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Histoire des périodiques

Trading in Knowledge: The Irish Builder and Nineteenth-Century Journalism

Le commerce du savoir : The Irish Builder et le journalisme au dix-neuvième siècle
Elizabeth Tilley
p. 110-120


Cet article propose une étude de The Irish Builder, un magazine professionnel, du point de vue de son lectorat et de son contenu, suggérant que le succès de ce périodique s’explique davantage par sa fonction et par l’espace de libre-expression qu’il représenta que par le service qu’il rendait à l’industrie de la construction. Son domaine s’élargit progressivement à  des débats concernant la science, la technologie, l’art et la littérature, à une époque où d’autres magazines spécialisés dans ces domaines ne rencontraient aucun succès. Le succès de ce périodique reflète également une évolution générale de la société irlandaise au cours du dix-neuvième siècle, qui voit l’ascension d’une classe moyenne prospère, bien décidée à définir et délimiter ses propres intérêts intellectuels.

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Entrées d’index

Index chronologique :

XIXe siècle, 19th century
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Texte intégral

  • 1  Vincent Kinane, A History of the Dublin University Press, 1734-1976, Dublin: Gill and Macmillan,   (...)

1Anyone researching Irish periodicals of the nineteenth-century will be struck by the note of profound pessimism discernible in contemporary accounts of the publishing industry, a note that is often repeated by twenty-first century critics.  It is generally understood that the Act of Union, and the application of British copyright law to Ireland that followed in 1802, were disastrous for the industry. The loss of government-contracted printing, the loss of a wealthy book-buying class as the Irish Parliament was dissolved and MPs decamped to London, and in particular the decimation of Ireland’s reprint industry are all cited as reasons for the 80% decrease in book production during the first half of the nineteenth-century.1 A pattern was established that has continued for the last two hundred years: publishers becoming jobbing printers, failure, emigration.  Irish periodicals were particularly hard hit; the number that failed far overwhelms those that managed to survive even a year.

  • 2  John Power, A List of Irish Periodical Publications (Chiefly Literary) from 1729 to the Present Ti (...)
  • 3  Barbara HAyley, “Irish Periodicals,” Anglo-Irish Studies, ii, 1976, 83

2A great deal of our information about Irish periodicals comes from a slim volume on the subject by the nineteenth-century bibliographer John Power.2 On the first page of his monograph Power sets the tone for what comes after with the following (unattributed) quotation from 1840: “Never was there a more fragile history than that of Irish periodical literature: like that of our ancient monarchs, it comprises little more than a narrative of untimely deaths.” Another quotation, from an 1858 issue of the Irish Quarterly Review, is offered next: “It is melancholy to look back on the mass of brilliant but unsuccessful periodicals which rose and fell in Ireland like meteor lights.” And in case the message has not quite hit home, Power quotes from Thomas Moore’s Diary, at the point where Moore talks about the late eighteenth-century journal Anthologia Hibernica, noting that it ran for two years and then “died, as all such things die in that country, for want of money and—of talent; for the Irish never either fight or write well on their own soil” (Power, n.p.).  Barbara Hayley uses Power as her source for declaring that while “over a hundred and fifty periodicals were launched in Ireland between the Act of Union and the Rising of 1848, less than a quarter of them lasted a year, although many were of high literary standard”.3 The number of cheap or penny periodicals lasting more than a year is similarly small; even the highly regarded Dublin Penny Journal could not be sustained for more than four years, and its successors were equally short-lived.

3Given this high rate of failure and the general depression in the industry, it is all the more surprising to find examples of periodicals that survived not just one year but often thirty or more. The Anglo-Irish Dublin University Magazine, for instance, ran for thirty-three years, from 1833 to 1866; the Catholic Dublin Review began publication in 1836 and was still a going concern, under a slightly different guise, well into the 1960s. Both were general in subject matter, highly conservative, and quite expensive.  But, again, these are the exceptions.  

  • 4  Enda McKay, “A Century of Irish Trade Journals 1860-1960”, in Three Hundred Years of Irish Periodi (...)
  • 5  Variations in title are as follows: The Dublin Builder (1859-1866); Irish Builder and Engineering (...)

