The first library legislation to apply to Ireland was the UK Public Libraries Act of 1850, which allowed town councils in Britain with a population of 10,000 or more to levy a rate of a halfpenny in the pound on property to support public libraries in their area. This Act was extended to Ireland in 1853 but was of little practical benefit, as municipal authorities of such size did not exist in Ireland at that time.
The principal Act which allowed the establishment of public libraries in Ireland was the Public Libraries (Ireland) Act 1855, which allowed municipal and town councils with a population of 5,000 or more to establish a library and levy a rate to a maximum of one penny to support it. A two-thirds majority of householders was required to pass the Act. In spite of subsequent amendments to the 1855 Act in 1877 and 1894, adoption of the Acts was slow. Dundalk was the first public library in the country to open under this legislation, in 1858. The city of Cork had been the first to adopt the Act in 1855, but a rate was not struck until 1892. Even by 1880 only Dundalk and Sligo had opened public libraries, though the 1880s saw some improvement with Belfast, Dublin, Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire), Limerick and Rathmines (at that time a township just outside Dublin city boundaries) all adopting the Act. The situation in Dublin itself was unique: the first public libraries, in Thomas Street and Capel Street, both founded in 1884, and North William Street, founded in 1899, were funded not by the library rate but by a yearly grant of £500 to each branch as well as £300 for the purchase of books.