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Double Take: The mystery of the billiard-playing monkeys at the National Library of Ireland

The unusual sculpture was created in the 19th century.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

TO THE SIDE of the National Library of Ireland on 2-3 Kildare St, facing Kildare St Hotel, is a sculpture of three monkeys playing billiards.

Located at the base of two columns, the unusual sculpture is easy to pass by. While there are also sculptures of birds and dogs at the base of the other columns on the street, the tale behind the creation of the monkeys playing billiard is the most interesting.

Originally, this site was home to gentleman’s club the Kildare Street Club. The club set its base here in 1782, according to Archiseek, and an extension was built years later. However, a fire in 1860 largely destroyed both buildings. Following this, renowned architect of the time Benjamin Woodward was hired to design a new premises for the club. 

nli2 Source: Google Maps

It was then that the sculpture of monkeys playing billiards was created. There are conflicting sources as to who the actual sculptor of the monkeys is, with reports over the years from the Irish Times, the Irish Independent and the Irish press crediting brothers James and John O’Shea, Charles W Purdy and Charles W Harrison as the creator(s) respectively.

The O’Sheas are linked to the sculptures as they’d worked on similar creations for the Museum on Natural History in Oxford from 1858-1860, carving animals and plant forms for the interior and exterior of the building, according to records.

The story goes that they were sacked after that job because the animals were thought to be a parody of university rituals – and one school of thought is that the billiard-playing monkeys were the O’Sheas’ way of giving the Kildare Street Club’s gentlemen members the same treatment. 

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But it may not have been them at all. “No proof other than a strong tradition has been offered to back the O’Shea claim, and the Harrison attribution appears to rest entirely on family conviction,” reads an Irish Times report from 1969. ”

The club merged with the Dublin University Club in 1976, as reported by Come Here to Me, and moved to 17 St Stephen’s Green. Nowadays, 2-3 Kildare St is home to parts of the National Library of Ireland, with an exhibition area and manuscripts reading room here.

The premises underwent refurbishment in 1982, but the original columns and sculptures outside remain, as well as many original features inside, including the elaborate ceiling and ornate cornicing.

More Double Take: The site of the Harold’s Cross house where Robert Emmet hid before his execution

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