4Ireland’s record of non-commercial periodical production is indicative of its checkered cultural history. For more concrete success, one has to turn to economics. Enda McKay notes that both farming and the building trades were crucial to the Irish economy and that this fact must partially account for the longevity of periodicals devoted to them.4 In light of this fact, I would like to examine a long-lived trade journal with the unlikely title of The Dublin Builder, or Illustrated Irish Architectural, Engineering, Mechanics’ & Sanitary Journal.5 The Dublin Builder commenced publication in 1859 and in 1867 changed its title to The Irish Builder and Engineering Record, the change reflecting the prosperity of the trade outside Dublin. It survived under various titles until 1979. Its first proprietor and editor was an architect named J.J. Lyons, who continued his architectural practice even after the periodical seemed to be on a sound footing. A self-congratulatory editorial dated December 1st, 1859, when the journal was almost one year old, notes that the subscribers list has doubled, advertisements have trebled in value, the journal has been enlarged from four to December’s twenty-four pages (soon to balloon to thirty-two pages), and its subscribers include

[…]with very few exceptions, all the Architects, Civil Engineers, Surveyors, Builders, Clerks of Works, Foremen, Mechanics, &c.; likewise Reading-rooms, Hotels, Mechanics’ Institutes in every town in Ireland, very many throughout the United Kingdom, and in the Colonies.

The ‘free list’, moreover, embraces firms in all of the manufacturing centers of the UK “thereby securing an extensive and choice circulation not obtained by any periodical out of London” (IB, 1 December, 1859, 160). The Irish Builder soon appeared twice monthly and was originally priced at fourpence. By 1866 the journal had reduced its price to threepence, presumably as the result of success, and perhaps due to the abolition of tax on paper in 1861. One of its great attractions was the appearance, during its second year, of architectural illustrations, either woodcuts or lithographs, “proofs suitable for framing” always available from the publisher.

  • 6  Thomas Tomlinson, “Engineering and Building in 1859”, in The Irish Builder and Engineer Jubilee Nu (...)

5Though precise circulation figures are not available, there is no doubt that the success of the journal coincided with a relative boom in the building industry in Ireland. A retrospective article on the industry in The Irish Builder’s Jubilee Issue in 1909 talks of great edifices being built in 1800, palatial residences in 1830, and city suburbs in 1859.6 It is these domestic buildings and the armies of artisans and labourers needed to service them that became the main concern of the periodical.

6Early articles in The Irish Builder confine themselves to economic matters: city planning, ventilation and health issues, lists of contracts awarded, and announcements regarding new materials or interesting buildings. Articles were for the most part unsigned, of varying lengths, usually a column or two long, but in some cases running to four or even six columns. As has been said, there were no illustrations in early issues, but very soon the regular (one per issue) publication of highly accomplished architectural drawings of cathedrals, plans for cottage housing, workhouses, etc., became a central feature of the journal. In fact, the first issue (1 January, 1859) anticipates this by inviting those wishing to publish their designs to submit them to the editorial offices: “we shall provide space for meritorious subjects, the blocks—artistically executed—being supplied” (IB, 1 January, 1859, 2). One of the central themes of The Irish Builder throughout its history is the necessity of recognizing talent at home. Indeed, it is a constant theme in all kinds of Irish periodicals, not just trade journals, but here it takes the form of reminding architects that they need no longer look to London as the only place where their work can be published, and the journal is fierce in its denunciation of those it perceives to have been seduced by the other metropolis.

7From the outset The Irish Builder seems to have been well supported by Irish businesses. Advertisements for cement, timber, and general building materials are to be expected, but one also finds frequent advertisements for china, semolina, watches, overcoats, and so on.  Advertisers (there are approximately five pages of advertisements in each issue) are overwhelmingly Dublin or Belfast-based. Now this is no surprise in a trade journal, but if one compares the few examples of similar advertisements we have from another long-lived Dublin-based periodical, namely the aforementioned Dublin University Magazine, for things like hair-oil, lawnmowers, rainwear, one finds there a decided leaning towards British firms or goods available only through mail-order from Britain. Assuming a base middle-class audience for both periodicals, the difference between the two is subtle, but telling, and illuminates issues surrounding readership and perceived loyalties. Again, the nationalist bias of The Irish Builder became part of its raison d’être.

