Mass media, High Society and the invention of Celebrity

These days a great deal of the popular press is locked into a reciprocal and lucrative relationship with a wide variety of celebrities. The press needs stories (and above all else, photographs) of celebrities in order to sell their publications, while most celebrities need press coverage in order to maintain the public profile without which they would not be celebrities. In recent years this closed loop has reached its logical conclusion, resulting in complaints about celebrities who are ‘famous for being famous’, apparently having no public life or career beyond the pages of tabloid newspapers and gossip magazines.

Celebrity is a complex cultural concept (there is for an example, an entire academic journal, Celebrity Studies, dedicated to it), which takes different forms at different moments. However, in all its forms it has a specific history, and one which is inherently tied to the development of mass media. Celebrity in any recognisable form requires a mass media in order to create fame and instant recognition, as there can be no celebrity without an audience. Equally, before mass media and its creation of that audience, there was no real need for celebrities – they were an invention of the popular press and its need to appeal to segmented audiences who must be persuaded to buy each new issue. Celebrities whose star personae were carefully tailored to a particular audience proved to be an exceptionally successful and long-lasting way to attract regular buyers.

Late 19thC mass media – in Ireland and elsewhere – provides an opportunity to watch modern celebrity develop, as publications, advertisers, readers and the proto-celebrities themselves negotiated its form and purpose. The earliest category of famous individuals whose names (and later photographs) could sell newspapers were of course aristocrats. This was entirely logical, as they already possessed many of the characteristics which would later become associated with the celebrity format – they were drawn from a demarcated group whose very names, in the form of their titles, differentiated them from ordinary readers in a parallel fashion to the way that very famous modern celebrities’ very names are also brands. Aristocrats also lived lives of barely imaginable glamour (at least in theory, on the pages of newspapers and magazines), in castles and palaces, with carriages, servants, jewels and other luxuries. Perhaps most appealing of all to those following their lives in the press, they lived a life of permanent leisure. If the earlier Victorian period had struggled with the moral implications of leisure (and how it might be differentiated from idleness, which in the more religious times of the mid-19thC was of course a sin), then the late 19thC had fully resolved that struggle in favour of leisure as something to enjoyed at every opportunity. This could be seen in the rise of music halls, department stores, day-trip tourism and of course the media itself, which were all forms of entertainment which required leisure-time to enjoy. The reality for most people however was that their opportunities for leisure were still extremely limited. The majority of the population left school by 14 at the latest, the working week was typically still 6½ days, paid holidays were unusual, and the old age pension wasn’t introduced until 1909, so even retirement wasn’t a common experience. So fin-de-siècle culture was saturated with leisure activities which most people had a very limited chance to enjoy. The aristocracy’s life of total leisure, only emphasised by the ways they invented to fill it – moving from their country estate to their town-house and then on to the south of France according to the season, and attending court, country house parties, racing meets, grouse shooting or regattas as they went, all the while changing their clothes several times a day – was therefore a source of fascination in itself to over-worked readers of the popular press.

Women’s magazines and society papers, not surprisingly, were the most avid reporters of aristocratic celebrity. In Ireland, these included Lady of the House and Irish Society, among others. The two papers were different from each other in many respects – Lady of the House was more firmly positioned as a women’s magazine, and one which often expressed quite progressive social views, as well as catering to a slightly broader readership. Irish Society’s name probably speaks for itself – it focused entirely upon the activities and interests of the social elite, although it would have been read more broadly too, and that broader readership would have been specifically attracted by the high society lifestyles and individuals it reported on. Both magazines participated in the use of the aristocracy as proto-celebrities however, devoting considerable column inches to news of their lifestyles, fashions and travels. Although the activities of British (and even sometimes continental European) royalty and aristocrats featured fairly regularly, the Irish press tended to give much more attention to Irish aristocrats and the other upper-classes, with much of the narrative centring around the social life of Dublin Castle. In February 1903, for example, Lady of the House reported on the opening of that year’s ‘season’, which always began with the presentation of debutantes at the Castle. Under the headline ‘The First Dublin Drawing Room of the Season’, they printed a double-page photo spread of debutantes in their regulation white ball gowns. In the same issue there were reports of some of the ancillary social events of the season, including the information that ‘Mrs Garrett-Walker gave a ball at her residence, 38 Fitzwilliam Square. She is a daughter of Canon Leeper.’ Often there were minute descriptions of the precise gowns and jewels worn by each of the most important guests at these parties, along with general fashion commentary such as ‘The old-fashioned cut-work, which formed such an important Irish industry during the 1850s, is once more a la mode, and placed more prominently en evidence than of yore’. As the season wore on, and high society marriages were arranged, magazines such as Lady of the House and Irish Society covered those too. In January 1902, Irish Society informed its readers that ‘Miss Kathleen Blake Squires, youngest daughter of Mr WA Squires, of 61 Dartmouth Square, was married on Thursday last, the 2nd, to the Rev FC Day-Lewis, BA, senior curate of Stradbally, Queen’s County…’. As well as these local (and less illustrious) announcements, the magazine concerned itself too with events in the very highest circles, such as its announcement in the same issue that the Marquis of Bute was expected to come into his fortune (estimated at £6m, an immense figure) in that year.

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Although publications which gave importance to high society would have actively monitored events such as the presentation of debutantes at the Castle court, it is worth noting that most of the information they published giving details of private parties or engagements and marriages – let alone formal photographs of debutantes and socialites in ball gowns – were supplied to the editors by the subjects themselves. Not that long before the end of the 19thC, the upper echelons of Irish (and British) society would have resisted publicity of this kind, especially for women, and seen it as a severe failing of etiquette and good breeding, but by the start of the 20thC it was becoming increasingly common for members of the upper class to be profiled in magazines, or even to endorse specific products in advertising. In women’s magazines in particular, profiles of and interviews with ‘notable women’ were a regular and popular feature. For example Lady of the House opened the new century with a series of aristocratic profiles under the remarkable title ‘Some Men’s Wives’, and just a few years later in 1904 produced an article on ‘The Ladies of the Guinness Family’, lavishly illustrated with photographs of Lady Gwendoline, Lady Evelyn and the Hon Mrs Ernest Guinness, all of whom frequently appeared in press as a result of their social position and philanthropic activities. Indeed, the increased public profile of many upper-class women by the turn of the 20thC was often predicated on their involvement in heavily-publicised charity events to raise money for good causes – another aspect of contemporary celebrity culture which can be traced to this era. In the 1890s a series of grand-scale ‘charity bazaars’ were held in Dublin in order to raise money for a range of hospitals in the city. These were lavish affairs (mainly held at the RDS) with music, performances, cafes and above all else, stage-set ‘villages’ in which each house was a stall selling souvenirs and goods, all of which were managed and staffed by society girls in full costume. Of these the most famous is the ‘Araby’ bazaar held in 1894 and immortalised in James Joyce’s story of that name. Staged over a week and attended by 80,000 people, ‘Araby’ was a significant popular event in the city from numerous perspectives, but at the time there is no doubt that most of the enormous free publicity it received from magazines such as Lady of the House was a result of its very public display of marriageable young women from the upper-middle-classes and aristocracy. The magazine covered ‘Araby’ obsessively, profiling each stall and its ‘lady stallholders’ in the run-up to the bazaar’s opening, and afterwards published many photographs of them in costume. Given that ‘Araby’ attracted a great many members of the public to buy tickets and attend it, it is not surprising that the press was able to use the bazaar’s proto-celebrity society girls to sell magazine copies.

Interviews with well-known women were also common in both women’s magazines and society papers. In 1902 Irish Society published a series of interviews collectively titled ‘Gentlewomen at Home’, including one with Lady Nixon, who was the wife of Sir Christopher Nixon, then the president of the Royal College of Physicians. Defined primarily by her husband, Lady Nixon was nevertheless interviewed also as the mistress of her grand home at 2 Merrion Square, and praised for her roles as a hostess, mother and philanthropist, the interview mentioning in some detail the charities whose committees she was a member of. An interviewee such as Lady Nixon was beyond reproach as a paragon of upper-class femininity, but many magazine interviews with ‘notable women’ were keen to emphasise their ladylike qualities – all the more so if the women were active beyond the domestic sphere. This tension, between the need to create a public profile for aristocratic women in order to mobilise their celebrity for sales, and the competing concern that publicity and a public life might undermine their respectable femininity, became more and more visible as the years went by and the categories of female celebrity expanded beyond the real aristocracy, whose rank alone provided considerable protection to their reputations.

