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Henry Bradshaw (1831–1886) became University Librarian at Cambridge in 1867, and under his charge the Library greatly expanded its holdings of early printed books. Bradshaw collected in this field himself, often passing his purchases to the Library, but his largest donation came in 1870, when he gave the library of Irish books started by his father, who was born in County Down. Bradshaw continued to buy Irish books for the remainder of his life, and a second collection reached the library on his death.

The Bradshaw collection (class Hib.) of approximately 14,000 books which were printed in Ireland, were written by Irish authors, or are about Ireland is one of the best known such collections in existence. The largest part was the private collection of Henry Bradshaw, University Librarian from 1867 to 1886, which was presented to the Library in 1870 and 1886; it has since been the Library's policy to add suitable items to this collection. In 1916 the Library published a detailed catalogue, by C.E. Sayle, of Bradshaw's books plus the additions up to that date, and this remains a standard reference source for Irish books. It describes about 8,850 items, of which about 5,850 were printed in Ireland; of those printed elsewhere, about 1,200 are "written by Irishmen" and about 1,800 "relating to Ireland", including many rare 17th century pamphlets. Since 1916 about 5,000 items have been added, mostly Irish printing.

As it now stands, the greatest strength of the collection is in books printed in Ireland before 1850: there are approximately 330 of the 17th century, 5,600 of the 18th century, and 2,600 from the first half of the 19th century. The collection aims to cover every aspect of Irish printing and therefore has a wide subject coverage. Although many 18th century Irish reprints of English books are included, the majority are on Irish subjects and/or by Irish authors, making the collection an important resource for students of Irish history and Irish printing from the 17th century up to 1850. There are also about 2,000 items published after 1850 (although few are later than 1930), including some scarce Irish ephemera; but these are only a small proportion of the Library's Irish books from this period.Individual records for all the books should now be available on Newton.