The Media Landscape of the Irish Free State

The early years of Irish Independence (especially after the Civil War ended in 1923) coincided with one of the most significant moments in international media history – the arrival of broadcasting.  Radio broadcasts by enthusiastic amateurs rapidly developed into nascent stations all over the world, and by the mid-1920s many countries (Ireland included) regulated these by creating state-regulated stations such as 2RN, which began broadcasting in Ireland in January 1926.  The world’s newest nation-state was therefore partly formed by the structures of the broadcasting era, especially the sense that a country’s radio station was the ‘voice of the nation’ among the international community.

The arrival of radio changed Irish mass media dramatically, bringing it directly into people’s homes in real time, and offering all of the possibilities of sound rather than print.  Nevertheless, printed mass media remained the dominant form in very many respects, not least because of the sheer volume of print choices available to readers who might typically have access to just one Irish radio station (along with the uncertain reception of British and other European programming, depending upon geography and weather conditions).  In Ireland, the first decade or so of the Free State brought some very significant changes to the mass media landscape even aside from the arrival of radio.

The first major change was the demise of the Freeman’s Journal, in publication since 1763 and the dominant platform of mainstream Irish nationalism until the arrival of William Martin Murphy’s Irish Independent in 1905.  The Independent ruthlessly targeted the Freeman’s readers and advertisers over the coming years and this, along with the Independent’s embrace of modern journalism and advertising techniques, resulted in the older paper’s fairly rapid decline until, in 1924, it closed.  This left the Irish Independent in an undisputedly dominant position in the national newspaper market (the Irish Times being well-established but with a much smaller circulation and in any case a little uncertain of its footing in the new state) until the 1931 arrival of the Irish Press.  Established and owned by Eamon de Valera using money obtained under very controversial (and legally complex) circumstances, the Irish Press held very different party political views from those of the Irish Independent, but it was nevertheless competing directly for the Independent’s readers and advertisers, and the 1930s were marked by fierce competition between the two for market share.

The popular press, aside from newspapers, also changed a great deal during the Free State years.  There were of course many existing publications which continued, including for example dozens of local newspapers.  However, the 1920s saw the end of some long-running titles.  Story papers were beginning to fade from view as a significant form of popular media – their target market of young working-class or lower-middle class readers looking for cheap entertainment of romance, thrillers and comedy had been stolen wholesale by the movies, and those which survived at all into the 1920s generally didn’t last long.  The Shamrock and the Emerald (both giants of the late 19thC Irish popular press) merged for survival in 1914 but had folded completely by 1922.  Our Boys, a late arrival on the market in 1914, lasted until 1990, but this was clearly because it was not competing in an open market – published by the Christian Brothers, its financing was opaque but its access to a captive audience of boys attending the many Christian Brothers schools of 20thC Ireland was clear, and obviously helped it to survive.  The exception which proved this rule of failing story papers was of course Ireland’s Own, the story paper which still survives (and apparently thrives) today in the 21stC, although the secret of its success lies not, as it is often argued, in never changing, but in the fact that it did change a great deal.  During the decades after Independence, Ireland’s Own moved from targeting a younger readership with racy stories of excitement and adventure towards targeting an aging readership with cosier and nostalgic stories, a shift which proved very successful.

The other magazine format which faded from commercial success was that of ‘society papers’, which had flourished during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and catered to the small but wealthy segment of Irish society which revolved around Dublin Castle, country houses and debutante balls.  Their claim to be ‘popular’ was always doubtful given how small a percentage of the Irish population they catered to, but they had certainly been commercially successful based on how highly-coveted their wealthy readership was by many upmarket advertisers, and it’s likely they also had an aspirational readership among those fascinated by aristocracy and high society however excluded they were from it.  The founding of the Irish Free State and the ending of Dublin Castle’s political influence also meant the decline of its social power however, and as many of the Anglo-Irish retreated either to their country houses or to England, the press which had reported on their parties, marriages, and social engagements also retreated.  The simply-named Irish Society magazine ceased publication in 1924, for example, and Irish Life, which had always focused on hunting, shooting, fishing and more lately the newer interest of motoring, ended in 1926.  Some of these magazines’ typical stories were transferred to hobbyist publications such as the Irish Cyclist and Motor Cyclist, which had begun before independence and continued into the 1930s, as well as Irish Golf, which began publication in 1927 and was later absorbed by Social and Personal, one of the last attempts at ‘high society’ publishing in Ireland.

If ‘story papers’ were largely ended by the arrival of the movies, and ‘society papers’ were ended by the collapse of high society’s influence in independent Ireland, it was women’s magazines which saw something of a boom during the 1920s and 1930s.  The original Irish women’s magazine was Lady of the House, begun in 1890 and still in existence in the very early years of the Irish Free State.  Although it had been quite innovative in the early 20thC, and certainly in some of its views on ‘the woman question’ of that era, it was not a publication for the Jazz Age, and by 1924 the title ceased – although after it was bought and renamed a couple of times it eventually re-emerged as Irish Tatler, very much a modern version of a ‘society paper’.  Lady of the House had always tried to stay out of party or national politics, but it had primarily addressed the women likely to have been customers of the magazine’s original funders, Findlater’s grocers – urban, middle-class, and mainly if not entirely Protestant.  The founding of the Irish Free State shifted the balance of power not only in politics but in business, culture and everyday life towards the Catholic middle-classes, and this was as evident in publishing as it was in other aspects of Irish life.  Perhaps the most obvious example of this was in the appearance of Dublin Opinion in 1922, a satirical, knowingly humorous monthly magazine of Irish politics and metropolitan life in the new state, and very definitely published for the new elite of the Free State – the middle-class Catholic men of business, politics and the civil service.  Similar changes could be seen in publications for Irish women.  As Lady of the House faded away in the early years of the Free State, it was replaced by a series of new women’s magazines – such as Model Housekeeping, Modern Girl, Woman’s Life, and Irish Women’s Mirror, as well as a new type of ‘home and gardens’ magazine such as Ideal Irish Homes and Irish Home, which catered to the growing numbers of new homeowners in Ireland by adding DIY and decorating sections to the recipes, childcare and household hints of traditional women’s magazines.  As might be expected from the greater number of women’s magazines available during the 1920s and 1930s, they appealed to an increasingly stratified readership, with Modern Girl and Ideal Irish Home assuming their readers owned their own homes, held dinner parties and even travelled abroad, while Irish Women’s Mirror often suggested recipes that would make good use of leftovers, and published advice on how to makeover last season’s clothes to this season’s styles.

