In September 1753 Michael O’Reilly wrote from Dublin to the Roscommon-based antiquarian Charles O’Conor ‘I think a man should read books as he eats victuals; surfeits of either cannot be digested; and too many books as too many dishes will cause surfeit.’ The problem for O’Reilly, as for many readers today, was that more volumes were being produced than could be consumed: the market seemed to be ahead of supply. Toby Barnard’s newly-published Brought to Book: Print in Ireland 1680-1784 examines the history of publication here during this period. Barnard notes the steady rise in work being brought out. In the 1680s the average number of new titles published in Dublin was 52: by the 1790s that figure had risen to 480. For a long time Irish authors preferred, if possible, to publish in England, the understandable expectation being that they would thereby earn more and reach a larger audience. Furthermore, because the British government’s Copyright Act of 1710 did not apply to Ireland, authors who published here enjoyed no legal entitlement to payment for their work. While this had an impact on the development of Irish publishing, ultimately the drive towards an indigenous industry was too strong to be resisted.
Barnard notes how many of the books produced here were local editions of work already successful in other countries. Initially interest in books about Ireland attracted little interest, one dealer noting that such volumes were ‘very little noticed by them whom they did most concern.’ But with the passage of time, increased communication and greater awareness of the need to improve the state of the country, work of Irish subject matter increased in appeal – and sales. Then as now, criticism was not always well-received: the English agronomist Arthur Young was much admired when he wrote about his own country – the Dublin Society made him an honorary member in 1771 – but drew a less favourable response when he turned his attention to matters Irish: the first edition of his Tour of Ireland had to be published in London when insufficient subscribers could be found here. Contrary to what is often thought and despite the Penal Laws, devotional books for Roman Catholics were published in Ireland from the 1720s onwards, albeit under a suppositious mainland European imprint. The first work in the Irish language known to have been produced in Dublin for Catholic readers appeared in 1736: intended as an aid for other members of the clergy, it was a series of sixteen sermons by Bishop Gallagher of Raphoe, County Donegal. By the end of the period covered, books such as Charlotte Brooke’s The reliques of Irish poetry (1788) were both recording and celebrating the nation’s ancient culture. As Barnard points out ‘the venerable was valued as evidence of the complex culture in an earlier Ireland.’ The course of this transition is traced in his own book, illustrating how complex cultures also existed here during the early modern period.