Libraries often gain renown through the preservation of the beautiful and profound. Sumptuously illuminated manuscripts or the first editions of literary giants hold the attentions of librarians and scholars, but what about the quick and dirty products of everyday print, the reading material of the common man and woman? Every era of print had its own more practical, quotidian, and unattractive guises existing alongside the works of great aesthetic and intellectual achievement. Despite the inclination to ignore or downplay the products of popular culture, a recovery and investigation of the reading materials of everyday life offers a rare glimpse into ordinary, unchronicled lives.
The Brereton Collection of Irish Broadsides is neither pretty nor penetrating. The broadsides are an archive of printer’s errors and worst practices, and the ballads are often sonorous nightmares. But they are good fun. And after a verse or two, the rhythms conjure up visions of the local horse fair and the turf fire of the shebeen. The songs have survived in Irish cliché and traditional music; but, they can also tell us much about the reading practices and circuits of communication in nineteenth-century Ireland. As Seamus MacManus notes in his memoir The Rocky Road to Dublin (1938):
“Ballads were easier to get than books, a great deal. They were the everyday reading of Donegal. No man ever thought of leaving a fair without a new ballad in his pocket. He wasn’t fit for a fair, if he thought otherwise. And it only cost a ha’penny from the ballad-singer. The old stand-byes you bought in a broad-sheet of twelve for a penny, at the Stannins [small shops set up under canvas tents]–and plenty of stirring, real Irish, ones were mixed in them. The street-ballads were the boy’s first literature, and first love–and they never lost their place in his heart.” (p. 141-2)
Printed sometime in the second-half of the nineteenth century, the broadsides in this collection were issued from a single publisher in Dublin, Peter Brereton. Little is known about the printer, but a survey of his works suggests that he produced the broadsides for a popular market hungry for cheap print. Worn and sometimes broken woodcuts adorn the sheets, and the union of word and image create wonderfully puzzling scenes. For instance, a woodcut of a gentleman chasing a young boy (in strikingly tight pants) into the woods accompanies a ballad entitled “The English Courtship.” In another, three seemingly unrelated ornaments–a bird, a man exiting a door, and a flourish–sit atop an emigration song. But these sins of design seem tame compared to the near sacrilege of using a scene of Christ’s passion as a pictorial companion to a song called “The Irish Rake.”
A closer investigation reveals the blemishes of composition—inverted letters, multiple type-faces, broken sorts, uneven leading, etc. Clearly, neither the printer nor reader cared much for these minor details. The broadsheets were printed quickly and inexpensively. This was not uncommon. The conditions of their production and distribution served a number of needs for both printers and readers. These slips of paper were an essential part of the print trade. Jobbing work of this kind helped sustain printing houses during the lean times between larger-scale projects. Type could be set in minutes, old woodcuts could be reused, and hundreds of copies could be quickly printed on damaged or remainder stock from other projects. Books could take weeks or months to print and newspapers required a relatively large amount of copy and the skill of numerous typesetters; whereas, the broadsheet could be thrown together in minutes.
Economic necessity led many printers to create broadsides to provide a steady flow of capital into their establishment. Hawkers, who sang the songs in streets and at fairs and sold their sheets to those who wanted the song for their own, filled the role of both distribution and retail. They peddled folk song and current events to a public increasingly hungry for current controversy and consumer entertainment. The broadsheet also bridged the gap between orality and literacy in Ireland. Purchased broadsheets were often sung in public places to both literate and illiterate, and the wide availability of these printed items, no doubt, served as primers to children and adults learning to read. Brereton also catered to both Catholic and Protestant communities in Ireland, sometimes using the same woodcuts to decorate opposing views. The same image of a donkey illustrates both “The Irish Tennant Farmers Lament From Eviction From His Native Home” and “A New Song Called the Papist Ass”.
- Andrew Kuhn, Burns Library Reading Room Student Assistant & Doctoral Candidate in the Department of English,firstname.lastname@example.org