As these and other magazines appeared (some remaining for decades, others being replaced after just a few years), Irish radio programming also expanded.  The Dublin-based 2RN (and its Cork counterpart 6CK) became fully national during the 1930s and were eventually renamed Radio Éireann, and although the national broadcaster’s production budgets remained inadequate for the scale of their role as a public broadcaster, by the 1930s they were earning more advertising money and producing more programming – live broadcasts of GAA matches, music performances, plays, sketch shows and magazine shows.  Alongside these schedules, there also flourished a lively array of radio magazines, some aimed at real enthusiasts who built their own sets, some more focused on programming reviews for ordinary listeners.

Future posts will discuss many of the papers and magazines discussed here, as well as the development of radio shows, the selling of radio sets as expensive pieces of media equipment, the development of modern advertising as the financial underpinning of all commercial media, and eventually the arrival of television.

The long life and after-life of ‘Mick McQuaid’

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As previous posts have discussed, some of the Irish story papers ran for decades – in fact for well over a century now in the case of Ireland’s Own. But even aside from that astonishing instance of longevity, the Emerald ran for more than 20 years, the Shamrock for over 50 years, and Our Boys lasted for almost 80 years. Perhaps not surprisingly therefore, there were also some serial stories which ran (and re-ran) for years and decades as well. All of these stories had certain common characteristics – they all featured a recurring central character whose name was always in the title of the story, and although some of them ran for many series, each story or series of stories was a self-contained episode which meant they could be read in any order. The most successful and long-running were also all strongly Irish-themed – and with a heavy reliance on village life, stock Irish ‘characters’ such as landlords, tenant farmers, gombeen men and comely maidens.

One example which would still be remembered by some readers today was the Kitty the Hare series – sub-titled ‘the Famous Travelling Woman of Ireland’, the elderly Kitty recounted her tales episode by episode, including adventures and strange tales from all over Ireland, many of them blending rural social realism with aspects of the supernatural including banshees and pookas. They were written by Victor O’Donovan Power, a popular and extremely prolific writer now almost completely forgotten, and were first published in Ireland’s Own in 1914, before moving to Our Boys (a story paper run by the Christian Brothers and intended as an Irish Catholic alternative to the very English Boys’ Own Paper) from 1924, where they continued to be printed regularly for decades – despite the fact that O’Donovan Power himself died in 1928, thus ending the supply of new Kitty the Hare stories.

Arguably even more popular and long-running however were the tales of Mick McQuaid. They were written by William Francis Lynam – a soldier, writer and editor who was born in Galway in 1833 and died in Dublin in 1894. Little is known about his background (or his military career), but by the 1860s he was living in Dublin and was – it appears – the owner and editor of the Shamrock story paper.   One of the earliest Irish story papers, it was established in 1866 as a penny weekly ‘companion’ paper to the Irishman newspaper. The Irishman, a very advanced nationalist paper, was established in 1859 by Richard Pigott – a very colourful character in Irish journalism who would acquire infamy as the forger of the damning letters supposedly written by Parnell in the 1880s. The exact editorial and proprietorial relationship between the Irishman and the Shamrock is rather murky – some sources imply Pigott owned them both, while others insist that Lynam owned the Shamrock, in which case the precise nature of their connection is unknown. Pigott and Lynam may have been actual business partners, or simply had an informal alliance.

The 1860s was of course the era of the Fenian movement in Ireland and abroad, and under Pigott’s editorship the Irishman was a very popular voice for Fenianism. If the Irishman was aimed at an adult readership seeking radical political news and commentary, the Shamrock was its more entertaining younger sibling, intended to instil a sense of national pride and identity in its boy (and occasional girl) readers. To do this, it specialised in exciting Irish historical fiction serials, set at key moments of Irish nationalist history such as the 1798 Rebellion or the Jacobite Wars, and usually centred around an ordinary Irish boy who readers could identify with as he became swept into political and military excitements and encountered historical figures such as Wolfe Tone or Redmond O’Hanlon. But as well as historical fiction, the Shamrock also published romances and vernacular tales of Irish life.

The most successful of these vernacular tales were, by a very long way, the Mick McQuaid stories. A series of comic tales (although to be quite honest the modern reader might take some convincing of that description) set in what was then contemporary Ireland, they all featured the adventures of central character Mick McQuaid – a quick-thinking, wise-cracking chancer who nevertheless usually managed to save the day and prevent the more straight-forward villainy of figures such as agents for absentee landlords, or local gombeen men. Each story saw Mick in a new role and setting, such as ‘Mick McQuaid, Money Lender’, ‘Mick McQuaid, Member of Parliament’, ‘Mick McQuaid, Detective’, and ‘Mick McQuaid, Evangelist’. Each story was long, with (overly) complex plots, many characters, comic tangents and multiple narrative threads to be resolved, so they were serialised in short instalments over several months of weekly issues. These kind of serial stories were crucial to story papers, designed to bring readers back week after week and build a loyal and regular readership, and the Mick McQuaid stories were a classic example of their type.

