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.

Mass media, High Society and the invention of Celebrity

These days a great deal of the popular press is locked into a reciprocal and lucrative relationship with a wide variety of celebrities. The press needs stories (and above all else, photographs) of celebrities in order to sell their publications, while most celebrities need press coverage in order to maintain the public profile without which they would not be celebrities. In recent years this closed loop has reached its logical conclusion, resulting in complaints about celebrities who are ‘famous for being famous’, apparently having no public life or career beyond the pages of tabloid newspapers and gossip magazines.

Celebrity is a complex cultural concept (there is for an example, an entire academic journal, Celebrity Studies, dedicated to it), which takes different forms at different moments. However, in all its forms it has a specific history, and one which is inherently tied to the development of mass media. Celebrity in any recognisable form requires a mass media in order to create fame and instant recognition, as there can be no celebrity without an audience. Equally, before mass media and its creation of that audience, there was no real need for celebrities – they were an invention of the popular press and its need to appeal to segmented audiences who must be persuaded to buy each new issue. Celebrities whose star personae were carefully tailored to a particular audience proved to be an exceptionally successful and long-lasting way to attract regular buyers.

Late 19thC mass media – in Ireland and elsewhere – provides an opportunity to watch modern celebrity develop, as publications, advertisers, readers and the proto-celebrities themselves negotiated its form and purpose. The earliest category of famous individuals whose names (and later photographs) could sell newspapers were of course aristocrats. This was entirely logical, as they already possessed many of the characteristics which would later become associated with the celebrity format – they were drawn from a demarcated group whose very names, in the form of their titles, differentiated them from ordinary readers in a parallel fashion to the way that very famous modern celebrities’ very names are also brands. Aristocrats also lived lives of barely imaginable glamour (at least in theory, on the pages of newspapers and magazines), in castles and palaces, with carriages, servants, jewels and other luxuries. Perhaps most appealing of all to those following their lives in the press, they lived a life of permanent leisure. If the earlier Victorian period had struggled with the moral implications of leisure (and how it might be differentiated from idleness, which in the more religious times of the mid-19thC was of course a sin), then the late 19thC had fully resolved that struggle in favour of leisure as something to enjoyed at every opportunity. This could be seen in the rise of music halls, department stores, day-trip tourism and of course the media itself, which were all forms of entertainment which required leisure-time to enjoy. The reality for most people however was that their opportunities for leisure were still extremely limited. The majority of the population left school by 14 at the latest, the working week was typically still 6½ days, paid holidays were unusual, and the old age pension wasn’t introduced until 1909, so even retirement wasn’t a common experience. So fin-de-siècle culture was saturated with leisure activities which most people had a very limited chance to enjoy. The aristocracy’s life of total leisure, only emphasised by the ways they invented to fill it – moving from their country estate to their town-house and then on to the south of France according to the season, and attending court, country house parties, racing meets, grouse shooting or regattas as they went, all the while changing their clothes several times a day – was therefore a source of fascination in itself to over-worked readers of the popular press.

