Book review: Brought to book, by Dr Toby Barnard

AROUND the year 1450, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, and the world has never been the same since. Gutenberg knew, instinctively at least, that paper never refuses ink, and began printing indulgences even before he printed the Bible, the first book ever printed.

This book covers the business of printing and the availability of books in Ireland during just over a century, beginning in 1680. It was a century of convulsion in Ireland (weren’t they all!), with the aftermath of the Popish Plot in 1678, the accession of King James II to the throne of England in 1685 and the resulting reversal of fortune for Catholics, then the re-reversal of their fortune a few years later with the war in Ireland, the Williamite settlement, the Age of Swift, the enactment of the Penal Laws, and the interest in the American War leading to the Volunteer movement and ultimately to the founding of the Society of United Irishmen.

Dr Toby Barnard, Professor Emeritus of Hereford College at Oxford, is an authority on the period in question and brings his comprehensive scholarship to bear to illustrate the diffusion of ideas in Ireland through the medium of books — but not the diffusion of any ideas. Toby writes: “Governments saw education as essential to good order, productivity — and from the 16th century — Anglicization and the spread of Protestantism... Protestant concern to arm the ignorant against Catholic wiles had long regarded print as an essential weapon.”

Archbishop Marsh, who founded the library that bears his name to this day, was very diligent in spreading the written word so that the impressionable young would not “fall into error”, ie, become Catholics.

The fortunes of books for Catholics and Dissenters waxed and waned. But as far as books in Irish were concerned they only waned. Efforts were made at first by the Protestant establishment to encourage books in Irish (there was even a donation to that end by Queen Elizabeth I of England) but initial problems were encountered with the printing of the Gaelic script. These problems could have been overcome, “but the state itself, associating the language with disaffection and rebellion, turned against what it saw as a dangerous concession”.

In contrast, the author points out, the fact that the Welsh accepted the new religion meant that the Welsh language would not be associated with political or religious dissidence. As a result, both secular and religious books were published in the Welsh language.

Publishers always revered the Bible, perhaps with an eye to turning a profit in this world as well as looking to the next. In the 1780s, the Cork bookseller and publisher, Anthony Edwards, offered no fewer than 13 different bibles for sale. The most expensive was Henry Southwell’s Universal Family Bible which went for nearly four pounds. This reviewer is, unfortunately, old enough to remember being confused in school on being told that the Bible was the word of God, but that it could be dangerous to read, and then being thoroughly confused on reading on the first page of the Bible that I could receive a plenary indulgence on reading it. It may or may not be gratifying to learn from the author that Catholic Archbishop Troy of Dublin was saying essentially the same thing more than two centuries ago.

The voluminous footnotes will provide many a door into further reading; the only drawback being the lack of a bibliography. However, this book is a delight not only for scholars of the period, but also for bookworms (in the best sense of the word) who may soon be nostalgic for the sound of the cracking open of the spine of a book — the pressing of a button on a “device” is somehow not quite the same.

Four Courts Press, €45.00


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