Tag: books

The Catholic Truth Society of Ireland: Making Morality Pay

Earlier this month it was noted in some newspapers that the only religious education textbooks approved by the Catholic Church for use in the primary schools they control (which is 90% of public primary schools in the country) are published by the Church’s own publishing house, Veritas. This was felt to be particularly worthy of comment because those textbooks are believed to be the only profitable part of Veritas’ business these days, and therefore very important to its survival. This is a far cry from its hey-day in the mid-20thC, or even its early-20thC origins in the Catholic Truth Society.

The Catholic Truth Society of Ireland was established in 1899 (an English equivalent had been founded a few years earlier) with the intention of ‘the diffusion, by means of cheap publications, of sound Catholic literature in popular form, so as to give instruction and edification in a manner most likely to interest and attract the general reader’, as explained by its first President, the Bishop of Clonfert an address to members that year. In terms very recognisable to anyone familiar with the social purity movement of the era, the Bishop went on to assert that ‘It is well known that various printing presses in Great Britain daily pour out a flood of infidel and immoral publications, some of which overflows to this country. We have a confident hope that the Society’s publications will remove the temptation of having recourse to such filthy garbage, will create a taste for a pure and wholesome literature, and will also serve as an antidote against the poison of dangerous or immoral writings’. As this statement suggests, the CTSI was a first cousin to the Irish Vigilance Association and the wider social purity movement, all of whom saw great threats to Irish morals from popular culture, especially that imported from England.

Leaving aside the Bishop of Clonfert’s uncompromising address at its founding however, the Catholic Truth Society of Ireland generally left thundering condemnations of ‘evil literature’ to other branches of the social purity movement, and instead focused on producing and distributing its own publications. It focused on books (or more truthfully, pamphlets), perhaps realising that the production of weekly or even monthly periodicals was difficult to sustain and less likely to be successful in a market of fiercely competitive commercial penny papers. In its early years, the CTSI focused primarily upon non-fiction publications which mainly fell into two categories – the history of the Catholicism in Ireland, and the lives of saints. Examples included A Short History of some Dublin parishes (1905), St Frigidian: an Irish Saint in Italy by Michael O’Riordan (1902), The Church and the Working Classes by Peter Coffey (1906) and the intriguingly-titled The Manliness of St Paul by the Very Rev. Walter MacDonald. After the first few years of the Society’s existence, more contemporary topics of social and even political interest were addressed. These included Socialism by Rev. Robert Kane (1909), Marriage by Rev. John Charnock (1910) and The Management of Primary Schools in Ireland by Right Rev. Monsignor Hallinan (1911). It is noticeable that in its earliest years the CTSI published almost no fiction. This was despite its stated aim of competing with the ‘infidel and immoral publications’ flowing into Ireland, most of which focused on fiction – as has been discussed here on this blog before, short and serial fiction, along with cheap novels, were the dominant popular cultural form of the early 20thC, not yet having yielded their place to movies as the source of most people’s leisure entertainment. Instead, the Society’s initial output mirrored the non-fiction content of many popular journals and magazines, the informative articles about history and culture, in this case with a very strong Catholic inflection. And although they were longer than the short factual articles published by the Irish Packet or Ireland’s Own, they were still brief – pamphlets rather than books. For example, The Manliness of St Paul was only 27 pages, and The Management of Primary Schools in Ireland was 36 pages, both of these being typical lengths for CTSI pamphlets. This was probably motivated by a combination of factors – shorter publications could be cheaper (many CTSI pamphlets were only 1d), but in the era of short and disposable popular literature, this format may also have been more appealing to readers. Like other branches of the social purity movement in this era, the CTSI appear to have had a fairly clear grasp of the popular culture they were attempting to compete with (this, it might be argued, is one of the most important distinctions between the Church’s interactions with popular culture a century ago, and their efforts to make similar interventions in more recent years), and paid attention to their publications’ appeal to potential customers. As well as encouraging subscriptions, they also utilized the pre-existing network of Catholic churches and schools to display and sell their publications, even advertising and selling display cabinets for this purpose, from 15 shillings for a small set of wall shelves, up to 36 shillings for a freestanding cabinet which would display 18 pamphlets.