As a result of this, many interviews with and profiles of famous women worked hard to emphasise their domesticity and traditional femininity. Subjects were typically interviewed in their own homes during ‘afternoon tea’, which prompted the commonly recurring headline for female celebrity interviews, ‘Over the Teacups’, a phrase used for decades by many different magazines to conjure a cosy domestic tone. These highly-staged domestic interviews not only worked to underline their subjects’ femininity, but also allowed readers a pleasing glimpse into their homes. This concern about the effect of a public life upon the private reputation of female celebrities was especially evident in 1892 when Lady of the House included Maude Gonne in a society news column called ‘What Women Are Doing’ and added rather anxiously that, ‘Whatever may be said against Miss Gonne’s politics and methods…no man or woman can otherwise breathe a word against her…she has never been known for a moment to lose or jeopardise her self-respect as a woman’.

As time went on, the categories of women profiled and interviewed in women’s magazines expanded to include more and more non-aristocrats. As women began (very gradually) to enter higher education and the professions, relatively progressive magazines like Lady of the House began to profile some of them, and interviews ‘over the teacups’ appeared with ‘lady graduates’ and ‘lady doctors’. Stage performers such as Lillie Langtry or Nellie Melba also achieved a very modern form of celebrity in the pages of popular magazines, as their glamorous lives were profiled and ever-more photographed. Famed now for their beauty, talent and lifestyles rather than for their birth and breeding, they slowly began to edge out the aristocratic celebrities, a process which was rapidly accelerated by the arrival of film as the dominant leisure culture which would create ‘stars’ of actresses who no longer needed to emphasise their domesticity or traditional femininity. New publications dedicated to film star news, photographs and gossip had begun to emerge by the end of World War One, the forerunners of today’s magazines dedicated to celebrity culture.

The Catholic Truth Society of Ireland: Making Morality Pay

Earlier this month it was noted in some newspapers that the only religious education textbooks approved by the Catholic Church for use in the primary schools they control (which is 90% of public primary schools in the country) are published by the Church’s own publishing house, Veritas. This was felt to be particularly worthy of comment because those textbooks are believed to be the only profitable part of Veritas’ business these days, and therefore very important to its survival. This is a far cry from its hey-day in the mid-20thC, or even its early-20thC origins in the Catholic Truth Society.

The Catholic Truth Society of Ireland was established in 1899 (an English equivalent had been founded a few years earlier) with the intention of ‘the diffusion, by means of cheap publications, of sound Catholic literature in popular form, so as to give instruction and edification in a manner most likely to interest and attract the general reader’, as explained by its first President, the Bishop of Clonfert an address to members that year. In terms very recognisable to anyone familiar with the social purity movement of the era, the Bishop went on to assert that ‘It is well known that various printing presses in Great Britain daily pour out a flood of infidel and immoral publications, some of which overflows to this country. We have a confident hope that the Society’s publications will remove the temptation of having recourse to such filthy garbage, will create a taste for a pure and wholesome literature, and will also serve as an antidote against the poison of dangerous or immoral writings’. As this statement suggests, the CTSI was a first cousin to the Irish Vigilance Association and the wider social purity movement, all of whom saw great threats to Irish morals from popular culture, especially that imported from England.

Leaving aside the Bishop of Clonfert’s uncompromising address at its founding however, the Catholic Truth Society of Ireland generally left thundering condemnations of ‘evil literature’ to other branches of the social purity movement, and instead focused on producing and distributing its own publications. It focused on books (or more truthfully, pamphlets), perhaps realising that the production of weekly or even monthly periodicals was difficult to sustain and less likely to be successful in a market of fiercely competitive commercial penny papers. In its early years, the CTSI focused primarily upon non-fiction publications which mainly fell into two categories – the history of the Catholicism in Ireland, and the lives of saints. Examples included A Short History of some Dublin parishes (1905), St Frigidian: an Irish Saint in Italy by Michael O’Riordan (1902), The Church and the Working Classes by Peter Coffey (1906) and the intriguingly-titled The Manliness of St Paul by the Very Rev. Walter MacDonald. After the first few years of the Society’s existence, more contemporary topics of social and even political interest were addressed. These included Socialism by Rev. Robert Kane (1909), Marriage by Rev. John Charnock (1910) and The Management of Primary Schools in Ireland by Right Rev. Monsignor Hallinan (1911). It is noticeable that in its earliest years the CTSI published almost no fiction. This was despite its stated aim of competing with the ‘infidel and immoral publications’ flowing into Ireland, most of which focused on fiction – as has been discussed here on this blog before, short and serial fiction, along with cheap novels, were the dominant popular cultural form of the early 20thC, not yet having yielded their place to movies as the source of most people’s leisure entertainment. Instead, the Society’s initial output mirrored the non-fiction content of many popular journals and magazines, the informative articles about history and culture, in this case with a very strong Catholic inflection. And although they were longer than the short factual articles published by the Irish Packet or Ireland’s Own, they were still brief – pamphlets rather than books. For example, The Manliness of St Paul was only 27 pages, and The Management of Primary Schools in Ireland was 36 pages, both of these being typical lengths for CTSI pamphlets. This was probably motivated by a combination of factors – shorter publications could be cheaper (many CTSI pamphlets were only 1d), but in the era of short and disposable popular literature, this format may also have been more appealing to readers. Like other branches of the social purity movement in this era, the CTSI appear to have had a fairly clear grasp of the popular culture they were attempting to compete with (this, it might be argued, is one of the most important distinctions between the Church’s interactions with popular culture a century ago, and their efforts to make similar interventions in more recent years), and paid attention to their publications’ appeal to potential customers. As well as encouraging subscriptions, they also utilized the pre-existing network of Catholic churches and schools to display and sell their publications, even advertising and selling display cabinets for this purpose, from 15 shillings for a small set of wall shelves, up to 36 shillings for a freestanding cabinet which would display 18 pamphlets.

The Society did begin publishing fiction well before World War One, and this became a more and more important part of their output over the coming years and decades. Like their other publications, most of their fiction was short – one of their earliest stories for example was Avourneen by Rosa Mulholland (Lady Gilbert), published in 1905 and only 16 pages long. In effect, they were publishing in stand-alone, pamphlet form, the extended short stories which were so popular in weekly penny papers like Ireland’s Own. Indeed, many of the same authors wrote for the Irish popular press and the Catholic Truth Society, including Mulholland herself. By 1919, that inveterate cataloguer of Irish literature Stephen J Brown had commented in his exhaustive annotated bibliography Ireland in Fiction that the CTSI’s principal purpose ‘is religious and moral propaganda’, most of which were ‘distinctively Catholic in tone’, observations which from Browne, who was himself a Jesuit, were intended to be complimentary. He also gave an indication of the scale of the Society’s publications by that point, asserting that in the 20 years since its founding in 1899, it had already distributed more than 7 million copies of its publications.

Less well-known Irish writers seem to have been able to use the CTSI as a platform for their work too, suggesting that the Society may have had to actively seek out writers who would produce work of the kind they were looking to promote. One example of such authors was Patrick Ivers-Rigney, a National School teacher from Cork. Born in 1879, Ivers-Rigney contributed stories to several story papers before he was 30, including (in 1907) a murder-mystery serial called ‘The Mystery of a Railway Car’ for the Irish Emerald, which the paper tied to a competition inviting readers to guess the murderer and how they committed their crime. By 1915, he was also writing for Ireland’s Own, a complicated serial called ‘The Mystery of the Yellow Lough’ which featured an attempt at forced marriage, a contested legacy from America and the revelation of murder when the local lough is drained to reveal multiple skeletons. These stories were hardly the kind of ‘sound Catholic literature’ the CTSI had promised when they were established, but despite this (and perhaps because Ivers-Rigney also had a parallel career writing about education policy for Catholic journals), during the 1920s and 1930s they published 23 of his stories, including Circumstantial Evidence (1927), The Church Street Mystery (1930), The Mysterious Portmanteau (1931) and The Rahaniska Ruby (1931). Like most other CTSI fiction, these stories were all less than 30 pages long, and were extended short fiction very similar to the work he had published in story papers. Ivers-Rigney’s work, along with that of many others, suggests that as the decades went on the CTSI broadened their scope from ‘moral propaganda’, presumably in order to attract readers.

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Indeed, the Society’s activities during the early years of the Free State appear to have become both more commercial and more wide-ranging, as they began to include the sale of vestments and religious artefacts as well as the sale of their publications, and by the mid-1920s they were also organising pilgrimages. This prompted the setting up of the Veritas Company as a commercial operation, run from the CTSI’s shop on Lower Abbey Street (and which is still open to this day). Probably inspired by the success of the 1932 Eucharistic Congress in Dublin (which saw visitors and press from all over the world and a mass for one million people in the Phoenix Park), their religious travel agency became a significant business during the early 1930s. In 1933 they organised a 10-day pilgrimage to Lourdes which consisted of 2,500 pilgrims (including several TDs and government ministers), accompanied by an officially-deployed detachment of the Irish Army to oversee the logistics of their movements and accommodation. Tickets for the pilgrimage cost £14 15s (with a discount for invalids), an enormous sum for most ordinary Irish people at that time.