8The artistic layout of The Irish Builder exhibits a similar tendency.  Early issues are plainly adorned: the masthead shows the only note of whimsy, the type resembling closely fitted logs of wood (see fig. 1).  Substantial changes occur, however, towards the end of the 1860s and take the form of elaborate capitals borrowed directly from designs in the Book of Kells.  Becoming more and more intricate (see fig. 2) they are an art form in themselves, loudly proclaiming the heritage of the journal and speaking directly to a home audience.

9The success of the periodical came about through its determination to cater to both the professional and the worker in the building industry. As has been said, by the early 1860s a sizeable body of architects, engineers, and builders had grown powerful enough to support their own periodical. Indeed, its establishment was specifically aimed at proclaiming the prosperity and importance of this relatively new class. It would have been crucial for the periodical to set the right tone from the outset, and to define, through quite obvious hints, the sort of person one would expect to belong to this new class. The first issue of 1859 does try to create its ideal audience and anticipate their needs through listing the benefits to be gained in perusal of The Irish Builder. Amongst other things, the journal will set out

[…]to enlighten the ignorant, to please and edify the man of education, and to chronicle advancing steps in the path of progress, when such appertain to projects or accomplishments of a scientific, artistic, sanitary, or, we may add, of a philanthropic character.
Pursuing such a course, we hope to find ourselves as welcome visitors in the studio and drawing-room of the professor, as in the humblest domicile of the intelligent mechanic; without being specifically identified with either, but devoting ourselves equally impartially, and independently to serve the interests and contribute to the gratification of both (IB,1 Jan, 1859, 1) .

How successful was the periodical in performing this task?  Education was clearly high on its list of priorities, and it might be useful to note its stance regarding the sort of education it considered appropriate to the two strands of its audience.  

10The introductory remarks in the first issue decry the lack of a reporting mechanism for the transactions of what the editor calls “matters scientific and artistic,” subjects it assumes are within the right and proper sphere of interest of its readers. Reporters therefore will be sent to important scientific meetings to stand in for those whose “position in society and daily occupations respectively, preclude the possibility of personal attendance” (IB, 1 Jan, 1859, 1). The writer notes that transactions of scientific societies are published, but often they are only available to members, or they are too expensive for the average reader to buy. In addition, transactions are often written in language that is incomprehensible to the average man. Here’s a good opportunity, then.  The Irish Builder will provide information about the engineering and building trades in Ireland and England; it will, moreover, inform and educate the thinking classes about matters scientific and philosophical, acting as a sort of portable mechanics’ institute.

11If we look at the actual reports of scientific meetings, we see that the editors of The Irish Builder are often as concerned with the way scientific information is conveyed as they are with the information itself, and lecturers whose papers are considered too complicated for the average reader are mercilessly written of. A report of an evening at the Royal Dublin Society in February, 1859 lists various papers read, including one by a Mr Reid on the subject of the “Theory of the Gyroscope” which, the reporter says,

although evidencing a perfect acquaintanceship with the properties of this remarkable invention, nevertheless involved too much abstruseness and variety of algebraic calculations—not put forward impressively or clearly—to command even ordinary interest with the audience.

A Professor Barker, reading two papers on “St. Ann’s Well, Malvern” fares rather better as he “very wisely spared the hearers’ patience in listening to a voluminous chemical analysis” (IB, 1 Feb, 1859, 20).

12For obvious reasons, The Irish Builder is most concerned with scientific advance that directly impacts on the building trade. An article appearing in the Medical Times and Gazette (reported 1 Feb 1859) on the noxious effects of arsenic in green paper hangings is reported in great detail, including the notes on the Reinsch test used to measure the amount of arsenic remaining in the room even after the paper is removed from the wall. The moral for builders is, of course, don’t use wallpaper containing arsenic, but the reporting of the experiments conducted assumes a level of interest in chemistry, in scientific knowledge in general, that extends far beyond the scope of a trade journal. In fact, the connection between science and the general reader is summed up in a throwaway remark made at the end of another article from 1859: science, says the writer, “when well digested, is nothing but good sense and reason” (IB,1 Jan, 1859, 11).