Women’s magazines and society papers, not surprisingly, were the most avid reporters of aristocratic celebrity. In Ireland, these included Lady of the House and Irish Society, among others. The two papers were different from each other in many respects – Lady of the House was more firmly positioned as a women’s magazine, and one which often expressed quite progressive social views, as well as catering to a slightly broader readership. Irish Society’s name probably speaks for itself – it focused entirely upon the activities and interests of the social elite, although it would have been read more broadly too, and that broader readership would have been specifically attracted by the high society lifestyles and individuals it reported on. Both magazines participated in the use of the aristocracy as proto-celebrities however, devoting considerable column inches to news of their lifestyles, fashions and travels. Although the activities of British (and even sometimes continental European) royalty and aristocrats featured fairly regularly, the Irish press tended to give much more attention to Irish aristocrats and the other upper-classes, with much of the narrative centring around the social life of Dublin Castle. In February 1903, for example, Lady of the House reported on the opening of that year’s ‘season’, which always began with the presentation of debutantes at the Castle. Under the headline ‘The First Dublin Drawing Room of the Season’, they printed a double-page photo spread of debutantes in their regulation white ball gowns. In the same issue there were reports of some of the ancillary social events of the season, including the information that ‘Mrs Garrett-Walker gave a ball at her residence, 38 Fitzwilliam Square. She is a daughter of Canon Leeper.’ Often there were minute descriptions of the precise gowns and jewels worn by each of the most important guests at these parties, along with general fashion commentary such as ‘The old-fashioned cut-work, which formed such an important Irish industry during the 1850s, is once more a la mode, and placed more prominently en evidence than of yore’. As the season wore on, and high society marriages were arranged, magazines such as Lady of the House and Irish Society covered those too. In January 1902, Irish Society informed its readers that ‘Miss Kathleen Blake Squires, youngest daughter of Mr WA Squires, of 61 Dartmouth Square, was married on Thursday last, the 2nd, to the Rev FC Day-Lewis, BA, senior curate of Stradbally, Queen’s County…’. As well as these local (and less illustrious) announcements, the magazine concerned itself too with events in the very highest circles, such as its announcement in the same issue that the Marquis of Bute was expected to come into his fortune (estimated at £6m, an immense figure) in that year.

Castle Season

Although publications which gave importance to high society would have actively monitored events such as the presentation of debutantes at the Castle court, it is worth noting that most of the information they published giving details of private parties or engagements and marriages – let alone formal photographs of debutantes and socialites in ball gowns – were supplied to the editors by the subjects themselves. Not that long before the end of the 19thC, the upper echelons of Irish (and British) society would have resisted publicity of this kind, especially for women, and seen it as a severe failing of etiquette and good breeding, but by the start of the 20thC it was becoming increasingly common for members of the upper class to be profiled in magazines, or even to endorse specific products in advertising. In women’s magazines in particular, profiles of and interviews with ‘notable women’ were a regular and popular feature. For example Lady of the House opened the new century with a series of aristocratic profiles under the remarkable title ‘Some Men’s Wives’, and just a few years later in 1904 produced an article on ‘The Ladies of the Guinness Family’, lavishly illustrated with photographs of Lady Gwendoline, Lady Evelyn and the Hon Mrs Ernest Guinness, all of whom frequently appeared in press as a result of their social position and philanthropic activities. Indeed, the increased public profile of many upper-class women by the turn of the 20thC was often predicated on their involvement in heavily-publicised charity events to raise money for good causes – another aspect of contemporary celebrity culture which can be traced to this era. In the 1890s a series of grand-scale ‘charity bazaars’ were held in Dublin in order to raise money for a range of hospitals in the city. These were lavish affairs (mainly held at the RDS) with music, performances, cafes and above all else, stage-set ‘villages’ in which each house was a stall selling souvenirs and goods, all of which were managed and staffed by society girls in full costume. Of these the most famous is the ‘Araby’ bazaar held in 1894 and immortalised in James Joyce’s story of that name. Staged over a week and attended by 80,000 people, ‘Araby’ was a significant popular event in the city from numerous perspectives, but at the time there is no doubt that most of the enormous free publicity it received from magazines such as Lady of the House was a result of its very public display of marriageable young women from the upper-middle-classes and aristocracy. The magazine covered ‘Araby’ obsessively, profiling each stall and its ‘lady stallholders’ in the run-up to the bazaar’s opening, and afterwards published many photographs of them in costume. Given that ‘Araby’ attracted a great many members of the public to buy tickets and attend it, it is not surprising that the press was able to use the bazaar’s proto-celebrity society girls to sell magazine copies.

