Consuming Irish Children

Advertising and the Art of Independence, 1860–1921

by Lauren Rebecca Clark (Author)
Monographs VIII, 280 Pages
Series: Reimagining Ireland, Volume 83


As far as Irish history is concerned, consuming Irish children was not only a matter for Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. Late nineteenth-century Ireland saw the emergence of a thriving home-grown advertising industry, and the Irish child played a pivotal role in developing a nascent consumer state from the 1860s until 1921. Through extensive analysis of advertising copy, historical materials, ephemera and literature, this study links the child-centred consumer culture of Victorian Ireland with its impact on the establishment of the independent state. This form of «Celtic consumerism» was also evident in Scotland following the Gaelic Revival, positioning the child as the newest participant in a national process of consumption. Due to high child literacy rates, which outstripped those of mainland Britain, Ireland’s children were appealed to as literate consumers in advertising copy and were informed of the perils or benefits of consumer culture in late Victorian Irish literature. This book presents a fascinating picture of the role of the child in the Irish marketplace at the fin de siècle, as well as investigating simultaneous developments in the Irish education system and laws concerning the care and welfare of children.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: Message in a Bottle
  • The Irish child-consumer
  • Literature involving child-consumers and State means to contain and care for children
  • Overseeing consumption: May Laffan Hartley
  • Chapter 1: Positioning the Irish Fin-de-Siècle Child in Literature, Popular Press and Advertising
  • Motherland myths
  • 1870s perceptions of childhood in minor publications
  • The ‘Irish figurative family’ and infantilising discourses in Irish literature
  • Subaltern children
  • Re-imagining the children of the Celtic Revival
  • Material culture, literature and childhood rebellion
  • May Laffan Hartley’s quiet riot
  • George Sand, slums and consumer dystopias
  • Irish childhoods: Sell or mêle?
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 2: Peaceful Pearse and Shaw the Social Critic? National Advertising, Educational and Social Development
  • Introduction
  • A new era of educational advertising
  • Pearse’s plays, An Macaomh and St Enda’s magazines
  • Religious publications and alternate fiction
  • Arrested development: Shavian attitudes towards family and social composition
  • Immaturity and childishness
  • The ‘new child’
  • Schooling, Shaw and Pearse
  • Chapter 3: ‘Moocows’ and the Masses: Children in Literature, Advertising and Consumer Culture in Victorian Ireland
  • The fictionalised Irish fin-de-siècle child
  • Advertising discourses and Irish children 1870–1921
  • The child and crowd concerns of Joyce’s predecessors: May Laffan, Fannie Gallaher and Katharine Tynan
  • Joyce’s child characters, crowds and consumption
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 4: Child Readers, Child Buyers
  • Introduction
  • Ward, Simms & M’Intyre and Belfast’s print culture
  • Simms & M’Intyre and schoolbook publishing
  • Playground publishing and publicising of urban Belfast
  • Gendering the Victorian Irish child? Complications
  • Gendering the Irish child as a consumer? Magazines and children’s fiction
  • Fannie Gallaher and domestic economics
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 5: ‘Affluenza’ and Advertising: Commodifying and Curing Children in Ireland, 1860–1921
  • Socio-historical approaches and contexts
  • Symptoms: Advertising medicines, health and beauty products to children in Ireland and Britain
  • Causes: Children’s sustenance: Advertising and provision of food
  • Treatments: Irish children’s health care: State and civic responsibilities
  • Conclusion: Civic exhibitions and bizarre bazaars?
  • Chapter 6: ‘The Charity Myth’ and Consumer Culture: Irish Charity Children and Franco-Irish Foundlings
  • Introduction
  • Sans Famille and Irish consumerism
  • Foundling Mick the entrepreneur
  • Why foundlings?
  • Conclusion: Alternative foundling narratives in Irish children’s fiction
  • Chapter 7: Second Cities of Empire: Celtic Consumerism Exhibited
  • Introduction
  • Celtic consumerism in ‘second cities of empire’?
  • Carleton and classic ephemera: Broadcasting consumerism in Ireland before 1853
  • Covert celtitude: Product placement at the 1854 and 1865 Dublin exhibitions
  • Scottish and Irish consumerism versus European modernism
  • The Glasgow international exhibitions of 1888 and 1901
  • Epilogue: The Convenient Timing of CCAL Ireland
  • Interdisciplinarity: Advertising, consumer culture and literature
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