While the arranging of pilgrimages and selling of religious artefacts was overseen by the Veritas Company as a separate business, a keen business sense also seems clear in the CTSI’s publishing operations during the mid-20thC. For example during these decades they not only increased their output to include a wide range of fiction, as well as pamphlets on religious education, social issues and personal advice, but they also placed considerable emphasis upon the cover art of their pamphlets – which would also have helped their publications to compete in the crowded market of popular magazines and pulp fiction. Many of these covers (such as the ones shown here) were of very high quality, so much so that in 2013 some were reproduced as limited edition prints and collected into a book, Vintage Values, which is available here (and definitely recommended for anyone interested in graphic design).

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In 1969, the Veritas Company effectively took over the Catholic Truth Society of Ireland, taking on all of its publishing activities. As the decades passed, they became less and less of a force within popular culture (despite having set up a broadcasting operation during the 1960s in a very explicit attempt to keep up with new media technologies). Nevertheless, as the only publishers of religious textbooks approved for use in Catholic-controlled primary schools, the legacy of the CTSI’s commitment to ‘sound Catholic literature’ continues, as does its strongly commercial purpose.

References

Stephen J Brown, Ireland in Fiction: A Guide to Irish Novels, Tales, Romances and Folklore (Dublin: Maunsel, 1919)

Lir Mac Cárthaigh, Vintage Values: Classic Pamphlet Cover Design from 20th Century Ireland (Dublin: Veritas Publications, 2013).

Deserters and White Slavers: Emigration in the Irish popular press

In August 1912 Julia Curran, a young Irish woman from Kilkenny, was brutally murdered in a New York brothel. Later that year the case would become a significant scandal when it emerged that corrupt police had tried to help the brothel cover up her death as being from ‘natural causes’, but long before then the story was widely reported in the Irish press. The victim (frequently described as being from a ‘good family’ and having worked as a governess in aristocratic homes in Ireland) had been travelling in America as a lady’s companion to a wealthy family when she made the acquaintance of a ‘foreign’ man and abruptly left her employment to travel to New York with him. She was later seen arriving at the brothel in his company in a visibly ‘drugged’ condition, her body being found in their room the following day (she had been strangled), her male companion having disappeared.

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This grim story would have seemed eerily familiar to many readers of the Irish press, where it was avidly reported in papers from the Kerry Reporter to the Strabane Chronicle under headlines such as ‘New York Horror’ and ‘Irish Girl’s Fate, Pretty Governess Murdered’. It read like an exact real-life example of the tales of ‘white slavery’ they had been hearing for years, but with a particular intensity around the time of Julia Curran’s death. ‘White slavery’ was the deliberately emotive term used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to warn young women of the reputed threat they faced of being seduced, tricked or even kidnapped into prostitution. These threats were, it was argued, especially great for young women who moved to big cities looking for work, away from the protection of their families and supposedly becoming vulnerable to the cunning wiles of procurers who would target them at train stations, ports and even in busy streets. As Katherine Mullin describes in her book on the Irish social purity movement, a pamphlet entitled The Horrors of the White Slave Trade: the Mighty Crusade to Protect the Purity of Our Homes, which was published in 1912, used a photo-story reconstruction of how unwary girls could be fooled into prostitution. In the first image, a charming stranger engages the innocent young woman in conversation in a city street. In the second image, he has persuaded her to accompany him to a restaurant where ‘the smooth-tongued villain tells of his affection and undying love for her’ while, of course, drugging her food. And in the final photo, she is seen dazedly following him into a building, now ‘incapable of self-control and is easily led to her ruin. Awaking she will find herself in a house of shame’. The following year not one but two films on the topic, Traffic in Souls and The Horrors of the White Slave Trade, were released into the increasingly-popular movie theatres. The international campaign to ‘rescue’ unwitting girls from the clutches of ‘white slavery’ was of course a close relative of the broader social purity movement which was previously discussed here on this blog in relation to its campaigns against ‘evil literature’. In Ireland, this had actually begun as a late-19thC campaign against the brothels in Dublin’s Monto district, involving street pickets and attempts to identify and shame male customers – but from around 1900 the focus of Irish purity campaigns moved to an emphasis on popular fiction, photographs, crime and divorce reporting. However, the moral panic about innocent young women being tricked into ‘white slavery’ did have considerable resonance in Ireland as a cautionary tale of what might result from emigration, especially emigration to big cities such as London or New York.

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The decades immediately before and after 1900 were periods of enormous emigration from Ireland – often from rural areas to the huge cities of Britain and the United States. Not only were Ireland’s emigration rates extremely high, but young single women constituted an unusually high proportion of those emigrants, and this made awful warnings of the moral dangers they faced a popular theme of anti-emigration rhetoric. Not that female emigrants were the only targets of warnings against leaving home, however. Ireland’s Own in particular maintained a steady flow of anti-emigration rhetoric through its fiction, factual articles and editorials from its earliest years, and many of these were aimed at young male readers as well as female. Ireland’s Own’s principal demographic, young working-class or lower-middle-class readers (both male and female) were of course also the principal demographic who were emigrating, and this was therefore a sensitive topic for the paper to raise. Nevertheless it did so regularly, and in ways which left no ambiguity about its editorial position on the subject. Within its first few months for example, an opinion column of December 1902 claimed that every day 108 people left Ireland ‘with much patriotism on their lips but not any in their hearts….there was a time when the word ‘emigrant’ was nearly synonymous with “martyr”. At the present day, in view of the arduous labour and risk of moral degradation that a life outside of Ireland entails and the obvious opportunities for work that await the willing hand at home, it is an abuse of the words to call deserters “emigrants”. Here emigration is painted not only as a moral risk to the individual emigrant, but also as such a significant loss to the national body politic that it can be characterised as unpatriotic or even as ‘desertion’, a highly emotive term. In another article in the same vein more than a decade later, the paper would rail against the ‘terrible drain on our resources that has been made by the constant emigration of the strong and the young to America’. Here then emigration was a betrayal of Ireland, and something of an accusation from the paper to its own readers, many of whom must have emigrated each year, or had siblings and friends who did. Perhaps aware that calls to remain in Ireland for purely patriotic reasons were unlikely to deter many potential emigrants, Ireland’s Own frequently invoked the difficulties and disappointments of life abroad, especially in the United States. This was an anti-emigration narrative particularly aimed at male emigrants, who were assured that ‘few, very few, ever earn more than a living wage’, along with warnings about the high cost of living in cities like New York, and the competition for jobs they would face from Russians, Swedes, Germans or Italians, who it was claimed were hired in preference to Irishmen and would work for less money. These points were reinforced in fiction as well, with stories about emigration gone wrong. In 1908 for example, the paper published ‘A False El Dorado’ by Thomas Geraghty, about a young man who leaves his family home in Ireland for New York, in part to search for his brother who had emigrated some years before and not been heard of since. Our hero struggles to make a living, but perseveres, until one day he rescues from the river a man attempting suicide – who of course turns out to be his brother, aged and defeated by his failure in New York, and too ashamed to stay in contact with his family. The story has a happy ending in which the brothers return to the family cottage in Ireland, but the moral for readers contemplating emigration was clear.

Nevertheless, for all the dire warnings of the economic hazards awaiting male emigrants, the fate conjured for young women was definitely even worse. In 1903 the paper’s women’s page warned of difficulties in finding work and lodgings, or even a suitable church to attend, concluding that it was ‘far better to stay at home and make the best of things’. More sensational warnings would follow in later years however, ones very similar to those contained in white slavery pamphlets such as The Horrors of the White Slave Trade: the Mighty Crusade to Protect the Purity of Our Homes. In 1915 a correspondent to Ireland’s Own from Montreal warned that girls who emigrated alone lacked moral guidance in their new life, and would spend their time going to movies on their nights off as well as reading ‘cheap literature which is very far from being up to standard. As time goes on she makes an acquaintance, and then what’s the result? In this way Ireland loses sight of the daughters she’s so proud of’. This warning was coy however by comparison to that from 1909, which had described Irish girls who emigrated to New York being forced to work in service for families ‘who have no God’, and associate with other girls ‘who mock purity, girls who are morally dead’. Ireland’s Own went on, ‘the rest of the story is too horrible. In very many cases the unprotected girl sinks lower and lower, until her condition is that of social outcast’. This it was argued would inevitably lead to arrest, imprisonment, alcoholism ‘to sustain her exhausted body, and then one night she runs to the river and goes to be judged’.

