Nannie Power O’Donoghue, 1843-1940

Nannie Power O’Donoghue was one of the first real doyennes of Irish journalism, and over a life so long that it stretched from the Famine to World War Two she wrote books, articles, opinion columns and worked as an editor. Born Ann Stewart Lyster Lambert, but always known as Nannie, she was the daughter of a minor (but wealthy) sprig of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. Her family’s primary estate was Castle Ellen in Co. Galway, and Edward Carson was her cousin. She grew up there and in Dublin, part of the elite world of Castle social events in the city and the hunting, shooting and fishing life of the countryside.

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Her youthful interests focused on horse-riding and writing, two skills which would she would soon combine to form the basis of her career. Immediately before her marriage at the age of 26 to the composer William Power O’Donoghue (who was from a wealthy Cork business family) she published her first novel, entitled The Knave of Clubs. It appears to have been an entirely predictable mid-Victorian romance novel, and was followed in later years by a book of poetry, also of a generally sentimental variety. It was not until her late thirties however that she achieved any recognition for her writing, and that was for a very different kind of work. In 1881 she published a series of articles in the English magazine Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News offering advice on riding technique and etiquette for women. These were immensely popular and republished in book form as Ladies on Horseback, followed a few years later by another book entitled Riding for Ladies (1887). This was a best-seller, being translated into several languages and reprinted many times, and it established Power O’Donoghue as a writer and an authority on female equestrianism who is still cited today, even if her views on the requirement for ladies to ride side-saddle have disappeared. She continued to write novels (one of which, A Beggar on Horseback, had a Fenian theme), but also began to produce journalism for a variety of newspapers and periodicals.

Clearly Power O’Donoghue had been a committed writer since her youth, but by this time she also had other reasons to write commercially. She and her husband lost a substantial amount of their money in the crash of the Munster Bank in 1885, and it seems clear that from then on, her income from journalism and publishing became important to the family finances. By the 1890s she was a member of the Dublin branch of the Institute for Journalists, and was apparently one of the few women members at that time. It was around the same time that she began working for Irish Society, which described itself as having the ‘guaranteed Largest Circulation in Ireland of any Society paper published in the United Kingdom, and three times that of any Irish weekly journal or periodical.’ They published accounts of high society parties, Castle levées, upper-class ‘at homes’, engagement and wedding announcements and reviews of fashionable concerts, charity events, theatre performances and other activities of the small but wealthy social group which lived between their Dublin townhouses and country estates. This was the world which Power O’Donoghue had been born into, and she wrote for it with obvious ease and authority. Irish Society was owned and published by Ernest Manico from his extremely successful D’Olier Street offices, as discussed in a previous post here. But by 1900 (if not before) Power O’Donoghue was its de facto editor, and was the clear ‘voice’ of the paper each week via her editorial column. Entitled, with very Victorian long-windedness, ‘De Die In Diem. Or, Casual Jottings. By Candid Jane (Mrs Power O’Donoghue)’ it was a weekly catalogue of her views on topical issues for its readership, ranging from the management of charity bazaars to the ‘woman question’.

Power O’Donoghue’s editorial voice echoed very clearly from these columns, with strong (and occasionally controversial) views given with great confidence in her own authority. And the views which emerge were – for the most part – entirely in keeping with her class and background. She was deeply conservative in most matters, including the pressing political issues of the day when they arose. She was opposed to the promotion of the Irish language, for example, dismissing it (and the ‘so-called Gaelic League’) as just ‘gas’. She was also condemnatory of the 1913 Lockout, and of the ever-growing suffragette campaign. On social matters she had obvious sympathies with the social purity movement, expressing support for teetotalism and the condemnation of ‘racy’ novels. She also reported approvingly of the 1914 meeting of the Catholic Truth Society and their campaign against ‘immoral’ reading matter. In this respect – if perhaps no other – her views resembled the Gladstonian Liberalism of the Lord Lieutenant Lord Aberdeen, and his indefatigable wife Lady Aberdeen. Like them, she supported the generally Catholic and nationalist social purity movement despite being a member of the Protestant upper-classes, although unlike them all of her other politics appear to have been Tory and Unionist.