13By 1870 the issue of scientific education of the working classes is beginning to take up space in The Irish Builder.  Under the title “Education for the Working Classes” the journal announces that a course of evening lectures is to be delivered at the Royal College of Sciences by Robert Ball.  The idea is praised, but the writer pointedly calls upon the College to provide the lectures free of charge to artisans, upon “written recommendations of manufacturers and employers” (IB,15 Jan, 1870, 18).  What begins as a simple notice of an event becomes an editorial on the need for free scientific and technical education in Ireland:

the more you give him facilities for instruction, the more you elevate the great masses of society of which he is a member, and after all its bone and sinew, and one of its chiefest supports (IB, 15 Jan, 1870, 18).

Ultimately, education is at the heart of industrial prosperity; Ireland cannot hope to compete with Europe without an educated, thinking workforce. The inclusion of science in The Irish Builder, then, is seen as one of the ways the general reader might be educated—and therefore as a way of expanding Ireland’s economic base. For the professional, the inclusion of articles on science, and reporting of scientific societies, is an acknowledgement of the appropriateness of such material for a newly affluent class, eager to attach themselves to an existing power base.

14Perhaps it is less easy to see ways in which literary subjects might be utilized for these purposes in a trade journal, but they are there, nonetheless. In fact, the reason book historians are aware of The Irish Builder is because from July of 1877 to June of 1878 it ran a twenty-two part series entitled “Notes on the Rise and Progress of Printing and Publishing in Ireland”. Transcribed, the series runs to over one hundred single-spaced pages. The writer of the series is unknown; we have only his initials (CHC) and hints he gives about not being able to check his facts very carefully, living some two hundred miles outside Dublin. But almost every piece of work written since 1878 about the Irish publishing industry refers either directly or obliquely to The Irish Builder and the wealth of anecdotal information the series provides: addresses, characters, business dealings, etc., of Irish publishers, printers, and booksellers. The series began on the 1st of July, 1877, in direct response to the opening of the Caxton Celebration on the 30th of June, 1877, in the South Kensington Museum (later the Victoria and Albert Museum), an event attended by the Archbishop of York, Sir Charles Reed, Gladstone, and others. The Exhibition was extensively covered by the English daily papers; in it all aspects of printing and publishing were on display. A special room was devoted to Caxton’s own productions, and rare specimens of printing, music, book illustration, portraits of authors, printers, technical demonstrations and exhibitions of machines, as well as papermaking and illustrations of antique papers were all available to the visitor.

15The Irish Builder notes that the impetus behind the Exhibition was both educational and self-interested. It was hoped that admission fees would help augment the English Printers’ Pension Fund, and difficulties had already arisen around the exclusion of “working craftsmen”—printers—from the list of the Committee of Management. This fact is simply noted by the writer in The Irish Builder, and then he moves his subject matter to Ireland, but as his own series continues, it becomes clear that one of its strongest themes is the devastation of the industry in Ireland and the complete lack of aid available, either from government or from private organizations, for those most deeply affected. Again, the two strands of the theme appeal to both audiences of The Irish Builder.  The wrongs done to workers in the publishing industry are detailed; for the professionals, Ireland’s illustrious literary past is celebrated.

16Roughly half of the twenty-two instalments of the series deal with the history of Ireland’s publishing industry up to the middle of the eighteenth-century. The other half runs from the period of greatest activity; that is, the years leading up to the 1798 Rebellion and the Act of Union, to around 1860. The series is not, despite the writer’s protestations, an impartial account. Booksellers and publishers are seen as defenders of intellectual and personal freedom; those known to have been under government patronage, or in the pay of Dublin Castle, are scathingly described.