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Though some years have passed since its inception, and this book has travelled several conflicts, cultures and continents, all of the work would not have been possible without the initial support from the Leverhulme Trust. The National Library of Scotland, Pearse Street Library, University of Glasgow Library, National Library of Ireland, Trinity College Special Collections, Cork and Galway Libraries have been especially helpful in composing this work. I am grateful to Dr Alison O’Malley-Younger, Prof. John Strachan, Paddy Lyons, Dr Scott Brewster, Dr Eamon Maher, Dr David Fallon and Prof. Willy Maley for their patience and expertise in tending this work to become a germane whole. Finally, I am especially grateful to my loving friends and dear family for lending their hearts in what has been a very hands-on enterprise. Any mistakes herein are my own.

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Message in a Bottle

Advertisements are cultural messages in a bottle – messages we read to learn just how alone we are.1

This poetic caveat from Jennifer Wicke’s seminal work Advertising Fictions: Literature, Advertisement and Social Reading (1988) introduces two imperatives. That advertising is a culturally resonant ‘message in a bottle’ seems unsurprising in an age where the practice is guided by market research surveys and superseded by regulatory bodies to affect the marketability of products in consumer indices. Indeed the lonely implied reader of advertisements is as much ‘at sea’ figuratively as he or she is awash with recondite advertising discourses pitched to fit the ‘individual’. In post-Famine Ireland, however, advertising and consumption were amongst the most novel and powerful of cultural industries in Ireland. Advertising was solicited by a number of political groups on both sides of the Home Rule debate from the 1870s onwards as a means to demonstrate that economic betterment through consumption, within or without the Union, was synonymous with ideas of national identity. The ability to consume products in Victorian Ireland, when aligned with social class and popular culture, thus acted as a collective agency of monumental financial, political and social impact. Interestingly, it was not towards individuals that Irish advertisers turned to puff products on a national and cultural scale most readily but towards the figure of the Irish child. This is unusual in so far as leading Irish philanthropists and authors vouched for the need for child protection and child welfare in Ireland long before any consideration of their vulnerability to commercial exploitation had been conceived of. ← 1 | 2 →

Henry Sampson’s guide History of Advertising, published in 1874, promised a comprehensive account of nineteenth-century Britain’s advertising practices. Nonetheless, there are very few mentions of Irish advertising in this study and those which do appear occur within a chapter entitled ‘Curious and Eccentric Advertisements’. The Irish announcements enlisted are in fact personal ads and little acknowledgement is made of Ireland’s independent cultural practices of advertising and consumption. Nor are any examples to be found of the ‘Buy Irish’ national advertising campaigns. These campaigns were vitally important in fostering Ireland’s national consumption which involved the use of political puns around the issue of the union and economic nationalism being placed in advertising copy in the 1870s. Moreover, the choice of personal ads is problematic, convoluted and puzzling in its diversity. This section features items as esoteric as a harangue constituting Charles Robert Maturin’s obituary and an obscure announcement for the absconded wife of an Irish cuckold:

RUN AWAY FROM PATRICK MCDALLAGH – Whereas my wife Mrs Bridget McDallagh, is again walked away with herself […] and I hear has taken up with Tim McGuigan, the lame fiddler […] This is to give notice that I will not pay for bite or sup on her or his account to man or mortal, and that she had better never show the mark of her ten toes near my home again.


