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Print, reading and social change in early modern Ireland

Traditionally our understanding of that world has been filtered through the lenses of war, plantation and colonisation. This book explores the lives of people living in early modern Ireland through the books and printed ephemera which they bought, borrowed or stole from others. In economic terms, the technology of print was of limited significance in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Ireland, employing no more than a handful of individuals on a full-time basis. It uses the perspective of the world of print as a vantage point from which to observe the shifts in early modern Irish society. To do this it exploits two important attributes of print. First, the printed word had a material form and hence by examining how it was created, traded and owned as a commodity it is possible to chart some of the economic changes that took place in early modern Ireland as a traditional exchange economy gave way to a more commercial one. The second important attribute of print was that it had the potential to transmit ideas. The book discusses the social context of print, its social meaning, and with what contemporaries thought of the material and intellectual commodity that printing with movable type brought to Ireland. It also attempts to construct how contemporaries used the books they had bought, borrowed, stolen or heard others read aloud. The efforts of booksellers and others ensured that contemporaries had a range of books to which they could to turn for profit and pleasure according to their needs.

In the historiography of early seventeenth-century Ireland the Ulster plantation has assumed a paradigmatic role. Military defeat in 1603 was followed by the flight of the earls and expropriation of the lands of the Catholic Irish and colonisation by Protestant Scots and English. There is certainly contemporary evidence to support this sort of view of seventeenth-century Ulster. From the perspective of the native Irish, the Annals of the Four Masters, written in the 1630s, characterised the Ulster plantation. The scheme that emerged for the lands escheated from the principal Gaelic lords in Ulster envisaged the former lords would be replaced with Protestant settler landlords. Catholicism in the Ulster plantation was not a simple monolithic force to be equated with dispossession, exclusion and the survival of late medieval traditional belief awaiting modernisation by Tridentine reform.

in Irish Catholic identities

This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book considers the perspective of the world of print as a vantage point from which to observe the shifts in early modern Irish society. It explains the first attribute of print, its existence as commodity, to chart some of the revolutions that took place in the supply of books in the early modern period. The book deals with the second attribute of print by attempting to construct how contemporaries used the books they had bought, borrowed, stolen or heard others read aloud. It also deals with the significant shift in the social context that took place in early modern Ireland which enabled writing to become an accepted part of that world.

in Reading Ireland
The rise of writing

A cross early modern Europe the development of the technology of print created the possibility of significant social transformations. In the course of the sixteenth century English and Anglo-Irish commentators on, and analysts of, the Irish world came into increasing contact with those parts of Ireland outside the pale. The process of drawing Ireland into a wider textual work was much accelerated by the process of colonisation from the late sixteenth century and especially after 1603. Thus in the course of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries both Gaelic Ireland and Anglo-Irish Ireland were drawn increasingly into a dominant textual culture. During the early modern period the social boundaries which surrounded the act of writing shifted. Changing social relationships, particularly those controlled by the legal framework, shifted the boundaries which determined what should be written down and what should be remembered.

in Reading Ireland

In 1551 the first book printed in Ireland using movable type was produced on a printing press in Dublin. The history of the Irish printing press in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries is, in the main, a story of inactivity. One of the main characteristics of the world of books in sixteenth-century Ireland was that demand was fed not by the Dublin press but by imports, a fact which served to shape the nature of the Irish book trade in the early modern period. Outside the commercial world of trade, books moved along other routes. The scale of the libraries assembled in early seventeenth-century Ireland depended a great deal on social pretensions and wealth. In particular overseas trade with London through Chester allowed large quantities of print to be brought to Ireland with relative ease, accompanying migrants or following more general trade routes.

in Reading Ireland

In the years before 1660 print established itself, albeit in a rather precarious position, within Irish society. One of the first indications of the growing importance of the role of print in Irish society in the late seventeenth century was the rapid expansion of the print trades. By the end of the seventeenth century the rise of provincial printing came to supplement the production of the Dublin presses. Perhaps more importantly for the book trade in the longer term was the dramatic improvement in the distribution mechanisms. Institutions such as the state and the various churches had developed mechanisms for distributing their own sponsored works among their followers. It is possible to observe something of the effect of the growing volume of print available in Ireland in the late seventeenth century through the expansion of libraries.

in Reading Ireland
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Institutions and print

Multiple local centres of power were reduced as the growing institutions of central government consolidated jurisdiction at the expense of provincial noble authority. The ways in which this long-term process of state-building in Ireland occurred were complex but a central role was played by print. The importance of print to government was made particularly clear in the 1640s. In the initial session of the parliament of 1640 the press was used by Lord Deputy Wentworth as a way of demonstrating control. As an institution, the established Church of Ireland also used print in the straightforward task of ensuring increasing administrative uniformity. From the institutional point of view, print made possible the extension of the central government's idea of a 'commonwealth' into the provincial world with very considerable social consequences.

in Reading Ireland

The religious impulse in early modern Ireland generated a wide range of responses. For contemporaries, to read for salvation was not necessarily to approach works of religion uncritically or with the same view that clergy held. Rather they used books and printed religious ephemera as tools to understand, and in some cases harness, the power of God at work in the world. Of all the books with which early modern Irishmen and women came into contact, the most widespread and potentially the most important for all confessional groups was the Bible. In the early seventeenth century James Ussher, archbishop of Armagh, offered advice on how, when, and to what effect the Bible was to be read. If Protestantism in all its forms used printed books as a way of giving shape to the religious impulse, Catholicism used a wider range of devotional aids.

in Reading Ireland

One of the earliest sorts of books that a reader might encounter were the popular stories which circulated in early modern Ireland and which were aimed at all social levels. Printers, with an eye to the market, reproduced what was familiar and what they thought would sell. Stories were both popular and profitable. The efforts of booksellers and others ensured that contemporaries had a range of books to which they could to turn for profit and pleasure according to their needs. By the end of the seventeenth century printed books and more ephemeral printed items for both business and pleasure had become commonplace in Ireland. Some books, such as historical or legal works were certainly more common in the great house than in the countryside, and wealth meant that a larger library could be afforded by the upper social classes.

in Reading Ireland