Interviews with well-known women were also common in both women’s magazines and society papers. In 1902 Irish Society published a series of interviews collectively titled ‘Gentlewomen at Home’, including one with Lady Nixon, who was the wife of Sir Christopher Nixon, then the president of the Royal College of Physicians. Defined primarily by her husband, Lady Nixon was nevertheless interviewed also as the mistress of her grand home at 2 Merrion Square, and praised for her roles as a hostess, mother and philanthropist, the interview mentioning in some detail the charities whose committees she was a member of. An interviewee such as Lady Nixon was beyond reproach as a paragon of upper-class femininity, but many magazine interviews with ‘notable women’ were keen to emphasise their ladylike qualities – all the more so if the women were active beyond the domestic sphere. This tension, between the need to create a public profile for aristocratic women in order to mobilise their celebrity for sales, and the competing concern that publicity and a public life might undermine their respectable femininity, became more and more visible as the years went by and the categories of female celebrity expanded beyond the real aristocracy, whose rank alone provided considerable protection to their reputations.

As a result of this, many interviews with and profiles of famous women worked hard to emphasise their domesticity and traditional femininity. Subjects were typically interviewed in their own homes during ‘afternoon tea’, which prompted the commonly recurring headline for female celebrity interviews, ‘Over the Teacups’, a phrase used for decades by many different magazines to conjure a cosy domestic tone. These highly-staged domestic interviews not only worked to underline their subjects’ femininity, but also allowed readers a pleasing glimpse into their homes. This concern about the effect of a public life upon the private reputation of female celebrities was especially evident in 1892 when Lady of the House included Maude Gonne in a society news column called ‘What Women Are Doing’ and added rather anxiously that, ‘Whatever may be said against Miss Gonne’s politics and methods…no man or woman can otherwise breathe a word against her…she has never been known for a moment to lose or jeopardise her self-respect as a woman’.

As time went on, the categories of women profiled and interviewed in women’s magazines expanded to include more and more non-aristocrats. As women began (very gradually) to enter higher education and the professions, relatively progressive magazines like Lady of the House began to profile some of them, and interviews ‘over the teacups’ appeared with ‘lady graduates’ and ‘lady doctors’. Stage performers such as Lillie Langtry or Nellie Melba also achieved a very modern form of celebrity in the pages of popular magazines, as their glamorous lives were profiled and ever-more photographed. Famed now for their beauty, talent and lifestyles rather than for their birth and breeding, they slowly began to edge out the aristocratic celebrities, a process which was rapidly accelerated by the arrival of film as the dominant leisure culture which would create ‘stars’ of actresses who no longer needed to emphasise their domesticity or traditional femininity. New publications dedicated to film star news, photographs and gossip had begun to emerge by the end of World War One, the forerunners of today’s magazines dedicated to celebrity culture.

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.

Lady of the House, 1890-1923

Lady of the House magazine was a curious publication. Begun in 1890, it claimed to be the first Irish women’s magazine, and its initial issue announced that ‘The want has long been felt of a high-class Irish Journal solely devoted to Fashion, the Beautifying of the Home and Person, Scientific Cookery, the Toilet, the Wants and Amusements of Children, the Garden and Conservatory, and the hundred-and-one matters which interest educated women. This want, we repeat, has been felt, but has not hitherto been filled, except by the English Ladies’ Journals which enjoy an immense circulation in this country’. The magazine, which was published monthly, did indeed cover all of these topics, and from a specifically Irish perspective – reporting on Irish fashionable society, Irish products and shops, and developments in social issues as they affected Irish women. Many of the stories were illustrated with photographs, as readers of more up-market publications were coming to expect by the 1890s. Priced at one shilling per issue, Lady of the House appeared every month for more than 30 years, until shortly after Irish Independence when following a brief flurry of name changes, it became Irish Tatler, a publication which continues to this day.