Disapproval was one of the most common tones of her editorials, and it is striking how often this was directed at other (and younger) women. Her coverage of high society (in both London and Dublin) was peppered with censorious remarks about young women’s dress, deportment, behaviour and expectations. Some of these cast a frankly surprising light on high society fashions from the years immediately before World War One, as she castigates women for wearing skirts split to the thigh, bare legs, wigs dyed in primary colours such as blue, green or scarlet, and even body paint. In early 1914 she described the presence of a ‘society lady, having a swallow painted on one cheek and a bee on the other and wearing a rose-coloured wig and skirt split to the waist’ at a recent London party. She also disapproved of a high-society fashion for exotic and eccentric pets, claiming to have met a woman at the famous Hydropathic Hotel in Blarney who kept a giant mulberry-eating caterpillar, which walked along her arms and shoulders as she sat in public. If these aspects of high society life on the very eve of war seem surprisingly modern to us (especially the tattoos and brightly-coloured hair), to Power O’Donoghue they seemed annoyingly so, and she called women who adopted such fashions ‘devoid of sense’. A couple of years earlier she had complained that ‘A few years ago young women were content with womanly occupations and recreations; now such things nauseate and pall. To act like men, dress like them, go in for their amusements, and do just as they do, without any sense of risk or fitness is the seeming aim of the inconsequent girls of today’, and she would go on to criticise suffragettes as well, approvingly citing a sentencing judge who referred to them as ‘demented creatures’.

In this respect, Power O’Donoghue was caught in the trap of other prominent conservative (and especially anti-suffrage) women of the era in that while she was uneasy at best and horrified at worst by ‘modern’ women’s assertiveness and increasing presence in the public sphere, she was herself both assertive and living very prominently in that very same public sphere. The most famous example of this contradiction was the British writer Eliza Lynn Linton, author of the influential 1868 essay ‘The Girl of the Period’, which condemned the modern girl in much the same tone as Power O’Donoghue would a generation later. Linton also condemned women’s suffrage campaigners and any women wishing to enter politics or pursue renown of any kind. And yet she herself was extremely well-known, had supported herself through her journalism and other writing since separating from her husband after only a few years of marriage, and was therefore hardly an example of the modest and retiring ‘angel of the house’ she advocated for other women. She also strongly supported some of the new rights women acquired during the nineteenth century, especially the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, presumably, one is forced to conclude, because as a separated woman it benefited her personally.

The limits of Power O’Donoghue’s own conservatism about women’s behaviour and lifestyles appear similarly self-serving, in the form of her vocal and enthusiastic support for women’s paid work. As a major contributor to her own family’s income after the loss of their money in the Munster Bank crash, this was an aspect of women’s emancipation which touched her personally, and she expressed typically strong views on the subject. She sometimes wrote approvingly of ‘bachelor girls’ who earned their own living and even lived independently, once referring to one who ‘has exactly a hundred a year’ but lived ‘as a lady…even though she does her own housework.’ The theme became more pronounced during World War One however, when more and more young women began replacing men in jobs they’d never been allowed to take before. Writing from London in August 1916, Power O’Donoghue commented that ‘The female carters, letter-carriers, ticket-checkers, and lift controllers, are a pleasure to look at and are nicely mannered to the public and to one another’, and the following month she asked Irish Society readers ‘I wonder whether you love, as I do, seeing women do something for themselves instead of being always dependent upon men, or on other members of their family’. As a woman of increasing independence after the first success of her books in the 1880s, she showed considerable sympathy and even quite boisterous support for other women of all classes who sought a similar life, going so far during World War One as to suggest mass conscription of men so as to ‘leave the field to women who are rapidly proving themselves fit and worthy workers’. If she ever saw the contradiction between her approval of women’s move into the world of work and her disapproval of their fight for the vote, she never showed it. In this respect she was a classic example of the privileged, instinctively conservative nineteenth-century women who were often best-placed to pioneer female access to the public sphere because of their social status and personal contacts, but who did not sympathise with the broader campaign for women’s rights, and indeed were sometimes among the harshest critics of the ‘new woman’.

