Tag: Ireland’s Own

Deserters and White Slavers: Emigration in the Irish popular press

In August 1912 Julia Curran, a young Irish woman from Kilkenny, was brutally murdered in a New York brothel. Later that year the case would become a significant scandal when it emerged that corrupt police had tried to help the brothel cover up her death as being from ‘natural causes’, but long before then the story was widely reported in the Irish press. The victim (frequently described as being from a ‘good family’ and having worked as a governess in aristocratic homes in Ireland) had been travelling in America as a lady’s companion to a wealthy family when she made the acquaintance of a ‘foreign’ man and abruptly left her employment to travel to New York with him. She was later seen arriving at the brothel in his company in a visibly ‘drugged’ condition, her body being found in their room the following day (she had been strangled), her male companion having disappeared.

the-inside-of-the-white-slave-traffic-poster

This grim story would have seemed eerily familiar to many readers of the Irish press, where it was avidly reported in papers from the Kerry Reporter to the Strabane Chronicle under headlines such as ‘New York Horror’ and ‘Irish Girl’s Fate, Pretty Governess Murdered’. It read like an exact real-life example of the tales of ‘white slavery’ they had been hearing for years, but with a particular intensity around the time of Julia Curran’s death. ‘White slavery’ was the deliberately emotive term used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to warn young women of the reputed threat they faced of being seduced, tricked or even kidnapped into prostitution. These threats were, it was argued, especially great for young women who moved to big cities looking for work, away from the protection of their families and supposedly becoming vulnerable to the cunning wiles of procurers who would target them at train stations, ports and even in busy streets. As Katherine Mullin describes in her book on the Irish social purity movement, a pamphlet entitled The Horrors of the White Slave Trade: the Mighty Crusade to Protect the Purity of Our Homes, which was published in 1912, used a photo-story reconstruction of how unwary girls could be fooled into prostitution. In the first image, a charming stranger engages the innocent young woman in conversation in a city street. In the second image, he has persuaded her to accompany him to a restaurant where ‘the smooth-tongued villain tells of his affection and undying love for her’ while, of course, drugging her food. And in the final photo, she is seen dazedly following him into a building, now ‘incapable of self-control and is easily led to her ruin. Awaking she will find herself in a house of shame’. The following year not one but two films on the topic, Traffic in Souls and The Horrors of the White Slave Trade, were released into the increasingly-popular movie theatres. The international campaign to ‘rescue’ unwitting girls from the clutches of ‘white slavery’ was of course a close relative of the broader social purity movement which was previously discussed here on this blog in relation to its campaigns against ‘evil literature’. In Ireland, this had actually begun as a late-19thC campaign against the brothels in Dublin’s Monto district, involving street pickets and attempts to identify and shame male customers – but from around 1900 the focus of Irish purity campaigns moved to an emphasis on popular fiction, photographs, crime and divorce reporting. However, the moral panic about innocent young women being tricked into ‘white slavery’ did have considerable resonance in Ireland as a cautionary tale of what might result from emigration, especially emigration to big cities such as London or New York.

horrors-of-the-white-slave-trade-the-mighty-crusade-to-protect-the-purity-our-homes-clifford-g-roe-1911-illustrationhorrors-of-the-white-slave-trade-drugged-and-led-clifford-g-roe-19111