17For instance, Part Thirteen, published on the 1st of January, 1878, speaks of the few journals published just before 1800 “on the side of the people, as opposed to those supporting the Government” (IB,1 Jan, 1878, 5). Government patronage meant a publishing subsidy, well-paying advertisers, and, occasionally, freedom from government taxes of various kinds. Towards the end of the article, contemplation of the restrictions and frustrations of the colonial press get the better of the writer and he says

 […]the national Parliament was only national in one sense while it existed. It might have been split into two or more parties, but all the members were representatives or supporters of the State Church (IB,1 Jan, 1878, 5)

and he goes on to note that the control of journalism was in the same hands. This is oppression given a face. The Press is seen as pitted against the forces of the Government—the Irish Parliament—but a Parliament clearly foreign in religion, politics, and class to the vast majority of its constituents.

18Statistics that again emphasize the consequences to the publishing trades of the Act of Union appear in the issue from January, 1878. The writer apologizes for their inclusion:

These items [he says] are not printing and publishing ones; but it may be seen from the statement what a disastrous effect the loss of a resident nobility and gentry had upon the printing and publishing trade and kindred branches, as well as other trades, in Ireland, and particularly in Dublin (IB,1 Jan, 1878, 21).

In fact, more and more frequently discussion of past publishing history gives way to complaints about the failure of the country to support the industry in its present form. Explanations of the effect of unionist politics on publishers and booksellers, specifically notes about who was being paid off, or who was spying for the Castle, resolve into a veiled but persistent declaration of nationalist sympathy and denunciation of the Anglo-Irish nobility who in 1800 took their custom elsewhere, though the irony of depending for one’s livelihood on the very class that seems bent on one’s suppression is not lost on the writer.

19The venerable Dublin University Magazine comes in for a good deal of criticism, chiefly around a highly controversial decision to alter the title of the journal. Placed just before the eleventh part of the series, The Irish Builder’s denunciation of the decision takes up a column and a half. The writer of the editorial says that “the nationality of the original projectors and conductors of the Dublin University Magazine [in 1833] was unquestionable” (IB,1 Dec, 1877, 346). But now, in 1877, the editors announce that Dublin will be dropped from the title of the journal “under the plea of making it more cosmopolitan in its character”. In 1848, the year of rebellion in Ireland as elsewhere, the writer remembers that the word Dublin was printed in larger type than the word University.

The reason assigned in 1848 for sinking the word “University” or making it small, was that the magazine was known in the London trade as ‘the Dublin’.  The present conductors of our once native periodical have assigned their reason, too, for a change; but the truth is, we fear, that the word Dublin is obnoxious, and stinks in their nostrils. . .Henceforth, the University Magazine will no longer belong to us.  Being ashamed of its former title and the place of its birth, its conductors will perhaps have the candour to say it needs no longer Irish subscribers or Irish readers (IB,1 Dec, 1877, 346)

20Through placing the title in large, bold type, in the center of the page, The Irish Builder underlines its own interest in nationalist gestures and ensures that the reader’s eye is irresistibly drawn to its discussion of the issue (see fig. 3).

21The article for the 15th of April, 1878, talks of

the story of the printing, publishing, and bookselling trade of Dublin, embodied in that of the lives of its representatives, [as] full of strange pictures, sudden surprises, and weird dissolving views (114).

An industry under siege is likely to appear confused, and the imagery the writer employs is calculated to remind the reader of the very real threat posed to government by the press. The writer says he was on the spot in 1848 when John Mitchell, proprietor of the United Irishman, was transported, and he was at the offices of the paper on Trinity Street when the police carried away the cases of type. His last comments are despairing; after 1848, he says, came State trials, and

a depression in many industrial fields, and perhaps in no field in Dublin was greater depression felt than in the literary market.  Printers and publishers—of the national type at least—printed no longer with ‘a vigour and a vengeance’. . .Many suspected and non suspected young men, literary and professional, left Ireland for America and other places. . .a host of writers and readers were scattered to the winds, and most of those who elected to stay at home grew careless or indifferent for a long time to new literary or political uprisings or speculations. (IB,1 June, 1878, 160)

22The state of the industry in 1878 forms the bulk of the writer’s final article. Irish publishers, he says, have become mere booksellers, agents for English and Scottish firms. There are few periodicals extant (a comment which takes us back to the complaints of John Power) and Irish writers are considered culpable in preferring to have their works published by British firms.

