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New Hibernia Review 7.4 (2003) 63-84

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Reading Publics, Theater Audiences, and the Little Magazines of the Abbey Theatre

Paige Reynolds
The College of the Holy Cross

In their introduction to The Little Magazine: A History and a Bibliography (1946), William Hoffman, Charles Allen, and Carolyn F. Ulrich provide a seminal definition of the little magazine as an organ strictly anticommercial because of its commitment to publishing cerebral and unorthodox work. That characterization has until recently been uncritically embraced by scholars of this genre. By focusing largely on American little magazines like Poetry, The Masses, and The Little Review, Hoffman, Allen, and Ulrich further explain that these "advance guard" magazines were described as "little" because "the word designated above everything else . . . a limited group of intelligent readers." 1 In his recent study The Public Face of Modernism: Little Magazines, Audiences, and Reception 1905-1920 (2000), Mark Morrisson usefully and convincingly argues that in fact these journals in both England and America adapted the techniques of the mass-market press in a quest to popularize modernist ideals and aesthetics. Though never achieving the vast recognition accorded magazines like England's Tit Bits, these little magazines suggest for Morrisson "an early optimism about the power of mass market technologies and institutions to transform and rejuvenate contemporary culture," owing in part to their efforts to assert widely the public function of art. 2 These radically different perceptions of the intended audience for the little magazine—insights separated by half a century—reflect the transformation in how literary criticism depicts modernism's relationship to mass culture. Hoffman and his fellow editors advocate in their definition the narrowly anticommercial elitism of a New Critical modernism, whereas Morrisson insists these publications bridged the "great divide" separating high art and popular art. 3 [End Page 63]

Though their observations and conclusions regarding this genre are frequently at odds, these two studies share one thing: their critical analyses focus exclusively on twentieth-century modernist practice in England and America. However, as early as the 1890s, Ireland produced a variety of publications that could be accurately designated "little magazines." 4 An array of Irish journals provided literature and social commentary for "intelligent readers" during this period, including Shan Van Vocht (1896-1899), a nationalist literary magazine edited by Ethna Carbery and Alice Milligan; Frederick Ryan and John Eglinton's short-lived Dana (1904-1905); and The Shanachie (1906-1907), a Dublin literary quarterly published by Maunsel and Co. These journals were soon followed by a host of others, including The Irish Review (1911-1914), Dublin Magazine (1923-1958), and perhaps most famously Sean O'Faolain's The Bell (1940-1954). During the early years of the Irish Literary Revival, a remarkable number of nationalist organizations promoted their tenets through cultural journals that also regularly made available the experimental work and intellectual prose of native authors. For example, The Gael, the journal of the Gaelic Athletic Association, offered its readers Yeats's writings; The Irish Monthly, a religious periodical celebrating Catholicism, published Moore's The Untilled Field along with the work of Wilde, Yeats, and Tynan; and The Irish Homestead, the weekly journal of the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society, introduced stories from Joyce's Dubliners. This distinctive relationship among the popular institution, publicity, and publication seems of particular importance in understanding the little magazine in Ireland. From the inception of the Revival, there appears a recognition of the crucial dynamic between scattered, isolated readers and the individuals who gathered in shared time and space, whether, as in the case of the journals mentioned above, to play and cheer Gaelic sport, to worship in church, or to work together to create agricultural cooperatives.

In particular, one publication produced during the Irish Literary Revival and associated expressly with a cultural institution—the Abbey Theatre—allows us to explore murky terrain untrod by Hoffman and his coauthors and glimpsed at by Morrisson; that is, the site where modernist editors and authors awkwardly strove to cultivate audiences simultaneously elitist and popular, abstracted and [End Page 64] actual. 5 The occasional...


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