- “Do You Ring? Or Are You Rung For?”:Mass Media, Class, and Social Aspiration in Edwardian Ireland
In October 1903, readers of Ireland’s Own might have noticed, among the more conventional advertisements for soap and baby food, an announcement of the Dr. McLaughlin Company’s Electro-Vigour belt, which promised to “pour glowing, exhilarating vitality into you while you sleep; it rejuvenates, animates sluggish circulation, stimulates the brain into activity and fills the body with life, ambition and endurance.”1
This advertisement was not unusual in popular publications of the early twentieth century. It and many others played upon a very particular set of anxieties about masculinity, class, and the experience of mass culture. The fact that these fears are evident in popular media is not a coincidence: this was the era of an exponentially growing mass media, accompanied by great anxieties about what it might mean to be part of a mass audience. Scholars have been slow to see that experience in Ireland, probably due to a traditional reluctance to recognize Irish modernity, including its experience of mass culture. Because nationalism and national identity were so central to Irish public discourse of the period, there has been a much greater critical emphasis upon the experience of being a member of a “national public” than upon the experience of being a member of a “mass audience.” Ireland’s status as a small nation—in which that national public is presumed not be a faceless crowd—may also have contributed to this lack of discussion of mass audiences.
But mass culture depends less upon sheer numbers than it does upon a conception of its audience as a mass, and therefore as a market to be segmented for the consumption of particular products. Ireland in the early twentieth century was actually a highly developed mass media market. It not only had a popular publishing industry of its own by this point; it was also experiencing the widespread circulation of imported newspapers, magazines, advertisements, as well as the products they sold. This was an experience of international mass culture [End Page 17] on a greater scale than that of many other countries, and one that undoubtedly involved the creation of an Irish mass market.
Ireland’s Own was a story paper established in Wexford in 1902 by John M. Walsh, who had inherited the People Printing Works from his father and also owned several local newspapers. Within a couple of years of starting Ireland’s Own, Walsh moved the magazine to Dublin, where he founded the Dublin Saturday Post.2 Although there are no reliable circulation figures, Ireland’s Own (which cost 1d a week) was almost certainly the most popular Irish story paper during the early twentieth century, perhaps selling as many as 80,000 copies per week.3
Story papers, as their name suggests, were weekly papers focused upon short and serial fiction (mainly adventure and romance stories), along with regular columns, competitions, and feature articles. They were designed to appeal mainly to younger male readers, aged approximately fourteen to twenty-four, especially those of the upper working-and lower middle-classes, but a variety of evidence from the magazines themselves suggests that they were often read by entire families. The more successful of the British story papers, such as the Boys’ Own Paper and Magnet, ranked among the most widely read publications of the era, and were, of course, available in Ireland, as were most British papers and magazines. American equivalents, mainly published in New York, included Argosy and the All-Story Paper, both produced by the publishing magnate Frank Munsey.4 Like the other Irish story papers, such as the Irish Emerald, the Shamrock and the Irish Packet, Ireland’s Own attempted to cope with the competition from high-circulation British imports by emphasizing their Irishness and also by claiming to be more “wholesome.”
This claim had particular potency during the early twentieth century, in the context of the “social purity” movement, which campaigned against fiction and other popular forms that it perceived to be debauched and immoral. The social purity movement was particularly active in Ireland in 1911 to 1913, although it focused its energies...