23All of this seems to fly in the face of the current circumstances of the periodical in which the articles appear. In 1878 The Irish Builder was thriving. The series of articles on printing and publishing was not the only departure from its commercial news. A similar series on the beginnings of Irish Drama and the Stage ran for many months. I have already noted The Irish Builder’s interest in things scientific; this extended to verbatim reports of Royal Irish Academy meetings, notices of scientific conferences, and discussion papers concerning local government policy.

24These interests reflect a new middle-class reader, relatively prosperous after the disastrous 1840s, and nationalist in outlook. So if we go back to our original question; that is, how successful was The Irish Builder in walking the delicate line between professional and worker? The answer would have to be: very successful. Being a trade journal, The Irish Builder could afford to be all things to all people. Its advertisements and commercial news would help cushion the more esoteric subjects it chose to discuss. In a sense, the professional journal took over the function of the highly specialized literary or scientific one. It protected vulnerable subjects through enclosing them within general discussions of professional interest. This was fortunate, in that the more specialist concerns survived and reached a wider audience, but also unfortunate in that literature and science were now closely linked to that professional class, and associated with self-improvement and a certain amount of social climbing rather than uncomplicated pleasure. The movement reflects a trend that has certainly continued in our own time: knowledge that the early nineteenth-century saw as universal, as within the sphere of all readers, eventually became the property of a privileged few.

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1  Vincent Kinane, A History of the Dublin University Press, 1734-1976, Dublin: Gill and Macmillan,  1994, 79.

2  John Power, A List of Irish Periodical Publications (Chiefly Literary) from 1729 to the Present Time; Reprinted from ‘Notes and Queries’, March and April, 1866, and ‘The Irish Literary Enquirer’, No. IV, with Additions and Corrections (London, 1866)

3  Barbara HAyley, “Irish Periodicals,” Anglo-Irish Studies, ii, 1976, 83

4  Enda McKay, “A Century of Irish Trade Journals 1860-1960”, in Three Hundred Years of Irish Periodicals, ed. by Barbara Hayley and Enda McKay, Dublin : Lilliput Press,  1987, 103-121.

5  Variations in title are as follows: The Dublin Builder (1859-1866); Irish Builder and Engineering Record (1867-1871); Irish Builder (1872-1899); Irish Builder and Technical Journal (1899-1903) to 1979.References to The Irish Builder will be contained in the text as IB.

6  Thomas Tomlinson, “Engineering and Building in 1859”, in The Irish Builder and Engineer Jubilee Number(1859-1909), March, 1909, 67.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Dublin Builder
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Titre Irish Builder
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Titre Dublin Magazine
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Elizabeth Tilley, « Trading in Knowledge: The Irish Builder and Nineteenth-Century Journalism »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. III - n°1 | 2005, mis en ligne le 27 octobre 2009, consulté le 23 octobre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Elizabeth Tilley

Dr. (Galway, Ireland)
Elizabeth Tilley is Director of the MA in Literature and Publishing, Department of English, National University of Ireland, Galway. She teaches Book History, Nineteenth-Century Literature, Gothic Fiction, and Writing by Women. Elizabeth Tilley is currently writing a monograph on Nineteenth-Century Periodicals in Ireland. Her representative articles are "Irish Victorian Antiquarianism and the Royal Irish Academy" in Oxford History of the Irish Book, Volume Four (forthcoming),  "Science, Industry, and Nationalism in the Dublin Penny Journal" in Culture and Science in the Nineteenth-Century Media, ed. by Louise Henson, Geoffrey Cantor, et al. (Aldershot, 2004), "Charting Culture in the Dublin University Magazine" in Ireland in the Nineteenth-Century: Regional Identity, ed. by Leon Litvak and Glenn Hooper (Dublin, 2000).

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