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).

Annie Colles 1860-1940

Annie Colles was among the first women in Ireland to work as a journalist and editor. She was also the wife of Ramsay Colles, profiled in the previous post here, and their working lives intersected at the Irish Figaro magazine, which they jointly owned and each edited at different times. However, her career in journalism pre-dated her marriage and indeed appears to have outlasted it. If Ramsay Colles is only ever now remembered because of his violent and litigious encounters with Arthur Griffith and Maud Gonne, then Annie Colles is entirely forgotten. Her life and career can only be pieced together from fragments of information which leave significant gaps in her story.

Annie Colles

She was born Anne Sweeney in Kerry in 1860, the daughter of a Church of Ireland clergyman, and according to a later British magazine profile of her, she was university-educated – this was most likely at the Royal University (the forerunner to the National University of Ireland), which was established in 1880 and was the first university in Ireland to award degrees to women, of whom she must have been among the earliest. No more is known of her early life, but in September 1890 she married a man named Ross (his first name is unknown) and two years later gave birth to their daughter Eileen, but later that year she was widowed and apparently left in very straitened circumstances. She was friends with Richard J. Mecredy, the cyclist and journalist (and editor of Irish Cyclist magazine, who would later pioneer automobiles in Ireland and was an organiser of the legendary Gordon Bennett motor race in 1903) who may even have introduced her to her first husband, since they appear to have shared a passion for cycling – at a later date, Mecredy would memorably state that ‘Ross left her nothing in the world but a bicycle’. Through his intervention, the professional and enthusiast cycling community in Ireland raised £500 for Annie and her daughter through a charity raffle, and Mecredy also secured Annie Ross journalism work at Irish Society (a society paper which this blog will post about at a later date). However, by the end of 1893 she had decided to invest most of her capital in Social Review (another society paper) making her its sub-editor (she shortly became editor) and a partner in the business, joined soon afterwards by Mecredy and his business partner Kyle.

The Social Review had its offices on Nassau Street in Dublin, close to the fashionable south side shops and restaurants as well as the city’s ‘clubland’ area of Kildare Street and St Stephen’s Green, as might be expected of a ‘society paper’ which published accounts of official and social events at the Castle and upper-class townhouses, as well as the concerts, theatre and charitable events attended by the city’s social elite. Like most other periodicals of the era, it also published short stories, fashion and beauty columns and a lot of advertisements, mainly for the fashionable shops and businesses located near the paper’s own offices. As such, Social Review was an entirely typical example of the ‘society papers’ published in Ireland and elsewhere, and Annie Ross (as she was then named) was therefore joining an identifiable branch of journalism in becoming its editor. And indeed by 1895 she had joined the Institute of Journalists, thus becoming one of its earliest women members. In March of that year she was profiled in the English society paper the Sketch (from which the photograph above is taken), which placed a great deal of emphasis upon her position as one of the first women periodical editors, explaining that ‘For some months past Mrs Ross has had sole charge of the editorial department of the Social Review, a growing weekly Dublin journal, which during its existence has advanced by leaps and bounds in public favour, and has, in consequence, been considerably enlarged…From a purely business point of view the increase in advertisements and circulation is pleasant, and disproves the charge that women do not possess the business aptitudes requisite for the successful guidance of a newspaper’. The profile concluded with the claim that, ‘As a worker, Mrs Ross upholds the vexed question of the day, Women’s Rights, but only in its highest and truest sense.’ This was a very typical of the way middle-class women’s increasing participation in public and business life, such as journalism, was described by its (very conditionally approving) supporters. A strong emphasis was put upon their ability to maintain a ladylike demeanour even while performing their jobs successfully, and they were clearly differentiated from suffrage campaigners, who were more or less universally vilified in the mainstream press.

