The Irish Packet was a story paper owned and run by the Freeman’s Journal newspaper. It began publication in October 1903, and was based in the Freeman’s offices on Middle Abbey Street in Dublin. It was a classic story paper of the kind discussed in the previous post – it cost a penny per week, and most of its 24 pages were taken up with short and serial fiction. As well as these however, it also featured competitions, women’s columns, and factual articles. Despite being fairly short-lived (although in the ruthless world of commercial publishing at this time, six years was actually a decent run), the Packet was nevertheless one of the most lively Irish publications of its time. Its actual circulation figures are unknown, but the editor once implied that it sold 20,000 copies a week, and this is a fairly plausible figure for its most successful years. It was a prime example of the ‘new journalism’ of that era – openly commercial, informal and approachable in tone, and very keen to encourage readers to write back. As with most ‘new journalism’, it was the Packet’s editor who set and maintained its character, and in this instance also imbued much of the paper with his personality and interests.
The editor in question, throughout the Packet’s lifespan, was Matthias McDonnell Bodkin (1849-1933). Bodkin was a barrister, politician, journalist and author who was eventually appointed a judge. Intensely involved in nationalist politics, he had been a protégée of William O’Brien, and was editor of the Parnell-owned United Ireland newspaper at the time when Parnell became engulfed in scandal. Under Bodkin’s editorship United Ireland maintained a strong anti-Parnellite position until Parnell famously broke into its offices and physically removed Bodkin in order to claim back his newspaper. After this, Bodkin was briefly elected as an anti-Parnellite MP, before returning to the Freeman’s Journal until he was appointed a judge in 1907. Throughout this time, he also wrote fiction, including White Magic (1897) which was a thinly disguised account of his own early days as a cub reporter. But he was more successful as a writer of detective fiction, publishing several stories featuring his detective Paul Beck, and also creating one of the earliest female detectives, in Dora Myrl, the lady detective (1900).
Despite his success as a writer, Bodkin very rarely published his own fiction in the Packet – an exception being a serial in its first ever issue. It was entitled ‘True Man and Traitor: A Romance of One Hundred Years Ago’, and was a fictionalised tale of Robert Emmet and the 1803 Rebellion which Bodkin would later publish as a book in 1910. His editorial hand showed very clearly in the Packet’s style and content in many other ways, however. It always published a lot of non-fiction articles, and these tended to focus heavily upon Bodkin’s twin professions of journalism and law. In its first issue (in October 1903) it printed ‘Leaves From My Private Notebook’ by An Old Reporter, followed in November the same year by ‘The Budding Journalist. Some Hints and Stories’ by An Old Hand (both of these pseudonyms may have been for Bodkin himself just as easily as for one of his newspaper colleagues). And by 1904 the Packet was running a long series entitled ‘Famous Irish Trials’, which Bodkin also published as a book in 1918.
The Irish Packet’s fiction (initially at least) was notable for the well-known names Bodkin secured for both short stories and serials. Some of these were internationally-known writers – by the early 20thC there was a well-developed system of international story syndication through professional companies such as Tillotson’s Fiction Bureau. These allowed newspapers and periodicals all over the world to buy the rights to short and serial fiction, and were creating new ways for authors to reach readers, as shown by the fact that Thomas Hardy and Robert Louis Stevenson both began their writing careers via Tillotson’s. New stories by popular authors commanded impressive prices, but there was a sliding scale down to as little as £10 for a 30,000 word story by a relative unknown. Irish story papers, including the Packet, only rarely published the more expensive syndicated fiction which could only be afforded by their larger British competitors. However, in 1903 the Packet did publish ‘Marcella’s Intervention’ by Robert Barr (now largely forgotten but a very successful author of science fiction and detective stories at the turn of the century) and in 1905 they published ‘Condemned to Death’ by ‘Carmen Sylva’, the acknowledged pseudonym of the Queen of Romania (who was a successful writer at the same time as being Queen, however unlikely that seems).
While such internationally-renowned writers were in the minority on the pages of the Packet, Bodkin secured many stories by well-known Irish writers of the time. These particularly included many women writers whose work was very widely read at the time, but who have been largely or entirely overlooked since in more canonical studies of Irish fiction. In the Irish Packet’s first couple of years it published ‘Loughnaglee’ by Jane Barlow, ‘A Hallow E’en Strategem’ by ME Francis, ‘Happy Times at Glenart’ by Katherine Tynan, ‘The Herd Boy of Killalongford’ by Alice Furlong, “The Eruption of Ben Bradigan’ by Alice Milligan and ‘A Girl’s Ideal’ by Rosa Mulholland. This last was a serial which ran for 15 weeks in 1905 and was published as a novel the same year. Most of these writers published several stories and serials in the Packet during its six year run, alongside work by other Irish authors such as Robert Cromie, Victor O’Donovan Power and Francis Sheehy-Skeffington. They were all writers whose work was appearing regularly in Irish newspapers and periodicals of the time, and in some cases (such as Tynan and Mulholland in particular) they were also publishing popular novels, so they were well-known enough to Irish readers that their appearance in the Packet would have boosted sales.
