Review of Rebecca Anne Barr, Sarah-Anne Buckley and Muireann O’Cinneide (eds), Literacy, language, and reading in nineteenth-century Ireland by Ciarán McCabe

Review of

Rebecca Anne Barr, Sarah-Anne Buckley and Muireann O’Cinneide (eds),
Literacy, language and reading in nineteenth-century Ireland
(Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2019). xiii, 213 p.

This volume constitutes the published proceedings of the Society for the Study of Nineteenth-Century Ireland’s (SSNCI) 2015 conference held in NUI Galway, where each of the three editors are based. The SSNCI has, since 1996, produced a steady stream of published conference proceedings and since the publication of the subject volume two years ago, three more collections have been published and another is due for publication in September 2021 (see:

            The cultures of literacy and reading in modern Ireland have been the subject of a number of comprehensive studies by leading scholars. For the early modern period, Raymond Gillespie’s Reading Ireland (Manchester, 2005) still dominates the field, while, not surprisingly, more is known of reading cultures from the eighteenth century onwards. Two important early interventions in this field were J. R. R. Adams’s The printed word & the common man: popular culture in Ulster 1700-1900 (1987), and Mary Daly and David Dickson’s edited volume The origins of popular literacy in Ireland(1990). Almost a quarter century after its first publication, Niall Ó Ciosáin’s Print and popular culture (1997) remains indispensable, and perhaps unrivalled, for an understanding of the topic for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. How appropriate, then, that the subject volume’s main body of essays begins with Ó Ciosáin’s ever-nuanced exploration of the ‘varieties of literacy’ in nineteenth-century Ireland, based on his keynote lecture to the 2015 conference. (The chapters by Ó Ciosáin and Stephenie Rains are the most relevant for those interested in women’s history and form the basis of this review).

            Ó Ciosáin’s chapter mines the census data of the mid-nineteenth century to challenge us to move beyond a simple binary variable understanding of the literacy question: people were either literate or illiterate. Instead, we can comprehend the ability to read and write as two distinct ‘binary variables, with people being either able to read or not, and to write or not’ (p. 24). However, fundamental questions must be asked about what is meant by saying that someone is ‘able to read’? Closely reading simple texts differs from scanning complex ones; reading print differs from reading handwriting; the repeated reading (and possible memorising) of a single text differs from an extensive reading of multiple texts. Turning to the topic of female reading ability, the author tells us that the ability to ‘read only’ was ‘predominantly a female characteristic’ (p. 20): boys were kept at school for longer than girls, thus having more time to learn the skill of writing, and, also, boys and men were more likely to undertake paid work requiring writing as well as reading skills. The 1841 census reveals the number of females who could read only (FRO) outnumbered those who could read and write (FRW) (829,000 and 678,000 respectively), whereas the reverse was true for males, amongst whom 580,000 could read only but 1.28 million could read and write. Early census figures revealing that FRO was most common in Ulster – perhaps tempting us to associate this trait with Protestant cultures which stressed the importance of bible reading – are complicated by the 1861 census data, which recorded for the first time respondents’ denomination. Here, FRO is revealed to be mostly associated with Catholic women living in Protestant areas, although the reason for this is not made clear. This chapter is typical of Ó Ciosáin’s body of work over the past three decades: he pushes us to reconsider traditionally ‘safe’ topics and concepts (What do historians understand by one’s ‘ability to read’?), grounds his analysis in hard data, and does not neglect to locate the Irish case within the broader international context, thus further nuancing our understanding of nineteenth-century Irish society.

            Stephanie Rains’s essay on ‘alternative literacies’ focuses on the late-nineteenth-century fascination with the human hand, as seen in the x-ray craze of the mid-1890s (wherein the hand was the most x-rayed body part), the development of finger-print technology and the popularity of graphology (the study of handwriting). Whereas palmistry held out assurances of the ability to determine one’s character by the lines of the palm, graphologists believed that handwriting was a sure indicator of personality and behavioural traits. Rains quotes from fascinating snippets of advice proffered by a graphologists in the Lady of the House periodical, where the supposed expert assessed samples of handwriting submitted by readers, and she suggests that such authorities oftentimes understood that they were assessing the handwriting of prospective suitors of their female readers. However, the analysis is not followed through to discuss whether men were known to submit handwriting samples to periodicals for any purpose; such an observation would add some balance to this fascinating discussion. 

           The practice of palmistry was also heavily gendered: palm-readers were women meeting the demands of their largely female clientele. However, Rains usefully introduces the element of social class into the fray, with the observation that prosecutions for palmistry were taken against practitioners who were held to have ‘duped’ servants and shop girls, who were seen as innately gullible and vulnerable. On the other hand, palm-readers were oftentimes star attractions at bazaars patronised by the clergy, who were among the most hardened critics of this practice. 

‘The crucial difference between the palmists prosecuted and those listed as star visitors to charity bazaars was of course their clientele. The majority of visitors to charity bazaars from the middle or upper classes, unlike the gullible servants who were constantly referenced in court cases as being ‘duped’ by palmists operating  from rented rooms and entertainment parlours’ (p. 186).

            Aside from the two chapters which have formed the focus of this review (given their particular relevance to questions of women’s experiences), this volume contains eight additional essays, divided between the book’s four sections: ‘Literacy and Bilingualism’, ‘Periodicals and Their Readers’, Translation, Transmission and Transnational Literacies’ and ‘Visual Literacies’. The select bibliography will prove to be a valuable resource for researchers approaching this topic, while the introduction (co-authored by the three editors) goes beyond the standard summary of the essays contained within, and develops the broad themes by drawing, where relevant, on wider, international literature.

In all, this is a most useful volume and meets the high standards of published conference proceedings set by the SSNCI over the past quarter of a century.

Ciarán McCabe

Dublin City University

Dr Ciarán McCabe is a teaching fellow in the School of History and Geography, Dublin City University. He is a social historian of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Ireland, and his recent published works include a study of charwomen in Dublin’s secondary labour force, c.1870-c.1940 (published in Social History, 45:2 (May 2020)) and Begging, Charity and Religion in Pre-Famine Ireland (Liverpool, 2018).