Eve Patten, review of The Irish Book Lover, ed., Bruce Stewart, in The Irish Times (3 Sept. 2005)

[Details: Eve Patten, ‘Tracing our textual life', review of The Irish Book Lover: An Irish Studies Reader, ed., Bruce Stewart, in The Irish Times (3 Sept. 2005), Weekend, p.10 - Irish Studies.]

Like Hollywood stars, some of the most celebrated Irish periodicals - think of Atlantis, Graph, the Crane Bag - were also those with the shortest lives. By contrast, the Irish Book Lover was the longest running of all 20th-century Irish literary journals, lasting almost five decades from 1909 to 1957, writes Eve Patten.

Primarily a bibliographical outlet, it offered, under the editorships of John Crone, Séamus Ó Casaide and Colm Ó Lochlainn, a miscellany on cataloguing, collectibles, first editions, printing and typographical history, bookselling and reviewing. If its ‘Editor’s gossip’ and obituary sections hinted at some passing interest in literary personalities, its enduring obsession was Ireland’s textual life, or, in the words of the traditional ballad taken as the journal’s motto, ‘A jollie good booke,/ whereon to looke,/ Is better to me than golde’.

The selections from the Irish Book Lover edited here by Bruce Stewart and prefaced by Nicholas Allen’s astute introduction are thus a rich guide to the anorak-ish bibliographical hinterland of Irish life in the first half of the century. Amidst the staple fodder of query, correction and counter-correction, there are numerous occasions of bookish delight. A note in 1930, for example, reports that a search for a missing croquet set in Malahide Castle has led to the discovery of a lost Boswell manuscript. But over the course of its publication, the journal also charts an idiosyncratic social history, that of a subterranean bibliophile community impossible to detect perhaps, in any other way. See, for example, editor John Crone’s account of the provenance of a recently sold Dickens manuscript:

’It was given by the author to Dean Bagot of Newry, a prolific writer, and something of a translator whose memory is still green in the frontier town. From him it passed to Mr Greer, a well-known bookseller and printer there, and then by marriage to Mr William A. Traill of Portrush, the well-known engineer, who formed the first electrical railway in the three Kingdoms - that leading to the Giant’s Causeway.’

If the Irish Book Lover provided an off-centre social portrait, it also responded tangentially to politics. Officially the journal eschewed political material: in 1916, its contributors are apparently more engaged by the Royal Irish Academy’s decision to catalogue the Haliday pamphlets than by public events. The impact of the Rising is recorded, nonetheless, through its effects on the literary marketplace. In August 1916 the editor notes the sudden scarcity of Sinn Féin pamphlets and propaganda papers, as collectors swoop on the few to escape confiscation, and expresses his consternation at the sudden price inflation of the published works of the rebellion’s leaders. ‘Thomas MacDonagh’s last volume of verse, Lyrical Poems, was offered to me in Charing Cross Road for a couple of shillings’ he reports, ‘and I found, on reaching Dublin, that it was being sold at twenty-five!’

Much of the most interesting information to be gleaned from the Irish Book Lover is, as Nicholas Allen observes, financial, relating to auction or catalogue prices: £75 for a full first edition set of Synge in 1920, for example, £60 for Padraic Colum. Such details have a contemporary feel, as does the journal’s 1921 report of a London publishing house offering Michael Collins £10,000 for his memoirs. In tandem with its monetary concerns, the journal pursued a more familiar moral initiative, nuanced by a groundswell of Irish-Irelandism. In 1936, editor Séamus Ó Casaide welcomed the protection of Irish censorship regulations and stated his readiness to return ‘unpleasant books’ to their publishers, in a manifestation of what Allen terms the ‘consistently high-church taste’ of the journal, a taste self-consciously at odds with the violence, obscurity, and ‘considerable dash of the indecent’ lamented by its reviewer of Beckett’s More Pricks Than Kicks.

These repackaged selections are informative and often fascinating, but the volume also represents a salvo in Bruce Stewart’s PGIL EIRData-led campaign to transfer Irish booklore to the internet. As its many users will know, the EIRData site - out of action at the moment, temporarily one hopes - has been one of the most valuable resources in contemporary Irish research in recent years. The Irish Book Lover project was, Stewart claims, a means of trialing a methodology for the indexing and digitisation of a wide range of Irish periodical material in the future. This seems a valuable ambition, and one which not only reinforces a growing interest in the history of the Irish book, but also raises questions about the impact of fully-indexed periodical databases on Irish Studies. An index, as Shaw remarked, is a great leveller. And certainly in this case, it throws up unexpected, sometimes felicitous lateral connections. Who knew, for example, of the bitter 1915 spat between Ezra Pound and James Stephens? But will the move from our current literary habits of natural selection to Stewart’s recuperative digitisation change the priorities of the discipline? Is bibliography the new literary theory? And will Irish critics - on the basis of this volume and the project it heralds - finally begin to shift focus from what people write towards the vexed but revealing question of what they actually read?

Eve Patten’s recent book, Samuel Ferguson and the Culture of Nineteenth-Century Ireland (2004), is published by Four Courts.

The Irish Book Lover: An Irish Studies Reader (Princess Grace Irish Library Series 14). Edited by Bruce Stewart, Colin Smythe, 390pp. £40

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