1895 was an eventful year for Annie Ross – as well as being profiled in Sketch magazine, she also married again, this time to Ramsay Colles. It was also the year that her working relationship with Richard J. Mecredy irrevocably broke down, amid allegations that, contrary to the glowing profile in the Sketch, she was ‘difficult’ to work with and not financially astute. By June 1895 she had left the partnership, and the Social Review passed into Mecredy and Kyle’s sole ownership. The following year, Ramsay Colles bought the Irish Figaro, which as another ‘society paper’ was a direct competitor to the Social Review. While Colles was the Figaro’s editor, Annie also worked for the paper, and this appears to have provoked an open feud between the Colles’ and her former partners at the Social Review. In what they claimed was a response to attempts to ‘injure’ the paper, the Social Review published two statements in May 1896 which claimed that ‘the dissension between Mrs Ross and the other partners was crippling the development of the journal’, but that ‘we here state definitely that Mrs Ramsay Colles, late Mrs Annie Ross, nee Miss Sweeny, has now no connection whatever with the Social Review’. Perhaps not surprisingly, she then sued them for £10,000 damages (an enormous sum at the time, and also by comparison to her original £500 investment), arguing that these statements injured her professional reputation. The jury were unable to agree a verdict in the case and the judge dismissed it, simultaneously condemning ‘society papers’ in general but also underlining that there was in his opinion no evidence that Annie Colles had acted unprofessionally.

After this, Annie and Ramsay Colles worked together on the Irish Figaro magazine until sometime in 1901. This means that she was on the staff of the paper in 1900 when it published claims that Maud Gonne was in receipt of a British army pension, causing Arthur Griffith to attack Ramsay Colles with a horsewhip, and Gonne herself to successfully sue for libel. At the time of the 1901 census, the family were living on Wilton Terrace in Dublin, the household consisting of the couple, their son Edmund (who had been born in 1898), Annie’s daughter Eileen from her first marriage, and her sister Jane (who listed her occupation as ‘journalist’, and may have been a contributor to the Figaro), and one general servant. It isn’t clear what Annie’s role on the paper was during these years – Ramsay was officially the editor, and it never used by-lines for other columns. And because Ramsay makes no mention of either his wife or son in his biography (this was not unusual for memoirs of the era, especially those of upper-class men, because it would have been considered in very poor taste for women of that class to appear in the press), we have no other source of information about her degree of involvement with Irish Figaro prior to 1901. That year however, the paper was embroiled in another legal case, and during the hearing (which was not in itself very interesting), Annie and Ramsay both confirmed in court that he had formally transferred editorship of the paper to her, and had no further involvement with it. Indeed, as was mentioned in the previous post, it is possible that they had separated by this date, and certainly by 1904 he was living and working in London while she and her children remained in Dublin until after his death in 1919.

In April 1901, the Figaro changed its name (yet again), becoming the Figaro and Irish Gentlewoman. This presumably reflects Annie Colles’ editorial control, although no mention was made of this in the paper itself. Instead, the Figaro announced that, ‘Recognising the fact that the number of the Lady Readers has of late very largely increased, we have determined to supply the demand which undoubtedly exists in Ireland for a high-class Society Journal which will be of equal interest to the cultured of both sexes.   We accordingly issue this week the first number of the Figaro and Irish Gentlewoman, confident that we shall, as hitherto, satisfy the intellectual section of the male community, and also win the approval of such refined Women as are nauseated by the tone adopted by some Society Journals which exist merely to foster frivolity and vanity in women. This we shall accomplish, not by in any way deducting from the familiar features of the popular and old-established Irish Figaro but by supplementing them with others more particularly addressed to Gentlewomen.’

The line between ‘society papers’ and women’s magazines was often quite blurred (the equally strong focus in each upon high society events and fashions, as well as their shared reliance upon advertising from upmarket shops and brands made them very similar in tone and content), and the combined market for both in Ireland was often quite crowded. At the point when Annie Colles assumed editorial control of the Figaro, for example, it was in direct competition not only with Irish Society, which that very year had consolidated its own position by absorbing Colles’ former publication Social Review, but also with the very successful women’s magazine Lady of the House, and the less well-known Lady’s Herald. While their readerships were not identical (Lady of the House in particular had a wider market appeal than any society papers), this was a lot of choice for the small Irish upper-middle class market, and the Figaro’s change of name and emphasis was probably as much about jostling for position in this competitive field as it was about Annie Colles’ desire to put her own editorial stamp on the paper.