Such melodramatic predictions of the fate awaiting young Irish women in New York and other cities were sometimes tempered by more sober acknowledgements that female emigrants (in particular) had their reasons for leaving in such large numbers. It is noticeable that these acknowledgements tended to come from women journalists, who probably had personal experience of some of the limitations women faced in Ireland. In 1906 Ireland’s Own published a long article entitled ‘Country Homes and Home Makers’ by Mary EL Butler, which directly addressed the issue of young female emigration. Butler was one of the most successful women journalists in early 20thC Ireland, as well as being an active member of the Gaelic League. She had a long-running column in the Irish Independent, was regularly published in nationalist papers (she had a particular commitment to the Irish language and published in Irish), and also wrote at least one novel, The Ring of the Day in 1907. In her 1906 piece for Ireland’s Own, Butler acknowledged that for many young women a desire to escape from a dull rural life to something ‘gayer, more exciting’ was an important incentive to emigration. She argued that ‘distaste for country life with us amounts to a national danger’ because of its influence on emigration rates. While her tone is disapproving of these emigrants’ decision, she does go on to argue that ‘if the exodus which is bringing our country to its knees is to be stopped it is absolutely necessary to make home and village life attractive’. A similar attitude was displayed the following year in an article in Lady of the House by Mary Costello. Far less is known of Costello than of Butler, but she published at least one novel (Peggy the Millionaire in 1910) and several long pieces with Lady of the House over many years, including an investigative journalism series called ‘A Woman’s Life in the Dublin Slums’ during the 1890s which contained fierce denunciations of the social and political failures responsible for the city’s tenements. Her 1907 article for Lady of the House was called ‘Fore! The Modern Woman Demands the Clearing of the Way’ and was a bold assertion of Irish women’s new-found confidence, illustrated with a drawing of a Gibson girl playing golf. Costello argued that ‘in no other English-speaking part of the globe have women been more kept down than they have among us, more handicapped in education and in the means of earning an honourable livelihood.’ Noting the high levels of female emigration, she described them as starting ‘alone and dry-eyed across the Atlantic into the heart of life, undismayed by the pictures of hard work, failure, and loss of health which anti-emigrationists forcibly depict.’ While mourning the loss of such energetic young women, she added that nothing would be more likely to stop it than ‘giving Irishwomen an interest and a voice in all that goes on at home’.

None of this would have been much consolation to Julia Curran, whose death may have seemed like the (mainly invented) propaganda of the anti-white slavery campaign but which was for once all-too real. As a final indignity, her death was then used to sell Irish newspapers using sensational headlines like ‘How Miss Curran Was Lured to Death’, along with graphic descriptions of how she was killed. Even Ireland’s Own, which did not print such details, did discuss her death, the editor commenting that ‘it is a sad satisfaction to me to know that “Ireland’s Own” consistently and strenuously warned its readers against the dangers and pitfalls that await the unwary in the huge and seething attics of the New World’.

References

Katherine Mullin, James Joyce, Sexuality and Social Purity (Cambridge University Press, 2003)

The Inside of the White Slave Traffic (1913) available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZZHihjo_eBQ

Traffic in Souls (1913) available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PLZLhdqQXug

Clifford Griffith Roe, The Horrors of the White Slave Trade: the Mighty Crusade to Protect the Purity of Our Homes (London and New York, 1912).

The Curious Case of Sherlock Holmes and the Irish Crown Jewels (or not)

In 1907, in what remains one of the great unsolved jewel thefts, the Irish Crown Jewels were stolen from inside Dublin Castle. None of them have ever been recovered, and no one was ever arrested for the theft. It was one of the mass media sensations of its day, in Ireland and beyond – the combination of spectacular royal jewels, an apparently perfect crime, and rampant speculation about the possible involvement of senior figures of the Irish and English establishment meant that it received enormous press coverage, resulting in at least one libel case as a result of over-enthusiastic theorising about the culprits.

irish_crown_jewels

The jewels themselves consisted of two star and badge regalia of the Order of St Patrick (one of which was reserved for the Sovereign) and five collars belonging to Knights of the Order. They were large pieces of ceremonial jewellery, consisting of diamonds, emeralds and rubies, and were collectively valued at more than £30,000 (well over £3m today). They were kept in a safe inside the office of Arthur Vicars, the Ulster King of Arms and therefore a senior government official at Dublin Castle. The jewels’ disappearance was discovered just 4 days before the arrival of Edward VII and Queen Alexandra for the Irish International Exhibition, and prompted enormous royal embarrassment, an official commission of enquiry and by 1912 had become the subject of acrimonious exchanges in the Westminster parliament when it was alleged (under cover of parliamentary privilege) that the solution to the theft had been covered up by authorities because it was connected to “criminal debauchery and sodomy being committed in the castle by officials, Army officers…of such position that their conviction and exposure would have led to an upheaval from which the Chief Secretary shrank”. Over the century since the theft, accusations have been made against individuals including the Lord Lieutenant’s son Lord Haddo, and the explorer Ernest Shackleton’s brother Francis as well as Vicars himself (like Vicars, Shackleton was employed in the Castle and had access to the safe from which the jewels disappeared). It has been described variously as a conservative plot to discredit and embarrass the Liberal government (represented in Dublin Castle by Lord Aberdeen, the Lord Lieutenant) and as an IRA plot to embarrass the entire British administration and raise funds by selling the jewels in America. While it seems most likely the jewels were smuggled abroad immediately to be broken up and sold, as late as 1927 some official Irish sources appeared to believe they were still extant and available for sale on the black market, whereas yet another version of the story suggests that the British royal family secretly bought them back not long after they were stolen, again in order to hush up a homosexuality scandal most likely involving Francis Shackleton and another Castle official with access to the jewels. Neither they nor anyone else was ever arrested or charged with the crime, although Shackleton was imprisoned and disgraced some years later for another theft. After dominating newspaper stories in Ireland and England in 1907, the story has continued to reappear every few years for more than a century, whenever a new theory emerges as to the culprits or the jewels’ fate. My personal favourite can be found here, but a cursory search will produce many more, and there have also been fictional versions (including a very salacious novel called Jewels, published in 1977) and a 2003 television documentary.

It may even have attracted the attention of Sherlock Holmes, as it has been suggested that Conan Doyle’s story ‘The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans’ (published in December 1908) was inspired by the theft of the Irish crown jewels, an argument that is certainly plausible. While no details of the story reflect the case, its basic structure (the theft and smuggling abroad of top secret military plans from a government safe, which turns out to have been the work of a trusted establishment figure) is similar in its main points. It is beyond the scope or expertise of this blog to adjudicate on whether the case was an influence on Conan Doyle, though the timing of the story’s publication eighteen months after the jewels’ disappearance does add credibility to the idea. What is certain however, is that the theft’s resemblance to a Sherlock Holmes story was clear to others at the time. In March 1908, a story entitled ‘Sherlock Holmes in Ireland, or The Diamonds of St Patrick. From the French’ had appeared in the story paper Ireland’s Own. The faithful Dr Watson who narrated most Holmes stories was here abandoned in favour of an unnamed French narrator, who nevertheless recounts the tale in the typical first person style of other Sherlock cases. According to this (very) short story, Holmes was asked to investigate the jewels’ disappearance, prompting his first visit to Ireland, of which the narrator comments, “he resembled in that nine-tenths of the English, who are keen travellers, but Ireland, poor and unhappy Ireland, in place of attracting them, repulses them. Without doubt they feel themselves culpable in this place, and they fear to see the pleasures of travelling spoiled by their regrets”. Having arrived in Dublin, Holmes and his narrator attend a levee at Dublin Castle, which provokes some republican disapproval from the French narrator, who is proud to describe himself as a ‘citizen of a Republic’. The plot then follows (extremely rapidly) a series of fairly standard Holmes detection techniques, including Holmes faking a faint outside the strong-room from which the jewels were stolen in order to be carried inside to inspect it, and then appearing in not one but two apparently convincing disguises (as both a country squire and a plumber). Finally he announces to the narrator that he knows who stole the jewels – but when asked to name the culprit, he responds “Wait until tomorrow evening…There is a great ball at the Viceroy’s Castle. At the particular moment when Lord Aberdeen, accompanied by his court, shall make his entry into the hall…I shall unmask the robber”. However, the next evening Holmes shows the narrator a telegram he has just received from some unnamed but senior member of government, begging him not to reveal the thief’s identity ‘for the safety of your country’. Holmes complies, explaining “I strongly suspect that there is underneath some affair of the State. If I made public my inquiry terrible calamities would happen. Perhaps we would have war with Germany”. And there the story ends, Holmes and our mysterious French narrator returning to London and the jewels remaining lost.

