Chapbooks and Popular Literature

views updated

Chapbooks and Popular Literature

The growth of literacy in Ireland during the eighteenth century created a market for printed material that was within the means of even fairly humble purchasers. This market was mainly rural, supplied by traveling peddlers who sold books along with other small consumer goods. It was already established by the early eighteenth century with some Dublin printers aiming advertising specifically at "country dealers" and peddlers. Because the rural population was predominantly Catholic, Catholic printers, who were prevented by legislation from playing a full part in the mainstream print market, tended to specialize in the country trade.

The potential buyers of chapbooks—little books of stories or songs—were not wealthy, and their purchases were infrequent. Profit margins were therefore low, the books themselves were small and poorly printed on inferior paper, and the list of titles changed slowly. In these respects, cheap print products in Ireland resembled those in other European countries, such as chapbooks in England and the booklets of the Bibliothèque Bleue in France. They also resembled them in content. Most of the genres found elsewhere occur in Ireland also, and indeed many Irish texts are reprints of English ones or Irish counterparts to types available in England and Europe.

The ability to read was usually acquired in school, and the most common cheap texts were schoolbooks, either reading primers or catechisms. Reading primers such as the ABC of Reading or Reading Made Easy had a constant sale. Church of Ireland catechisms were produced regularly beginning in the late seventeenth century. The Presbyterian Westminster catechism survives in editions from most decades since the 1680s. Ireland's Catholic catechisms were printed in Europe until the 1730s, then in Dublin, and editions proliferated from the 1770s onwards. In their early days in school, children used these readers and catechisms as schoolbooks. Because there were few texts specifically aimed at more advanced pupils, they tended to use chapbooks as readers.

Initially, most Irish chapbooks were reprints of the more popular texts from England and continental Europe. Because of the low profit margins of this branch of the book trade everywhere, these were not original texts but abridgements, sometimes radical, of medieval and early modern romances. Titles included Valentine and Orson, The Seven Wise Masters of Rome, The Seven Champions of Christendom, and Don Belianis of Greece, all of which were reprinted continually during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. As in England, some more modern works, mostly from the early decades of the eighteenth century, were also published in severely abridged versions. Among those most frequently printed were Gulliver's Travels and Robinson Crusoe.

In contrast, texts of another popular genre, criminal biographies, were specific to Ireland. By far the most widely read was The Lives and Actions of the Most Notorious Irish Tories, Highwaymen, and Rapparees. First printed in the 1740s, it was a collection of short lives of outlaws and highwaymen, ranging from Redmond O'Hanlon, who was active in the 1670s, to Charles Dempsey, a horse thief who died in 1735. It was a counterpart to similar collections published in England in the 1720s and 1730s. Next to this in popularity was an autobiography, The Life and Adventures of James Freney, first published in 1754. Freney was a Kilkenny housebreaker who was active in the 1740s. Later, less widely distributed examples were The Life of Jeremiah Grant (1816) and The Life of Michael Collier (1849). Other specifically Irish texts included The Battle of Aughrim, a verse play about the decisive action of the war of 1689 to 1691, first printed in 1728. There is no record of this play having been performed professionally, but it was frequently acted in rural areas as a folk play.

Almost all this corpus of popular print was produced in English, though probably half the population spoke Irish during the eighteenth century. By 1800, an Irish-language print trade had developed. Its productions consisted almost entirely of religious texts, and Catholic catechisms in Irish survive from every decade from the 1760s to the 1840s. The predominant work in this tradition was the Pious Miscellany of Timothy O'Sullivan (Tadhg Gaelach Ó Súilleabháin), a collection of twenty-five religious songs composed in east Munster in the late eighteenth century. First printed in 1802, it had at least seventeen other editions between then and 1845, mostly produced in Cork and Limerick. Although the Pious Miscellany was an Irish production, the genre to which it belongs, the religious canticle, was a prominent feature of printing in regional languages such as Breton and Scots Gaelic.

By the late eighteenth century there was a well-established and flourishing trade in cheap books in most parts of Ireland, with specialized printers working in Belfast, Cork, and Limerick as well as in Dublin. Its rudimentary reading public was open to other forms of printed material, and the 1790s saw the beginning of a series of deliberate and large-scale interventions into the chapbook and cheap print market. The radical United Irishmen mobilized support for their program of parliamentary reform, and later for armed rebellion, through the production of propaganda material, much of which imitated genres of popular literature such as ballads, catechisms, and prophecies.

In response a series of conservative organizations produced cheap texts aimed at countering not only the radical propaganda but also the traditional chapbook literature, which they saw as contributing to political disturbance. Some of these organizations, such as the London Hibernian Society (1806), were straightforwardly evangelical, distributing Bibles and religious tracts. Others took a broader approach, aiming at political stability through education and economic improvement. They established schools and supplied them with reading primers, and published moralizing and instructive fiction. The earliest of these organizations was the Association for Discountenancing Vice (1792), which initially reprinted the tracts of Hannah More, written for a similar organization in England. The most successful was the Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor of Ireland, known as the Kildare Place Society (1811). It established a large network of schools and a major publishing operation; between 1816 and 1830 it brought out about eighty small books, nearly all of them specially written for the society. Some of these were religious, but most were books of "useful knowledge," such as natural history or practical manuals. They were made to resemble as much as possible the older chapbooks that they aimed to supplant, and to be sold likewise by peddlers. Print runs were substantial, but it is unclear whether the books achieved the circulation sought; the impact on their intended audience is unknown.

By the middle decades of the nineteenth century, a far greater range of cheap texts was available and the older chapbook titles no longer dominated the market. The O'Connellite political campaigns of the 1820s and the 1840s produced enormous quantities of cheap printed material, and the national schools were supplied with special approved readers. After the Great Famine the removal of newspaper duties made the popular press much more accessible. Some chapbooks, such as James Freney and the Seven Champions of Christendom, continued to be reprinted in the late nineteenth century, but by then they were becoming increasingly archaic.

SEE ALSO Duffy, James; Education: Primary Private Education—"Hedge Schools" and Other Schools; Education: Primary Public Education—National Schools from 1831; Kildare Place Society; Literacy and Popular Culture


Adams, J. R. R. The Printed Word and the Common Man: Popular Culture in Ulster, 1700–1900. 1987.

Ó Ciosáin, Niall. Print and Popular Culture in Ireland, 1750–1850. 1997.

Pollard, M. P. Dublin's Trade in Books, 1550–1800. 1989.

Niall Ó Ciosáin