Printing and Publishing in Ireland (in the early 19th Century)

From The Dublin Penny Journal, Volume 1, Number 39, March 23, 1833

Notwithstanding the vast advantages which the public are at present deriving from the extension of the art of Printing, there are many, even very intelligent people, who are ignorant of the process, and who do not comprehend either the difficulties or the facilities attendant on this noble art. To such of our readers, therefore, as may wish for the information, we will endeavour to explain the mechanical process, and then add a few remarks on the history and progress of Printing and Publishing in Ireland.

It will surprise a good many to be told, that it would take a compositor the best part of a day to put the types together of a single page of this Journal--and yet such is the fact. The eight pages which comprise a single number would take him an entire week--and he would earn nearly two pounds sterling. But in order to give a distinct idea of the mental and bodily labour and expense requisite in producing what to each purchaser is only One Penny, we will commence by supposing that the editors have written or compiled or procured the various articles which constitute a number--that the drawings are made, and sent to the engravers in order to be cut in the wood--and that the compositor has the manuscript before him, ready to arrange into type. Standing at his case, as it is technically termed, a frame divided into compartments, in order to contain the various letters of the alphabet, and the different stops and figures, and holding in his hand a slider, which is adjusted to the precise length of the line, he lifts the types, one by one, and places them in their order. The types are marked with an indention in order to facilitate the placing of them regularly, as otherwise some would be turned upside down, as for instance, in the following word, `guiurnt',[1] in which the t, r, i, and g, are reversed. When the articles are all put into type, which, as before mentioned, would take one able compositor an entire week, they are thrown into the form of pages, an operation technically termed, "making up."

These pages are then placed in an iron frame, and secured by wedges, and in this state carried to the pressmen, who take off one impression, termed "a proof," which is handed to the editor or reader, for the purpose of having all the errors and wrong letters marked in the margin. It is then the business of the compositor to correct this proof, to take out the wrong letters and words, and make it all right, and then again carried back to the pressmen, who immediately prepare to take off impressions, and which is not done without considerable skill and trouble. The paper has to be soaked with water, and to remain in wet, for several hours--the roller, (the instrument for spreading the ink over the types,) which is a wooden block enveloped with a composition of treacle and glue boiled together until it becomes of a proper consistence, has to be made ready, the wood engravings have to be raised to the level of the types, and the ink is spread over a table, on which the roller, which turns on a pivot, is placed, for the purpose of distributing the ink equably. We have said that the wages paid to the compositor for a single number of the Journal is nearly two pounds; the wages paid to the pressmen for one thousand impressions is seven shillings; and this is totally independent of editorial labour--drawings--wood engraving--paper--wear and tear of material--commercial management, &c. The great secret in conducting a cheap publication is extensive circulation, for assuredly, while the present duty on paper continues, nothing else will enable it to be carried on.

Printing was invented about three hundred years ago. That in these three hundred years it has effected a most wonderful change in the character and history of our race is a remark not more trite than it is true: but it has only yet--even yet--begun its giant struggle with ignorance and error. Previous to its invention, when books were written with the pen, and one copy only of a work required weeks and months of laborious exertion, knowledge was confined to a learned few, and the bulk of mankind were rude and ignorant. When it was found out that by the use of types copies of a work could be multiplied to any extent, a great alteration was effected--readers increased, authors increased, all caused by the facilities obtained for increasing books. In fact, the man who first suggested the idea of cutting letters on blocks of wood, rude though the contrivance was at first, laid the foundation of an alteration in the mind of man, of an enlargement of the empire of thought, to which we cannot at present assign any limit. The progress of printing, however, for two hundred years after its invention, was comparatively slow. True, wooden blocks were exchanged for metal types; the printing press, commonly termed the old wooden press, nearly altogether gone out of use, was invented; paper was improved in quality and quantity; schools began to multiply; and books and education found their way to the lower classes. But it was not until the commencement of the present century that the grand "movement" began. Before that time newspapers and magazines were few in number and modest in pretension. Now, they almost seem to overshadow the land, employing in their service, talent, and skill, and capital to an extent which almost mocks calculation. And it is within these last thirty years, also, that the prodigious outpouring of works of fiction and romance, poetry, and science has taken place, demonstrating that the mind of man is like the hidden source of some mighty river, while the superficial observer is like the Indian in his canoe paddling on the flood, and marvelling from whence the torrent comes. It is also within the same period, and keeping pace with the increase of authorship and reading, that the great and recent improvements in the art of printing have taken place; and we have not the slightest doubt that farther improvements will take place, which will extend the benefits of printing more widely and beneficially than they have even yet been.