Aside from this change of name and slightly increased coverage of fashion, however, the Figaro did not notably change in content or (more importantly) tone once Annie Colles took over the editorship from her husband. The lengthy editorials continued and were frequently still intemperate. Indeed, the tone of these was so consistent with earlier years that it seems quite possible Ramsay Colles was still writing them. Occasional sideswipes at Maud Gonne seem to support this theory, but the Figaro’s otherwise unexpected support (expressed in 1903) for the campaign to admit women to Trinity College suggests the influence of university-educated Annie Colles. There were also moments of unintentional comedy, such as the attempt to run a readers’ competition in early 1904. Readers’ competitions (and the prizes that went with them) were less common or popular in society papers than those aimed at younger and poorer readerships, but they were not unknown, and in January 1904 the Figaro proposed a prize of three guineas for ‘the Best Idea for the Competition to commence on February 6th.’ Competitions to design competitions – while a very circular idea – were also not unknown in other publications, but few can have been run as incompetently as the Figaro’s. The announcement of a winner was first delayed and then withdrawn because the proposed competition would have been illegal – competitions of pure chance were outlawed as being lotteries by another name, something most other editors were keenly aware of. The competition was then re-run, after which another winner was announced and then withdrawn again because of confusion over the closing date, before a final (and presumably confused) third winner was eventually chosen a month later than had originally been intended. The Figaro appears to have ended its run only a year later (the last extant copy is August 1905), and the disastrous competition the previous year may well have been a symptom of a publication already in terminal decline. The most likely reason for this was the paper’s inability to compete with publications such as Irish Society and Lady of the House. Perhaps Annie Colles was not, as her former partners Kyle and Mecredy had argued in court nearly a decade earlier, a very effective or skilled editor, although it should also be remembered that the Figaro had been a rather odd publication under Ramsay Colles’ control too, prone to hectoring rather than charming its readers, and it was perhaps not well-placed to compete with more professionally-run papers.

Annie Colles was 45 when the Figaro ceased publication, and this seems to have been her last venture as sole editor of a journal. According to her entry in the Institute of Journalists membership roll, she was the social editor for the Irish Independent (which began publication in 1905, the year the Figaro folded) for several years, and also acted as a special correspondent for ‘several American daily newspapers’. In the 1911 census, she was living on Morehampton Terrace with her two children and a servant, but without her husband, who was resident in London. Intriguingly, she described herself at that point as a Christian Scientist, which would have been extremely rare in Ireland or Britain at that date, and seems a strange parallel to her husband’s equally unexpected interest in Buddhism. At some point after Irish independence (and also after her husband’s death), she moved to London, where she lived until her death in 1940.

Colles is an elusive figure at this historical distance, often obscured by her husband who was a better-known figure at the time and has also left a more detailed historical record behind him. It was Ramsay Colles who wrote an autobiography, and of course also became briefly notorious for his confrontations with Griffith and Gonne. By contrast, Annie’s working life can only be partially reconstructed, and often cannot be disentangled from that of her husband. It is even difficult to decide whether her career was a success – the two papers she edited both struggled at times and the Figaro actually folded under her management. But in the turbulent and fiercely competitive world of commercial publishing this was not unusual, and not necessarily an indication that she was not an effective editor. Some of the Figaro’s querulous tone must have been attributable to her as well as her husband, and more than one libel case was issued against publications under her editorial control. On the other hand, she was one of a tiny minority of women working as journalists (let alone as editors) in Ireland in the late 19thC and early 20thC and she undoubtedly faced considerable opposition when she did so. Some of the reported exchanges in her 1897 court case against Richard J. Mecredy give a salutary reminder of the obstacles she faced. When her solicitor stated as proof of her professional standing that she was a member of the Institute of Journalists, the judge asked (to laughter in court), ‘Has the new woman found her way there too? Are there female members of it?’, to which the defendants’ solicitor responded (to more laughter) ‘It will soon break up’. Later the same day, the defendants’ solicitor claimed that Mecredy had advised Colles against investing in the magazine, but ‘she was determined to go into the Social Review. It was like the itch that came upon women for cycling and bloomers (laughter). She had an itch for performing in the newspaper world, and she insisted on joining…But every man who did a generous act for a woman was repaid in the same way as Mr Mecredy had been repaid (laughter)’. In the end, it is impossible to tell if she was a valiant pioneer of women’s journalism in Ireland, or a difficult woman who fell out with business partners and had a somewhat chaotic editorial style. These are not mutually exclusive categories of course, and she may well have been both.

References

Freeman’s Journal, ‘Dublin Libel Action’, 12 & 13 May 1897, p.2.

Sketch, ‘Mrs Ross, of the Social Review, Dublin’, 13 March 1895, p366.

