Irish Literary Haven in the Millionaires’ Playground


Conor Power visits the Princess Grace Irish Library in Monaco

Going to a library in the glamorous principality of Monaco isn’t, I imagine, what most visitors to the city set out to do.

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But there’s an awful lot more to Monaco than meets the eye. For starters, it wasn’t always this place of impossible glamour, skyscrapers, fancy cars, fancy yachts and billionaire residents. A visit to the Princess Grace Irish Library in the adorable Vieille Ville of Monaco will tell you a lot about the role that Grace Kelly played in putting the principality on the map.

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Before she became Princess Grace, Grace Kelly was the greatest new acting talent emerging from the American film factories. She had just secured an Oscar for her role in The Country Girl and was invited to attend the Cannes Film Festival in May 1955. She was also scheduled to shoot the Hitchcock film To Catch a Thief with Cary Grant on the Riviera. Once she met Prince Rainier III of Monaco, however, that was that. She fell in love, married her prince and left Hollywood while she was at the very top of her game.

Even though the general public everywhere were fascinated by the royal wedding of the playboy prince and the silver-screen beauty, it wasn’t attended by all the heads of state in Europe as one might expect. Until Grace Kelly graced the scene, Monaco was a backwater little principality that was very much down on its knees. She brought the glamour and Rainier – known as the Prince Bâtisseur – had the ambition . Through his policies, money flowed into the principality. The bâtisseur built and built and it was under his reign that the skyline of Monaco became dotted with skyscrapers.

In the main room of the Princess Grace Irish Library. A profile bust of the princess is in the background beside her original collection

In the Princess Grace Irish Library, – inaugurated in 1984, two years after her death – you get a deep appreciation of all of this but you also find yourself in an extraordinary repository of books that began with Princess Grace’s own stunning collection of books relating to her Irish heritage, of which she was evidently very proud.

The library’s many benefactors include some rather logical sources such as Dr Michael Smurfit (a current Monaco resident and Honorary Irish Consul) but also included the late Karl Lagerfeld. The German-born Chanel designer was an avid bibliophile and a friend of the Monegasque Royal Family. When he heard of this worthy project of an Irish Library in Monaco, he instructed his book vendors in Paris to immediately send on all new published books relating to Ireland.

Signed by the Kelly’s: a book on the Kelly family signed by various family members

One could spend weeks looking through some of the exquisite works here. Some of them have a haunting nostalgic sweetness to them (such as a book on the Kelly family which was signed by all of them, including ‘Grace de Monaco’) and some are rare treasures of the type you thought you might never get to see (such as the 17th-century atlas of Ireland, which also features an entire socio-political history from a Dutchman who walked around the country drawing lines and asking questions).

Over the years since it was set up in 1986, the Princess Grace Irish Library has grown to become an important cultural institution. It plays host to a variety of exhibitions and readings every year, welcoming some of the finest names from Irish academia, literature and art. It also offers a month-long residency to Irish writers and academics.

Calling the past: Conor Power uses the phone – one of many items rescued from the former Hôtel Idéal Séjour – the last residence of WB Yeats.

Finally, if you are fortunate enough to find yourself in Monaco and visiting the library, you would be well advised to turn right when you re-emerge blinking into the daylight and walk through the pretty old streets that you may not have known existed in flashy Monaco and visit the Palace. It’s a wonderful visit in its own right but there is currently a fascinating photographic exhibition (‘Histoire d’une Rencontre‘) of pictures taken of Grace and Rainier on the very first day they met, on the 6th of May, 1955. The exhibition runs until the 15th of October 2019.

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