It has to be admitted it would be difficult to that claim the stories deserve to be ‘rediscovered’ by modern readers. They are an interesting window into popular fiction of the era, especially in terms of their representations of Irish life and society – however their plots are unwieldy, their humour has not aged well and they are written in an almost impenetrable ‘Irish’ dialect which was obviously part of their appeal in the 1860s but which is extremely difficult to read now. Instead what is most interesting about the Mick McQuaid stories is their extraordinary popularity across many decades. Lynam reportedly became bored with the stories after just a few years, and indeed replaced them with tales of another very similar ‘charming Irish rogue’ anti-hero, the Darby Durkan series, which in their turn were also fairly popular. But popular demand for continued Mick McQuaid stories forced him to write more of them (a common experience for authors of popular fiction, most famously in the case of Conan Doyle’s reluctant resurrection of Sherlock Holmes). Indeed, the circulation of the Shamrock reportedly dropped sharply when he attempted to end the McQuaid stories, so they had to be revived and reprinted. It is difficult to be sure exactly how many stories there are in total (perhaps ten or so), each one lasting up to 6 months of weekly instalments – but for a youthful audience this was enough to keep printing and reprinting them over years and eventually decades. Rather like the endlessly circulating repeats of television sit-coms in our own era, which happily rewatched by fans and watched for the first time by successive generations (Faulty Towers being the obvious example, with just twelve episodes ever made in the 1970s, but which are still being screened 40 years later) these very popular serials played on an endless loop in the story papers.

Lynam died in 1894, but his serials lived on without him. The Darby Durkan stories appeared in the Shamrock’s rival story paper the Emerald in the early 20thC, and after the two papers merged in 1912 the McQuaid stories also continued in the new paper until its demise in 1919 – and may well have continued to appear in other publications after that although I have yet to find them. Their popularity was such that in 1889 Carroll’s Tobacco company in Dundalk named a new brand of pipe tobacco after Mick McQuaid, who often smoked a pipe in the stories as he held forth with his distinctive folk wisdom. The brand was itself a great success (presumably the tobacco and the stories amplified each other’s standing among readers and smokers in ways that benefitted both), and by the 1920s Carroll’s had commissioned a cartoon version of Mick McQuaid for their packaging and advertising – the photograph accompanying this post is of a tobacco tin from the mid-20thC. So while the stories had not had significant illustrations during their 19thC hey-day, the Mick McQuaid character took visual form years after his author’s death, and in fact became one of mid-20thC Ireland’s most successful brands, only being discontinued in 2016 – a strange afterlife for a fictional character first invented in 1867.

References

Margeret O’Callaghan, ‘Richard Pigott’, Dictionary of Irish Biography.

Patrick M Geoghegan, ‘William Francis Lynam’, Dictionary of Irish Biography.

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).

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.

Questions and Answers:Advice and Information Columns

If the term ‘information society’ has any useful meaning as a way to describe 21stC life (and of course it generally doesn’t, especially in the way most politicians use it), then it is in the way it captures the extraordinary availability of apparently limitless factual information. Only a generation ago, a person finding themselves in need of a particular date, definition or explanation was entirely reliant upon reference books of some kind or another – most likely the print editions of encyclopaedias which have now largely been replaced by Wikipedia and its more sophisticated but pay walled competitors. Even the condensed single-volume editions of publications such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica were expensive, and a full set of encyclopaedias was so costly that companies sold them via long-term hire-purchase schemes. This was such an embedded feature of aspirational working-class life in many countries until the later 20thC that door-to-door encyclopaedia salesmen frequently occur as stock characters in movies, novels and comedy sketches. The fact that so many families could be persuaded to make a significant financial investment in these rarely-used and rapidly dating books was a testament to the value – economically and culturally – of the information they contained. The queries we check on our phones while waiting for a train, or the information we receive in daily Google alerts as we sit at our desks, were until very recently expensive and scarce commodities, with entire industries and professions constructed around their gathering, publication and distribution. Because reference books were so expensive, most ordinary people would have relied upon libraries in order to consult them, and for many working-class readers whose formal education had ended early by necessity, Carnegie Libraries and Mechanics’ Institutes opened up a world of auto-didacticism which was often life-changing.

But even these resources were not available to many people – libraries can be intimidating spaces for those without much formal education, and throughout much of the 19th and earlier 20th centuries many people did not live within easy reach of a well-stocked library anyway. While there was a flurry of library construction within Dublin during the first decade of the 20thC, rural Ireland was a very different story, and in 1911 it was estimated that only 28% of the population had access to a library. Even where they were built, lack of funding (and civic enthusiasm) often meant that they had few books. Mary Casteleyn has argued that, “in many areas the Carnegie building was used for everything except library purposes. Village bands practised there, temperance meetings were held in them, and they were vandalised. In one library the enterprising caretaker had resorted to burning the books to save himself from being bothered by persistent would-be readers!”. This meant that many people had no practical access at all to reliable or detailed factual information. What they did have increasing levels of access to however was the mass media, and it is therefore not surprising that many publications aimed at a popular readership recognised that providing the various forms of factual information requested by their readers would help them to build and maintain their market share. Indeed, one of the most powerful media empires in Britain was originally founded upon providing exactly this service to readers. Alfred Harmsworth – who established the Daily Mail in 1896 and would go on to be one of the most powerful press barons of the early 20th C – began his publishing career in 1888 by producing Answers to Correspondents (which soon became known simply as Answers). The paper, which became the only serious rival to George Newnes’ Tit-bits magazine in terms of circulation, was based upon the most simple of ideas – readers could write in with their questions, and the papers’ staff would respond with answers. The more interesting of these would be published, and although the paper did contain other material, this provision of answers to queries was the simple but effective basis of its success. That simplicity – and the extent of its success – is in itself an indication of just how difficult it was for many ordinary people to find basic factual information. By contrast, journalists, especially those working in major publishing centres such as London or Dublin, had access to major libraries as well as networks of experts for advice and information.