The decades immediately before and after 1900 were periods of enormous emigration from Ireland – often from rural areas to the huge cities of Britain and the United States. Not only were Ireland’s emigration rates extremely high, but young single women constituted an unusually high proportion of those emigrants, and this made awful warnings of the moral dangers they faced a popular theme of anti-emigration rhetoric. Not that female emigrants were the only targets of warnings against leaving home, however. Ireland’s Own in particular maintained a steady flow of anti-emigration rhetoric through its fiction, factual articles and editorials from its earliest years, and many of these were aimed at young male readers as well as female. Ireland’s Own’s principal demographic, young working-class or lower-middle-class readers (both male and female) were of course also the principal demographic who were emigrating, and this was therefore a sensitive topic for the paper to raise. Nevertheless it did so regularly, and in ways which left no ambiguity about its editorial position on the subject. Within its first few months for example, an opinion column of December 1902 claimed that every day 108 people left Ireland ‘with much patriotism on their lips but not any in their hearts….there was a time when the word ‘emigrant’ was nearly synonymous with “martyr”. At the present day, in view of the arduous labour and risk of moral degradation that a life outside of Ireland entails and the obvious opportunities for work that await the willing hand at home, it is an abuse of the words to call deserters “emigrants”. Here emigration is painted not only as a moral risk to the individual emigrant, but also as such a significant loss to the national body politic that it can be characterised as unpatriotic or even as ‘desertion’, a highly emotive term. In another article in the same vein more than a decade later, the paper would rail against the ‘terrible drain on our resources that has been made by the constant emigration of the strong and the young to America’. Here then emigration was a betrayal of Ireland, and something of an accusation from the paper to its own readers, many of whom must have emigrated each year, or had siblings and friends who did. Perhaps aware that calls to remain in Ireland for purely patriotic reasons were unlikely to deter many potential emigrants, Ireland’s Own frequently invoked the difficulties and disappointments of life abroad, especially in the United States. This was an anti-emigration narrative particularly aimed at male emigrants, who were assured that ‘few, very few, ever earn more than a living wage’, along with warnings about the high cost of living in cities like New York, and the competition for jobs they would face from Russians, Swedes, Germans or Italians, who it was claimed were hired in preference to Irishmen and would work for less money. These points were reinforced in fiction as well, with stories about emigration gone wrong. In 1908 for example, the paper published ‘A False El Dorado’ by Thomas Geraghty, about a young man who leaves his family home in Ireland for New York, in part to search for his brother who had emigrated some years before and not been heard of since. Our hero struggles to make a living, but perseveres, until one day he rescues from the river a man attempting suicide – who of course turns out to be his brother, aged and defeated by his failure in New York, and too ashamed to stay in contact with his family. The story has a happy ending in which the brothers return to the family cottage in Ireland, but the moral for readers contemplating emigration was clear.

Nevertheless, for all the dire warnings of the economic hazards awaiting male emigrants, the fate conjured for young women was definitely even worse. In 1903 the paper’s women’s page warned of difficulties in finding work and lodgings, or even a suitable church to attend, concluding that it was ‘far better to stay at home and make the best of things’. More sensational warnings would follow in later years however, ones very similar to those contained in white slavery pamphlets such as The Horrors of the White Slave Trade: the Mighty Crusade to Protect the Purity of Our Homes. In 1915 a correspondent to Ireland’s Own from Montreal warned that girls who emigrated alone lacked moral guidance in their new life, and would spend their time going to movies on their nights off as well as reading ‘cheap literature which is very far from being up to standard. As time goes on she makes an acquaintance, and then what’s the result? In this way Ireland loses sight of the daughters she’s so proud of’. This warning was coy however by comparison to that from 1909, which had described Irish girls who emigrated to New York being forced to work in service for families ‘who have no God’, and associate with other girls ‘who mock purity, girls who are morally dead’. Ireland’s Own went on, ‘the rest of the story is too horrible. In very many cases the unprotected girl sinks lower and lower, until her condition is that of social outcast’. This it was argued would inevitably lead to arrest, imprisonment, alcoholism ‘to sustain her exhausted body, and then one night she runs to the river and goes to be judged’.

