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Literacy and Popular Culture

Literacy and Popular Culture

Beginning in the middle of the eighteenth century, the culture of the majority of the population in Ireland was increasingly influenced by the written word, particularly the printed word in English. The context within which this happened was an economic expansion, involving the growing commercialization of agriculture in the south of Ireland and the development of large-scale rural industry in northern areas. These processes led to greater frequency and regularity of market transactions and use of written documents, which increased the value of reading and writing not just for commercial farmers and tradesmen but also for small farmers and weavers. Moreover, a shortage of precious metals during the French wars of 1793 to 1815 led to a new reliance on paper money for even small transactions. Alongside this increased market activity, the population had greater contact with state agents and institutions: Irish recruitment to the British army was substantial between the 1760s and the 1820s, and in the early nineteenth century saw the establishment of a court system which was accessible to most of the population. These interactions raised the value and prestige of literacy.

The mechanism through which literacy was achieved for most people in Ireland was the small informal school, sometimes known as the "hedge school." These were private institutions where irregularly attending pupils received rudimentary instruction, consisting initially of reading, writing for those who persevered, and perhaps arithmetic. The autonomous nature of these schools stood in contrast to the western European norm, where elementary schooling was principally carried out by the state church. In Ireland most schools were independent not only of the state church but also of the other churches, including the Catholic Church, to which the majority of the population belonged. This did not mean, however, that there was no religious component to education and literacy, as clergy of different denominations frequently examined the pupils in catechism.

By the middle of the eighteenth century the independence of schools was preoccupying secular and religious authorities. Their anxiety was heightened in the aftermath of the rebellion of 1798, which was concentrated in the most literate regions of Ireland, and many conservative commentators pointed to the involvement of schoolmasters in the rebellion. This led on the one hand to a series of state investigations into elementary education beginning in 1806, and on the other to the establishment of educational societies, mainly religious in inspiration, dedicated to providing alternative schooling. These had made a significant impact by the 1820s.

The earliest systematic enumeration of schools was carried out in state reports of the mid-1820s. They showed that almost 600,000 pupils, about 40 percent of the relevant age group, attended schools. More than 70 percent of these attended independent private schools, 20 percent attended the schools of the educational societies, 6 percent attended Catholic Church schools, and the rest went to Anglican Church schools. This confirmed the prevalence of "hedge schools," while the religious nature of the schools of the educational societies, coupled with the renewed prominence of the Catholic question in the politics of the 1820s, meant that education became a denominational as well as a political battleground. The state eventually favored the creation of a nondenominational national system of education, which was established in 1831. This involved less the setting up of new schools than the subsidization of existing schools, provided that certain organizational and curricular conditions were met. Over the following decades the vast majority of primary schools entered this system.

While a great deal is known about schools in the early nineteenth century as a result of state investigations, less is known about the levels of literacy they produced. The standard measurement of writing ability in early modern Europe is the ability to sign a contract or a marriage register, but few such sources survive in Ireland. The first comprehensive record is to be found in the population census of 1841. This census, and the decennial censuses that followed, measured self-assessed (rather than tested) levels of reading and writing. It also measured literacy in English only.

The 1841 census reported that 25 percent of the population over 5 years old claimed to be able to read and write, and a further 22 percent to read only. Of those able to read, levels varied between men and women (54 percent and 44 percent) and between town and country (64 percent and 45 percent). Geographical variation was more marked, from 85 percent or more in parts of Ulster to 15 percent or less in parts of Connacht. This is due partly to differing levels of market participation and contact with state institutions, and partly to a greater prominence of a religiously based literacy among the Protestant population of the northeast. This region had very high numbers of women who were able to read only; this was the result of a highly catechized culture that emphasized the reading of religious texts by both sexes equally.

Analysis of the 1841 population by age reveals that reading ability was present, to varying degrees, in most parts of Ireland by the late eighteenth century. It was rudimentary and infrequently practiced, however, and the culture remained mostly oral. In consequence, there was an oral element to many of the early manifestations of literacy. In this partially literate society, in which the printed word was still relatively expensive, texts would usually be read aloud in "group readings."

