scene

Over the years, the arts continued to grow. Five years after Mary took up her role as County Librarian, Fergus Kennedy took up a post as County Arts Officer and the government began to invest more in arts and culture.

And then, of course, you needed to have buildings that were fit for purpose. Soon there was a whole infrastructure in place and Mary’s vision for the county started to come true, first with the opening of Drumlish Library, followed by Lanesboro. Next, Ballymahon library was opened, followed by Granard and finally, last year, the brand new, state-of-the-art, €4.5m Edgeworthstown Library.

“There are so few spaces now where people can meet, where there are no labels attached. There’s no cost involved. And where you’re actually bringing culture right into the heart of the community,” Mary explained.

“You see the difference that the library brings to Ballymahon and it’s part of the whole regeneration of the town – the same thing with Edgeworthstown. I always say a rising tide lifts all boats, but the fact that there’s a space there and people can meet – the library is there for everybody.”

Over the years, different programmes were established, such as Creative Ireland, which brought funding to the county, allowing the library to support artists from various fields. There’s the annual Cruthú Arts Festival which sees the town burst into colour. There are various events sprinkled throughout the year which keep the arts very much in the spotlight where they deserve to be.

“Then we have the programmes like the Healthy Ireland programme which is all about people’s mental and physical health,” said Mary.

“The focus on that is very, very important. Then there’s the Right to Read programme, which is giving every child an opportunity to read and that was my dream and my vision that every child in the county would get an opportunity to be able to read and experience the joys of reading, not just for school but also for pleasure.”

Expanding Communities

Over the years, Mary has watched new communities arrive in Longford to enjoy and experience what she says is “a great quality of life”. New groups have formed, giving people the opportunity to meet new people.

“At the end of the day, my job was all about people and giving people the opportunity to express themselves in whatever way they wanted,” she said.

We have the Older Persons Council, which is fantastic, with such dynamic people who are willing to volunteer. And then people meet each other in the library that wouldn’t meet each other normally, so there’s that whole network around culture and creativity.”

And it’s all down to the diversity of the people living in the county, she added. Without the people, none of what she has achieved would have been possible.

“What I’d say more than anything else about Longford is what a great county it is. People say to me ‘you live in Leitrim but your heart is in Longford’.

“We need to have more confidence in ourselves and what we have because we have a lot of great people here,” Mary continued.

“We have young writers like John Connell wanting to come back and live here after so many years away and we have lots of young artists living in the county as well and you see the little craft shop opening in Ballymahon and the popup gallery we had a Christmas.

“The funding that has come now for culture and the arts compared with when I came here first, I can honestly say it’s front and centre of everything because there’s so much community and giving people confidence in their community.

“We have fantastic schools in the county and wonderful teachers and we can achieve so much if we work together. That was one of the things I found. It helped to have that network of people where you linked people to each other.

“Sometimes people grab onto the negative things. But there are so many positive things that are happening here. And there are so many really good people who are capable of making a difference, like Gene Rhatigan who does the Cruthú Arts Festival every year and Shane Crossan. We have just some fantastic people here in the county.

“And then when you think of our musicians or artists, it’s been fantastic to be part of all that. That has been what has nourished me down the years.”

The Backstage Theatre is “a fantastic facility”, according to Mary who added “Mona (Considine) and the staff are amazing”. The local theatre offers us all the opportunity to experience theatre from across the country and from around the world right here in our little county.

“When you think of going out for a night in Dublin to the Abbey and the Gaeity and what it costs you, compared with here. It’s like a big occasion where you have to dress up and everything, whereas here you just go and you enjoy it and I love that about it. There’s nothing elitist about it. It’s very accessible,” said Mary.

“And that’s what we wanted to do with the library, is break down those barriers and make culture accessible to people so you walk into the library and you see an exhibition and there’s no big deal about it. And we always try to keep costs to a minimum as well.

“So the first thing was to provide that accessible space. And nobody makes any judgements. If you see somebody walking into a library, you can’t just say ‘oh, they must be going to do whatever’ because they could be doing so many different things and that’s what I wanted the space to be – a living, vibrant, welcoming space.

“That’s what we’ve been about. You can go into any one of those libraries any time and you could find a mother reading with her child or you could find an older person reading the paper or somebody upstairs involved in an art class. That’s really what was my drive – that it was a vibrant, very much alive space.”