The Society did begin publishing fiction well before World War One, and this became a more and more important part of their output over the coming years and decades. Like their other publications, most of their fiction was short – one of their earliest stories for example was Avourneen by Rosa Mulholland (Lady Gilbert), published in 1905 and only 16 pages long. In effect, they were publishing in stand-alone, pamphlet form, the extended short stories which were so popular in weekly penny papers like Ireland’s Own. Indeed, many of the same authors wrote for the Irish popular press and the Catholic Truth Society, including Mulholland herself. By 1919, that inveterate cataloguer of Irish literature Stephen J Brown had commented in his exhaustive annotated bibliography Ireland in Fiction that the CTSI’s principal purpose ‘is religious and moral propaganda’, most of which were ‘distinctively Catholic in tone’, observations which from Browne, who was himself a Jesuit, were intended to be complimentary. He also gave an indication of the scale of the Society’s publications by that point, asserting that in the 20 years since its founding in 1899, it had already distributed more than 7 million copies of its publications.

Less well-known Irish writers seem to have been able to use the CTSI as a platform for their work too, suggesting that the Society may have had to actively seek out writers who would produce work of the kind they were looking to promote. One example of such authors was Patrick Ivers-Rigney, a National School teacher from Cork. Born in 1879, Ivers-Rigney contributed stories to several story papers before he was 30, including (in 1907) a murder-mystery serial called ‘The Mystery of a Railway Car’ for the Irish Emerald, which the paper tied to a competition inviting readers to guess the murderer and how they committed their crime. By 1915, he was also writing for Ireland’s Own, a complicated serial called ‘The Mystery of the Yellow Lough’ which featured an attempt at forced marriage, a contested legacy from America and the revelation of murder when the local lough is drained to reveal multiple skeletons. These stories were hardly the kind of ‘sound Catholic literature’ the CTSI had promised when they were established, but despite this (and perhaps because Ivers-Rigney also had a parallel career writing about education policy for Catholic journals), during the 1920s and 1930s they published 23 of his stories, including Circumstantial Evidence (1927), The Church Street Mystery (1930), The Mysterious Portmanteau (1931) and The Rahaniska Ruby (1931). Like most other CTSI fiction, these stories were all less than 30 pages long, and were extended short fiction very similar to the work he had published in story papers. Ivers-Rigney’s work, along with that of many others, suggests that as the decades went on the CTSI broadened their scope from ‘moral propaganda’, presumably in order to attract readers.

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Indeed, the Society’s activities during the early years of the Free State appear to have become both more commercial and more wide-ranging, as they began to include the sale of vestments and religious artefacts as well as the sale of their publications, and by the mid-1920s they were also organising pilgrimages. This prompted the setting up of the Veritas Company as a commercial operation, run from the CTSI’s shop on Lower Abbey Street (and which is still open to this day). Probably inspired by the success of the 1932 Eucharistic Congress in Dublin (which saw visitors and press from all over the world and a mass for one million people in the Phoenix Park), their religious travel agency became a significant business during the early 1930s. In 1933 they organised a 10-day pilgrimage to Lourdes which consisted of 2,500 pilgrims (including several TDs and government ministers), accompanied by an officially-deployed detachment of the Irish Army to oversee the logistics of their movements and accommodation. Tickets for the pilgrimage cost £14 15s (with a discount for invalids), an enormous sum for most ordinary Irish people at that time.

While the arranging of pilgrimages and selling of religious artefacts was overseen by the Veritas Company as a separate business, a keen business sense also seems clear in the CTSI’s publishing operations during the mid-20thC. For example during these decades they not only increased their output to include a wide range of fiction, as well as pamphlets on religious education, social issues and personal advice, but they also placed considerable emphasis upon the cover art of their pamphlets – which would also have helped their publications to compete in the crowded market of popular magazines and pulp fiction. Many of these covers (such as the ones shown here) were of very high quality, so much so that in 2013 some were reproduced as limited edition prints and collected into a book, Vintage Values, which is available here (and definitely recommended for anyone interested in graphic design).