Ireland did not produce – and probably could not have supported – an entire paper dedicated to answering readers’ queries. But many Irish publications did, over the years, run successful columns answering wide-ranging questions from their readers, or dedicated to providing an advice and information service on particular topics. Tips and advice for everyday activities – especially for domestic tasks – were also prevalent, and constituted a particularly significant feature of the women’s columns run by many papers. In an era without many labour-saving devices, many of these questions and answers revolved around advice on cleaning. How to remove stains from various fabrics without damaging them, how to maintain kitchen ranges, and how to clean household objects ranging from Venetian blinds to ostrich feathers, were all discussed on a more-or-less weekly basis, not only in women’s magazines such as Lady of the House, but also in more general magazines such as Ireland’s Own or the Shamrock, most of which ran household columns (which were of course always targeted at the ‘lady readers’ who were presumed to be naturally interested in such matters). Generalised advice columns giving information on health, beauty, cooking and household management were quick and easy to produce – indeed, in many cases they were one of the easiest types of copy to syndicate, and there are numerous examples of Irish publications printing advice and information columns of this kind which show signs of having been bought in – occasionally even their typeface differed slightly from the rest of the paper, suggesting that such syndicated pieces may even have arrived fully-typeset.

The prevalence of columns giving both factual information and advice in so many publications is also what allowed the boundaries between editorial and advertising to be so blurred, however. With no regulations to control this, there was nothing to prevent publications from using their information and advice columns to endorse specific products, without acknowledging that in many cases they were being paid to do so. For example, Irish Society ran a column entitled ‘Beauty and the Toilet’ which answered readers’ pseudonymous queries on these topics. In 1902, one such reply, to a reader using the name ‘Ideal’, assured her that ‘…it is satisfactory, therefore, to know that fresh air, cleanliness and good food are the best beautifiers, and that the knowledge of how to make the best of oneself can be obtained free from Mrs Pomeroy, of Grafton Street, and that when actual blemishes have to be removed she will do this in the best manner possible, and at moderate charges’. A few pages further on in the paper, a paid advertisement appeared for Mrs Pomeroy’s salon, offering electrolysis for 10/6 per sitting – and in fact the salon was one of Irish Society’s most frequent advertisers. Other readers’ queries were answered with recommendations for products which were also regularly advertised in the paper. Obviously in such cases, it is most likely that the queries themselves were also written by the paper – a possibility never to be discounted in any advice column. However, although faking the questions allowed publications to push products they were being paid to advertise, by definition it didn’t involve real interaction with readers, and from the publications’ perspective, this was the main purpose of such columns, as Harmsworth had so profitably understood when he established Answers.

Among Irish publications, the closest equivalent to this form was in columns such as the Shamrock’s regular ‘A Conversazione’ column. Like many others of its type, it did not print the original queries, merely addressing the answers to correspondents’ pseudonyms (which in some cases leaves the reader intrigued about the context or details of the question asked, an effect which was no doubt deliberate). So in April 1900 for example, just one column included factual information on the history and manufacture of screws, the history and use of siphons, and detailed geographical information about Lake Superior. More intriguingly, it also advised a reader known only as ‘Mona’ that ‘a young lady possessing true dignity of character will never take further notice of a gentleman who has once openly slighted her, much less seek or endeavour to court his society…we would advise you to leave the letter unanswered’, which presents a number of tantalising possibilities as to the slight Mona had suffered. A few years later, the Shamrock’s rival the Irish Emerald introduced a slightly different format into their own advice column, by enlisting readers to assist in answering queries. This was done by printing numbered questions in one part of the column, and then adding numbered answers (always a week or two behind the questions) in another. The magazine explained that, ‘the object of the Correspondence Page is to enable our Readers to keep in touch with, and be of use to, one another, by giving information of questions of general interest and by helping others to procure articles etc which they may require.’ Operating like a (very) nascent social media platform, this column allowed readers to answer each other’s queries as well as arrange exchanges of items such as sheet music and books. The advantage for readers was, obviously, that they could use these columns to seek information which was genuinely difficult to find for most ordinary people without easy access to expensive reference books. The advantage for magazines such as the Irish Emerald was that it was another way of encouraging readers to write back to the publication, the early 20thC version of interactivity upon with ‘new journalism’ depended. In this way, advice and information columns functioned for publications in the same way as letters columns and the wildly popular competitions most of them ran regularly – by providing a channel for readers to correspond with their paper, feel a sense of ownership of it, and thus deepen their brand loyalty, ensuring future sales. To this end, magazines were eager to provide platforms for whatever kind of interaction readers were likely to respond to most enthusiastically and consistently, even if this meant supporting wildly varied requests. So where in March 1907 ‘Clogheen Reader’ wrote to the Irish Emerald that he ‘would be much obliged if some reader would or could tell him if Mr WB Yeats is a Nationalist’ (sadly I never spotted any response to that tricky question), in September of the same year a query about the size of the human head received the following reply from another reader:

“the average adult head has a circumference of fully 22 inches. The average adult hat is fully six and three-quarters size…and the professors of colleges generally wear seven and one-eight to seven and three-eights sizes….and according to an authority, ‘no lady should think of marrying a man with a head less than 20 inches in circumference’. People with heads under 19 inches are mentally deficient, and with heads under 18 inches invariably idiotic”.