Still working as Irish Society’s editor in 1916 (at the age of 73), Power O’Donoghue lived through the Easter Rising in the most literal fashion, as by then she was living in the Gresham Hotel and spent the week there, trapped inside the barricades and in considerable danger at times. She wrote about her experiences in an editorial shortly after the end of the Rising, including the occasions when she had tended to dying soldiers in her capacity as a Red Cross volunteer. She never tempered her imperialist Unionism however, condemning expressions of sympathy for the ‘brave boys’ among the rebels even during the week of their executions, sternly commenting that such feelings were ‘very creditable from a sentimental point of view, perhaps, but rather feeble from a logical and moral standpoint’.

Irish Society, with its emphasis upon the social and cultural world of the Castle, the Court and the aristocracy, did not last long after Irish Independence. But Power O’Donoghue did last, and she did so in Ireland, rather than departing for England as many of her class and political views did in the years after 1922. She lived in Dublin throughout the 1920s and 1930s, still pursuing her interests in animal welfare by serving on the committee of the Dublin Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals when she was into her 90s, and she eventually died in the city in January 1940. Over her long career as a writer, she produced best-selling books, articles and columns for the Daily Express, the Evening Herald, Lady’s Pictorial and the Irish Times, as well as editing Irish Society for more than 20 years, making her one of the most visible women journalists in Ireland for several decades.

References

Dictionary of Irish Biography (Nannie Power O’Donoghue) dib.cambridge.org

Olga E Lockley, Nannie Lambert Power O’Donoghue: a biography (Preston: Bee Press, 2001)

Nannie Power O’Donoghue, A Beggar on Horseback (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1884)

Nannie Power O’Donoghue, Riding for Ladies: with hints on the stable (London: Thacker & Co, 1887).

Questions and Answers:Advice and Information Columns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

Paying the Bills: Irish mass media and the advertising industry

Long before the start of the 20thC, advertising was financially essential for mass media in Ireland as elsewhere. As competition for readers grew more and more ruthless, and the target demographic for many publications stretched down the socio-economic ladder, fewer and fewer publications could afford to support themselves principally by their cover price. The penny and even halfpenny weeklies (as well as halfpenny daily newspapers like the Irish Independent), which appealed to a broad readership, could not cover their costs at that price and so were increasingly dependent upon advertising just to survive. At the same time, advertising itself changed dramatically during the late 19thC, as branded goods became the norm for many kinds of commodity, especially relatively cheap household products. The development of branding meant that goods such as tea and soap, once bought from a trusted retailer who measured them out by weight and wrapped them in his own packaging, were instead now asked for by product name. This required the invention of modern packaging, brand names and logos, but above all else it required advertising in order to establish the brand sufficiently for customers to remember it, recognise it and ask for it in shops. The effect of this was to shift advertising conventions away from mainly informational announcements by retailers of new stock or improved premises, and towards the promotion of individual brands by their manufacturers. Along with this the style of advertising changed too – it became less wordy, and more focused on the brand name and logo of the product in order to embed it in customers’ imaginations. This kind of advertising also needed to be more frequent, in order to maintain brand recognition, and as time went on the adverts themselves became even less informational and more focused on the impact the product would have on customers’ lives, promising abstracted effects such as happiness, confidence and self-fulfilment, rather than just the practical qualities of the products themselves.