Over the longer term this new, mainly lower-class, reading public constituted a market for cheap printed material, and by the middle of the eighteenth century a specialized sector within the printing trade had emerged to supply it. Its products were sold principally by hawkers and peddlers in town and city streets and at fairs. They were also commonly used in schools as reading matter for pupils who had progressed beyond elementary readers, since other texts were not available. These texts were short and cheap, printed on inferior paper, and were suitable for reading or singing aloud. An example, common in Ireland as well as in Britain during the eighteenth century, was the gallows speech of a condemned criminal, printed on a single sheet and sold at the execution.

The most widespread and cheapest form of printed material was the single-sheet ballad. These usually cost a halfpenny and were sold by traveling singers. They represented the clearest combination of oral and literate, since they were purchased, read, memorized, and then absorbed into oral culture independently of their printed form. These ballads covered a wide range of subjects. Some of them, such as love songs or songs of emigration, were permanently available and constituted a corpus that remained stable for many decades. Others, related to a topical item such as a sensational murder or trial, would be sold only for a short time. The ballad trade was highly responsive to current affairs. Contested parliamentary elections prompted many ballads, usually written and paid for by the candidates or their supporters. They were also an integral part of wider political mobilization, and huge amounts were produced by the United Irish organization in the 1790s and by the O'Connellite movements of the 1820s and 1840s. Ballad production continued in the second half of the nineteenth century, but with a marked shift toward a more "respectable" content. Political ballads in particular were less violent, probably reflecting the higher social basis of political participation: ballads from the tithe war of the 1830s, for example, frequently featured graphic description of violent incidents, whereas nationalist ballads after 1850 used a more generalized rhetoric. This trend is also noticeable in Protestant or Orange ballads of the same period.

Longer texts were sold in the form of small books of 12, 24, or 48 pages, although some were as long as 144 pages. Given the relative lack of affluence of the readers and the infrequency of their purchases, the cheap-print market was slow, and there was remarkably little change in the titles available from the middle of the eighteenth century until the late nineteenth. Catechisms and yearly almanacs were probably the most commonly possessed items and demonstrate, respectively, the penetration of a uniform religious culture and the recognition of a more abstract sense of time. The favored genres of western European popular print were also obtainable—episodes from medieval and early modern chivalric romances, the lives and adventures of highwaymen and other criminals, and abridgements of more recent elite prose works such as Robinson Crusoe. Like the ballads, these mainly episodic prose narratives were suited to oral performance. They were read aloud partly because not everyone could read and partly because of the relative expense for a lower-class audience of even the cheapest printed works. In this way print culture did not so much supplant oral culture as interact productively with it.

To the body of popular printed texts were added two new elements in the 1820s and 1830s. The first of these was produced by the educational societies that had been established in the early nineteenth century. Although their principal concern was with schooling and teaching basic literacy, some of them went further and became publishers of short books intended initially for use in their schools and later for wider distribution. The most active society on this front was the Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor of Ireland, known as the Kildare Place Society, which published almost eighty titles between 1817 and 1825 and distributed them widely. Like the society's schools, its texts aimed at moral and social reform of the population; their content consisted of practical advice as well as moral exhortation and argument. By the early 1820s the Kildare Place Society had come to be perceived as a proselytizing agency by Catholics, a group of whom set up in response a cheap-book company of their own, the Catholic Book Society, in 1827. This society was active for twenty years or so, publishing devotional and moral texts.

The second element was also associated with an educational innovation—the national schools. The new education system of 1831 aimed at a nationally uniform curriculum, and so commissioned its own set of graded readers whose use was a condition of affiliation with the system (and therefore of funding). There were six textbooks in all, the most advanced of which contained complex texts on science and economics; in practice, most pupils read the first two books, at most. Like the texts of the educational societies, on which indeed they were modeled, the content of these readers was predominantly moral and religious (though nondenominational). They were in use throughout the nineteenth century. Overall, with a single centrally controlled curriculum, the national schools were one of the most powerful agents of a uniform state culture in the nineteenth century and later.