Ramsay Colles, 1862-1919

After the Christmas festivities of the last post, this one will begin the New Year in an appropriately dyspeptic fashion by focusing on Ramsay Colles. One of the oddest characters of Irish publishing in the early 20thC, Colles is now almost entirely forgotten except when it is (occasionally) recalled that in 1900 he was literally horsewhipped by Arthur Griffith in order to defend the honour of Maud Gonne. This was undoubtedly the most sensational moment of his career in journalism, but it wasn’t entirely out of character for a man who appears to have thrived on conflict.

Ramsay Colles

Ramsay Colles was born in 1862 in Bodh Gaya in India, where his Anglo-Irish father was serving in the Indian Civil Service. However he was brought up in Ireland, and attended Wesley College in Dublin. In 1896 he married Annie Sweeny, who was also a journalist and editor, and who will be the subject of the next blog post here. They had one son, Edmund, in 1898 and lived for some years on Wilton Terrace in Dublin. Like a great many journalists of his generation (including Matthias McDonnell Bodkin, the editor of the Irish Packet) Colles combined journalism with the law, having qualified and practised as a barrister. It’s hard to determine exactly how wealthy Colles was – his background and some aspects of his life strongly imply a private income, but just how much is unknown, and both the length and variety of his career in journalism and publishing suggests that he may have needed to earn money to supplement his inherited wealth. His politics are a great deal easier to determine however – Colles was a hard-line Tory, who loathed every aspect of Liberalism, the Home Rule movement, the literary revival (and all figures associated with it), the Irish language, public libraries, Dublin Corporation, and most of modern life in general.

By 1896 he was working as a journalist for the Dublin Daily Express – and although he was already 34 by then, this may have been his first journalism work, because it was not until that year that he joined the Institute of Journalists, a London-based organisation founded in the 1880s as a forerunner to the National Union of Journalists, and which had many Irish members prior to Independence. Colles worked for the Express for just two years, however, before moving on to edit the Irish Figaro – a society and cultural review paper he had bought earlier in the decade and with which he and later his wife Annie would be associated for several years. The Figaro had begun in 1892 as Irish Life, changing its name after just one issue to the Dublin Figaro, before changing again to Irish Figaro in 1895. In 1901 it became the Figaro and Irish Gentlewoman for its remaining years (it appears to have ended sometime in or around 1904). If this seems a rather chaotic number of name changes for a publication which only lasted just over a decade, this was fairly in keeping with Colles’ general editorial tone and style, which was distinctly less than professional on occasion.

The Figaro was a weekly society paper costing one penny, which published theatre and musical reviews (Colles appears to have been a genuinely enthusiastic supporter of popular theatre and music in Dublin), reports on high society events and marriage announcements, and other occasional columns, for while including a women’s column called (appallingly) ‘Topicalities Femina’. It always contained numerous advertisements, typically for major food and household brands as well as a wide range of up-market Dublin businesses, such as department stores, restaurants and hotels. The Figaro has also been identified as the publisher of advertisements for the real Alexander Keyes, whose fictional advertisement designs Leopold Bloom is working on during the course of Ulysses. However, many of its 16 weekly pages were taken up with a long, wide-ranging and typically splenetic editorial column entitled ‘Entre Nous’ (Colles appears to have had a genius for awful column titles). These editorials were, throughout the paper’s existence, signed by ‘Sydney Brooks’. However it is most likely that this was a pseudonym, and that Colles not only wrote the editorials, but was widely understood to do so by the Figaro’s readers. Not only is the writing style very similar to that of his memoir, In Castle and Court House: Being Reminiscences of 30 Years in Ireland (1911), but more importantly he was frequently identified as being the Figaro’s editor in the various legal cases he was involved in.

