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.
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.
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.
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.
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.