Beginning in the middle of the eighteenth century, the demand for affordable printed material that accompanied the rise of popular literacy was served by a solid cheap-print and small-book trade. This vastly increased the amount of information and variety of ideas circulating in Ireland. The cheap-print business was steady rather than spectacular. It was not affected by the Act of Union of 1800, which extended copyright law to Ireland and was detrimental to elite publishing, and in fact it was boosted by periods of increased political activity and by the activities of educationalists.

More fundamentally, popular literacy was an instrument of a broader process of language shift, as English replaced Irish as the predominant spoken language in Ireland. English was the legal language, and the market functioned with documents and money (contracts and banknotes) written in English. Consequently, literacy and schooling in English was desirable. The print trade was concentrated in anglophone larger towns, particularly in Dublin, and the circulating printed texts were also overwhelmingly in English. This did not mean, however, that literary production in Irish did not exist: A tradition of manuscript production in Irish, continuous with an older Gaelic cultural order, flourished until the mid-nineteenth century, particularly in Munster and south Leinster. Until the 1840s, scribes, often schoolmasters by profession, continued to copy old poetry and prose, as well as to compose new works in Irish. More commercial print production in Irish also existed, particularly in the first half of the nineteenth century, again most markedly in Munster, with publishing centers in Limerick, Cork, and Clonmel. It was principally religious and was dominated by Catholic catechisms and short devotional works. Because these books were purchased and read by an audience that had become literate in English, and were produced by a print trade that functioned in English (there is no known printer who produced works in Irish only), their form was heavily influenced by English-language literacy. Their typefaces were roman as opposed to gaelic, their orthography was simplified, and their title pages were often in English. Even more striking is the hybrid nature of the main secular texts printed in Irish—broadsheet ballads. These used a phonetic script that was read as if it were English but sounded in Irish. Some of them mixed the two languages, with alternating verses in English and Irish demonstrating the complexity of usage in a diglossic society.

It might be expected that the Great Famine, which had a catastrophic effect on the very poor and therefore the illiterate, would be a watershed in the development of a literate popular culture in Ireland. In purely statistical terms this was not so. National levels of literacy, as reported in the population censuses, continued a steady increase from 1841 to the end of the nineteenth century. At the same time, those able to read did so with far greater ease and frequency in the second half of the nineteenth century. This was due to changes in schooling and in the availability of printed matter. Primary-school pupils spent much more time in school—five or six years instead of one or two prefamine—with fewer seasonal interruptions, and they were taught reading and writing simultaneously. The proportion of those who could read but not write was in continuous decline and had almost disappeared by 1900. In addition, very high levels of attendance meant that the gender distribution of literacy skills, and of writing in particular, was becoming more equal. This was almost all achieved within the primary-school system (that is, in the national schools) because very few pupils proceeded to a secondary education. In 1871 almost one million children were attending primary schools and only about 25,000 secondary, a ratio of only 40 to 1.

The second development that shaped popular literate culture after 1850 was the increasing ownership of printed matter and the ease of access to it. This is particularly evident in the case of newspapers. A rise in average incomes after the Great Famine coincided with the lowering of the price of newspapers as a result of the ending of stamp tax in 1855 and of paper tax in 1861. A single issue of a newspaper in the 1860s cost a quarter of what it had in the 1840s. In addition, there was an increase in the number of newspapers from 73 in 1849 to 122 in 1879. This increase was concentrated at the cheaper end of the market (where a copy cost one penny), among dailies as opposed to weeklies, and within the nationalist press as opposed to the conservative unionist papers, which had dominated before 1850. Geographically, what stood out was the increase in the proportion of papers published outside Dublin, so that by the late nineteenth century almost all towns with a population of 3,500 or more had a newspaper; this development was facilitated by the introduction of the electric telegraph at mid-century, which dispelled the time advantage previously enjoyed by Dublin and London papers in reporting news from Britain. The press also penetrated rural areas, with a weekly paper being bought on Sundays.

