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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.

Dublin (re)drawn

Billy Shortall.

Commissioned, designed, printed, and hand-coloured by different women, the Cuala Press print, College Green, shows a lively scene in Dublin’s city centre. A traffic policeman stands in a moment of contemplation, as trams and cars trundle along the street, and people hurry on the pavements. Its distorted drone-like perspective allows the artist, Hilda Roberts, to bring together visually the familiar sculptures of Henry Grattan, created by John Henry Foley (1876), Thomas Moore by Christopher Moore (1857), and the pediment sculpture of Fidelity carved by Edward and John Smyth (1809) situated high on James Gandon’s House of Lords. Orientated as they are, the viewer can imagine they are in conversation with each other. The streetscape hasn’t changed much in the almost hundred years since this print was first produced. The public toilets beside the Moore statue are no longer extant but are immortalised by Joyce in Ulysses, ‘He crossed under Tommy Moore’s roguish finger. They did right to put him up over a urinal: meeting of the waters’. A satirical reference to Moore’s ode to the formation of Wicklow’s Avoca River, ‘The Meeting of the Waters’.

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A family occasion

Billy Shortall.

TCD Library is home to the Cuala Business Archive (TCD MS 11535). However, like all archives, inevitably it is incomplete as materials over the years of the business and subsequent storage may be discarded or damaged. Of what does remain, Cuala’s minute books, artist lists, and sample designs for prints and embroideries are, arguably, among its most important artefacts, and as shown in earlier posts in this series, this material enables a deeper understanding of Cuala Industries, the Irish Arts and Crafts movement, and Irish history more widely. Historian Anne Dolan has stated that because history is written from available records, and these may show people in a professional capacity, or at their lowest, such as, in court reports, military pensions, business troubles, the happier moments, unrecorded times of play, holidays, relationships, are often overlooked. This blog is about a happy Yeats family occasion with threads to the TCD Cuala Business archive.

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Marrying the visual and textual, Cuala’s A Broadside.

Billy Shortall.

Douglas Hyde, The Love Songs of Connaught, Dublin: Dun Emer Press, 1904.

As already discussed in this blog series, Dun Emer Press (1902-1908) and Cuala Press (1908-1946) books were renowned for both their content, contemporary literature, and their arts and crafts aesthetic. The Press differentiated itself from other private letterpress publishers by printing new material by important writers of the Irish literary revival. Most British private presses, to minimise costs and avoid paying fees to living writers, invariably issued out of copyright classic texts. From the start, Cuala’s production values were praised for their elementary design and execution, ‘a fine clearness is the prime trait in the hand-printed volumes of Miss Elizabeth Yeats’, they used an eighteenth century (c. 1725) Caslon ‘fashioned … Old-Face type, and it is with this that Miss Yeats works exclusively.’ In setting up her Press, Elizabeth Yeats was advised by printer, private press publisher, and powerhouse of the English Arts and Crafts Private Press Movement, Emery Walker. Due to Walker’s co-directorship of the Doves Press and his role as an advisor to William Morris’s Kelmscott Press, the Dun Emer and Cuala Press may be viewed as a key development within this revival of bespoke publishing.

: Marrying the visual and textual, Cuala’s A Broadside. Continue reading “Marrying the visual and textual, Cuala’s A Broadside.”

Cuala Press Research. Anatomy of a photograph

Billy Shortall.

The Cuala Press operated from different premises during its existence. Initially, under the Dun Emer Press imprint, it was part of Dun Emer enterprises in Dundrum from 1902 until 1908. Elizabeth and Lily Yeats split from Dun Emer and Evelyn Gleeson, in 1908 and moved their printing and embroidery operations to ‘a four roomed cottage’ on Lower Churchtown Road in July of that year. It was housed in William and Georges Yeats home on 82 Merrion Square from August 1923 until February 1925. Cuala then moved to Baggot Street and sub-rented upstairs rooms from the building’s main tenants, Norman Allen Ltd. They remained at Baggot Street until January 1942, by which time W. B. Yeats (the Press’s editor) and Elizabeth were both dead. After 1942 the Press, now managed by George (W.B.’s widow), moved to her house on Palmerstown Road. The thirty-two years in Churchtown and Baggot Street were the most productive. Photographs with decorative and historical detail exist from all locations and are rich sources about Cuala Press life, industry, output, location, and much more.

This blog looks at one photograph taken in the Cuala Press Baggot Street premises in 1932, and the avenues of research that image invites and the questions it asks.

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