“The Catholic Book Bulletin which we launch today will be concerned primarily with recommending Catholic literature, and promoting its distribution. It will not only indicate approved books, but systematically review them as occasion arises; and further it will pioneer a scheme by which a library of Catholic literature, sanctioned and approved to the last page by the Catholic ecclesiastical authorities, can be placed on very easy terms within the reach of the humblest Catholic home in rural Ireland.” So reads the first paragraph, page one, volume one, issue one, January 1911 of The Catholic Book Bulletin: A Monthly Review of Catholic Literature.
A letter from Mr. J. O’Doherty appeared in volume one of the Bulletin. Mr. O’Doherty wrote: “I am myself most anxious to avail of your offer of a cheap domestic library, but the difficulty seems to me to be how and where to begin.” In the April 1911 article, “A Domestic Library and Other Things,” Mrs. Mary Coleman offered advice to Mr. O’Doherty and any other persons looking to set up a family library.
Mrs. Coleman’s recommendations sought to foster the formation of the soul, mind and heart, particularly for the Roman Catholic population in early twentieth-century Ireland. Mrs. Coleman was a member of the Church, an author for the Catholic Bulletin, and a person with a sense of nationalism. The Catholic Bulletin might be considered a Catholic and nationalist publication, but it was not an official organ of the Catholic Church. From her book list, we can presume that Mrs. Coleman reflected some of the thinking of the population in Ireland in 1911.
Mary Coleman recommended books and pamphlets related mainly to spirituality and character formation, but her list also included historical works, literature, music and those related to the study of the Irish language. Some may find Mrs. Coleman narrow minded and proscriptive, but, as a writer for a religious publication in her time period, one should not be surprised at her ideas as to what books should be in a family library. She visualized parents like Mr. O’Doherty reading to his young children by the fireside, and wanted to see them avoid embarrassment of the kind that the reading of some popular texts of their day might cause. Perhaps an unintended outcome of her work in this matter was the creation of a detailed list of approved books, a list valuable for scholars interested in the historical reading material that influenced many twentieth-century Irish readers. And, fortunately for modern researchers, the Boston College Libraries hold most, if not all, of the titles on Mrs. Coleman’s list.
Small pamphlets published by the Irish Messenger or the Catholic Truth Society provided easy to read and accessible lessons to guide the reader in the ways of character formation. See examples such as “Self-Improvement” and “How Character is Formed” in the accompanying photographs.
There was no shortage of recommended fiction provided by the popular novels of the well-known authors Canon Patrick Sheehan and Father Joseph Guinan. Their books give modern scholars a look into the role of the priest in Ireland during the early part of the twentieth century, complete with descriptions of the inner life of a newly-ordained priest (Father Guinan’s Curate of Kilcloon) and with such exterior pursuits as involvement in land activist activities (Canon Sheehan’s Luke Delmege).
Other titles on Mrs. Coleman’s list represented an Irish interest in history, music, poetry, and reclaiming names and geographies. Reading recommendations on such themes were classics: “Father Woulfe’s Irish Names and Surnames,” familiarized readers with the correct forms of their family and neighbors’ names, and Dr. Joyce’s “Irish Names of Places,” taught children the origins of the name of their district and instilled in them an interest in the history of their birthplace.
Mrs. Coleman went on to recommend the historical works of D’Arcy M‘Gee and A. M. Sullivan. Music recommendations included “Irish Minstrel,” and, for poetry, a fair share of female poets, such as Ethne Carberry, Eva of the Nation and Esperanza (Lady Wilde) along with famous male poets like Thomas Moore.
Mrs. Coleman’s recommendations reveal the importance of the Church, spiritual and devotional practices, and of Irish history, literature, language and music as the Irish sought to reclaim aspects of Irish knowledge and culture for a new nation.
To hear more of the recommendations and listen to a reading of an abridged version of the article by Mrs. Coleman, click here or cut and paste this URL into your browser: http://www.bc.edu/sites/libraries/imc/domestic_library.html This reading was done by Gráinne McEvoy, Doctoral candidate in the Boston College History Department.
Coleman, Mary, “A Domestic Library and Other Things,” The Catholic Bulletin and Book Review, volume 1, April (1911), 199-204.
- Kathleen Williams, Irish Studies Librarian