Before the Union, there was some activity manifested in book-printing in Dublin. There were some very respectable productions brought out; and we have only to refer to the "Anthologia," in proof of the assertion. But it was also a common practice for printers and publishers to print pirated editions of works published on the other side of the channel; and that in a style so very inferior to the originals, the paper and the printing being alike disgraceful, as to reflect any thing but credit on the Irish Press. The truly amiable and talented Miss Brooke, some of whose productions have graced the pages of this Journal, suffered severely in mind, while publishing her beloved father's Works, owing to the ungenerous conduct of the printer, who, heedless of her feelings, resorted to the common practice of using wretched paper, and sending the work slovenly through the press, in order to realise an immediate and larger profit. And such was the estimation in which Irish printed books were held in England, that it is only within a very short period indeed, that an English bookseller could or would believe it possible for a creditable thing to come out of the country. What was the consequence? The people were content with the wretchedly miserable specimens of printing which were circulated as cheap literature; and too often, low and improper ballads were the only amusement of a vacant hour, or if the ambition ascended to a book, the "Irish Rogues and Rapparees," or something else, of which it might be hard to say whether the mental or the mechanical execution were the most disgusting, formed the staple. The improvement of such a taste will infallibly have a reflex influence on the social condition of the people; and the diffusion of a taste for knowledge of a grave and manly character will so co-operate with it, as to change much that is faulty in the character and conduct of our countrymen.

Now, justice compels us to say, that the only town in Ireland which has at all kept any pace with the literary stir of the last thirty years, is the spirited town of Belfast. In the way of book-printing, until lately, Dublin has been woefully behind, when considered as the metropolis of the kingdom. There are, doubtless, old established and enterprising Booksellers in the city: yet from whatever cause it arose, there never was any thing produced which could at all be compared with the London and Edinburgh productions until within these few years, during which Mr. Cumming, the Messrs. Curry, and others, have set a praiseworthy example of energy and spirit.

Of the other towns in Ireland, Cork is spirited, and contains an intelligent and reading population; and the same remark applies to Limerick. But neither Limerick, or Cork, or Waterford, can compare with Belfast. We intend nothing invidious by the comparison: we wish to excite to emulation. We would like to see printing offices as numerous in every town in Ireland as in England. We would like to see in every village, however inconsiderable, a little bookseller's shop, with a lending library attached to it. We would like to see the young men forming themselves into associations for the purpose of acquiring information in history, science, and philosophy. We would like to see a taste diffusing itself for solid and manly reading, correcting that diseased habit which can look at nothing but what is trifling, and puerile, and evanescent. And if, in any degree, our Journal will be thus instrumental in directing the acute and intelligent minds of our countrymen into healthful fields of exercise, we say it with unaffected sincerity, that our reward will consist in the approbation of our consciences, and the esteem of the good and wise.

We have the satisfaction of knowing that our labours have not been altogether inoperative. Our little publication has found its way into remote districts, and that in spite of difficulties, from the want of proper means of conveyance, which are unknown either in England or in Scotland. The desire of possessing it, created in the minds of the people, has enabled us to procure agents for its sale in villages where nothing of the kind was before known, thus laying the foundation of a literary taste, and creating an embryo bookseller, in every village where it finds its way. No helping hand has been stretched out to us in this enterprise. Our path has been crossed by the spirit of monopoly, and envy and jealousy would have rebuked us down, if they could. But we have maintained our ground; and standing on the commercial principle alone, we will be enabled to carry on the work we have begun--the creating a permanent and just literary taste in the minds of the people of Ireland.

One evident proof of the deficiency of literary energy in Ireland, is, that there is no type foundry in the country. Our printers have to send for their types either to England or Scotland: while, as a set-off to this, it is a fact, that though printing and type-founding were invented and carried to great perfection on the continent, yet Britain has outstripped the continent, either as to perfection of type-casting or beauty of printing. Though Glasgow be but a mere commercial city, yet the type foundry of the Wilsons, established there now nearly a century, was well known many years ago in Germany, as producing the most perfect specimens of type, especially Greek type, in the world. Edinburgh has also one or two type foundries, and several towns in England, as well as London, possess them. Now, if a very great and general demand for useful information were excited throughout Ireland, and a stir were given to literary enterprise, and printing called into active operation, we might see a type foundry established in Dublin, and native talent called into exercise, giving an impulse to the public mind, the beneficial results of which would only be rightly appreciated by another generation.

A great change has been manifesting itself of late, and which is rapidly progressing. There is more literary energy in Dublin at present than has been at any former period; and we trust the day is not far distant when the reproach of mental impotence will be wiped away, and the character of our countrymen be, that they are not merely acute, but informed, not merely imaginative, lively, witty, and droll, but intellectual, manly, tasteful, and refined.



[1] These letters appears upside down in the original text