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In 1969, the Veritas Company effectively took over the Catholic Truth Society of Ireland, taking on all of its publishing activities. As the decades passed, they became less and less of a force within popular culture (despite having set up a broadcasting operation during the 1960s in a very explicit attempt to keep up with new media technologies). Nevertheless, as the only publishers of religious textbooks approved for use in Catholic-controlled primary schools, the legacy of the CTSI’s commitment to ‘sound Catholic literature’ continues, as does its strongly commercial purpose.

References

Stephen J Brown, Ireland in Fiction: A Guide to Irish Novels, Tales, Romances and Folklore (Dublin: Maunsel, 1919)

Lir Mac Cárthaigh, Vintage Values: Classic Pamphlet Cover Design from 20th Century Ireland (Dublin: Veritas Publications, 2013).

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Money Matters: the cost of books, newspapers and magazines in early 20thC Ireland

In the very first post on this blog, I discussed the defining characteristic of mass media – that it conceives of its audience as a ‘mass’ to be segmented according to income and demographics in order to target them as potential customers for products, rather than understanding them as a group of complex individuals to be addressed with ideas. The products they are targeted with include not only the publications themselves, but also the other products which those publications advertised, since by well before the end of the 19thC most commercial publications were more dependent upon their advertising revenue than upon their cover prices, just as they are today. As a result of this, most publications targeted a particular demographic of reader – by tempting them with material they wanted to read – in order to deliver those readers to advertisers targeting that particular demographic. This mechanism involved a number of careful calculations and manoeuvres by both publishers and advertisers as they chased the ever-moving target of reader demand. From the readers’ point of view, calculations were also necessary, as most people had a finite amount of money to spend on either news or leisure reading, so would have put some thought into their spending decisions. The entire structure and content of the mass media in Ireland during the late 19th and early 20thC was therefore determined by financial considerations for everyone involved, just as it is today, however different the media landscapes are in other ways.

It is therefore useful to think carefully about money and prices, in both absolute and relative terms. This will not only help us to better understand Ireland’s historical mass media market as its owners, editors and journalists understood it at the time, but will also help us to better understand some of the attitudes and behaviours of readers as they allocated their pennies and shillings to particular publications. Since cover prices are some of the most readily-available figures still available to us, they’re a good place to start. The cost of newspapers and magazines declined steadily throughout the 19thC, following the abolition of government stamp duties on printed material, and the increased economies of scale available to the publishing industry as mass literacy led to ever-greater readerships. This led produced the ‘penny dreadful’ paper aimed particularly at working-class boys, and the subject of one of the very first mass media moral panics as they were accused of glorifying crime and criminals, and leading young readers astray. From then on, a penny became the standard cover price of all publications aimed at younger and poorer readerships, superseded only by even cheaper papers for halfpence (sometimes nicknamed ‘halfpenny dreadfullers’). Ireland didn’t produce any real penny dreadfuls, but its cheap story papers such as the Shamrock and Ireland’s Own were its slightly more respectable equivalents at the same price. In fact by the end of the 19thC most weekly publications were a penny each, even those whose intended readership was considerably older and wealthier than that of story papers. Even the rather august Irish Society, firmly aimed at the elite world of Dublin’s fashionable society, cost only a penny per weekly issue, as did other ‘society papers’. The Irish media market couldn’t produce the economies of scale (in readership and therefore also in advertising revenue) to support halfpenny periodicals of the kind which existed in the British market by the start of the 20thC. However, William Martin Murphy’s revamped and populist Irish Independent was a halfpenny newspaper from its inception in 1905, and this was one of its most important features. Its ruthless efforts to become the most widely-read daily paper in Ireland included the use of ‘new journalism’ styles such as more photography and a more intimate tone of address to readers, but its cost was probably its single most significant factor. Its key rival – which it had pursued to extinction by 1924 – was the Freeman’s Journal, which was never able to lower its cover price from a penny (the same cost as the Irish Times). While neither price was high, as a daily outlay the difference between a penny and halfpenny may well have been decisive for the large number of less well-off readers the Independent was courting. The Independent also pioneered the verification of circulation figures in order to both emphasise their growing readership and entice more advertisers with that readership.