As well as encouraging readers to measure their heads (and admit it, you’re thinking about it), both the Shamrock and the Irish Emerald also provided more practical advice for young readers keen to make use of their intellect. From the last quarter of the 19thC, all branches of the United Kingdom Civil Service (including central government departments as well as organisations such as the Post Office and Police Service) introduced entrance examinations open to anyone who paid the relatively modest fee to sit them. While these examinations – covering grammar, composition, mathematics, languages and accountancy, depending upon the posts being recruited for – obviously favoured those who’d had the opportunity of a proper secondary education, they were nevertheless the single most dramatic mechanism of social mobility ever introduced into British or Irish society, and they loomed very large in the lives of ambitious school-leavers, especially perhaps those for whom a clerical job of any kind was a significant economic and social aspiration compared to the work available to their parents’ or grandparents’ generation. And those were precisely the young readers appealed to by the popular penny papers, so it is not surprising that some of the information and advice most consistently offered by these publications related to entrance examinations – not just announcements of their timing and location, but assistance with the quite intense academic preparation required for them. Well before the end of the 19thC, both the Shamrock and the Irish Emerald ran weekly columns (usually entitled ‘Our Students’) providing an astonishing level of information and even one-to-one support for readers planning on sitting examinations for jobs as various as Post Office Sorters, Third Division Clerkships in the Indian Civil Service, Dublin Police Court Clerkships or Girl Typists. A full account of each posts’ requirements and their pay and progression was given – for example in 1901, Police Court Clerkships in Dublin were open to entrants aged 17-25, with Second-class clerks receiving £80pa rising by £5 a year to £150, while First-class clerks got £180, rising by £10 a year to £300 (an enormous sum for those from a lower-middle class background, and probably unachievable for most). As well as this information, the columns – which were often ‘managed’ by the owners of correspondence colleges specialising in preparing candidates for entrance examinations – advised readers where to buy text books for exam preparation, set practice essay titles and mathematical problems based on past papers for each level of examination, and even invited readers to post in their practice efforts to be individually ‘marked’, the feedback and suggested mark being printed in subsequent weeks. These columns, whose longevity suggests they were very popular with readers, were obviously regarded by the owners of correspondence colleges as useful advertising for their businesses, but their usefulness for the Shamrock and Irish Emerald was even greater – the columns occasionally even described readers who had been successful in examinations with their support as ‘Shamrock boys’. This phrase managed to fuse the concept of ‘school spirit’, which was so central to the wildly popular school stories of the era, to the relationship between a penny paper and its readers.

References

Mary Casteleyn, A History of Literacy and Libraries in Ireland: the long traced pedigree (1984: Gower Publishing, Aldershot).

Stephanie Rains, ‘Going in for Competitions Active readers and magazine culture, 1900–1910’, Media History, 21 (2015) :138-149

Ireland’s Own, 1902 – present

In 2002, to mark the magazine’s centenary, RTE broadcast a documentary about Ireland’s Own (the programme is unofficially available here on YouTube). Using interviews with the editorial staff, contributors – including Maeve Binchy, who began her writing career with Ireland’s Own – and devoted readers, the portrait it paints is of a publication which is traditional, conservative and an unlikely survivor in the ruthless world of 21stC print media. As Binchy describes it, Ireland’s Own represents all that is unchanging in Irish life, and is ‘like a big warm cup of tea’. All of which is true….as far as it goes. However none of it was true back in 1902 when the first issues of Ireland’s Own were produced. While many aspects of the magazine’s format have remained oddly unchanged over the course of a century, much about its tone and content have changed significantly.

When Ireland’s Own first appeared in November 1902, it was a story paper (of the kind discussed in a previous post here) aimed primarily at younger male readers, though clearly intended as ‘family’ reading more generally as well. Largely intended for the working-class or lower-middle-class readers who had left school by 14 and become office boys, messengers or ‘shop girls’, it needed to compete for their attention with other penny weeklies, especially those being imported from Britain, such as the Boy’s Own Paper or the Gem, and to do that it needed to publish material that those readers wanted to read. Begun in Wexford by John Walsh (who also owned the Wexford People newspaper), Ireland’s Own positioned itself carefully as a wholesome and patriotically Irish alternative to its imported competition, while actually providing a lively and interactive publication which privileged popularity over wholesomeness, something which probably helps to explain why it has survived so long.