The story is thin, especially by the standards of Conan Doyle’s own prose, but its invention was in itself very clever – the theft of the Irish crown jewels from inside Dublin Castle, the failure to recover them, and the rumours and accusations swirling around several suspects who would normally have been considered above suspicion was itself highly reminiscent of a Sherlock Holmes case, and whoever wrote the story had obviously understood this very well. The story’s resolution of Holmes knowing the culprit’s identity but withholding it at the request of a very senior member of the establishment in order to protect matters of State also sailed tantalisingly close to some of the rumours about the theft which would have been widely-known in Ireland by the end of 1908, while remaining vague enough to avoid charges of libel from the individuals concerned. Of course, by 1912 some of those rumours would be publically stated in Parliament, but those statements had the benefit of parliamentary privilege, which Ireland’s Own did not.

But to modern readers, perhaps the most remarkable feature of this story was not its avoidance of libel accusations, but instead its cheerful breach of copyright law. In 1908, Arthur Conan Doyle was one of the best-selling writers in the world, and Sherlock Holmes was so popular that Doyle had famously had to bring him back from the dead in 1903. The stories had always been serialised in the Strand magazine, for whom they had been exceptionally lucrative, and were then collected in book form which also sold in enormous numbers. The publishing of a story using Holmes’ name, persona and distinctive detecting style was therefore an obvious attempt to take advantage of readers’ enthusiasm for Conan Doyle’s work – and was blatantly illegal. International enforcement of copyright claims such as this was still difficult, if not quite as impossible as it had been for most of the 19thC, when for example the American publishing industry had been largely founded on the wholesale pirating of English material. But Ireland and England operated under effectively the same copyright regimes in 1908, and had Conan Doyle or his publishers been aware of ‘Sherlock Holmes in Ireland, or The Diamonds of St Patrick’, they would have been in an unquestionable position to sue Ireland’s Own and its publisher, John Walsh. Given that Walsh ran the story paper so successfully – and indeed owned several newspapers and a large printing works – it is inconceivable that he and his staff did not know that their ‘Sherlock Holmes’ story was an actionable breach of copyright. By contrast, it is not entirely certain that the Ireland’s Own readership (many of whom were barely out of school) would all have understood that the story wasn’t actually by Conan Doyle, a point which would surely have enraged the author all the more had he ever known of it. The story’s publication is therefore an indication that the editorial staff of Ireland’s Own felt secure that it would not be seen by anyone with a professional interest in the authentic Sherlock Holmes stories – a sign perhaps that despite their occasional attempts to promote sales among Irish emigrants in Britain, in reality the paper did not circulate significantly outside Ireland.  This appears to have been an accurate prediction on their part, as the story seems to have generated no legal action – and remains the occasion of Sherlock Holmes’ only visit to Ireland.  And the Irish crown jewels remain missing.

References

The Theft of the Irish ‘Crown Jewels’ Online Exhibition 2007, National Archives of Ireland http://www.nationalarchives.ie/digital-resources/online-exhibitions/the-theft-of-the-irish-%E2%80%9Ccrown-jewels%E2%80%9D-2007/

Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans’, His Last Bow and the Casebook of Sherlock Holmes (Penguin Classics, 2008).

Robert Perrin, Jewels (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977)

The Strange Case of the Irish Crown Jewels (dir. Gerry Nelson, 2003)

Why Go Bald (or Grey)?: Advertising, Hair, and the Cult of Youth

The ‘Why Go Bald’ sign on South Great George’s Street in Dublin is one of the city’s most-loved landmarks. One of the few remaining examples of neon advertising, it consists of a man’s head and shoulders, in which as the lights flash on and off he alternates between a full head of hair with a big smile, and total baldness with a frown. Designed in 1962 for the hair restoration clinic which still operates underneath it today, it is an icon of design history and also a reminder that our own era’s obsessions and anxieties about hair as an indicator of youthfulness and vitality are nothing new. In fact, advertisements for hair restorers, hair dyes, hair ‘food’ and even hair removal techniques were among the most frequent and visible examples of modern advertising, from the end of the 19thC.

capsuloids

Hair products were a very distinct sub-group of heavily-branded ‘personal grooming’ products, and the range and frequency with which they were advertised was striking. It is also noticeable that although some products simply claimed to clean, style or perfume hair, far more were focused upon eliminating the twin horrors of baldness and greying. Where baldness was concerned this was where, in an era of almost unregulated advertising, hair products intersected with quack medicine. A range of ‘hair restorers’ promised men (and sometimes women) that their thinning hair would be revived and grow like new. This was often accompanied by pseudo-scientific claims to have discovered the cause of thinning hair, and found a solution to it. Capsuloids, for example, claimed that hair loss was caused by ‘harmful germs’ in the hair roots – their product would not only kill these germs, but ‘…so nourish the hair roots that two hairs will grow from each root where only one hair grew before’. Their adverts often included a diagram of the scalp and hair root drawn at dramatic magnification, in order to demonstrate exactly where the harmful germs were lurking prior to taking Capsuloids. By contrast, their competitor Harlene Hair Drill claimed to have made an ‘Appalling Discovery Which Affects Your Hair. National Danger of Baldness’. Rather than germs, Harlene identified ‘scurf’ as the cause of hair loss, sternly warning that ‘no hair can withstand the insidious attacks of this loathsome scurf’ and illustrating the point with ‘before’ and ‘after’ drawings of baldness cured. In other adverts Harlene, obviously keen to let no hair restoration possibilities pass them by, also promised that their product was ‘unequalled for promoting the growth of the Beard and Moustache’, and even ‘Curing Weak and Thin Eyelashes’. Capsuloids and Harlene were advertised with British addresses for the placing of postal orders, but some enterprising Irish firms produced their own products, such as Boyd’s Oriental Hair Restorer, which also claimed that it would prevent baldness by curing dandruff, and could be purchased from their premises in Mary Street, Dublin.

boyds

If hair loss was perhaps the greatest concern to be exploited by the purveyors of patent cures, then going grey came a close second. If the adverts in papers and magazines are any indicator, both the men and women of early 20thC Ireland were routinely dying their hair, presumably with varying degrees of skill and subtlety. In 1911 the front wrapper of an issue of Ireland’s Own contained no fewer than 4 separate advertisements for pharmacies selling hair dye. These included J Leonard & Co on North Earl Street Dublin, who assured readers that ‘There Is No Need to Look Old’ and JJ Fitzgibbon of Kingstown who chose the more imperative ‘Don’t Look Old’. The alarmingly-named Necroceine hair dye made the highly unlikely claim in its advert that it ‘restores colour to the root, making detection impossible’.

necroceine

 

If the loss of hair or hair colour was one age-related anxiety to be addressed through patent cures, then the appearance of hair in the wrong places was another. By the start of the 20thC, there were plenty of electrolysis practitioners advertising their services in Ireland – and here perhaps we might pause to contemplate just how painful and downright dangerous early 20thC electrolysis probably was – to those keen to remove ‘unsightly hair’.

pomeroy

Mrs Pomeroy, who had a beauty salon on Grafton Street and sold her own range of ‘skin foods’, offered it, as did the city’s most upmarket hair salon, Maison Prost on St Stephen’s Green (which sometimes advertised itself as being ‘coiffeur, parfumeur, etc to his Excellency the Lord Lieutenant’, and remained in business until the 1960s). Alternatively Miss Hulbert of Ballsbridge regularly advertised her electrolysis service, and Miss Read of Dawson Street offered electrolysis and facial massage. Most alarmingly of all, in 1907 readers of Irish Society were invited to purchase a ‘Tensfeldt Apparatus’ in order to perform electrolysis on themselves in the privacy of their own homes. Amazingly, no accounts of fatalities appear to have been recorded!