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All of this combined to create a symbiotic relationship between the popular press and advertisers. The press needed advertising revenue to survive, and advertisers needed access to their readerships, all the more so as different publications appealed to different demographics, who could then be targeted by advertisers keen to reach specific potential markets for their products. The result of this was that the number of advertisements in all kinds of publications had increased dramatically by the start of the 20thC, as did the size and visual impact of those ads, as they began to use more white space and illustrations, larger and more elaborate typefaces, colour and (eventually) photographs in order to draw the reader’s eye. The other important change was behind the scenes, to the business of advertising itself. Until the very late 19thC, advertising ‘agencies’ as we understand them, did not exist. Instead ‘placing agents’ bought space in newspapers and magazines and then sold it on to companies looking to advertise – this was a much more limited service, and did not include the planning of campaigns nor (usually) the provision of design services or any kind of market research. This gradually changed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as some placing agents expanded their firms and the services they provided. The most famous (if fictional) representative of Irish advertising, Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, was an advertising ‘canvasser’ for the Freeman’s Journal, and as has been pointed out by several critics, was by 1904 a very marginal kind of figure in the rapidly-developing landscape of ‘full service’ agencies.

 

In Ireland, one of the first advertising companies to begin that change was Wilson, Hartnell and Co., established in 1879 by Crawford Hartnell. As discussed in a previous post here, Wilson, Hartnell and Co. developed an innovative business model during the 1890s, when they established an entire publication, Lady of the House, on behalf of their clients, the upmarket grocery chain Findlater and Co. A women’s magazine aimed primarily at the suburban middle-classes who might well have a monthly account with Findlater’s, it published stories, fashion columns and household tips, as well as discussing a surprising range of social and economic issues for a publication of its type. Distributed free to those who did have a Findlater’s account (and costing a shilling per month for other readers), it also included the grocery chain’s full monthly price list in its back pages and was, despite appearances, primarily a platform for their advertising. Wilson, Hartnell and Co. had other accounts as well however, and with an impressive circularity, used Lady of the House to place advertisements for those too. They held the Irish advertising accounts of several big English household brands, most notably Mazawattee tea (then one of the most widely-recognised brands), for whom advertisements appeared in almost every issue of Lady of the House. If the magazine itself operated as an extended advertisement for Findlaters and Co., it also provided a useful platform for Hartnell to place advertisements for other products likely to appeal to a middle-class Irish readership.

 

An enormous range of products were advertised in Irish newspapers and magazines by the early 20thC, but some categories of goods were especially dominant in advertising – for example almost no publication ever appeared without advertisements for soap, or for some of the apparently infinite range of patent medicines. Soap was one of the products which first became branded and heavily advertised, and with its connotations of cleanliness, health and freshness – all especially powerful in a world without either antibiotics or many labour-saving devices, and when dirt was a constant and dangerous presence in people’s lives. Soap was heavily promoted in campaigns which helped to invent the modern form of advertising itself, with its reliance upon connotation and associative qualities. Sunlight Soap, Wright’s Coal Tar Soap, Pears Soap and Lifebuoy Soap (‘makes health infectious’) all took regular illustrated whole page advertisements in publications as varied as Lady of the House, Ireland’s Own and Irish Society, and they were the pioneers of lavish illustrations (including some of the earliest full-colour advertisements) which were intended to associate their products with sturdy children, rosy-cheeked young women and cheerful, bright homes. Indeed, these large weekly soap advertisements may have been the principal financial support of penny papers such as Ireland’s Own by the start of World War One.

 

