St Patrick’s Day, nationalism and Irish mass media

If Christmas was the most important holiday of the publishing calendar in Ireland as it was elsewhere, then by the early 20thC St Patrick’s Day was almost as central, at least for publications keen to express their nationalist credentials to readers. There was a long tradition back into the 19thC of publishing themed material relevant to St Patrick’s Day (typically in the form of bad poetry about shamrocks), but this intensified around the turn of the century until some publications were producing special ‘double issues’, complete with a shamrock-strewn masthead for the occasion.

St Patrick's postcard

Early 20thC St Patrick’s Day greeting card

Of course St Patrick’s Day had always been a significant date in Irish church calendars, given his status as the nation’s patron saint. However, like Christmas prior to the mid-19thC, St Patrick’s Day had a limited significance in Irish secular or life until the very end of the century, when its celebration became a way to display patriotic identity, and became particularly linked to nationalist organisations such as the Gaelic League. A campaign to have the date made an official public holiday was rapidly successful when Irish Parliamentary Party MPs passed the 1903 Bank Holidays (Ireland) Act (they also legislated to close the pubs for the day, a regulation which stayed in place until the 1970s). The new public holiday coincided with the Gaelic League’s staging that year of an Irish Language Week in March, marked by processions and many other events across Ireland designed to promote the language. Its declaration as an annual public holiday was crucial in making St Patrick’s Day an important event in the Irish publishing calendar, as it meant that – as with Christmas before it – readers had a day’s holiday from work and might want to spend some of that leisure time reading. In this way, St Patrick’s Day acted as a meeting-point for class, politics and religion – its new status as a public holiday had more importance for working-class and lower-middle-class readers who had limited leisure time, and those readers were also more likely to be Catholic and nationalist. Therefore the extent to which commercial publications in Ireland marked St Patrick’s Day was a useful indicator of their readership demographics.   The ‘society papers’ such as the Irish Figaro or Irish Society, and the women’s magazine Lady of the House, all of which were written for middle-class (and generally Protestant) readers, did not celebrate St Patrick’s Day at all. By contrast, ‘story papers’ such as Ireland’s Own and the Irish Emerald rapidly developed special St Patrick Day material after 1903.

Initially, the date was marked merely by an increase in themed material. This publishing tradition pre-dated the public holiday, and was one of the many seasonal themes (along with Christmas, New Year, Easter, midsummer and autumn) commonly used as the basis for ‘filler’ material such as poems, factual articles or even themed fiction. The willingness to produce seasonally-themed pieces of the correct length and tone, and filed in good time for publication, was the basis of many writers’ careers in the commercial press, and for writers working in Ireland, St Patrick’s Day was an important publishing opportunity. Maud Sargent, a Cork writer for the commercial press whose many Christmas-themed short stories and articles were mentioned in an earlier post here, also published St Patrick’s Day seasonal material, such as a story entitled ‘The Four Leafed Shamrock’ in the Weekly Irish Times in March 1898.

The initial response of most story papers to the declaration of St Patrick’s Day as a public holiday was simply to increase the number of these themed stories, such as the Irish Packet’s 1905 publication of the story ‘Lucky Little Leaf’ by Haddie McMahon, who was another prolific writer of short stories for the commercial press. What else might be done to mark the event was obviously a matter of some thought among both readers and publishers. In 1906, the Packet’s editor, Matthias McDonnell Bodkin, responded to a reader’s query about publishing an Irish language column in the paper by carefully agreeing that while this would be a worthy activity, ‘…at the same time its chief function is recreation, and there is a certain difficulty in converting it even in part into a school-book’. The query about using the paper to promote the Irish language would have been prompted by the Gaelic League’s Irish Language Week staged to coincide with St Patrick’s Day in 1903, but also by the fact that some of the Packet’s rival papers, such as the Irish Emerald, did publish Irish language columns explicitly aimed at readers who were attending classes or trying to teach themselves. In 1905, the Emerald had also attempted to square the circle of combining entertainment with education by publishing (in its St Patrick’s Day issue) a story entitled ‘Tara Shamrock; or, When Miss Brown Joined the Gaelic Class. An Irish-Ireland Romance’, a rather revealing little tale set in the fictional town of Coolroe somewhere in Munster. Clarabel, the daughter of a wealthy draper in the town, considers Gaelic League language classes socially beneath her, and disapproves of her cousin Maureen’s love of the language. But when Dermot O’Reegan, the well-educated and handsome new teacher who even has an English accent, takes over the classes, Clarabel joins in order to meet him. Predictably, her scheming does not pay off, and Maureen marries Dermot whilst Clarabel suffers the social indignity of having to take beginners’ Irish classes which are taught by a grocer’s assistant.