All was not entirely as it seemed, however. Lady of the House was published by the firm of Wilson, Hartnell and Co., and its editor was the owner, Henry Crawford Hartnell. But Wilson, Hartnell and Co. were not journal or magazine publishers – they were in fact one of Ireland’s first advertising agencies, having been established in 1879 (and will be the subject of separate blog post at some point in the future). Lady of the House was actually an extended advertisement for one of the agency’s largest clients, Findlater & Co. Findlater’s was a wine merchant and grocery business with several branches in Dublin (including ones in Rathmines and Howth as well as Upper Baggot Street and South Great George’s Street in the city centre). They were expensive, and were grocers to the middle and upper-middle classes of the city. Each issue of the magazine ended with about 10 pages of that month’s price list for Findlater’s, showing the cost of wines, sherries, and grocery items. The first issue of Lady of the House had a 20,000 print run (which was very large for an Irish magazine) and was free to Findlater’s account customers. In other words, the first 40 pages of articles, photographs, short stories and readers’ letters were merely the window-dressing for a grocer’s price-list. If it is a truism of commercial media that its object is not to deliver content to audiences, but to deliver audiences to advertisers, then Lady of the House was an early and extreme example of an entire publication being a thinly-disguised advertisement.

This was certainly a very novel approach to advertising, and also a very innovative business plan for a women’s magazine. The magazine itself, in design, content and tone, was in every other respect a fairly typical turn-of-the-century women’s magazine – deeply concerned with fashion, childcare, and romance as well as the more serious ‘women’s issues’ of the era such as employment and education. Nevertheless, its position as an advertising vehicle for Dublin’s largest wine merchant was used against it in an 1892 attack by the Dublin Figaro, a particularly bad-tempered and very conservative society magazine (which I’ll also write about in a future blog). The editor of the Figaro sarcastically commented that, ‘I am afraid that the readers of Lady of the House have to take too much drink with their literature. The wine list attached is voluminous enough to intoxicate the entire staff…It is impossible not to sympathise with the ‘gentlewomen’ who have to write in such close proximity to a monthly price list so suggestive of a gigantic public house’.

The Figaro’s sarcasm was motivated by a number of factors. Firstly, that Lady of the House was real competition in the fairly ruthless Irish publishing market. It may have begun purely as an extended price list, but it rapidly became a great deal more than that. It is very clear from both the longevity and content of Lady of the House that it quickly acquired a community of readers who – perhaps even to the surprise of its own editor and publisher – enjoyed it and actively engaged with its letters columns and competitions. This made it competition to other magazines not only in terms of readers themselves, but also for the advertising copy which paid the bills of all publications, as those advertisers sought out popular publications in order to reach their readers. The second reason for the Figaro’s vitriol was indicated in their sly reference to the ‘gentlewomen’ writing it. This was in part a comic acknowledgement that like most women’s magazines of the era, it was probably written mainly by men, either anonymously or using female pen-names. But the Figaro may also have had doubts that the readers of Lady of the House were quite ‘gentlewomen’ either, at least by its own deeply-conservative and upper-class standards.

At first glance, Lady of the House appears to be fairly ‘posh’. It had advertisements for expensive department stores like Switzer’s, short stories set in titled high-society and columns advising on social etiquette. And of course, very many of its readers were account customers with Findlater’s, whose liveried delivery vans were something of a status symbol in the leafy south Dublin suburbs. This combined with its enthusiastic coverage of charity bazaars and tennis competitions indicate that most of its readers were women from the Protestant middle-classes. However, more careful reading indicates that the magazine was actually pitched for the precariously-privileged. By the standards of poverty common in Ireland in the late 19thC and early 20thC, these readers were indeed prosperous, but these things are all relative, and it is obvious that Lady of the House was aimed less at the upper-middle-classes than at the more ‘ordinary’ middle-class readership, who could just about keep up the necessary appearances of middle-class status, but for whom budgets were tight, sometimes perhaps desperately so. This is clear, for example, from the large number of articles giving advice on household management – these included advice on ‘fancy’ cookery or even the cleaning of ostrich feathers. These might seem a mark of privilege us as modern readers (who probably own very few ostrich feathers), but what it actually reveals is that Lady of the House readers had to do such tasks themselves rather than having sufficient servants to do it for them. This was very common in the less-wealthy middle-classes – while there was one servant to do the basic cooking and cleaning, the women of the household had to do a great deal of very ungentile labour (discreetly and behind closed doors) in order to maintain any kind of middle-class standard of living. Advice columns on cleaning or housework of any kind are therefore an indication of its readers’ experience of domestic labour, rather than of their wealth. Even more revealing of the sometimes precarious class position of Lady of the House readers were its frequent articles on ‘acceptable’ ways by which middle-class women could make money, sometimes even after marriage. While unmarried middle-class women were increasingly entering the workforce by the 1890s (something which Lady of the House strongly supported), it was still a crucial marker of class identity that ‘gentlewomen’ did not work after marriage. But as early as 1893, Lady of the House was running articles on ‘pursuits for gentlewomen’ which included activities such as bee-keeping and ‘poultry for profit’, both of which could be discreetly engaged in by married women whose household budget was under strain. And by the following year, the magazine encouraged readers to contribute to a debate in their pages on the question ‘Should Married Women Augment Their Husbands’ Income?’, making it clear from the start that they supported the proposal.