All of these papers reported local news, but they were also important to the integration of Ireland into the international economy because they carried reports of market prices, as well as information and advertisements relating to emigration, which was a universal feature of Irish life after the Great Famine. The implications of these changes can be seen in the far greater role of newspapers in political agitations such as the Land War of 1879 to 1881. The organization of meetings in the early stages of the tenant campaign was carried out through local newspapers, and a prominent role was played by editors such as James Daly of the Connaught Telegraph in Mayo and Tim Harrington of the Kerry Sentinel in Tralee.

The cheap-book trade, by contrast, became more centralized after 1850, owing to changes in print technology (which increased the capital intensity of the industry) and to the greater ease of distribution on railways. Ballad and book publishing, which in the early nineteenth century had been well established in cities such as Limerick and Cork and also in towns as small as Monaghan and Strabane, was increasingly concentrated in larger firms in Dublin and Belfast. These firms marketed newer forms of popular literature in branded series. The earliest was the Parlour Library of the Belfast publishers Simms and McIntyre, begun in 1847. James Duffy of Dublin, the largest publisher of Catholic and nationalist works, had ten different series in print in the 1860s. The same processes of cost efficiency and distribution meant that the cheap-book market in Ireland could be served from outside the island. Duffy's competitors for the Catholic nationalist market, for example, included Cameron and Ferguson of Glasgow and John Denvir of Liverpool.

The centralization of the trade had dire implications for printing in Irish, for the Dublin and Belfast publishers were almost entirely anglophone. In any case, the number of Irish-speakers declined rapidly beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, and popular literate culture in Irish declined at the same time. The production of cheap printed matter in Irish in the decades after 1850 was a fraction of what it had been. The same was true of manuscripts, and those that were produced show a marked turn toward English-language print norms, with those in Connacht often using a phonetic script. At the beginning of the twentieth century there was a striking increase in the amount of publishing in Irish, particularly in Dublin. But this was less a revival than the creation of a new literate culture in Irish among urban English-speakers. The majority of the texts sold were language primers, and there was an accompanying debate over the forms of language, orthography, and typeface to be used. Simple forms of the language were usually chosen, but so was a gaelic typeface rather than the roman to which readers were accustomed. By the middle decades of the twentieth century the revival had inspired a small but vibrant literary and literate subculture in rural Irish-speaking districts as well as in urban centers.

The vast majority of the population remained English-speaking, of course, and widespread literacy in English was achieved by the early years of the twentieth century. There was one school for every 150 children, 95 percent of pupils attended national schools, attendance was compulsory, and tuition fees had been abolished. The reading public was served by a long-standing and vigorous trade in popular printing, and for over a century there had been a print element in popular culture, not so much supplanting oral culture as coexisting with it, borrowing from it and enriching it at the same time.

SEE ALSO Arts: Early Modern Literature and the Arts from 1500 to 1800; Balladry in English; Chapbooks and Popular Literature; Cusack, Michael; Duffy, James; Education: Primary Private Education—"Hedge Schools" and Other Schools; Education: Primary Public Education—National Schools from 1831; Education: Secondary Education, Female; Education: Secondary Education, Male; Gaelic Revivalism: The Gaelic Athletic Association; Gaelic Revivalism: The Gaelic League; Hyde, Douglas; Kildare Place Society; Language and Literacy: Decline of Irish Language; Literature: Gaelic Writing from 1607 to 1800; Murphy, William Martin; Newspapers; Raiftearaí (Raftery), Antaine; Sullivan Brothers (A. M. and T. D.); Primary Documents: On Irish Society before the Famine (1841–1843)


Cullen, L. M. The Emergence of Modern Ireland, 1600–1900. 1981.

Legg, Marie-Louise. Newspapers and Nationalism: The Irish Provincial Press, 1850–1892. 1999.

Logan, John. "Schooling and the promotion of Literacy in Nineteenth-Century Ireland." Ph.D diss., University College Cork, 1992.

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

Niall Ó Ciosáin

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