 

prost

As was discussed here in an earlier post, the development of branded products (of which hair restorers and dyes were examples) led not only to an increase in the quantity of advertising in order to embed the brand in customers’ memories, but also to a more important shift in tone of that advertising. The move was from an ‘informative’ tone which emphasised the availability and nature of products customers were already looking for, towards an ‘emotive’ tone which sought to create markets for products customers did not yet know they wanted by highlighting a need or problem which only that brand could solve. Inevitably this change of tone meant that advertising increasingly played upon people’s fears and anxieties (‘psychoanalysis in reverse’, as Leo Lowenthal would famously describe the profession in the mid-20thC). It was therefore no coincidence that products promising to make people look younger and better-looking were those suited to this new style of advertising, and upon which the modern advertising industry was built. Aggressively branded, with wildly imaginative names and logos, their advertisements developed some of the first uses of an appeal to emotions, aspirations and fears in order to convince customers that their product – and only their product – could make them happier, healthier and more successful. This had an obvious logic to it – it is not particularly difficult to invoke fear and anxiety in most people regarding their health, youthfulness and physical attractiveness, and this is why products such as soaps, quack medicines and beauty products were those which pioneered this approach to marketing. Soap advertising is often credited with effectively pioneering the principles and techniques of modern advertising, and with good reason. A product easily mass-manufactured cheaply and on an industrial scale, and also one which was small, simple to package, transport and sell cheaply, it was an obvious vehicle for mass advertising and in Ireland as elsewhere the pages of every newspaper and magazine were dominated by soap adverts by the end of the 19thC. Not only were these often lavish, full-colour illustrations such as the famous use by Pears Soap of Millais’ painting ‘Bubbles’, but they were also pioneers of brand-names, advertising slogans and images which sought to play on the emotional possibilities of their product – promising sunshine (‘Sunlight’ soap), brightness and health versus grime and disease without them. In a world which still had high levels of infant mortality, medical care of limited effectiveness, and few of the labour-saving devices we consider necessary to clean our homes, our clothes or ourselves, people had good reason to fear dirt and disease and advertisers rapidly learned to prey upon those anxieties. While the international brands such as Sunlight and Lux were the dominant advertisers, an Irish brand called McClinton’s soap (manufactured in Donaghmore, Co Tyrone) achieved considerable success as a luxury brand which was heavily (and inventively) advertised using a fake Irish village called Ballymaclinton, and images of Irish ‘colleens’ whose soft complexion was attributed to their use of McClinton’s soap.

colleensdancing

Then as now advertisements were often a revealing indicator of the anxieties of a particular cultural moment. The frequency of advertisements for hair restorers and dyes – and the fact that they appeared across an enormous range of Irish publications – suggested that what all of these potions, tablets and treatments had in common was their ability to prey upon the anxieties of a population keen to appear young and vigorous. The prices, style of adverts and range of publications they appeared in demonstrate that this quest for youthfulness crossed class, gender and other demographic lines. While electrolysis was only advertised in the upmarket publications (and offered at upmarket salons such as Maison Prost) and was presumably an expensive treatment, most of these brands were cheap, a shilling or less per bottle, so apparently fears about personal appearance (and aging) were pretty much universal across otherwise significant divides of class, gender and location. The cult of youth we often associate with post-World War One (with its flappers, jazz babies and dramatically more adolescent-looking beauty ideals for women) had actually begun to manifest itself much earlier. The ‘new woman’ who became the subject of so much discussion and agonising from 1890 onwards took various forms, but perhaps most frequently was a very young woman who challenged social conventions about work, dress and relationships as she first reached adulthood. In America this emphasis upon female youthfulness was particularly evident in the early 20thC fascination with that beguiling creature the college ‘co-ed’, often depicted in the style of the famously vigorous ‘Gibson girls’. While Ireland did not share the ‘co-ed’ phenomenon, its leading women’s magazine, Lady of the House, did make reference to changing conventions of female beauty in 1907 by citing the ‘Gibson ideal’, suggesting that it was an internationally-understood concept by that point. Less light-heartedly, a widely-pervading sense of anxiety about being ‘left behind’ was clearly evident in the wider culture of the early 20thC, in a society increasingly framed by a sense of competition. For women, this took the form of concerns about being left ‘on the shelf’, as the popular press frequently stoked fears about the declining marriage rate, alternatively blaming ‘new women’ for being poor wife material, or blaming men for not wanting to take on the responsibilities of marriage – at one point the Irish Packet even discussed a proposal (made in all seriousness) for a ‘bachelor tax’ to resolve this problem. Either way, in a world in which marriage was still the primary ambition for most women for both cultural and pragmatic reasons, the fear of being an ‘old maid’ overtaken by younger competitors on the marriage market was real. For men, the fear was of being thrown ‘on the scrap heap’, especially for working-class or lower-middle-class men at the mercy of employers who could almost always find a younger and cheaper replacement. Those doing manual labour had an obvious incentive to wish to appear young and strong, but the rapidly-expanding army of clerks and other low-ranking office workers also had reasons for anxiety about being seen as over-the-hill and expendable. The combined effects of these all of these cultural currents then, was a market of both men and women apprehensive about visible signs of aging – and therefore receptive to the promise that their youthfulness could be regained for the price of a shilling bottle of hair restorer.

References

Stephanie Rains, ‘“Do You Ring? Or Are you Rung for?”: Mass Media, Class, and Social Aspiration in Edwardian Ireland’, in New Hibernia Review, 18/4 Winter, 2014.

Stephanie Rains, ‘The Ideal Home (Rule) Exhibition: Ballymaclinton and the 1908 Franco-British Exhibition’, in Field Day Review 7, 2011.

Juliann Sivulka, Stronger Than Dirt: A Cultural History of Advertising Personal Hygiene in America, 1875-1940, Prometheus Books: New York, 2001.

Money Matters: the cost of books, newspapers and magazines in early 20thC Ireland

In the very first post on this blog, I discussed the defining characteristic of mass media – that it conceives of its audience as a ‘mass’ to be segmented according to income and demographics in order to target them as potential customers for products, rather than understanding them as a group of complex individuals to be addressed with ideas. The products they are targeted with include not only the publications themselves, but also the other products which those publications advertised, since by well before the end of the 19thC most commercial publications were more dependent upon their advertising revenue than upon their cover prices, just as they are today. As a result of this, most publications targeted a particular demographic of reader – by tempting them with material they wanted to read – in order to deliver those readers to advertisers targeting that particular demographic. This mechanism involved a number of careful calculations and manoeuvres by both publishers and advertisers as they chased the ever-moving target of reader demand. From the readers’ point of view, calculations were also necessary, as most people had a finite amount of money to spend on either news or leisure reading, so would have put some thought into their spending decisions. The entire structure and content of the mass media in Ireland during the late 19th and early 20thC was therefore determined by financial considerations for everyone involved, just as it is today, however different the media landscapes are in other ways.

It is therefore useful to think carefully about money and prices, in both absolute and relative terms. This will not only help us to better understand Ireland’s historical mass media market as its owners, editors and journalists understood it at the time, but will also help us to better understand some of the attitudes and behaviours of readers as they allocated their pennies and shillings to particular publications. Since cover prices are some of the most readily-available figures still available to us, they’re a good place to start. The cost of newspapers and magazines declined steadily throughout the 19thC, following the abolition of government stamp duties on printed material, and the increased economies of scale available to the publishing industry as mass literacy led to ever-greater readerships. This led produced the ‘penny dreadful’ paper aimed particularly at working-class boys, and the subject of one of the very first mass media moral panics as they were accused of glorifying crime and criminals, and leading young readers astray. From then on, a penny became the standard cover price of all publications aimed at younger and poorer readerships, superseded only by even cheaper papers for halfpence (sometimes nicknamed ‘halfpenny dreadfullers’). Ireland didn’t produce any real penny dreadfuls, but its cheap story papers such as the Shamrock and Ireland’s Own were its slightly more respectable equivalents at the same price. In fact by the end of the 19thC most weekly publications were a penny each, even those whose intended readership was considerably older and wealthier than that of story papers. Even the rather august Irish Society, firmly aimed at the elite world of Dublin’s fashionable society, cost only a penny per weekly issue, as did other ‘society papers’. The Irish media market couldn’t produce the economies of scale (in readership and therefore also in advertising revenue) to support halfpenny periodicals of the kind which existed in the British market by the start of the 20thC. However, William Martin Murphy’s revamped and populist Irish Independent was a halfpenny newspaper from its inception in 1905, and this was one of its most important features. Its ruthless efforts to become the most widely-read daily paper in Ireland included the use of ‘new journalism’ styles such as more photography and a more intimate tone of address to readers, but its cost was probably its single most significant factor. Its key rival – which it had pursued to extinction by 1924 – was the Freeman’s Journal, which was never able to lower its cover price from a penny (the same cost as the Irish Times). While neither price was high, as a daily outlay the difference between a penny and halfpenny may well have been decisive for the large number of less well-off readers the Independent was courting. The Independent also pioneered the verification of circulation figures in order to both emphasise their growing readership and entice more advertisers with that readership.

More expensive publications, especially monthly magazines, cost a shilling. These included Lady of the House (although as explained in an earlier post here, account holders with Findlaters’ grocery chain received a free copy with their deliveries) and also Irish Life, another glossy monthly launched in 1912 and dedicated to reports of hunting, shooting and fishing on country estates, as well as expensive new hobbies such as car ownership. These more expensive monthly publications were not only aimed at more prosperous readerships, but by the early 20thC they also tended to include quite a lot of photographs (Irish Life had photographs on almost every page, including some in its advertisements) which in turn necessitated glossy paper, both of which were more expensive to print than the sparsely-illustrated story papers printed on cheap paper.