Such melodramatic predictions of the fate awaiting young Irish women in New York and other cities were sometimes tempered by more sober acknowledgements that female emigrants (in particular) had their reasons for leaving in such large numbers. It is noticeable that these acknowledgements tended to come from women journalists, who probably had personal experience of some of the limitations women faced in Ireland. In 1906 Ireland’s Own published a long article entitled ‘Country Homes and Home Makers’ by Mary EL Butler, which directly addressed the issue of young female emigration. Butler was one of the most successful women journalists in early 20thC Ireland, as well as being an active member of the Gaelic League. She had a long-running column in the Irish Independent, was regularly published in nationalist papers (she had a particular commitment to the Irish language and published in Irish), and also wrote at least one novel, The Ring of the Day in 1907. In her 1906 piece for Ireland’s Own, Butler acknowledged that for many young women a desire to escape from a dull rural life to something ‘gayer, more exciting’ was an important incentive to emigration. She argued that ‘distaste for country life with us amounts to a national danger’ because of its influence on emigration rates. While her tone is disapproving of these emigrants’ decision, she does go on to argue that ‘if the exodus which is bringing our country to its knees is to be stopped it is absolutely necessary to make home and village life attractive’. A similar attitude was displayed the following year in an article in Lady of the House by Mary Costello. Far less is known of Costello than of Butler, but she published at least one novel (Peggy the Millionaire in 1910) and several long pieces with Lady of the House over many years, including an investigative journalism series called ‘A Woman’s Life in the Dublin Slums’ during the 1890s which contained fierce denunciations of the social and political failures responsible for the city’s tenements. Her 1907 article for Lady of the House was called ‘Fore! The Modern Woman Demands the Clearing of the Way’ and was a bold assertion of Irish women’s new-found confidence, illustrated with a drawing of a Gibson girl playing golf. Costello argued that ‘in no other English-speaking part of the globe have women been more kept down than they have among us, more handicapped in education and in the means of earning an honourable livelihood.’ Noting the high levels of female emigration, she described them as starting ‘alone and dry-eyed across the Atlantic into the heart of life, undismayed by the pictures of hard work, failure, and loss of health which anti-emigrationists forcibly depict.’ While mourning the loss of such energetic young women, she added that nothing would be more likely to stop it than ‘giving Irishwomen an interest and a voice in all that goes on at home’.

None of this would have been much consolation to Julia Curran, whose death may have seemed like the (mainly invented) propaganda of the anti-white slavery campaign but which was for once all-too real. As a final indignity, her death was then used to sell Irish newspapers using sensational headlines like ‘How Miss Curran Was Lured to Death’, along with graphic descriptions of how she was killed. Even Ireland’s Own, which did not print such details, did discuss her death, the editor commenting that ‘it is a sad satisfaction to me to know that “Ireland’s Own” consistently and strenuously warned its readers against the dangers and pitfalls that await the unwary in the huge and seething attics of the New World’.

References

Katherine Mullin, James Joyce, Sexuality and Social Purity (Cambridge University Press, 2003)

The Inside of the White Slave Traffic (1913) available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZZHihjo_eBQ

Traffic in Souls (1913) available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PLZLhdqQXug

Clifford Griffith Roe, The Horrors of the White Slave Trade: the Mighty Crusade to Protect the Purity of Our Homes (London and New York, 1912).

The Curious Case of Sherlock Holmes and the Irish Crown Jewels (or not)

In 1907, in what remains one of the great unsolved jewel thefts, the Irish Crown Jewels were stolen from inside Dublin Castle. None of them have ever been recovered, and no one was ever arrested for the theft. It was one of the mass media sensations of its day, in Ireland and beyond – the combination of spectacular royal jewels, an apparently perfect crime, and rampant speculation about the possible involvement of senior figures of the Irish and English establishment meant that it received enormous press coverage, resulting in at least one libel case as a result of over-enthusiastic theorising about the culprits.

