Ireland’s First Mass Media Age

By the last quarter of the 19thC, mass media had become an established feature of life in most western countries, including Ireland. Fuelled by a complex combination of industrialisation, urbanisation, economic and social change (such as the abolition of stamp duty on publications, and rapidly increasing levels of literacy as a result of formal education), more papers were being produced, with bigger print runs, and for more readers. This growth in print media production continued into the early 20thC, as many populations grew, and the demand for popular reading grew along with it. But the scale of print-runs or readerships weren’t the defining feature of mass media, significant as they were. Instead, the defining feature was the concept of the readership as a ‘mass’ to be segmented and sold targeted products. This is a relationship between media and audiences we take completely for granted, but it began during the 19thC, as readerships expanded from just the social elite to include wider sections of society, and in response the range of publications both expanded and also became more specialist. But as this happened, publishers increasingly thought of their readers mainly as demographic clusters to be targeted with products, rather than as complex individuals.

Print media – whether newspapers, magazines or cheap books – were the absolutely dominant form of mass media until after World War One. The first movie houses began to appear in large cities during the 1890s, and were an instant success (for a history of the first cinemas in Ireland, visit the wonderful Early Irish Cinema blog run by my colleague Denis Condon!) but as a source of either information or narrative, they didn’t begin to rival print media until after the War. The same applied to radio – this would become a particularly important media form in Ireland during the 20thC, but not until after Independence. Until then, mass media was printed, and in a bewildering array of forms. There were daily newspapers, weekly newspapers, monthly magazines and weekly ones. There were papers and magazines for every literate section of society – some of these ran for decades (in fact some are still with us today) and became apparently permanent fixtures in their readers’ lives. Others appeared for just a few months or years before folding or merging with a rival publication. The media landscape was chaotic and ruthless in its quest for readers’ attention and advertisers’ funding.

Ireland was less industrialised than most other European countries, and because of its experience of large-scale emigration in the 19thC its population did not increase as many other country’s did. Despite this, it participated fully in the mass media age – in fact in some ways it experienced it more dramatically than other locations, because of its special colonial status within the United Kingdom. London was the global centre of media production throughout the 19thC and beyond, and as transport links improved and speeded up, Ireland was part of the capital’s ‘home’ market, with thousands of copies of British newspapers and periodicals arriving via the major ports each day. By the start of the 20thC this meant that newspapers such as the News of the World could be delivered almost as fast to rural Ireland as to rural England. This made Ireland at that time one of the most globalised media markets in the world, with home publications having to compete against British imports which benefited from considerable economies of scale.

And yet Dublin was also a vibrant and growing media producer, with the streets around the GPO in particular full of editorial offices, printers, photographers, typesetters and advertising agencies. There were also dozens of local and regional newspapers, being printed and distributed not just from cities like Cork and Galway, but also from smaller towns such as Waterford, Derry and Skibbereen. Given the political events of the late 19thC and early 20thC in Ireland, it is not surprising that many of these publications were party-political – there were newspapers and periodicals supporting Home Rule, Unionism and Republicanism, there were Tory papers, Parnellite and anti-Parnellite publications. But there were also women’s magazines, juvenile ‘story’ papers specialising in fiction, ‘society’ papers reporting on the elite world of the Castle and high society, specialist sporting and hobby papers focusing on cycling or golf, and trade papers appealing to particular groups of workers, such as shop-assistants. Between them, they published news stories, short and serial fiction, advice columns, reader competitions, question-and-answer columns, editorials, readers’ letters, and advertisements. To produce these papers and magazines on a daily, weekly and monthly basis, an army of editors, journalists, authors, advertising agents, typesetters, printers and distributors were required, many of them having long and successful careers.

Most of these people, along with the businesses they ran, have been almost completely forgotten over the course of the last century, especially if they had no involvement in the party politics of their time. Journalists and editors with strong connections to any of the parties or organisations active during the decades prior to Independence often have walk-on roles in political history, but only insofar as they were directly associated the political narrative. The rest of their journalism career tends to be forgotten, and those in the industry who wrote or edited ‘leisure’ publications now tend, like the publications themselves, to be completely overlooked.

This blog hopes to highlight some of these publications – so while newspapers will make an appearance, there will be a stronger emphasis upon magazines and periodicals. There will also be biographical pieces considering the careers of editors and journalists, as well as posts considering other businesses which were an essential part of the media industry – photography agencies, printers, newsagents and the newly-developing advertising industry. In all cases, the aim is to shed some light on the structures, products and people of Ireland’s first mass media age.

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