Aside from its stories, the Packet’s most notable feature was the extent to which readers ‘wrote back’ in various forms. This was entirely typical of the ‘new journalism’ of the time but Bodkin, with his long journalistic background, was particularly adept at this style, often relying upon readers’ contributions (in one form or another) for a significant portion of the paper’s contents. His weekly column, ‘A Chat with the Editor’, set the tone for the paper, regularly encouraging readers to submit not only letters but also stories, jokes and poetry. In November 1903 for example, he advised that, ‘I am at present prepared to give the most favourable consideration to a stirring serial, for preference a story of Irish life and adventure and by an Irish author’, and a typical weekly issue contained up to three short stories submitted by readers. The chatty and informal editorial tone could still sharply assert its authority however, such when an apparently exasperated Bodkin declared that, ‘Many of the contributors who honour me with their copy have no literary gifts at all; they can never write anything worth publishing’. Despite this asperity, many readers of the Packet did submit contributions for publication over the years, as well as corresponding with Bodkin in the editorial column in order to share their suggestions for the paper.
But the most common form of interaction between the Packet and its readers was in the form of competitions. Of all the Irish story papers, it ran the most competitions and ones of the most varied kind. These ranged from the short story competitions (which required some real skill even for fairly formulaic romances, and therefore would have appealed to fewer readers) through to jokes, rhyming puzzles, endless variations of ‘missing word’ games and even some which relied upon visual clues. In 1904 the Packet even ran a competition themed for that year’s general election, in which readers had to forecast ‘the aggregate Home Rule vote in the constituencies in Ireland contested by Home Rulers and Unionists at the General Election’. Some competitions were more popular than others, and Bodkin would candidly discuss competitions which did not seize readers’ interest. He even temporarily suspended them altogether for a few months in 1905, complaining rather querulously that it ‘was a matter of astonishment that the spirit of competition is not keener amongst the wide circle of intelligent readers of whom the Irish Packet can boast’. This suspension did not last however, and by 1908 the Packet was running its most popular and long-lasting competition – a rhyming game called (for no obvious reason, and rather alarmingly for contemporary readers), ‘Poon’, which ran for two years.
The point of these competitions, of course, was to boost readership. Crucially, in order to enter you had to enclose a coupon cut from the paper itself, meaning that entrants had to buy a copy each rather than sharing, as many readers clearly did. The prospect of prizes was also intended as an incentive to buy the paper of course, although they were often very modest. Prize stories typically received about a guinea, occasionally rising to as much as £25 (which would have been several months’ wages for most younger readers) but prizes for competitions requiring less work could be as low as 5 shillings. By 1904 the paper was even printing its own-brand postcards, priced at 6d a dozen for readers to use in their general correspondence – with multiple deliveries a day in urban areas, postcards were the early 20thC’s equivalent of instant messaging, it being possible to send a card in the morning and receive an answer before dinner that night –while simultaneously advertising the paper. However, the postcards were soon required for the submission of many competition entries, thus ensuring further income for the paper. They were illustrated with portraits of ‘Illustrious Irishmen’, including O’Connell, Emmet, More, Grattan and Goldsmith.
By 1908, there were signs the Packet was running out of steam. As with its early energy, its later lethargy was probably attributable to Bodkin. Rather controversially, he had been appointed a judge in 1907 – this was controversial because he had barely practiced law for nearly 20 years – a post he would retain for until his retirement in 1924. It seems likely that his involvement with the Irish Packet diminished or even ceased entirely soon after this, and this seems a probable explanation for its declining energy. Its decline may also have been connected to the travails of its parent paper, the Freeman’s Journal. The Irish Independent, which first appeared in 1904, aggressively pursued the Journal’s readership, and to great effect – eventually in 1924 the Journal met the rather ignominious end of being merged with its more successful rival. The extent to which the Irish Packet was involved in this fierce rivalry was illustrated, literally speaking, by the satirical cartoon journal The Leprechaun in 1905. The large cartoon, entitled ‘A Pair of Beauties; or a Sallie in our Alley’ shows two rather disreputable-looking women, the elder of the two labelled ‘1d Freeman’ and the younger (whose style of dress suggests dubious virtue) labelled ‘½d Daily Independent’ fighting in the street while being watched with interest by a policeman. The ‘1d Freeman’ woman is accompanied by two small and ragged children, one a boy labelled Telegraph and one a girl labelled Irish Packet.
Whatever the reason for it, there was a clear decline in the energy and quality of the Packet from 1907 onwards. It ran fewer competitions, published more anonymously authored stories (often a sign of very cheap purchases from syndication bureaux) and even its editorial columns became less frequent. Finally in very early 1910 it ceased publication altogether – its editor moving on to his life on the bench, and its readers presumably moving on to other weekly papers.
Matthias McDonnell Bodkin, White Magic, London: Chapman and Hall (1897).
Matthias McDonnell Bodkin, Dora Myrl, the Lady Detective, London: Chatto & Windus (1900).
Matthias McDonnell Bodkin, Recollections of an Irish judge: press, bar and Parliament, London: Hurst and Blackett, 1914.
Dictionary of Irish Biography (Matthias McDonnell Bodkin) dib.cambridge.org
Stephanie Rains, ‘“Going in for Competitions”: Active readers and magazine culture, 1900–1910”’, Media History 21, pp. 138-149.
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