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The jewels themselves consisted of two star and badge regalia of the Order of St Patrick (one of which was reserved for the Sovereign) and five collars belonging to Knights of the Order. They were large pieces of ceremonial jewellery, consisting of diamonds, emeralds and rubies, and were collectively valued at more than £30,000 (well over £3m today). They were kept in a safe inside the office of Arthur Vicars, the Ulster King of Arms and therefore a senior government official at Dublin Castle. The jewels’ disappearance was discovered just 4 days before the arrival of Edward VII and Queen Alexandra for the Irish International Exhibition, and prompted enormous royal embarrassment, an official commission of enquiry and by 1912 had become the subject of acrimonious exchanges in the Westminster parliament when it was alleged (under cover of parliamentary privilege) that the solution to the theft had been covered up by authorities because it was connected to “criminal debauchery and sodomy being committed in the castle by officials, Army officers…of such position that their conviction and exposure would have led to an upheaval from which the Chief Secretary shrank”. Over the century since the theft, accusations have been made against individuals including the Lord Lieutenant’s son Lord Haddo, and the explorer Ernest Shackleton’s brother Francis as well as Vicars himself (like Vicars, Shackleton was employed in the Castle and had access to the safe from which the jewels disappeared). It has been described variously as a conservative plot to discredit and embarrass the Liberal government (represented in Dublin Castle by Lord Aberdeen, the Lord Lieutenant) and as an IRA plot to embarrass the entire British administration and raise funds by selling the jewels in America. While it seems most likely the jewels were smuggled abroad immediately to be broken up and sold, as late as 1927 some official Irish sources appeared to believe they were still extant and available for sale on the black market, whereas yet another version of the story suggests that the British royal family secretly bought them back not long after they were stolen, again in order to hush up a homosexuality scandal most likely involving Francis Shackleton and another Castle official with access to the jewels. Neither they nor anyone else was ever arrested or charged with the crime, although Shackleton was imprisoned and disgraced some years later for another theft. After dominating newspaper stories in Ireland and England in 1907, the story has continued to reappear every few years for more than a century, whenever a new theory emerges as to the culprits or the jewels’ fate. My personal favourite can be found here, but a cursory search will produce many more, and there have also been fictional versions (including a very salacious novel called Jewels, published in 1977) and a 2003 television documentary.

It may even have attracted the attention of Sherlock Holmes, as it has been suggested that Conan Doyle’s story ‘The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans’ (published in December 1908) was inspired by the theft of the Irish crown jewels, an argument that is certainly plausible. While no details of the story reflect the case, its basic structure (the theft and smuggling abroad of top secret military plans from a government safe, which turns out to have been the work of a trusted establishment figure) is similar in its main points. It is beyond the scope or expertise of this blog to adjudicate on whether the case was an influence on Conan Doyle, though the timing of the story’s publication eighteen months after the jewels’ disappearance does add credibility to the idea. What is certain however, is that the theft’s resemblance to a Sherlock Holmes story was clear to others at the time. In March 1908, a story entitled ‘Sherlock Holmes in Ireland, or The Diamonds of St Patrick. From the French’ had appeared in the story paper Ireland’s Own. The faithful Dr Watson who narrated most Holmes stories was here abandoned in favour of an unnamed French narrator, who nevertheless recounts the tale in the typical first person style of other Sherlock cases. According to this (very) short story, Holmes was asked to investigate the jewels’ disappearance, prompting his first visit to Ireland, of which the narrator comments, “he resembled in that nine-tenths of the English, who are keen travellers, but Ireland, poor and unhappy Ireland, in place of attracting them, repulses them. Without doubt they feel themselves culpable in this place, and they fear to see the pleasures of travelling spoiled by their regrets”. Having arrived in Dublin, Holmes and his narrator attend a levee at Dublin Castle, which provokes some republican disapproval from the French narrator, who is proud to describe himself as a ‘citizen of a Republic’. The plot then follows (extremely rapidly) a series of fairly standard Holmes detection techniques, including Holmes faking a faint outside the strong-room from which the jewels were stolen in order to be carried inside to inspect it, and then appearing in not one but two apparently convincing disguises (as both a country squire and a plumber). Finally he announces to the narrator that he knows who stole the jewels – but when asked to name the culprit, he responds “Wait until tomorrow evening…There is a great ball at the Viceroy’s Castle. At the particular moment when Lord Aberdeen, accompanied by his court, shall make his entry into the hall…I shall unmask the robber”. However, the next evening Holmes shows the narrator a telegram he has just received from some unnamed but senior member of government, begging him not to reveal the thief’s identity ‘for the safety of your country’. Holmes complies, explaining “I strongly suspect that there is underneath some affair of the State. If I made public my inquiry terrible calamities would happen. Perhaps we would have war with Germany”. And there the story ends, Holmes and our mysterious French narrator returning to London and the jewels remaining lost.