It was often alleged, in early 20thC, that the Irish did not buy books, or at least not by comparison to the British and some other nations. It is difficult to verify the truthfulness of this claim in precise terms, but there does appear to be some basis for it. By contrast, newspapers and periodicals were extremely popular. There may be a number of reasons for the relative lack of popularity of books in Ireland, but by far the most likely explanation is the simple one of cost. The shift from three-volume to single-volume novels in the last decades of the 19thC meant that they cost less to produce and therefore to buy. Accompanied by an expanding market of literate readers and the economies of scale created by that and ever more efficient printing technologies, in global terms books changed from fairly luxury items in the mid-19thC to being cheap mainstream commodities for many people by the start of the 20thC. However, cheap is always a relative concept, and the already small Irish market differed from the British one in having a much larger working-class who had little or no disposable income. By the start of the 20thC most of this class was literate – and in many cases were keen consumers of leisure reading – but were still largely priced out of even the cheap book market.

Then as now, the actual price of books varied, according a range of variables. New works by acclaimed or fashionable authors cost more than out-of-copyright reprints or the efforts of an unknown newcomer. Leather and gilt bindings cost more than cloth, and as with magazines and periodicals, the quality of the paper also affected the price (as did the number of pages – not unreasonably, long books cost more than short ones). In the middle and lower end of the market, by the start of the 20thC fashionable new novels often cost 2 or 3 shillings, while older or less acclaimed novels in simple cloth bindings were typically sixpence. These, as some of the cheapest novels available to younger and poorer Irish readers, included MH Gill’s cloth reprints of ‘stirring Irish tales’ such as Galloping O’Hogan or The Insurgent Chief, both of which were advertised in the 1907 Christmas issue of the Emerald magazine, and were reprints of stories first published earlier in the 19thC. Historical melodramas of a broadly nationalist (and wildly romantic) flavour, they fashioned fictional narratives out of the real events of the 1798 Rebellion, and other key moments in Irish history. Nationalist historical fiction was in fact something of a bestselling genre in Ireland during the late 19thC and early 20thC, appearing on an almost weekly basis in the penny papers as well as in cheap books. Aimed at younger readers and those with a more rudimentary education, it can be seen as an important (and probably more influential) parallel form to the literary fiction and poetry of the Celtic Revival.

Other sixpenny books included the burgeoning self-help and social advice market of the era. One of the ways in which working-class and lower-middle-class people used their relatively new-found literacy was to seek advice and information broadly related to ‘self-improvement’ and social aspiration of various kinds. In 1911 for example, Ireland’s Own was regularly advertising (as part of its ‘Book Department’ column) publications from Saxon’s Everybody’s Series (published in London by the American writer May French Sheldon), which included Everybody’s Book of Jokes, Everybody’s Book of Correct Conduct, Everybody’s Letter Writer, Everybody’s Guide to Good Conversation, Everybody’s Guide to Public Speaking, Everybody’s Book of Parlour Games, and Everybody’s Guide to Carpentry and the Doing-up of the House.  The Irish popular press also occasionally produced books based on their more popular serials. One example of this was Ireland’s Own’s long-running serial featuring the detective Dermot O’Donovan (a fascinating series of short stories with a central character referred to as ‘the great Irish detective’ and best described as an Irish Sherlock Holmes), whose two longest series, entitled ‘The League of the Ring’ and ‘Torn Apart’ were published together in book format in 1913 for the price of 6d. For those of us interested in Irish popular culture of the time, it is worth noting that none of these books sold by Ireland’s Own – from the advice on public speaking to the novelisation of its own detective series – have survived in the Irish archives, presumably because when they were new they were deemed to low-brow to be worth collecting or preserving in libraries. While these individual volumes are not necessarily an important loss, their absence does raise tantalising questions about how many more cheap publications aimed at working-class or lower-middle-class Irish readers have been lost, and what those volumes might tell us about the tastes and interests they catered to.

International bestsellers in cheap bindings were also sometimes available. The printer and publisher Ernest Manico (who appears to have had a distribution agreement with the London publishing magnate George Newnes, as discussed in a previous post here) sold a range of ‘copyright novels for Sixpence’ issued by Newnes, and including novels by Arthur Conan Doyle and Grant Allen. By the early 20thC, one of Dublin’s largest newsagents and booksellers, J Tallon of Grafton Street, was advertising Sixpenny Editions of similarly well-known authors again including the best-selling Conan Doyle as well as Dumas and (a little surprisingly considering his popular association with French debauchery) Emile Zola. Tallon’s advertisements for these cheap editions demanded ‘Why buy expensive editions to lend or cast aside when read?’, a question which presumed the sharing of books among readers. Book publishers were necessarily resigned to this practice, but those producing newspapers and magazines were not so sanguine. The fact that, for example, entry to the popular press’ almost constantly-running competitions required the inclusion of a coupon cut from the relevant issue, was an attempt by editors to prevent readers from sharing one copy of a weekly or monthly paper amongst a group of two, three or more. Such a practice was of course a logical method by which readers could maximise the number of publications they had access to, and was probably especially popular among younger and poorer readers, such as those who bought penny weeklies. For editors however, every shared copy was a penny lost, a fact they even felt the need to point out to readers occasionally. In 1905 a reader of the Irish Packet wrote to the paper to express his enthusiasm by revealing that ‘’I am buying your paper since it first came to Kilrush, and am the first to your newsagent every Wednesday. I give it to seven persons every week as soon as I have read it, and am trying to increase its popularity.’ This prompted the editor, Matthias McDonnell Bodkin, to respond with obvious exasperation, ‘May I venture, will all deference, to suggest to my correspondent that if he could induce some of his seven friends to purchase the paper instead of borrowing it it would prevent the protracted postponement of their pleasure, and – which is, of course, a minor consideration – be the means of increasing the circulation of the Irish Packet’. The number of people sharing copies of papers like the Packet is largely unknowable at this distance, of course, but if seven readers per copy was anything approaching typical, then it has some significant implications.

The first of these is that the appetite for reading – of all kinds, but especially perhaps of the short and serial fiction which constituted most people’s principal leisure activity until it was overtaken by radio and film – was even more insatiable than official publication and circulation figures already suggest. Readers sharing multiple copies of story papers (as well as women’s magazines, hobby papers and perhaps the cheaper newspapers) among groups of friends, family and neighbours, had the opportunity to read both extensively and variously, albeit sometimes rather belatedly. This in turn suggests that the contents of these publications were more widely influential than would be presumed simply from their circulation figures. And finally, it also underlines the extent to which even the 1d or ½d price of these very cheapest publications was still an expense which many readers had to consider with some care. Copies circulating through these informal networks of readers must have moved rather slowly at times, an especially frustrating experience if you were waiting for the latest instalment of a serial. Those who could have bought their own copies of all their reading matter therefore probably would have done, and sharing of individual copies among groups as large as seven suggests that even cheap reading matter was rationed for many people. For modern readers looking back at this era of mass media, and who will inevitably be struck by the sheer abundance of publications (even in the small Irish market), this is a useful reminder that for most readers at the time, each purchase was a considered allocation of scarce funds, and might well be part of a network of readers sharing those purchases.

References

Tony Farmar, “An Eye to Business: Financial and Market Factors, 1895-1995” in The Oxford History of the Irish Book, Volume V, The Irish Book in English 1891-2000 (2011: Oxford UP, Oxford), pp.209-243.

 

Clare Hutton, ‘Publishing the Irish Cultural Revival, 1891-1922’ in The Oxford History of the Irish Book, Volume V, The Irish Book in English 1891-2000 (2011: Oxford UP, Oxford), pp.17-42.

Nannie Power O’Donoghue, 1843-1940

Nannie Power O’Donoghue was one of the first real doyennes of Irish journalism, and over a life so long that it stretched from the Famine to World War Two she wrote books, articles, opinion columns and worked as an editor. Born Ann Stewart Lyster Lambert, but always known as Nannie, she was the daughter of a minor (but wealthy) sprig of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. Her family’s primary estate was Castle Ellen in Co. Galway, and Edward Carson was her cousin. She grew up there and in Dublin, part of the elite world of Castle social events in the city and the hunting, shooting and fishing life of the countryside.

nannieodonoghue

Her youthful interests focused on horse-riding and writing, two skills which would she would soon combine to form the basis of her career. Immediately before her marriage at the age of 26 to the composer William Power O’Donoghue (who was from a wealthy Cork business family) she published her first novel, entitled The Knave of Clubs. It appears to have been an entirely predictable mid-Victorian romance novel, and was followed in later years by a book of poetry, also of a generally sentimental variety. It was not until her late thirties however that she achieved any recognition for her writing, and that was for a very different kind of work. In 1881 she published a series of articles in the English magazine Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News offering advice on riding technique and etiquette for women. These were immensely popular and republished in book form as Ladies on Horseback, followed a few years later by another book entitled Riding for Ladies (1887). This was a best-seller, being translated into several languages and reprinted many times, and it established Power O’Donoghue as a writer and an authority on female equestrianism who is still cited today, even if her views on the requirement for ladies to ride side-saddle have disappeared. She continued to write novels (one of which, A Beggar on Horseback, had a Fenian theme), but also began to produce journalism for a variety of newspapers and periodicals.