The most sensational of these cases – and the only reason Colles’ name is ever remembered these days – were in the aftermath of Arthur Griffith bursting into the Figaro’s offices in 1900 and literally horsewhipping Colles in defence of Maud Gonne’s nationalist good name. The Figaro had just published an article claiming that Gonne was in receipt of a British Army pension inherited from her father, and was therefore a hypocrite for being actively involved in opposing a British Army recruitment campaign for Irishmen to fight in the Boer War.   Rather disappointingly, Griffith only appears to have inflicted damage to Colles hat (and presumably his dignity), but he was nevertheless prosecuted for assault (a charge he did not contest), fined one pound and bound over to keep the peace. Immediately after this however, Maud Gonne sued the Figaro for libel, a case which Colles settled (by issuing a formal apology to Gonne) some way into a trial which was being gleefully reported by the press. Both protagonists returned to this incident in their later memoirs. For his part, Colles claimed that he had evidence to prove the truth of his story about Gonne’s military pension, but did not produce it because his source had been the John Mallon, the Assistant Commissioner of Police, and to have revealed this in court would have been too politically-sensitive – although he did not explain why, only a decade later, he now felt free to share this information in his memoir. Even more remarkably, he also claimed that Gonne had only sued him at all because she was suspected by Michael Davitt of being a British double-agent and (it was implied) may therefore have been in fear for her own safety. Gonne, on the other hand, claimed in her 1938 memoir A Servant of the Queen: Reminiscences, that not only was the Figaro ‘…a little rag….subsidised by Dublin Castle’ but also that Colles’ barrister had later admitted to her that his legal costs in the libel case were paid by the Castle (in his own memoir, Colles ambiguously describes them as having been met by a subscription list contributed to by ‘friends’). Gonne provides no evidence for her claim about the Figaro’s subsidy from the Castle (and it is made well after Colles’ own death), so it is impossible to determine its accuracy. To put it mildly, neither Colles nor Gonne was a trustworthy source about the other, but Gonne’s allegation is certainly not impossible to believe – and it would help to explain how the Figaro could afford to publish a weekly paper on good quality paper and with frequent photographs for only a penny, when the other penny weeklies (such as the Irish Packet) were published using the very cheapest paper with few illustrations and certainly no photographs.

Throughout the 1900 libel trial however, Colles was consistently identified in court as being both the proprietor and editor of the Figaro, meaning that the regularly apoplectic six-page editorials produced on a weekly basis were his own work. These ranged widely in topic, apparently governed purely by Colles’ grievances of the week, and only leavened by regular theatrical and musical reviews of performances taking place at the Gaiety or Queen’s theatres. Each instalment of ‘Entre Nous’ was headed by the rather aggressive statement that ‘Any of my readers who disagree with any statements which appear in Irish Figaro are invited to correspond with the Editor’. Colles’ own disagreements with daily life in Ireland ranged far and wide. The key figures of the Literary Revival and the Abbey Theatre (especially WB Yeats and George Moore, who he once called ‘puff-created mushroom men’) were the individuals most frequently attacked – sometimes it has to be admitted with a certain degree of comic effect. He described Yeats as ‘an utter literary fraud’ whose work had ‘an utter lack of sense’, and once quoted the music critic John F Runciman’s assessment of Yeats’ distinctive system of ‘singing’ poetry, ‘Having superfluously stated that he [Yeats] knew nothing of music, he proceeded to reveal his new musical art…and I have scarcely yet recovered from my extreme surprise’. On another occasion a Figaro editorial expressed regret at the news that George Moore was not learning Irish (an enterprise Colles generally disapproved of) because ‘readers would be much benefitted if Mr Moore betook himself to learning Irish and wrote in future exclusively in that language and ceased to sully the English tongue with his filthy tales’. If figures such as Yeats and Moore were frequently the subject of derogatory remarks in Figaro editorials, Colles’ expressed views on broader social issues could be even more aggressive. In 1900 he felt that the Poor Law Guardians in Dublin were being far too generous to the city’s poor, commenting nostalgically that ‘The old idea was merely to give shelter and food to the destitute, and neither in too pleasant a form, in order not to encourage idleness’. He was predictably opposed as well to the Land Acts, arguing that, ‘Leaving aside the very great doubt whether your peasant-proprietor, when you have got him, could be made a flourishing and contented citizen, purchase means the exodus of the upper class from the country’.

Colles was an active member of the Freemasons in Dublin, and in 1900 he established a periodical specifically for the organisation in Ireland, called Irish Masonry Illustrated. It isn’t clear how long this ran – only a couple of years’ worth of issues are extant in the National Library of Ireland, and it may well only have been in publication for a short time. Colles mentions the magazine with some pride in his memoir, but does not indicate how many issues were published. In what may have been a unique combination of interests, he mixed his enthusiasm for Freemasonry with an interest in Buddhism – according to his memoir this was inspired by knowing he had been born at one of its most important shrines in India, and it led to his becoming the official Irish representative of the Maha-Bodhi Society in Ireland in 1901 (and indeed he is listed as such in Thom’s Directory for several years).

