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Uncovering EPB’s ‘dirty’ Irish books

By Dr Christina Morin, joint Visiting Research Fellow in Trinity College Dublin Library and Cambridge University Library

In the summer of 2023, I was awarded the TCD- Cambridge Short-Term Visiting Research Fellowship, which allowed me valuable time over the autumn semester to delve into the Irish literature collections in Trinity’s Early Printed Books. My research was focused on progressing my current monograph project, Irish Gothic in the Global Nineteenth Century, which explores the impact of Romantic-era Irish gothic fiction in the literary marketplace of the long nineteenth century. It concentrates in particular on Irish-authored novels published by the London-based Minerva Press in the period c. 1790-1830, including, for instance, Regina Maria Roche’s The Children of the Abbey (1796), Catharine Selden’s The English Nun (1797), and Charles Lucas’s The Infernal Quixote (1801). Despite evidence of their widespread popular appeal in the long nineteenth century, these publications occupy a marginal position in the historiography of the Romantic period. This is due, in large part, to Minerva’s contemporary reputation: the press fell afoul of Romantic-era efforts to define – and safeguard – ‘high’ or elite literature in the midst of an alarmingly precipitous increase in novel publication. The enduring critical view of Minerva publications as little more than ‘trash’ intended for undiscriminating circulating library readers has meant their exclusion from conventional literary canons and, accordingly, an occlusion of their real significance in the development of nineteenth-century reading publics.

Against traditional critical dismissal of Minerva, Irish Gothic in the Global Nineteenth Century aims to understand what average readers actually thought about Irish Minerva fictions. It thus concentrates, in Robert Darnton’s terms, on ‘what books reached readers …. and… how readers made sense of them’ as a way of better understanding ‘the actual experience of literature in the past’ 1. One way it seeks to understand how readers engaged with Irish Minerva texts is via marginalia and provenance marks, including, for instance, handwritten comments, doodles, bookplates, owners’ signatures, and other evidence of readerly interaction with and response to these works. Kathryn M. Rudy writes about how the ‘signs of use and wear on [the] surfaces’ of literary texts might help us learn about ‘the habits, private rituals, and emotional states of people who lived in the … past’ 2. She calls these marked up works ‘dirty’, which is a particularly compelling idea when thinking about Irish Minerva fictions because it captures the material history of these works at the same time that it upends their negative reputation. In other words, these books are ‘dirty’ not because they are – as Romantic-era critics had it – sub-literary trash not worth reading, but precisely because they have so incontrovertibly been read and enjoyed.

TCD’s Irish Minerva editions are generally not first editions published in London, but cheaper reprints produced by Irish printers, despite the imposition of English copyright law on Ireland following the Anglo-Irish Union (1801). They are also not legal deposit copies, as might be expected of editions from 1801 onwards,3 but later acquisitions, several of them belonging to the Pollard Collection.4 Within these works, the most common forms of readerly engagement are bookplates and ownership signatures, as is evident in the multiple Irish re-prints of Roche’s bestselling The Children of the Abbey (1796), all of which bear inscriptions. An 1809, two-volume edition printed by Dublin-based Patrick Wogan – one of the few prominent Catholic printers of the day – was owned by Colonel Pratt, Cabra Castle, Co. Cavan (fig. 1).5

Figure 1: Owner’s signature on The Children of the Abbey (5th ed.; Dublin: P. Wogan, 1809)

A later, mid-century edition also printed in Dublin, this time by Christopher M. Warren6, is inscribed ‘P.F. Flynn, P.P’ (probably ‘parish priest’) (fig. 2).

Figure 2: Owner’s signature on The Children of the Abbey (Dublin: C.W. Warren, [1846]). Copy B

Meanwhile an 1835 Belfast edition printed by Joseph Smyth appears to have had at least two separate owners (fig. 3).

Figure 3: Owners’ signatures on The Children of the Abbey (12th ed.; Belfast: Joseph Smyth, 1835)

Marginalia are less common, though the editions of Roche’s The Children of the Abbey considered here also contain one or two of these. The Warren edition (copy B), for example, shows a pencilled ‘x’ on the closing page, suggesting a reader indicating – to themselves or others – that they have read the book (fig. 4).

Figure 4: Pencil mark on the final page of The Children of the Abbey (Dublin: C.M. Warren, [1846]). Copy B

And, in the Wogan edition, there is a brief summary of the reader’s thoughts on the final page: ‘A most interesting, well written novel, but the most unnatural!!!’ (fig. 5).

Figure 5: A reader’s note at the end of The Children of the Abbey (5th ed.; Dublin: P. Wogan, 1809)

These marginalia offer a glimpse – however fleeting – into how, in H. J. Jackson’s terms, ‘minor or unknown readers’7 perceived and interacted with the Irish Minerva novels they read.

Perhaps the most intriguing piece of readerly interaction with these editions that I have found is this prayer card inserted into volume 3 of the Warren edition (copy A) (fig. 6).

Figure 6: Prayer card inserted into The Children of the Abbey (Dublin: C.W. Warren, [1846]). Copy A

The card seems to have been used as a bookmark, and close examination suggests that it is printed on paper very similar to that of the book itself, indicating that it may have been produced by Warren for distribution at his premises. Like many eighteenth- and early-nineteenth century printers, Warren supplemented the printing of books with other printing work; in particular, as Niall Ó’Ciosáin observes,  ‘Warren was printer to a number of Catholic institutions such as the Carmelite Order … the Catholic Book Society… and the Purgatorian Society’.8 He was also a prolific publisher of popular fiction, catering, as this edition of The Children of the Abbey suggests, to a burgeoning middle-class Catholic readership. The link that this edition makes between The Children of the Abbey, the Minerva Press, and Irish Catholic readers becomes even more intriguing when we consider that not one but two of the editions of The Children of the Abbey in TCD’s collections were published by printers who were clearly Catholic or had strong links to Catholicism. TCD’s Irish Minervas clearly have a lot to tell us about a very particular reading community in early-nineteenth century Ireland.

  1. Robert Darnton, The Forbidden Bestsellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (Norton, 1995), p. xxi, p. xvii.
  2. Kathryn M. Rudy, “Dirty Books: Quantifying Patterns of Use in Medieval Manuscripts using a Densitometer,” Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art, vol. 2, no. 1-2, 2010, pp. 1-44 (p.1)
  3. TCD became a legal deposit library in 1801 and received its first consignment of books from London’s Stationer’s Hall in 1802. As Peter Fox notes, the Copyright Act by which TCD became a legal deposit library was the same that largely demolished the active reprint trade that had characterised Irish publishing for much of the eighteenth century. See Peter Fox, Trinity College Library Dublin: A History (Cambridge UP, 2014), p. 131.
  4. The Pollard Collection of over 10,000 books – a bequest of Mary “Paul” Pollard, former Keeper of Early Printed Books – is the largest collection of children’s books in Ireland.
  5. On Wogan, see Bridget Hourican, ‘Wogan, Patrick’, Dictionary of Irish Biography, https://www.dib.ie/biography/wogan-patrick-a9103, accessed 19 January 2024.
  6. There are two copies of the Warren edition in Early Printed Books at TCD. Both are in the Pollard Collection.
  7. H.J. Jackson, Marginalia: Readers Writing on Books (Yale UP, 2001), p. 9
  8. Niall Ó’Ciosáin, Print and Popular Culture in Ireland, 1750-1850 (Macmillan, 1997), p. 58.