electric-belt8

Story papers focused upon short and serial fiction, and these stories tended to be highly generic and often sensational. Ireland’s Own was by far the most successful Irish story paper, and this was probably because of both the quantity and style of the fiction it published. These varied from romances to adventure stories, almost all set in Ireland or featuring Irish protagonists, and a large number of them were contributed by readers, just as happened in other story papers – each week the first couple of pages of Ireland’s Own would be given over to the winning Prize Story, the author receiving £1 payment and of course the honour of having their story appear, complete with their full name and address. Remarkably the paper continues this tradition of publishing unsolicited fiction more than a hundred years later, which is how Maeve Binchy had her first stories published. Aside from stories sent in by keen amateurs, much of Ireland’s Own fiction was contributed by authors now largely forgotten but who were part of a thriving landscape of popular fiction in early 20thC Ireland. Of these, perhaps the most famous was Victor O’Donovan Power, author of the apparently endless (but in reality just endlessly reprinted) ‘Kitty the Hare’ stories. The stories followed Kitty, described as a old ‘travelling woman’ as she travelled the roads of Ireland. They are, for the modern reader, almost completely unreadable (I have tried) but were enormously popular for several generations of Ireland’s Own readers. The ‘Kitty’ stories would probably have met with the approval of the social purists who scrutinized the popular fiction of the era for sensationalism, sexualisation or violence, but other fiction in Ireland’s Own was much harder to distinguish from that which was condemned as a corrupting influence on young Irish readers. For example, in 1906 they published ‘The Millions of a Mill Girl’ by Catherine J Hamilton, a successful writer who had published the best-selling book ‘Notable Irish Women’ in 1904. This serial story set in Belfast opened with its heroine accidentally witnessing a quarrel between another mill girl and her fiancé. He has accused her of flirting with other men, and when she stands up to him, ‘…the next minute he had thrown her on the ground; he had taken the hatpin out of her head, and was digging it into her brain with his full force.’ Other stories featured wives bricked into secret chambers by Bluebeard-style villainous husbands, and an alarming number of young heroines on the brink of forced marriages to older men who held the mortgages on their family farm, often with the connivance of their indebted fathers, which added a sinister edge to the stories. Even the comic tales often betrayed a bleak vision of Irish life, especially as it related to marriage, property and the connections between the two. In 1909 Ireland’s Own published a topical tale about the introduction of the universal Old Age Pension that year, the story focusing on an old bachelor who has become the target of a local spinster’s marital ambitions now that she knows he qualifies for a pension. He and a friend conspire to deter her by concocting a false claim that pension claims are disqualified by any previous period of time spent in a workhouse – the ‘joke’ of the story being that the spinster had had to enter the workhouse in the past. Another supposedly humorous story tells of a ‘merry widow’ who remarries, to a man not much older than her own son, both bride and bridegroom motivated mainly by a desire to claim ownership of each other’s property, and both being condemned to a miserable marriage as a result. As well as these decidedly stark comedies, Ireland’s Own rather specialised in detective stories – so much so that I’ll post some separate discussions about some of their more long-running series – and while most of these were fairly innocuous, they did include forced marriages, villains who poisoned themselves in front of the detective to evade arrest and even one in which the culprit turned out to be a vampire bat which drained its victims’ blood. With the exception of the story featuring death-by-hatpin (and maybe the vampire bat), none of these stories would have qualified as ‘pernicious literature’ as defined by organisations such as the Irish Vigilance Association. On the other hand, they were hardly the ‘pure, and ennobling in the lessons it conveys’ fiction Ireland’s Own had promised in its initial editorial in 1902, either.

While the fiction was sometimes more sensationalist than the stricter guardians of Irish morals would have preferred, the content in Ireland’s Own which emphatically would not have pleased them was mainly to be found in the advertisements. Apparently the magazine no longer accepts advertising (which may be its most remarkable feature given how dependent most 21stC publishing is upon such income) but in its early years it not only accepted the adverts common to most papers of that era, such as those for soap and branded household products, but also ones which sometimes barely conformed to the advertising decency laws of the time. The more dubious adverts printed by Ireland’s Own during its first decade were mainly for quack medicines of some kind, along with a few get-rich-quick schemes and other deceptively ‘free’ offers. In the early 20thC landscape of unregulated and often ineffectual medicine, quack products, claiming to cure everything from alcoholism to rheumatism, were one of the most lucrative industries, and they relied heavily on advertising in the popular press. The fraudulent patent medicines business was so lucrative in fact that HG Wells made it the subject of his 1909 novel Tono-Bungay. Ireland’s Own was hardly alone in taking ads from manufacturers making outlandish claims for their pills and potions, and many quite august publications regularly advertised medicines which would these days result in prosecutions for fraud. In fact, by 1900 the British Medical Journal was already valiantly attempting to expose and even prosecute the more egregious cases but to no great avail, and the industry continued to thrive and advertise.

Of the more startling – to the modern reader – products Ireland’s Own advertised, one of the single most common were electric or magnetic belts. These apparatuses, which were mainly marketed to men, claimed to revitalise and rejuvenate ‘weaklings’ so that they might regain the lost ‘vigour’ of their youth. Even if readers had not immediately grasped that it was sexual vigour the belts were promising, the drawings illustrating these adverts underlined the point by showing bolts of lightning coming from the groins of men wearing them. One of the earliest adverts of this kind published by Ireland’s Own (in October 1903, when the paper had been running for less than a year) was for the Dr McLaughlin Company’s ‘Electro-Vigour’ belt, which promised that ‘…it rejuvenates, animates sluggish circulation, stimulates the brain into activity and fills the body with life, ambition and endurance. In one day’s use it will make you feel as if born anew.’ This was one of the relatively few companies successfully pursued through the London courts by the BMJ – although they were only able to secure a conviction because one of its salesmen was representing himself as a doctor after he had been struck off the medical register following a conviction for rape. In response to anxious queries from the judge the BMJ’s representatives in court assured him that no customers would have been harmed by the belt because (predictably) their tests suggested it actually transmitted no electric current at all. The most frequent belt advertised however was the ‘Magneto Belt of Life’, marketed by the Ambrose Wilson Company and promising that the ‘vital power you need will be poured into your system’. Wrapped only around the waist rather than the groin, and complemented by the ‘Magneto Corset’ for women, the ‘Magneto Belt’ nevertheless made bold claims for its curative and restorative powers, which included, ‘Rheumatism, Nervous Debility, Loss of Vital Nerve and Muscular Strength, Disordered Liver, Gout, Constipation, Loss of Willpower, Want of Self-Confidence, Lack of Mind Concentration, Involuntary Blushing etc’. These whole page ads, often accompanied by drawings of a shirtless strong-man wearing the belt and towering over punier men who gazed admiringly up at him, had begun appearing in Ireland’s Own by 1911 and continued regularly, often on a weekly basis, well into World War One and indeed appeared in the issue distributed during the week of the Easter Rising.