Far less respectable (and often less lavish), but at least as numerous, were the many ‘patent medicines’ being sold in an unregulated market in which it was perfectly legal to advertise pills or potions which claimed to simultaneously cure impotence and migraines, despite the fact that they often consisted mainly of entirely inactive ingredients (for which customers should perhaps have been grateful). Some of these products barely skirted the 1889 Indecent Advertisements Act, others simply traded upon people’s health problems or personal insecurities. Pills claiming to cure haemorrhoids, restore thinning hair or cause dramatic weight loss proliferated across all kinds of publications. While many (especially those offering barely legal products) were small and relatively discreet, their sheer quantity and frequency provided valuable income for newspapers and magazines. And some of the more successful used full-page illustrated advertisements every bit as eye-catching as the ads for Sunlight Soap. Holloway’s Pills (which promised to cure ‘indigestion, feverishness, dizziness, loss of appetite and energy’) and Beecham’s Pills advertisements were especially lavish – and in Beecham’s case were the medically-dubious but very profitable foundation of the pharmaceutical giant which still uses the Beecham name today to market cold and flu medications. The recurring themes, styles and promises of these advertisements tell us a great deal about the culture and preoccupations of the era, and some of them will be the subject of more detailed blog posts here in the future. In broader economic terms, however, the important point is that more frequent and more lavish advertisements became the financial underpinning of the entire mass media industry, from daily newspapers to monthly magazines, allowing them to sell copies below cost-price, and thus expand (and maintain) their readership.

 

As advertising grew and became more sophisticated, more and more agencies opened in Dublin. By the start of the 20thC, Wilson, Hartnell and Co. had competition from the Parker agency established in 1888 on Dame Street (just down the road from the Hartnell offices), and in 1892 they were joined by Kevin J Kenny’s agency which opened on Amiens Street and initially traded under the truly wonderful name of ‘Multum in Parvo’. Others would soon follow, including the legendary McConnell’s agency which was founded (with timing its founder was very proud of) during Easter Week 1916. Some of these agencies would go on to be among the dominant forces of 20thC advertising in Ireland, at least one of them lasting into the 21stC. For all the enormous changes their industry continued to see during that time – including the ascendancy of new media platforms such as radio, television and the internet – it was the late 19thC and early 20thC era which established the structures of modern advertising, its shift from an informational to an emotive form of address to consumers, and its absolutely inextricable economic links to mass media.

 

References

Matthew Hayward, ‘Bloom’s Job: the Role of the Advertisement Canvasser in Joyce’s Dublin’, Modernism/modernity, Vol.22, No.4 (2015), pp. 651-666.

 

Hugh Oram, The Advertising Book: the History of Advertising in Ireland, MO Books: Dublin, 1986.

 

Thomas Richards, The Commodity Culture of Victorian England: Advertising and Spectacle, 1851-1914, Stanford University Press: Stanford CA, 1991.

 

Juliann Sivulka, Stronger Than Dirt: A Cultural History of Advertising Personal Hygiene in America, 1875-1940, Prometheus Books: New York, 2001.

Putting the Print into Print Culture

Even before sales of print editions of newspapers and magazines began to decline in favour of online reading, many publications moved their printing operations to industrial estates on the outer edges of cities. The prime example of this in Ireland of course is the Independent News Media building in Citywest, its glass and steel frame designed to make the enormous printing presses visible to the stream of cars heading for the motorway. This has meant that while many publications still have their editorial offices in city centres, such as at the Irish Independent’s building on Middle Abbey Street in Dublin, the physical processes of printing – the noisy and messy business of ink and paper – takes place largely out of sight and certainly out of earshot.

Irish Photo Engraving Co.

It is worth remembering however that this removal of the industrial aspects of newspapers and other printing from city centres is relatively recent – even I can remember waiting opposite what was then the Irish Times building on D’Olier Street for night buses in the small hours of the morning, and being able to see, through the semi-frosted windows on the ground floor, the presses running with that day’s first editions. For most of the twentieth century, there was little or no attempt to disguise the industrial quality of the mass media, with all of the major Dublin newspapers having their offices and printing works together in the same building, many of them in the city’s ‘press quarter’ around Abbey Street, Talbot Street and O’Connell Street. This was of course to prove a significant issue during the 1916 Rising, when not only did most of the national newspaper’s offices end up behind the barricades, but so did their printing presses. As the fighting continued, and the shelling and fires destroyed the area’s infrastructure of electricity, gas and telecommunications networks, this meant that none of the national papers could be printed for the entire duration of the Rising. Of the major national newspapers, for example, all of them produced issues on Monday 24 April 1916 – the day on which the GPO was seized. The Freeman’s Journal and the Irish Independent were then out of print for ten days, not reappearing until 5 May (although the Irish Times did print an issue on 2 May). In its first publication after the end of fighting, the Independent explained that, ‘We were in a position to produce newspapers all last week and this week except Friday and Saturday, when the Sinn Feiners were in possession of our Abbey Street premises, but early last week the terrible bombardment and fires completely cut off both the electric and gas supplies, and we were left without power to start our printing presses. The electric power was partially restored at 11.30am yesterday, and at noon our printing presses were turning out the “Irish Independent”’. Similarly, the Freeman’s Journal announced, ‘No Freeman’s Journal has been published since the issue of Easter Monday until today. The public are fully acquainted with the facts which caused the non-publication of the Freeman.   Our late premises in Prince’s Street, including all our machinery, were destroyed by fire during the Sinn Fein insurrection’.