Library changing with the times

The big thing about Longford Libraries is that they’ve always been able to “pivot”, Mary added. As society changed, the library reflected those changes by installing the latest technologies, providing digital skills, banishing the “old-fashioned” idea of a library being a “shhh” place with a stereotypical librarian behind a desk stamping books. In fact, the staff are extremely friendly.

“At the heart of everything we do is our staff. We have three MyOpen Libraries, which means the library is open seven days a week from eight o’clock in the morning to ten o’clock at night,” Mary explained.

“There are a lot of people who want to use the space. If you were to go in and find a nice space on a Sunday to either read or get your printing done or your copying, you’re able to do that.

“And the staff really are there to engage with people and help people with activities and all that, not just checking books in and out. So it’s not that old-fashioned idea of the librarian behind the counter stamping books or whatever. That whole thing has gone.”

The things that have given Mary so much joy over her career are the number of people who use the libraries now, the wonderful connections that have been made with community groups and how the libraries have been able to showcase the creativity in the town and the county.

The removal of all “barriers” is another achievement that brings her great pride. Fines and charges have been banished which has been “a huge step forward” for libraries, encouraging members of the public to enjoy the facility without concern.

“Then the whole area of mental health,” she said. “I would say books are the medicines of the mind. Or writing. I find if something is bothering me, I write it down and suddenly the problem is no longer there because when you actually write it down and think about it and analyse it, it helps.

“The thing about reading too is I think it makes everything more analytical. We need to think a little bit more. I worry about people who just take the headline from the phone or the iPad. And so many times, people don’t analyse the problem.

“But there are some wonderful people who have added to the county. And the majority of people are good people. There’s a very small minority of people causing trouble.

“When I saw the headline the other day about the stabbing in Longford I thought it was just so unfair because you have one or two bad people who can bring the whole county into disrepute.

“There are so many groups of good people that you couldn’t even have imagined 30 years ago. So the county has been transformed out of all recognition and people need to focus more on that rather than the negative things. Great things have happened because people came together.”


Mary admitted to being “blown away” in the last few weeks by the well wishers as she bids farewell to what has been her dream job. With approximately 200 cards from people who have received help or support from her over the years, she is, perhaps, beginning to see the impact she has had on this county.

“It has been very emotional over the last couple of weeks. But it has been emotional because of the people and the different people that have come forward and said such nice things,” she said.

“But that was just my job. I only ever did my job. And when you work in the public service, you’re a public servant. It’s all about service.”

She was also quick to praise the council and local councillors who have always been supportive of her vision.

“We wouldn’t have the infrastructure if the Chief Executive didn’t support it,” she said. Nor would we have such a thriving library service without the support of the elected members.

“And then, the staff. What makes the service is the welcome that people feel. And that’s the frontline staff. That’s not me. And down through the years, I’ve had fantastic people. It’s the team.

“But I’ve always felt that people bought into the vision that I had for the service. And now when you see the regeneration of the county – it’s a real source of pride for me to see that the library is seen as the focal point or the catalyst really for the new generation.

“It’s a trusting space. It’s so important. And we’ve never been political. We’re always very non-judgemental. The labels and the barriers are left at the door when you’re coming in.

“And then you have wonderful people like Jude Flynn who launches his book every year in the library. It was part and parcel of what we did. And Paddy Egan came into me the other day and said, ‘well you were always a daycent auld shkin’,” Mary laughed.

“And that is the best comment I could get, that I’m a daycent auld shkin. But these are all the characters. You meet such interesting people.

“And that creative gene that’s there has been what’s kept me alive and kept me young – being surrounded by creative people. Anything that I could ever do to help or encourage or maybe give somebody a little bit of guidance, I felt that was very much part of my role as well.”

But Mary has no intention of saying goodbye to all that. As she said herself, her heart is in Longford and so the county can expect to see her enjoying the rich culture she helped nurture.

“I’m leaving happy. I’m very sad because I’ll miss the people but I’m really looking forward to having a bit more time to enjoy all this theatre and music and all the different things, just to be a spectator as opposed to being mixed up in the middle of it,” she said.

Mary has always had an extremely busy schedule – and thrived on it. But now, as she settles into retirement, she admits to having no major plans. And who deserves a break more than she?

“For the first time in my life, since I was 18, when you start planning for work and college and everything, I’ve decided not to make any plans. I’ve decided to enjoy being just like this,” she said.

“I’ll make it up as I go along and spend time with family and friends and just enjoy the simple things. I’ve been studying or working all my life. This is me time.”

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First published in the Longford Leader

Written by Jessica Thompson