In January 1901 he formally transferred the editorship (and possibly ownership) of the Figaro over to his wife Annie, who continued to publish it until it ceased publication sometime around 1904, by which time Ramsay Colles himself was living in London, where he appears to have remained until his death in 1919. In fact one interpretation of the information available about his life and career after 1901 is that he and Annie may have been unofficially separated, because she remained in Dublin until after his death, and there is no indication that they lived together after 1904 at the latest. In the 1911 Irish census, for example, his name does not appear at the family home in Morehampton Terrace and Annie Colles is described as being the ‘head of household’. This is a speculative interpretation, but such arrangements were not unusual as a solution to marital breakdown (especially for people of their social class, who had the resources to live separately) and it would explain why they do not appear to have lived together for the final 15 years of Colles’ life.

After his move to London, Colles continued to work as a periodical editor (and proprietor) for a number of years. Given his rather splenetic editorial tone, it is slightly surprising that he appears to have specialised in editing women’s magazines. In 1904 he founded and ran Chic: A high-class ladies’ illustrated paper, (which was wound up owing its printers money) and then from 1905-1910 he edited another London women’s magazine called Madame, which described itself in a publishing trade journal as ‘an illustrated magazine, devoted to the interests of women, containing articles, stories and social news’. He also published several literary and historical books during his later years – editing both The Poems of Thomas Lovell Beddoes in 1907 and The Complete Poetical Works of George Darley in 1908, before publishing The History of Ulster from Earliest Times to the Present Day in 1919, the year of his death.

Colles was only 57 when he died in London in February 1919. He received brief obituaries in the Freeman’s Journal and the Irish Independent, but in both cases this was largely in order to recall his confrontation with Arthur Griffith and court case against Maud Gonne. He was only ever a minor figure in Irish journalism, if undoubtedly a colourful one. A century later, he remains difficult to fully understand – a belligerent Tory and Freemason, fulminating against perceived liberal outrages as varied as Home Rule, the Irish language and public libraries, he was also fascinated by Buddhism and spent much of his career writing and editing ladies’ magazines. And despite the likelihood that he and his wife lived separately for much of their marriage, he does seem to have been actively supportive of her journalism career, a surprise in itself from someone of his deeply conservative social and political views. Her career was also varied and sometimes colourful, and needs its own post, which will appear here very shortly.

References

Ramsay Colles, In Castle and Court House: Being Reminiscences of 30 Years in Ireland (London: T Werner Laurie, 1911).

Maud Gonne, A Servant of the Queen: Reminiscences (London: Gollancnz, 1938).

Mary Power, ‘Without Crossed Keys: Alexander Keyes’s Advertisement and The Irish Figaro’, James Joyce Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 3/ 4, 1995, pp. 701-706.

Season’s Greetings: Christmas in the Irish Popular Press

Newspaper columns decrying the commercialisation of Christmas are as seasonally-predictable in December as the arrival of tinsel and mince-pies. This is ironic, given that the popular press has, historically speaking, played a particularly important role in the development of Christmas as a commercial festival. It is not at all a coincidence, for example, that the season began to develop its popular appeal in Britain and Ireland – complete with the widespread adoption of decorations, gifts, cards and seasonal foods – at exactly the same time as the massive expansion of the popular press. Prior to the early 19thC, Christmas was little more than a minor date in the religious calendar for most people, and although banks and other offices closed for the day, for many manual workers New Year was a far more important holiday, and they worked on Christmas Day.

When its popularity began to expand rapidly during the 1830s and 1840s however, it was not as a date of religious significance, but as a secular holiday from work, until by 1875 not only Christmas Day but St Stephen’s Day were official holidays for almost all workers. Its increased prominence was marked by the purchase of trees, cards and other non-religious markers of the season. It was during the same decades that the popular press – spurred by improved printing technology as well as the reduction (and eventual abolition) of the stamp duty which had made most newspapers prohibitively expensive for ordinary readers – also began to expand. Not only newspapers, but journals and periodicals multiplied during the middle decades of the 19thC, as the market for mass media expanded and segmented, and competition for readers became fierce. And as the industry grew, it adopted Christmas as the pole around which the publishing year orbited. This began with the publishing of seasonal ghost stories (long part of a European folk heritage of winter story-telling, when cold and dark nights provided an opportunity for people to work shorter hours and gather together around the fire) as either expensive gift books, or in expanded Christmas ‘special issues’ of periodicals. Charles Dickens (whose contribution to festive traditions reached its zenith in the form of A Muppet Christmas Carol) not only wrote Christmas ghost stories, but also embedded the holiday into the rhythms of industrial publishing. As editor of the very successful periodicals Household Words and All Year Round, he developed the practice of publishing special Christmas double issues, with extra stories and competitions as well as a range of seasonally-themed articles, columns and jokes.