When it wasn’t the site of a revolution, the area around the GPO was, for many decades, dominated by the actual, physical business of setting, printing, folding and bundling paper. This involved very many satellite yet essential businesses which revolved around the newspapers, periodicals and book publishers based in the area – typesetters, photo-engravers, ink suppliers and agencies handling photography and typing. In 1908 for example, Middle Abbey Street alone was home to the Dublin Printing and Lithography Company, the Rapid Printing Company, the Liffey Printing Ink and Chemical Company, the Abbey Print Works, and the Reliance Photo-Engraving Company, as well as the offices of the Evening Telegraph, the Freeman’s Journal, Thom’s Directory, the Irish Independent and the Evening Herald. It’s worth considering the impact this would have had upon everyday life in that area – the sights, noises and smells of industrial printing would have been commonplace in the streets around the GPO.

Perhaps the most influential of all these satellite businesses were the printers themselves. While publications as big as the Irish Times and the Freeman’s Journal had their own in-house printing facilities, smaller publications – including most magazines and periodicals – relied upon a contract with independent printers who would then oversee the typesetting, printing and physical distribution of each edition. This made printers extremely powerful players in the mass media industry – their bills were usually the largest expense of a smaller publication, and when magazines and periodicals went out of business, it was often because they could no longer afford to pay their printers’ bills. This was true of the Social Review (Annie Colles’ first venture in editing, discussed here), for example, and appears to have precipitated the chain of events which led to an acrimonious legal battle with her former partners. By contrast, one of the secrets to the initial and continued success of Ireland’s Own may well have been that its founder, John Walsh, had begun his career after inheriting not only the Wexford People newspaper, but more importantly the People Printing Works (also in Wexford) which printed his newspapers and also Ireland’s Own from its beginning in 1902. In a world in which all media, news and many popular leisure activities were still exclusively in print form, the actual business of printing was potentially a lucrative one. Most independent printers offered a wide array of services, from the large-scale contracts required to produce newspapers and magazines, to the small-scale but constant production of the enormous quantity of printed material circulating in everyday Irish life by the start of the 20th century. In 1900, for example, the Irish Figaro Printing Co. (which produced Annie and Ramsay Colles’ magazine of the same name) was advertising that it offered ‘all classes of commercial and artistic printing’ including ‘posters, handbills, circulars, programmes, memos, cards, bill-heads, note-heads, magazines, books pamphlets etc’, adding ‘nothing too large or small’. It is also worth recalling that printers could have cultural, as well as economic, power. It was after all a printer (in fact multiple printers) who on ‘moral’ grounds refused to set the type for ‘The Two Gallants’ in James Joyce’s Dubliners, and who later destroyed the sheets that had already been set (Joyce managed to rescue one set of them for its eventual future publication). Just as the various campaigns against ‘immoral’ literature knew to target newsagents and other distributors of material they disapproved of in order to stop its circulation, clearly they also realised that recruiting printers to their cause could prevent its very production.