Magneto copy

This concern with vigour (sexual and otherwise) and the appeal of a ‘superman’ figure, was tied to many early 20thC concerns about masculinity, ranging from very specific fears which were common at the time about the debilitating effects of masturbation, to the more general fears of a physical and moral ‘degeneration’ caused by urban life and indoor employment. For those who want a more detailed discussion of this crisis of masculinity and male potency in an Irish context (and who wouldn’t?), I’ve written about this at length here. Ireland’s Own was far from unusual in taking such advertisements – they were widespread at the time and the magazine actually published fewer of them than many other publications. But given that even Oliver St John Gogarty (not one of the more puritan figures of the era) had once, in an article in Sinn Fein, condemned ‘hideous advertisements of patent ways of recovering from indulgence’ as being an especially loathsome features of the crass commercial culture which was contaminating Irish mass media, it is surprising that the magazine did not appear to attract any attention from the genuinely fierce campaigners for social purity.

Mail order copy

But quite aside from promises of restored vigour, advertisements for other pseudo-medical products proliferated on the pages of Ireland’s Own as well. Some were merely obvious (but entirely legal) frauds, such as one headlined ‘I Enlarged My Bust 6 Inches in 30 Days’ and offering to sell a booklet explaining how this was done using ‘no glass or wooden cups with vacuum appliances, neither dangerous drugs nor massage, but a simple, harmless method’ which readers could discover if they bought the booklet – these kind of advertisements, which always involved sending away for a pamphlet or book, which were very common and were the early 20thC equivalent of our contemporary ‘one weird old trick’ online advertisements. Non-medical frauds proliferated as well, especially in the form of fake competitions, often offering large prizes and usually claiming to be free to enter (these were a long-established con, in which hopeful entrants would receive letters confirming they had successfully progressed to another round of the competition but that this now required a payment) and other get-rich-quick schemes. In 1913, readers were invited to write to a London address for a booklet entitled Money-making Opportunities in the Mail-Order Business whose author claimed that ‘with an idea and £2 to start I made £5,000 in Two Years’. The combined effect of advertisements for magnetic belts, fraudulent self-help books, and many, many quack medicines, does rather undermine the magazine’s claim in its first issue that its purpose was ‘…to instruct, to elevate…’ and to counteract the influence of ‘objectionable literature from abroad’. This, combined with their frequently sensationalist fiction, meant that their overall tone and style was not that different from many of their British rivals – which of course was probably one of the reasons that they were the story paper which survived, as this was what their readership actually wanted. Advertisements were vital to the success of commercial publications, probably more so than the cover-price paid by readers. It is clear that the publishers and editors of Ireland’s Own understood this very well, and their willingness to publish advertisements for electric belts and dubious reader competitions may well have been key to the initial success which would eventually become one of the longest-running publications in Ireland.

References

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

‘Ireland’s Own: One Hundred Years’, True Lives, RTE 2002.

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.

References:

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).

Irish Packet, 1903 – 1910

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.

References

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.

Thrilling Tales and Shocking Stories – Story Papers in Ireland

‘Story papers’ were one of the great publishing successes of the late 19thC and early 20thC, and one of the clearest results of the expanded readership for the popular press created by universal education. Published weekly at a penny or halfpenny each, they were aimed primarily at juvenile working-class and lower-middle-class readers (both boys and girls) but also a broader family readership, and were one of the principal forms of entertainment for this huge readership in a pre-cinema age. As their name implies, they specialised in fiction, mainly short and serial stories, which ranged from adventure to romance and historical fiction to school stories, depending upon the particular paper. They also published competitions, advice columns, jokes (of the ‘my dog has no nose’ variety) and factual articles which were informal but informative.

Their entire format and style was designed to appeal to younger readers who were not highly-educated (most people had left school by the age of 14, if not before), but who were literate and enjoyed reading. Their leisure-time however was limited, as working hours were long. Short stories could be read quickly on the tram or during a lunch-hour, and gripping serials with cliff-hanger plot-twists were designed to entice readers back for the following issue – when early cinema produced serials which ended with the heroine tied to train tracks, they were borrowing this convention from the story papers. It was a lucrative and therefore crowded market, and as an Irish Packet editorial put it in 1903, ‘the Editor has a hungry, fastidious and capricious public to feed from week to week. He is anxious to increase the number of his patrons. This he can only hope to do by an abundant and unceasing supply of good things. If there is a falling off of good fare, they may transfer their custom elsewhere’. The market was dominated by the British giants such as the Boy’s Own Paper and its sister the Girl’s Own Paper, as well as the Gem and the Magnet (in America, the Argosy appealed to a similar readership). All of these papers were distributed widely in Ireland (although there are some indications that the Boy’s Own Paper was banned in some Catholic schools on the grounds that it was an agent of Protestant evangelism) and benefited from huge economies of scale by comparison to smaller Irish rivals. They could afford more famous authors, better illustrations and bigger competition prizes.