Clearly Power O’Donoghue had been a committed writer since her youth, but by this time she also had other reasons to write commercially. She and her husband lost a substantial amount of their money in the crash of the Munster Bank in 1885, and it seems clear that from then on, her income from journalism and publishing became important to the family finances. By the 1890s she was a member of the Dublin branch of the Institute for Journalists, and was apparently one of the few women members at that time. It was around the same time that she began working for Irish Society, which described itself as having the ‘guaranteed Largest Circulation in Ireland of any Society paper published in the United Kingdom, and three times that of any Irish weekly journal or periodical.’ They published accounts of high society parties, Castle levées, upper-class ‘at homes’, engagement and wedding announcements and reviews of fashionable concerts, charity events, theatre performances and other activities of the small but wealthy social group which lived between their Dublin townhouses and country estates. This was the world which Power O’Donoghue had been born into, and she wrote for it with obvious ease and authority. Irish Society was owned and published by Ernest Manico from his extremely successful D’Olier Street offices, as discussed in a previous post here. But by 1900 (if not before) Power O’Donoghue was its de facto editor, and was the clear ‘voice’ of the paper each week via her editorial column. Entitled, with very Victorian long-windedness, ‘De Die In Diem. Or, Casual Jottings. By Candid Jane (Mrs Power O’Donoghue)’ it was a weekly catalogue of her views on topical issues for its readership, ranging from the management of charity bazaars to the ‘woman question’.

Power O’Donoghue’s editorial voice echoed very clearly from these columns, with strong (and occasionally controversial) views given with great confidence in her own authority. And the views which emerge were – for the most part – entirely in keeping with her class and background. She was deeply conservative in most matters, including the pressing political issues of the day when they arose. She was opposed to the promotion of the Irish language, for example, dismissing it (and the ‘so-called Gaelic League’) as just ‘gas’. She was also condemnatory of the 1913 Lockout, and of the ever-growing suffragette campaign. On social matters she had obvious sympathies with the social purity movement, expressing support for teetotalism and the condemnation of ‘racy’ novels. She also reported approvingly of the 1914 meeting of the Catholic Truth Society and their campaign against ‘immoral’ reading matter. In this respect – if perhaps no other – her views resembled the Gladstonian Liberalism of the Lord Lieutenant Lord Aberdeen, and his indefatigable wife Lady Aberdeen. Like them, she supported the generally Catholic and nationalist social purity movement despite being a member of the Protestant upper-classes, although unlike them all of her other politics appear to have been Tory and Unionist.

Disapproval was one of the most common tones of her editorials, and it is striking how often this was directed at other (and younger) women. Her coverage of high society (in both London and Dublin) was peppered with censorious remarks about young women’s dress, deportment, behaviour and expectations. Some of these cast a frankly surprising light on high society fashions from the years immediately before World War One, as she castigates women for wearing skirts split to the thigh, bare legs, wigs dyed in primary colours such as blue, green or scarlet, and even body paint. In early 1914 she described the presence of a ‘society lady, having a swallow painted on one cheek and a bee on the other and wearing a rose-coloured wig and skirt split to the waist’ at a recent London party. She also disapproved of a high-society fashion for exotic and eccentric pets, claiming to have met a woman at the famous Hydropathic Hotel in Blarney who kept a giant mulberry-eating caterpillar, which walked along her arms and shoulders as she sat in public. If these aspects of high society life on the very eve of war seem surprisingly modern to us (especially the tattoos and brightly-coloured hair), to Power O’Donoghue they seemed annoyingly so, and she called women who adopted such fashions ‘devoid of sense’. A couple of years earlier she had complained that ‘A few years ago young women were content with womanly occupations and recreations; now such things nauseate and pall. To act like men, dress like them, go in for their amusements, and do just as they do, without any sense of risk or fitness is the seeming aim of the inconsequent girls of today’, and she would go on to criticise suffragettes as well, approvingly citing a sentencing judge who referred to them as ‘demented creatures’.

In this respect, Power O’Donoghue was caught in the trap of other prominent conservative (and especially anti-suffrage) women of the era in that while she was uneasy at best and horrified at worst by ‘modern’ women’s assertiveness and increasing presence in the public sphere, she was herself both assertive and living very prominently in that very same public sphere. The most famous example of this contradiction was the British writer Eliza Lynn Linton, author of the influential 1868 essay ‘The Girl of the Period’, which condemned the modern girl in much the same tone as Power O’Donoghue would a generation later. Linton also condemned women’s suffrage campaigners and any women wishing to enter politics or pursue renown of any kind. And yet she herself was extremely well-known, had supported herself through her journalism and other writing since separating from her husband after only a few years of marriage, and was therefore hardly an example of the modest and retiring ‘angel of the house’ she advocated for other women. She also strongly supported some of the new rights women acquired during the nineteenth century, especially the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, presumably, one is forced to conclude, because as a separated woman it benefited her personally.

The limits of Power O’Donoghue’s own conservatism about women’s behaviour and lifestyles appear similarly self-serving, in the form of her vocal and enthusiastic support for women’s paid work. As a major contributor to her own family’s income after the loss of their money in the Munster Bank crash, this was an aspect of women’s emancipation which touched her personally, and she expressed typically strong views on the subject. She sometimes wrote approvingly of ‘bachelor girls’ who earned their own living and even lived independently, once referring to one who ‘has exactly a hundred a year’ but lived ‘as a lady…even though she does her own housework.’ The theme became more pronounced during World War One however, when more and more young women began replacing men in jobs they’d never been allowed to take before. Writing from London in August 1916, Power O’Donoghue commented that ‘The female carters, letter-carriers, ticket-checkers, and lift controllers, are a pleasure to look at and are nicely mannered to the public and to one another’, and the following month she asked Irish Society readers ‘I wonder whether you love, as I do, seeing women do something for themselves instead of being always dependent upon men, or on other members of their family’. As a woman of increasing independence after the first success of her books in the 1880s, she showed considerable sympathy and even quite boisterous support for other women of all classes who sought a similar life, going so far during World War One as to suggest mass conscription of men so as to ‘leave the field to women who are rapidly proving themselves fit and worthy workers’. If she ever saw the contradiction between her approval of women’s move into the world of work and her disapproval of their fight for the vote, she never showed it. In this respect she was a classic example of the privileged, instinctively conservative nineteenth-century women who were often best-placed to pioneer female access to the public sphere because of their social status and personal contacts, but who did not sympathise with the broader campaign for women’s rights, and indeed were sometimes among the harshest critics of the ‘new woman’.

Still working as Irish Society’s editor in 1916 (at the age of 73), Power O’Donoghue lived through the Easter Rising in the most literal fashion, as by then she was living in the Gresham Hotel and spent the week there, trapped inside the barricades and in considerable danger at times. She wrote about her experiences in an editorial shortly after the end of the Rising, including the occasions when she had tended to dying soldiers in her capacity as a Red Cross volunteer. She never tempered her imperialist Unionism however, condemning expressions of sympathy for the ‘brave boys’ among the rebels even during the week of their executions, sternly commenting that such feelings were ‘very creditable from a sentimental point of view, perhaps, but rather feeble from a logical and moral standpoint’.

Irish Society, with its emphasis upon the social and cultural world of the Castle, the Court and the aristocracy, did not last long after Irish Independence. But Power O’Donoghue did last, and she did so in Ireland, rather than departing for England as many of her class and political views did in the years after 1922. She lived in Dublin throughout the 1920s and 1930s, still pursuing her interests in animal welfare by serving on the committee of the Dublin Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals when she was into her 90s, and she eventually died in the city in January 1940. Over her long career as a writer, she produced best-selling books, articles and columns for the Daily Express, the Evening Herald, Lady’s Pictorial and the Irish Times, as well as editing Irish Society for more than 20 years, making her one of the most visible women journalists in Ireland for several decades.

References

Dictionary of Irish Biography (Nannie Power O’Donoghue) dib.cambridge.org

Olga E Lockley, Nannie Lambert Power O’Donoghue: a biography (Preston: Bee Press, 2001)

Nannie Power O’Donoghue, A Beggar on Horseback (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1884)

Nannie Power O’Donoghue, Riding for Ladies: with hints on the stable (London: Thacker & Co, 1887).