Just like their British counterparts, Christmas was also the most important time of the publishing year for the Irish press, with many titles producing special issues to mark the occasion. Story papers, in particular, tended to publish a double-issue with many more stories as well as other seasonal features. Although Christmas holidays were only two days for most ordinary workers, any holiday at all was significant in an era when most people worked six days a week. And a two-day holiday shared by almost all workers allowed for family gatherings complete with celebratory food and drink as well as family entertainments around the fireside. Special Christmas issues of story papers were designed to complement this by providing stories for reading aloud – the old folk culture of fireside story-telling reimagined for the industrial age.

Almost all commercial publications printed Christmas-themed material throughout December, even if they did not produce a special issue. The most common form this took were seasonal stories such as Clara Mulholland’s story ‘A Christmas Betrothal’ (Lady of the House, 1900), ‘Christmas Roses’ by Haddie McMahon (Ireland’s Own, 1911) and ‘Kilnahoura Cottage. A Christmas Story’ by Justin McCarthy (Irish Packet, 1903). There were also poems and factual articles, especially ones which dwelt upon the origins of Christmas customs such as decorating trees, carolling, or serving plum pudding.   Much of this was ‘filler’ material, as editors with twice as many pages as usual to fill sought out suitable copy. Some of this was bought from the syndication bureaux such as Tillotson’s Fiction Bureau who supplied stories, poems and other periodical content to publications all over the world at a range of prices depending upon the fame of the author and the word-count of the work. But the need for extra material at this time of year was also an important opportunity for lesser-known writers to get their material published, if they could produce competent, seasonally-themed copy in time to meet publication deadlines. Some of the jobbing writers and journalists whose work appeared quite frequently in Irish publications appear to have built much of their publishing career on producing the seasonal material necessary to fill out Christmas double issues. Maud Sargent from Cork, who published both stories and articles in a variety of Irish newspapers and periodicals over several decades, was an inveterate writer of these pieces.   She published short stories, such as ‘Xmas Eve in the Fairy Tower of Knockshee’ (Weekly Irish Times, 1895) and ‘The Banshee of Kildearg’ (Cork Weekly Examiner, 1899), and an array of themed articles, of which ‘Wren Boys in Ireland’ (Weekly Irish Times, 1901), ‘Holly and Ivy Lore’ (Irish Packet, 1906), ‘The Christmas Tree’ (Weekly Irish Times, 1906) are just a few. These articles were largely ‘filler’ material to complete the necessary extra pages for Christmas double issues, but by their nature they also helped to define and reinforce the secular rituals of the season – rituals of which the special issues were themselves an important part.

Story papers and women’s magazines in particular were also keen to suggest their Christmas special issues as gifts, with the clear hope that the recipients of such gifts might then be encouraged to buy the paper themselves in future. In 1908 for example, the editor of Ireland’s Own commented in early December of the forthcoming Christmas issue that ‘I want all my readers to do their part and help along the number to the best of their power. There is no doubt but that Ireland’s Own would form a most acceptable gift to friends across the sea. ..There may be some of your friends at home who are not yet numbered among our readers. Now is a most excellent time to enlist them as such.’ It isn’t clear how successful these attempts to boost circulation were, but it does indicate the extent to which the commercial press was entangled with the increasing use of Christmas as a festival of consumer culture rather than a serious religious holiday.