More expensive publications, especially monthly magazines, cost a shilling. These included Lady of the House (although as explained in an earlier post here, account holders with Findlaters’ grocery chain received a free copy with their deliveries) and also Irish Life, another glossy monthly launched in 1912 and dedicated to reports of hunting, shooting and fishing on country estates, as well as expensive new hobbies such as car ownership. These more expensive monthly publications were not only aimed at more prosperous readerships, but by the early 20thC they also tended to include quite a lot of photographs (Irish Life had photographs on almost every page, including some in its advertisements) which in turn necessitated glossy paper, both of which were more expensive to print than the sparsely-illustrated story papers printed on cheap paper.

It was often alleged, in early 20thC, that the Irish did not buy books, or at least not by comparison to the British and some other nations. It is difficult to verify the truthfulness of this claim in precise terms, but there does appear to be some basis for it. By contrast, newspapers and periodicals were extremely popular. There may be a number of reasons for the relative lack of popularity of books in Ireland, but by far the most likely explanation is the simple one of cost. The shift from three-volume to single-volume novels in the last decades of the 19thC meant that they cost less to produce and therefore to buy. Accompanied by an expanding market of literate readers and the economies of scale created by that and ever more efficient printing technologies, in global terms books changed from fairly luxury items in the mid-19thC to being cheap mainstream commodities for many people by the start of the 20thC. However, cheap is always a relative concept, and the already small Irish market differed from the British one in having a much larger working-class who had little or no disposable income. By the start of the 20thC most of this class was literate – and in many cases were keen consumers of leisure reading – but were still largely priced out of even the cheap book market.

Then as now, the actual price of books varied, according a range of variables. New works by acclaimed or fashionable authors cost more than out-of-copyright reprints or the efforts of an unknown newcomer. Leather and gilt bindings cost more than cloth, and as with magazines and periodicals, the quality of the paper also affected the price (as did the number of pages – not unreasonably, long books cost more than short ones). In the middle and lower end of the market, by the start of the 20thC fashionable new novels often cost 2 or 3 shillings, while older or less acclaimed novels in simple cloth bindings were typically sixpence. These, as some of the cheapest novels available to younger and poorer Irish readers, included MH Gill’s cloth reprints of ‘stirring Irish tales’ such as Galloping O’Hogan or The Insurgent Chief, both of which were advertised in the 1907 Christmas issue of the Emerald magazine, and were reprints of stories first published earlier in the 19thC. Historical melodramas of a broadly nationalist (and wildly romantic) flavour, they fashioned fictional narratives out of the real events of the 1798 Rebellion, and other key moments in Irish history. Nationalist historical fiction was in fact something of a bestselling genre in Ireland during the late 19thC and early 20thC, appearing on an almost weekly basis in the penny papers as well as in cheap books. Aimed at younger readers and those with a more rudimentary education, it can be seen as an important (and probably more influential) parallel form to the literary fiction and poetry of the Celtic Revival.

Other sixpenny books included the burgeoning self-help and social advice market of the era. One of the ways in which working-class and lower-middle-class people used their relatively new-found literacy was to seek advice and information broadly related to ‘self-improvement’ and social aspiration of various kinds. In 1911 for example, Ireland’s Own was regularly advertising (as part of its ‘Book Department’ column) publications from Saxon’s Everybody’s Series (published in London by the American writer May French Sheldon), which included Everybody’s Book of Jokes, Everybody’s Book of Correct Conduct, Everybody’s Letter Writer, Everybody’s Guide to Good Conversation, Everybody’s Guide to Public Speaking, Everybody’s Book of Parlour Games, and Everybody’s Guide to Carpentry and the Doing-up of the House.  The Irish popular press also occasionally produced books based on their more popular serials. One example of this was Ireland’s Own’s long-running serial featuring the detective Dermot O’Donovan (a fascinating series of short stories with a central character referred to as ‘the great Irish detective’ and best described as an Irish Sherlock Holmes), whose two longest series, entitled ‘The League of the Ring’ and ‘Torn Apart’ were published together in book format in 1913 for the price of 6d. For those of us interested in Irish popular culture of the time, it is worth noting that none of these books sold by Ireland’s Own – from the advice on public speaking to the novelisation of its own detective series – have survived in the Irish archives, presumably because when they were new they were deemed to low-brow to be worth collecting or preserving in libraries. While these individual volumes are not necessarily an important loss, their absence does raise tantalising questions about how many more cheap publications aimed at working-class or lower-middle-class Irish readers have been lost, and what those volumes might tell us about the tastes and interests they catered to.