The story is thin, especially by the standards of Conan Doyle’s own prose, but its invention was in itself very clever – the theft of the Irish crown jewels from inside Dublin Castle, the failure to recover them, and the rumours and accusations swirling around several suspects who would normally have been considered above suspicion was itself highly reminiscent of a Sherlock Holmes case, and whoever wrote the story had obviously understood this very well. The story’s resolution of Holmes knowing the culprit’s identity but withholding it at the request of a very senior member of the establishment in order to protect matters of State also sailed tantalisingly close to some of the rumours about the theft which would have been widely-known in Ireland by the end of 1908, while remaining vague enough to avoid charges of libel from the individuals concerned. Of course, by 1912 some of those rumours would be publically stated in Parliament, but those statements had the benefit of parliamentary privilege, which Ireland’s Own did not.

But to modern readers, perhaps the most remarkable feature of this story was not its avoidance of libel accusations, but instead its cheerful breach of copyright law. In 1908, Arthur Conan Doyle was one of the best-selling writers in the world, and Sherlock Holmes was so popular that Doyle had famously had to bring him back from the dead in 1903. The stories had always been serialised in the Strand magazine, for whom they had been exceptionally lucrative, and were then collected in book form which also sold in enormous numbers. The publishing of a story using Holmes’ name, persona and distinctive detecting style was therefore an obvious attempt to take advantage of readers’ enthusiasm for Conan Doyle’s work – and was blatantly illegal. International enforcement of copyright claims such as this was still difficult, if not quite as impossible as it had been for most of the 19thC, when for example the American publishing industry had been largely founded on the wholesale pirating of English material. But Ireland and England operated under effectively the same copyright regimes in 1908, and had Conan Doyle or his publishers been aware of ‘Sherlock Holmes in Ireland, or The Diamonds of St Patrick’, they would have been in an unquestionable position to sue Ireland’s Own and its publisher, John Walsh. Given that Walsh ran the story paper so successfully – and indeed owned several newspapers and a large printing works – it is inconceivable that he and his staff did not know that their ‘Sherlock Holmes’ story was an actionable breach of copyright. By contrast, it is not entirely certain that the Ireland’s Own readership (many of whom were barely out of school) would all have understood that the story wasn’t actually by Conan Doyle, a point which would surely have enraged the author all the more had he ever known of it. The story’s publication is therefore an indication that the editorial staff of Ireland’s Own felt secure that it would not be seen by anyone with a professional interest in the authentic Sherlock Holmes stories – a sign perhaps that despite their occasional attempts to promote sales among Irish emigrants in Britain, in reality the paper did not circulate significantly outside Ireland.  This appears to have been an accurate prediction on their part, as the story seems to have generated no legal action – and remains the occasion of Sherlock Holmes’ only visit to Ireland.  And the Irish crown jewels remain missing.

References

The Theft of the Irish ‘Crown Jewels’ Online Exhibition 2007, National Archives of Ireland http://www.nationalarchives.ie/digital-resources/online-exhibitions/the-theft-of-the-irish-%E2%80%9Ccrown-jewels%E2%80%9D-2007/

Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans’, His Last Bow and the Casebook of Sherlock Holmes (Penguin Classics, 2008).

Robert Perrin, Jewels (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977)

The Strange Case of the Irish Crown Jewels (dir. Gerry Nelson, 2003)

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.

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).

Thrilling Tales and Shocking Stories – Story Papers in Ireland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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