Not only newspaper and periodical producers, but also other branches of the printing and publishing industry had an investment in Christmas as a shopping season. Books were a popular gift for a wide cross-section of society, and at a variety of prices. As was discussed in a previous post, there was a voracious appetite for leisure reading of many varieties, but although books were no longer luxury items by the end of the 19thC, they would still have been a purchase of some significance for working-class or lower-middle-class readers, and would therefore have been welcome gifts. Many Irish book publishers advertised heavily in advance of Christmas, often stressing their suitability as presents. In 1903 for example, Blackie & Son (who were based on Talbot Street in Dublin) advertised a list of ‘The Best books for Christmas Presents and School Prizes’ in the Irish Figaro. The list included With the Allies to Pekin by GA Henty, and In Search of the Okapi by Ernest Glanville for boys, and The Handsome Brandons by Katherine Tynan and The Girls of Banshee Castle by Rosa Mulholland for girls. But of even greater importance to the printing and publishing industries’ investment in festive celebrations was the Christmas card. Like many other ways of marking the season, cards began to become popular in the early-to-mid-19thC, becoming more affordable and more varied as the century progressed. By the end of the century, the sending of Christmas cards was as widespread as it is now, with the Irish Times reporting in December 1904 that the GPO in Dublin had hired 300 temporary sorting staff to deal with the increased volume of post they created.

These cards were printed and sold by commercial printers, who were often based in the vicinity of the GPO where many publications also had their offices, and were themselves intrinsically connected to the wider world of bulk printing and publishing. Some of them printed newspapers and periodicals, but all of them also produced the posters, business cards, circulars and headed paper which were themselves central to the era of mass printing. Christmas cards were just another addition to the paper-saturated world of print-culture, but they were obviously a lucrative one for producers. In 1896 JJ Lalor, a printer on North Earl Street, took out a large advertisement in the Irish Emerald to detail the selection of Christmas cards he was producing that year. The list of approximately 100 different designs ranged from the relatively simple ‘neatly cut card, fancy border, leaf-shape embossed flowers’ priced at 6 for 5d including postage to the extremely elaborate ‘padded white satin Harp, oxford plush frame, white satin and gold corner, silk ribbon, gold strings, forget-me-nots’ presented in an individual box and costing 2s 9d each. The variety of cards on offer, and the size of the advertisement Lalor placed for them, indicates how important a market Christmas cards were by the end of the century.

The Christmas shopping season went hand-in-hand with the Christmas advertising season. The popular press, dedicated to keeping its cover price as low as possible in order to expand its readership, became more and more financially dependent upon advertising as the 19thC progressed. The newly popular Christmas festival, with an ever-greater number of seasonally-themed products attached to it each year, provided a welcome increase in advertising revenue during December, as manufacturers and retailers competed for readers’ seasonal spending on gifts and festive food. This encouraged newspapers and periodicals to ‘boost’ Christmas as an event by publishing themed stories or relevant articles, which in turn made it a more and more conspicuous event for readers, and encouraged them to buy more Christmas products. Thus the newly-fashionable holiday season and the newly-popular commercial press developed in tandem, each supporting the other in a rising tide of commodification.

As the 19thC progressed into the 20thC, the commercial culture of Christmas both widened and deepened, so much so that in 1904 the Freeman’s Journal remarked that ‘…even the least romantic of callings seem to claim kinship with the time. There be Christmas ironmongery, buxom gas fittings, pre-eminent pawnbrokers, and even the apothecaries’ shops set forth their festive boluses and fragrant mixtures “specially suited to the season”’. Far from criticising these developments however, this comment was made in a column headed ‘Christmas Shopping’, which surveyed the shops in Dublin and the special festive goods they were stocking. The Irish Times also ran such columns throughout December each year – it is likely that shops paid to be included in these surveys, although in a typical example of blurred lines between advertising and journalism, neither newspaper ever acknowledged this. In just one column in 1904 the Freeman’s Journal publicised Pim’s Department store as well as a jeweller’s and an upmarket grocer’s selling preserves, tea and ‘all sorts of liquors of the finest brands’. Women’s magazines eagerly described the winter fashions, ‘household hints’ columns gave tips on preparing Christmas food, and all of the newspapers reported approvingly on crowded shopping streets and colourful window display. From the august Irish Times, through to women’s magazines and the story papers for office boys, all of the Irish press participated enthusiastically in the Christmas season, and far from decrying its commercialisation, they were actively involved in its development from a low-key date in the religious calendar to being the biggest secular holiday of the year.

References:

Nicholas Daly, The Demographic Imagination and the Nineteenth-Century City (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2015).

Judith Flanders, Consuming Passions:Leisure and Pleasures in Victorian Britain (London: Harpers, 2007).