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A Century in Print

Andrew Carpenter

Brought to Book: Print in Ireland, 1680-1784, by Toby Barnard, Four Courts Press, 395 pp, €50, ISBN 978-1846826290

Though Brought to Book: Print in Ireland, 1680-1784 is not an easy read, it is an essential book for anyone interested in seventeenth and eighteenth century Ireland, particularly if one is keen to know about what was written, printed, published, owned or read here. Toby Barnard’s knowledge of Anglophone Ireland during this period is legendary and, as this book demonstrates, his memory for detail and his ability to recall all he has read (and to remember where he read it) are awe-inspiring. The book contains an immense quantity of information gleaned from a bewildering variety of sources ‑ books, pamphlets, letters, municipal records, manuscripts in obscure archives and modern scholarly works. The material is all woven into a single, large, colourful tapestry ‑ the richest work on the eighteenth century Irish book trade and patterns of Irish reading ever attempted or accomplished.

However, Brought to Book is also a very individual and, in places, a quirky book, unashamedly reflecting the writer’s biases. Barnard has a dry sense of humour and a confidence that allows him to employ thoroughly unscholarly vocabulary when it suits him. Thus one writer is described as “grumpy”, another as “acidulated”. In a memorable (but, one could argue, unfairly dismissive) sentence, he says of verse printed in eighteenth century Dublin (to which he seems to have a particular antipathy): “Mellifluous larks soared and frogs croaked among the Dublin reeds.” Odes published in Ireland are said to have “bobbed about on a flood of print”. He writes that the Leixlip poet the Rev Samuel Shepherd “rolled out cheery words” and “strenuously whipped up froth according to Pope’s recipe in between pounding out his stodgy sermons”. This is neither objective history nor, indeed, literary criticism; rather, it reflects personal taste. Remarks like this certainly lighten the tone of the work and keep the reader amused: but those writing verse in early eighteenth century Ireland would surely question the dismissal of the work of Dryden and Pope as “such stuff”, and might be disappointed to learn that Dublin Castle court poems printed without accompanying music were, in Barnard’s opinion, mere “effusions” that “limped”. Dublin was, of course, a significant centre for the printing and consumption of imaginative writing in the Anglophone world of the eighteenth century, and many “creative” writers (apart from James Ward, Jonathan Swift, Thomas Sheridan, Patrick Delany, William Dunkin, Mary Barber, Laurence Whyte, Matthew and Laetitia Pilkington) chose to be published in Ireland. All involved in the eighteenth century Irish book trade took their work seriously but Barnard’s comments suggest that, perhaps, they were living in a pompous and self-satisfied enclave. He writes that Charlotte McCarthy “prickled at the possibility of being plagiarized” and that Edward Ledwich “failed to charm subscriptions from neighbouring landowners” and so on.

This is not, however, to take from the value of Brought to Book as a whole. Its range is very wide indeed, partly because of Barnard’s own knowledge but also because Irish printing covered almost every subject known in the Anglophone world at the time. The volume not only gives one insights into the production and reception of books and pamphlets but also into the commercial and intellectual context of their production. There are many delightful anecdotes and, though Barnard’s condensed prose style and the plethora of facts make the book dizzying in places, perseverance pays off as one learns more and more about the strange world of eighteenth century Anglophone Ireland. Among the surprises is the fact that it was hard to sell some Irish-printed books, sophisticated collectors on occasion preferring the London printing to the Dublin reprint – a situation reversed in today’s rare book auctions; there are also many fascinating glimpses of people and arrangements of which nothing has been generally known until now.

Working out how to convey so much information and to structure coherent arguments must have been a nightmare, and Professor Barnard’s solution to these problems – to make the book partly chronological and partly thematic – is not entirely successful. After an initial chapter on the state of the book trade and readers of Dublin in the 1680s, there are chapters that cover aspects of the subject within certain date periods: publishing and reading in Dublin 1690-1784 (though incidentally, the significance of the year 1784 in Irish printing or publishing history does not seem to be made clear anywhere), print in the south of Ireland 1680-1784, and in the north of Ireland 1694-1784. Other chapters are arranged around themes or subjects: schooling and learning, the Past, the Present and “Future Irelands”, salvation, entertainments and, finally, writers and readers. There is also a conclusion which does not so much “conclude” the volume as set out some of the paradoxes which have emerged in earlier chapters and suggest what scholarly work still needs to be done.

Given the range of material covered, one can see why a purely chronological approach would not have been satisfactory, but the present arrangement leads to some awkward jumps in chronology since Barnard’s quotations and illustrations may come from very different periods. However the chapters on historical writing (“the Past”), the politics of the moment (“The Present”) and ideas for “The Future” work well, addressing the sectarian and other considerations that lay behind Irish historical, antiquarian and geographical writing, as well as giving accounts of the squabbles of the moment and of the many visions proposed for the future of Ireland; events in America, France and eventually Ireland herself would render most of the last of these irrelevant. 

The chapters on printing in Munster and in Ulster are well-stocked with facts about printing enterprises and with anecdotes from readers. While one would expect Cork and Belfast to figure prominently, it is the significance of Limerick and of Newry that are worth noting here, as is the widespread use of subscription publishing. Catholic printing flourished in Cork, as did Presbyterian printing in Belfast, and Barnard cites many entertaining details of particular publications, including schoolbooks. The reprinting of books popular in England is well attested in both cities, as indeed it was in Dublin. Barnard notes how hard it has been to dispel the myth that Dublin printers regularly reprinted books first issued in London without permission or payment – that is, “pirated” them; scholarship has refuted this claim, but it persists.

Throughout this complex and wide-ranging book, every fact and quotation is meticulously referenced with an exactness that puts many other scholars of the period to shame. So does the range of reference: if a country squire commented on an agricultural treatise, a customs officer in a remote location found fault with a manual or a provincial bishop sought enlightening reading matter, Barnard has found the text and brought it into this volume. Throughout the book, we are constantly aware that the Anglophone inhabitants of eighteenth century Ireland were commenting on – so they must have been reading – some of the books they had access to; (a fuller perspective on the cultural life of the country as a whole would have to take account, as Vincent Morley has recently reminded us, of the oral, Irish-language culture of the age). Yet though individual subjects are handled with dexterity in Barnard’s book one senses the lack of strong argument: this is more an “account” of what was written, printed, published, bought and read in eighteenth century Ireland than an “assessment” of this material. Many interesting topics are raised ‑ the sale of Irish-printed books, the patterns of printing in provincial Ireland, and so on – but it is hard to discern an overarching argument in the book as a whole.

Despite my admiration for what Toby Barnard has achieved in this book, I must sound a couple of caveats. The book does not have a bibliography or even a list of works cited or consulted. Though such a tool would have swollen the size of the book, it would have made it much easier for students and scholars to follow up the points raised and one hopes that the work will soon be available as a searchable e-book. Secondly, the footnotes are printed so densely that they are hard to use. To have set out the footnotes in lines rather than as a square block of text would have enlarged the book and I (like most readers) far prefer footnotes to endnotes; still, the present arrangement is problematic: one is compelled to search square blocks of small-font text if one seeks a first reference to a work cited. Since there are over 2,500 footnotes in the book, some of which contain up to a dozen references, seeking an elusive first reference can be time-consuming.

The cover image is wonderful, but it is the only image in the volume – I wish there were more. And, finally, a personal cavil: I know that the short sentence and the passive voice are hallmarks of Toby Barnard’s writing, but the prose style in this book is so dense and elliptical in places that it could have done with a gentle editor.

Andrew Carpenter is professor emeritus, School of English, Drama and Film, University College Dublin.