In the same issue as the ‘Irish-Ireland Romance’ the Emerald also published no fewer than three competitions, ranging from a short story contest to a quiz to identify song titles by using picture clues. The extra emphasis on competitions was presumably based on an understanding that the public holiday would mean readers had more time – perhaps spent in family groups – for activities which were effectively the mass media’s contribution to the much older form of parlour-games. The following year, in 1906, Ireland’s Own used their St Patrick’s Day issue to launch a particularly lavish new competition (requiring readers to identify well-known Irish surnames from picture clues) in conjunction with Thomas Cook, offering a week’s holiday in a first-class hotel in Killarney, along with first-class rail travel.

Within a couple of years, and presumably as the position of St Patrick’s Day as a national holiday became more established, many publications began to produce special ‘double issue’ editions, just as they did at Christmas. In 1908, Ireland’s Own advertised their double issue by suggesting that readers might use its special format to promote the paper to their friends: ‘…you probably belong to that enthusiastic army of “Ireland’s Own” readers, who have done so much to help the paper to the premier position among the periodicals of the day, but as well as your personal support I want you to introduce the paper to your friends. You know dozens of people whom I cannot reach. Will you reach them for me? Every day readers write appreciative letters, and express their willingness to help “Ireland’s Own” in their districts. Here is a chance.’ By 1909 the Irish Emerald’s St Patrick’s Day double issue not only included the start of a new adventure serial entitled ‘Desmond O’Brien: or, the Rescue of Cremona’, a swashbuckling tale of Irish soldiers in 18thC France, but also offered with it a full-colour double-page illustration (showing actual swashbuckling, complete with knee-breeches and tricorn hats) on high-quality paper. This would have been a costly ‘gift’ for readers, and was highly unusual for the cheap commercial press which usually used low-grade paper and simple black-and-white line illustrations. St Patrick’s Day clearly had become an important event in the Irish publishing calendar well before the outbreak of World War One. Indeed, when in 1916 (immediately before the Rising), war conditions created a ‘paper famine’ which was soon further deepened by government restrictions on paper use, it was the resulting loss of that year’s St Patrick’s Day double issue which was particularly regretted by Ireland’s Own, who were keen to stress to readers that the paper shortage meant they had no choice but to reduce both the number of pages and the size of their typeface in that edition, and for the first time ever were unable to publish an extended issue to celebrate the national holiday.

So like Christmas, St Patrick’s Day seems to have served as a useful commercial opportunity for many Irish publications once it became an increasingly secular holiday. Readers with an extra day off work, and therefore leisure time to fill, could be sold a double issue publication which had a higher cover price and more advertising than a standard weekly edition. Just as important perhaps, it allowed commercial publications which were very careful never to stray towards party politics to signal their ‘green’ affiliations in a way which could be easily presented as simple seasonal patriotism. St Patrick was, after all, theoretically neither Protestant nor Catholic, nationalist nor unionist. The same was also true of story papers such as Ireland’s Own or the Irish Emerald – they never mentioned religion, party politics nor the all-important ‘national question’ of early 20thC Ireland. But as publications aimed at a readership which was predominantly working-class or lower-middle-class and overwhelmingly Catholic, they found ways to signal their allegiances while still appearing to avoid politics. For example they published a great deal of historical fiction set during events such as the Jacobite campaigns, the flight of the Earls, or the Rebellions of 1798 or 1803, in which the heroes were young Irish men fighting for national freedom – the historical setting of these stories acting as insulation for their political message. The enthusiastic celebration of St Patrick’s Day as Ireland’s national day functioned in the same manner. The proof of this can be seen most clearly in the absence of St Patrick’s Day material in publications aimed at Protestant and Unionist readers – the public holiday created by Irish Parliamentary Party-led legislation, and closely associated with the Gaelic League’s Irish language programmes, was obviously understood as far too Catholic and nationalist for their readership’s taste. However, for those publications which did mark the holiday, it offered a valuable opportunity to combine profit with patriotism.


Mike Cronin and Daryl Adair (eds), The Wearing of the Green: A History of St Patrick’s Day (London: Routledge, 2002).

Timothy G McMahon, Grand Opportunity: The Gaelic Revival and Irish Society, 1893-1910 (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2008).

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.