International bestsellers in cheap bindings were also sometimes available. The printer and publisher Ernest Manico (who appears to have had a distribution agreement with the London publishing magnate George Newnes, as discussed in a previous post here) sold a range of ‘copyright novels for Sixpence’ issued by Newnes, and including novels by Arthur Conan Doyle and Grant Allen. By the early 20thC, one of Dublin’s largest newsagents and booksellers, J Tallon of Grafton Street, was advertising Sixpenny Editions of similarly well-known authors again including the best-selling Conan Doyle as well as Dumas and (a little surprisingly considering his popular association with French debauchery) Emile Zola. Tallon’s advertisements for these cheap editions demanded ‘Why buy expensive editions to lend or cast aside when read?’, a question which presumed the sharing of books among readers. Book publishers were necessarily resigned to this practice, but those producing newspapers and magazines were not so sanguine. The fact that, for example, entry to the popular press’ almost constantly-running competitions required the inclusion of a coupon cut from the relevant issue, was an attempt by editors to prevent readers from sharing one copy of a weekly or monthly paper amongst a group of two, three or more. Such a practice was of course a logical method by which readers could maximise the number of publications they had access to, and was probably especially popular among younger and poorer readers, such as those who bought penny weeklies. For editors however, every shared copy was a penny lost, a fact they even felt the need to point out to readers occasionally. In 1905 a reader of the Irish Packet wrote to the paper to express his enthusiasm by revealing that ‘’I am buying your paper since it first came to Kilrush, and am the first to your newsagent every Wednesday. I give it to seven persons every week as soon as I have read it, and am trying to increase its popularity.’ This prompted the editor, Matthias McDonnell Bodkin, to respond with obvious exasperation, ‘May I venture, will all deference, to suggest to my correspondent that if he could induce some of his seven friends to purchase the paper instead of borrowing it it would prevent the protracted postponement of their pleasure, and – which is, of course, a minor consideration – be the means of increasing the circulation of the Irish Packet’. The number of people sharing copies of papers like the Packet is largely unknowable at this distance, of course, but if seven readers per copy was anything approaching typical, then it has some significant implications.

The first of these is that the appetite for reading – of all kinds, but especially perhaps of the short and serial fiction which constituted most people’s principal leisure activity until it was overtaken by radio and film – was even more insatiable than official publication and circulation figures already suggest. Readers sharing multiple copies of story papers (as well as women’s magazines, hobby papers and perhaps the cheaper newspapers) among groups of friends, family and neighbours, had the opportunity to read both extensively and variously, albeit sometimes rather belatedly. This in turn suggests that the contents of these publications were more widely influential than would be presumed simply from their circulation figures. And finally, it also underlines the extent to which even the 1d or ½d price of these very cheapest publications was still an expense which many readers had to consider with some care. Copies circulating through these informal networks of readers must have moved rather slowly at times, an especially frustrating experience if you were waiting for the latest instalment of a serial. Those who could have bought their own copies of all their reading matter therefore probably would have done, and sharing of individual copies among groups as large as seven suggests that even cheap reading matter was rationed for many people. For modern readers looking back at this era of mass media, and who will inevitably be struck by the sheer abundance of publications (even in the small Irish market), this is a useful reminder that for most readers at the time, each purchase was a considered allocation of scarce funds, and might well be part of a network of readers sharing those purchases.

References

Tony Farmar, “An Eye to Business: Financial and Market Factors, 1895-1995” in The Oxford History of the Irish Book, Volume V, The Irish Book in English 1891-2000 (2011: Oxford UP, Oxford), pp.209-243.

 

Clare Hutton, ‘Publishing the Irish Cultural Revival, 1891-1922’ in The Oxford History of the Irish Book, Volume V, The Irish Book in English 1891-2000 (2011: Oxford UP, Oxford), pp.17-42.