It may well have been this determinative power over the very existence of many publications which meant that the dividing line between printers and publishers was sometimes quite blurred, as printers became full partners in publications, or even acted as publishers themselves. One of the most striking examples of this was evident in the career and businesses of Ernest Manico, one of the most successful printers in Dublin during the early twentieth century, and who owned or printed an astonishingly wide variety of publications. His offices were at 12 D’Olier Street (sandwiched between two advertising agencies and just around the corner from the Irish Times), and his printing works were a short distance away in Temple Bar. Not much is known about Manico himself – census information suggests that he was born in London in about 1855 and it’s not clear when or why he moved to Ireland, but by 1901 he was living with his Dublin-born wife (and their 3 children) in Howth, where they remained until at least the 1911 census. His printing and publishing businesses were already well-established by 1895 and remained at the same city centre addresses until some time after 1916, as shown by his compensations claims for minor damage to both premises during the Rising.

Many printers in Dublin had successful businesses, but what distinguished Manico was the extent to which he was both a printer and a publisher – and possibly a distribution agent as well. Like many other printers, he advertised general printing services, but in 1895 he was also listed in Thom’s Directory as the publisher of the Dublin Figaro (soon to bought by Ramsay Colles and renamed the Irish Figaro), the Irish Military Guide, and the society paper, Irish Society. More surprisingly, he was also listed as the editor of Irish Society – even if he did not do the day-to-day editorial work, this phrasing means that he was its proprietor. He was also the proprietor of Irish Bits, a miscellany and story paper (obviously modelling itself on the wildly successful English paper Tit-Bits), edited by prolific popular novelist James Murphy, which began publishing in 1896 and changed its name to Irish Truth in 1911, but was still published by Manico. In 1903 a new women’s magazine called the Lady’s Herald (of which sadly no trace appears to remain) was also being published from his D’Olier Street address, and by 1912 he also owned Irish Sporting Illustrated. Finally, in 1912 Manico bought the ailing story papers the Shamrock and the Irish Emerald, and merged them under the rather unimaginative name Shamrock and Irish Emerald, which continued until about 1919 when it eventually folded for good.

Manico’s business interests were therefore a very effective form of both vertical and horizontal integration – by owning particular publications as well as the print-works which produced them, he was able to profit at two stages of their publication, and by owning multiple titles (which ranged from sporting publications to story papers and women’s magazines) he was able to profit from the tastes of an exceptionally wide cross-section of the Irish reading public. And his ability to run so many titles successfully would have been considerably helped by their guaranteed access to his printing works. He may even have been a wholesale distribution agent for some imported English publications as well. In 1902, his high-society magazine Irish Society published an advertisement for subscriptions to Wide World magazine, which could be obtained for 6d a month via Manico’s D’Olier Street offices. Wide World was an English ‘true life’ story paper published by George Newnes – one of the great media barons of the period and owner of Tit-Bits, the Strand (which published Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories) and Country Life magazine among many other titles. In December of the same year Irish Society was advertising Tit-Bits’ ‘Grand Double Christmas Number’ with the information that it was available from ‘Ernest Manico Ltd, D’Olier Street Dublin and all Irish newsagents’, and by 1904 it was advertising ‘Newnes’ Monster Penny Books’ series (which included such classics as Grimm’s Tales, Arabian Nights and Aesop’s Fables), which were also available directly from Manico’s firm. All of this strongly suggests that Manico had a specific contract to import and distribute titles from Newnes’ publishing empire – potentially an extremely profitable side-line for his printing and publishing business.

Manico appears to have been exceptionally successful and enterprising in leveraging his printing works to place his business at the heart of the Irish media industry, but on a smaller scale many other printers were doing something similar. As well as books, newspapers and periodicals, they also produced every conceivable form of printed material – every business’ letterhead stationery for example, or the increasingly fashionable and sophisticated Christmas cards produced by JJ Lalor on Talbot Street, and discussed here in a previous post. Printing presses – along with the industrial quantities of paper and ink they consumed – were the technology upon which all print culture depended, and the businesses which ran them were at the heart of the Irish mass media industry before the broadcast era.

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.