This was in line with the magazine’s general tone and editorial position on women’s issues of the day. One of the most noticeable, and rather startling, features of Lady of the House throughout its decades of publication was its progressive stance on many social issues. It steered aggressively clear of the party and national politics of the era, using and reusing the phrase ‘…writing no politics, for we profess none’ whenever it skirted an issue connected to party politics or the ‘national question’. On social issues however, the magazine took a consistent and sometimes surprisingly progressive line. They were firmly in favour of women’s education, including to university level, and frequently celebrated women who achieved it. They took a similar approach to women’s entry into the professions, publishing admiring profiles of ‘lady doctors’ and ‘lady lawyers’. Many articles about other employment possibilities – such as typing, nursing or even agriculture – appeared each year, always encouraging women to train, acquire skills and qualifications, and to undertake paid work. They also supported women’s participation in sport, as well as defending that classic icon of the ‘new woman’ movement, the female cyclist. They were careful not to declare a position on the very divisive topic of women’s suffrage, but the fact that for many years they ran a discussion column (in which a topic would be proposed for debate and readers’ responses would be published the following month) called ‘Women’s Parliament’ indicated tacit support for it. The ‘Women’s Parliament’ column tackled many controversial topics over the years, including ‘Is Independence Good for Women?’, ‘Is Vegetarianism Right?’ and even ‘Would Associated Housekeeping Be a Desirable Step?, which debated the extent to which communal neighbourhood kitchens would liberate women from domestic labour and therefore allow them to enter more into public life. The magazine was progressive rather than radical – it was bourgeois and determinedly respectable, unlike the feminist paper Shan Van Vocht of the same era, for example. But where Shan Van Vocht ran for only a couple of years and would have had a tiny readership, Lady of the House reached tens of thousands of women over several decades, and its progressive politics were sometimes more far-reaching than we might have predicted.

This is especially true considering its origins as an advertising vehicle for Findlater’s wine and grocery chain, and this is what makes Lady of the House a curiosity in Irish media history. How did what was essentially an extended grocer’s price-list become a widely-read publication for several decades, let alone one which consistently expressed support for women’s higher education as well as their legal and employment rights? To some extent this must have been driven by the views of the editor, Henry Crawford Hartnell, the founder of the advertising agency which operated the magazine. Given its inherently commercial original purpose, however, it seems unlikely that Hartnell would have pursued such progressive positions over many years if they had been unpopular or even controversial with his readers. Instead, we must conclude that these positions broadly reflected the views of many of his readers – women who were predominantly Protestant, middle-class (but not always very wealthy) and mainly if not entirely concentrated around Dublin. Like the magazine itself, few of these women were actively involved in suffrage activism, or any of the other radical politics of the era. And yet, the consistently progressive politics of Lady of the House, especially with regard to women’s work and education, point towards interests and aspirations among its readership which went well beyond ‘beautifying of the home and person’, and all under cover of an extended grocers’ price list.