Story papers were quite controversial, however. They were descendants of the ‘penny dreadfuls’ of the mid-19thC, which had focused on gruesome tales of crime and criminals, and were the focus of one of the first moral panics of the mass media age as it was claimed that they glamorized criminals and even led to copycat crimes. Late 19thC story papers (sometimes referred to as ‘halfpenny dreadfullers’) were the newer, cheaper equivalents with bigger print runs and readerships, and were still viewed with suspicion by many for their influence on young readers – as has often remained the case, young, female or working-class readers were presumed to be easily influenced. In Ireland, the fact that British story papers were circulated so widely was an added source of controversy. Nationalists accused them of being a major source of Anglicisation, while Catholic ‘social purity’ groups such as the Irish Vigilance Association objected to their sensational plots and portrayal of violence and more occasionally sex. DP Moran, author of a famous Leader editorial in 1900 which denounced British imports as being ‘…penny papers…saturated with grossness and which mainly circulate among boys…’, also wrote a (really not very good) 1905 novel, Tom O’Kelly, in which the centre of all cultural malaise in his fictional town of Ballytown was the newsagents’ shop which sold British story papers.

Despite the popularity and scale of British imports, Ireland had its own story papers (each of which will be discussed in future posts). The oldest of these were the Irish Emerald and the Shamrock, both descendants from earlier publications of William O’Brien’s Young Ireland movement, and both published weekly from the late 19thC until around the end of World War One. In the early 20thC, these were joined by Ireland’s Own (one of the great survival stories of Irish media history, given that it is still in existence) and more briefly by the Irish Packet, which was a story paper subsidiary of the Freeman’s Journal. All of these focused upon short and serial fiction, like their British counterparts, but firmly marketed themselves as Irish story papers for Irish youth. One way that they did this to publish mainly Irish fiction, set in Irish locations and dealing with Irish themes and plotlines. They were each slightly different in their precise content and editorial tone, but they all had certain common features. Most of their readers were probably boys and young men between 15-25, but they also published material intended to appeal to young female readers and a broader ‘family’ market.

Irish story papers were able to exploit the powerful alliance of national and religious agendas within the ‘social purity’ movement’s condemnation of imported British papers. Where the British papers were accused of sensationalism and immorality as well as undermining Irish culture and identity, their Irish rivals were keen to present themselves as wholesome and patriotic alternatives. For example, the first ever issue of Ireland’s Own (in November 1902) announced that it was ‘…intended to counter-act the influence and displace a great portion of the vicious and undesirable literature that reaches this country weekly…Our fiction, whether Irish or otherwise, will be pure, and ennobling in the lessons it conveys’. A future post about Ireland’s Own will explore just how ‘pure and ennobling’ some of this material really was, but with British publications providing much easier targets for purity campaigners, Irish story papers were able to position themselves without much difficulty as patriotic and wholesome publications for young readers. This was, for the more successful, one of the ways that they were able to counteract the competition from their British rivals.

Despite being primarily focused on fiction, story papers also published other material. They regularly ran reader competitions – ranging from story-writing to jokes, limericks and word-games – which were clearly popular with readers but also served to boost sales by requiring the submission of coupons cut from the paper with each entry. This meant each entrant to a competition had to buy their own copy, as opposed to sharing and swapping papers within groups of friends or family, a common activity among young working-class readers in order to increase the number of papers they had access to. Readers were invited to ‘write back’ in other ways too – editorial columns in story papers tended to be chatty and informal, and often included readers’ letters, queries and suggestions. They also ran ‘notes and queries’ columns to answer readers’ questions, and ‘exchange and mart’ columns for readers to trade books, sheet-music and other items. Many of them also ran career and educational advice columns – which were particularly pertinent to their core readership of school-leavers and young workers. They placed a particular emphasis on civil service, police and post-office examinations, some even running ‘student’ columns coaching readers about past papers and inviting them to submit composition pieces to be marked, as well as advising on exam technique. All of these kinds of columns offer insights into the lives of ordinary young people at the turn of the 20thC, as well as into the business models, style and content of the Irish popular press of the time, and there will be more detailed discussions of most of them here in the future. But overall, they indicate the lively relationship between story papers and their readers in Ireland – in keeping with the informal and interactive tone of the early 20thC ‘new journalism’, editors encouraged readers to consider themselves part of a community, and it is clear that many readers did so. This may well have been crucial to the survival of Irish story papers in the face of imported British rival publications which could offer stories by more famous authors and competitions with bigger prizes – Irish papers not only ran stories with Irish plots, names and settings, but their smaller circulation also offered a more intimate world of editors who might actually print your letter and competitions you might actually win.

They all published more fiction than anything else, however – meaning that in the early years of the 20thC when the Irish Emerald, the Shamrock, Ireland’s Own and the Irish Packet were all being published every week, they were collectively producing at least 50,000 words of fiction a week; a daunting prospect for the contemporary researcher, especially given that yet more short fiction was also being published in Irish women’s magazines, trade journals and even newspapers, as well as all that appearing in the imported British publications! One of the conclusions we can easily draw from this, however, is that there was an almost unquenchable thirst for narrative among readers of this period. I commented in a previous post that literacy levels rose significantly – and expanded across class boundaries – during the last quarter of the 19thC. But that statement does no justice to the sheer quantity of reading material being consumed each week by ordinary Irish readers by the turn of the 20thC. At the time, it was often remarked that the Irish bought comparatively few books. Even if this was true (and it might have been, given that average incomes in Ireland were low, and books were still relatively expensive), it certainly did not mean that the Irish didn’t read. The quantity of short and serial fiction being read in newspapers and magazines each week suggests that for a significant proportion of the population, much of their leisure time was spent reading the short and serial fiction in the story papers.

References

DP Moran, ‘Gutter Literature’, Leader, 1 September 1900, p. 11.

‘A Chat with the Editor’, Irish Packet, 10 October 1903, p. 32.

Stephanie Rains, ‘“Nauseous Tides of Seductive Debauchery”: Irish Story Papers and the Anti-Vice Campaigns of the Early Twentieth Century’, Irish University Review, 45:2 (November 2015), pp. 263-280.