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Thanks Chester, for best free show in town

When friends visit from abroad, there are two places in Dublin that I always take them: The GPO and the Chester Beatty Library. They appreciate the historical significance of the GPO, but it's the Chester Beatty that really stays with them. The man behind this library, Chester Beatty himself, was born in New York and graduated top of his class in Columbia University as a mining engineer.

He started work in Colorado and established a very successful mining consultancy. After his first wife died of typhoid fever, he relocated to London, where he founded a new consultancy.


As a child, he was an avid stamp collector and as an adult, he travelled widely with his second wife, Edith, all the time building up his collection of European, Middle Eastern and Asian manuscripts and artefacts.

Becoming disillusioned with Britain's currency restrictions after World War II, he moved his entire collection to Dublin in 1950 and built a library for it on Shrewsbury Road. In 1999, the library was relocated to its far-more-accessible present location in Dublin Castle.

It's easy to find. Go in the first entrance on Dame Street (the one beside the French restaurant Chez Max), cross the courtyard and take a right behind the Chapel Royal.

The library garden (the Dubh Linn Gardens) is on the left through an archway and straight away you've left the noise of the city behind you.

The circular garden with its series of six interlocking brick pathways is designed as a helicopter landing pad (it can accommodate three helicopters) though it's more in use these days as a luncheon spot by office workers.

The garden is overlooked by an eclectic collection of buildings, Dublin Castle and the Record Tower, the modern glass structure that is Dunnes Stores HQ and the rose-pink Garda National Drugs Unit. To the south the Coach House Wall provides a fairytale element to proceedings.

Entering the building, there's a short film about Chester Beatty himself, which is well worth a look.

The light-filled atrium with its rectangular pool leads into the modern and inviting Silk Road Cafe, which serves great Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and Lebanese food.

Big, hearty dishes of lamb meatballs and vegetarian moussaka sit alongside delicious salad and cloyingly sweet baklava.

Chester Beatty's collection is displayed over two floors with Arts of the Book on the first floor. In the dimly lit space surrounding brightly lit display cabinets, savour the rare Islamic, East Asian and European manuscripts. I particularly like the illustrated Sanskrit animal fables which were intended to 'instruct rulers in the art of statecraft' and have titles such as The Crows Build a Fire in front of the Owls' Cave.


Also, on this floor is the temporary exhibition space. At the moment, Chester Beatty: The Paintings, is on display until March 24, 2013. This is a collection of 30 paintings that once belonged to Beatty and that are on loan from the National Gallery of Ireland.

I was delighted to see one of my favourite paintings on display -- Cavalry in the Snow by Ernest Meissonier. A beautiful piece and as with most works of art, much smaller than I imagined. I bought the even smaller fridge magnet.

On the second floor is the Sacred Traditions gallery dedicated to the great religions of the world including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. Don't miss the early Christian manuscripts and ancient korans.

Back on the ground floor (the library is very wheelchair accessible with lifts and automatic doors) is the gift shop and this one is a gem.

I kicked off my Christmas shopping with some unusual cards -- think snow-covered temples and Japanese ladies walking in the swirling snow clutching umbrellas that look like parasols.

As I left the library, some Spanish tourists were enquiring the price of admittance.

"It's free admission," said the man at the desk with a smile.

Have I mentioned that? Thank you, Chester.