N. B. Tim had better keep out of my sight.3

What is most ‘curious and eccentric’ about Sampson’s choice of Irish advertisements is the fact that they are not really advertisements at all but what the French call faits divers, that is to say casual, non-newsworthy material relegated to the back pages of cheap rags. In fact, the scarcity of Irish ads in this volume insinuates that these jocular examples bolster a colonial ← 2 | 3 → hegemony which presided over Irish advertising practice in the late nineteenth century to render its influence unrecorded in historical documentation. Given that other Irish ads are not represented in Sampson’s edition, readers would be forgiven for consigning the culturally rich and economically indicative field of nineteenth-century Irish advertising to a dustbin of gimcracks and petty Paddy-pejorative journalism. Prior to John Strachan and Claire Nally’s study from the research project of which this text was a part, Advertising, Literature and Print Culture in Ireland, 1891–1922 (2012),4 the main historical-analytical interpretation of Irish advertising practice that exists to date is Hugh Oram’s The History of Advertising in Ireland (1986). Here, the turn-of-the-century origins of leading Dublin-based advertising agencies such as Wilson Hartnell, McConnell’s, O’Kennedy and Kenny’s are discussed.5 Together with Derek Garvey’s A Century of Irish Ads (2000), Oram’s history provides a clear account of advertising practices in the Free State period towards the Celtic Tiger era.6 Critical coverage of Irish advertising activities from the mid-nineteenth century to the establishment of the Free State is sadly somewhat patchy despite these important contributions. That said, some research concerned with Victorian British and American advertising is pertinent. Thomas Richards’ Commodity Culture of Victorian England: Advertising and Spectacle 1851–1914 (1991) and Selling Culture, Magazines Markets and Class at the Turn of the Century (1996) by Richard Ohmann are amongst the most useful examinations on the topic of Victorian commodity culture.7 Employing Ohmann and Richards’ useful critiques throughout this text will give credence to the academic rigour which both authors evidence as they cover critically neglected ground. These texts will also act as exempla, in the ← 3 | 4 → current work, of the pan-humanities and cultural-materialist approach necessary to explore some fifty years of unchartered historical and literary territory in Ireland. The fact of the Irish child being a pivot upon which the unique nature of Ireland’s nascent consumer culture and advertising industry rests is the novelty of the current work. Historical accounts of Irish Victorian children such as Joseph Robins’ The Lost Children (1980) and Dennis Denisoff’s study of the British child and commodity culture, The Nineteenth-century Child and Consumer Culture (2008)8 are vital and considered contributions to the neglected areas of Victorian children’s studies. It is therefore clear that Ireland’s advertising history, consumer culture and children’s studies have been considered in a disparate manner by historians and literary critics alike. Beginning from the critically liberating standpoint of complete scholarly neglect is a daunting and enlightening standpoint.

While studies on Victorian advertising and commodity culture are scarce, mounting interest in the resonance of Irish advertising and consumer studies in the twentieth century can be evidenced in Neil O’Boyle’s recent study New Vocabularies, Old Ideas: Culture, Irishness and the Advertising Industry (2011)9 and Paddy Dolan’s 2009 article ‘Developing Consumer Subjectivity in Ireland: 1900–80’.10 Linda King and Elaine Sisson’s edited collection Design and Visual Culture: Negotiating Modernity, 1922–1992 (2011) and the chairman of McConnell’s advertising agency John Fanning’s The Importance of Being Branded (2006) are amongst formidable accounts addressing the phenomenon of Irish advertising from the Free State to the Celtic Tiger period directly.11 The currency of the Leverhulme Consumer Culture, Advertising and Literature Ireland (CCAL Ireland) project, of ← 4 | 5 → which this research is a part, seeks to fill a gap in the Irish studies marketplace. By scrutinising advertising, consumer culture and literature in Ireland the project offers an account into how these interdependent practices developed some fifty or so years earlier than any other critical documentation on the matter: from 1848 to 1921.

The overlooked but culturally resonant areas of advertising, consumer culture and literature can also be linked in a metonymic model. The protean consumer culture and advertising industry of Ireland from the 1860s onwards was intrinsically linked to a group often seen and not heard in Victorian Britain: children. The period between 1860 and 1900 saw an overhauling of the British and Irish education system, soaring child literacy rates in Ireland, institutional containment of children and Irish philanthropic developments towards child protection. These drastic shifts to reposition the Irish child were documented in the literature of a number of philanthropically aware Irish authors whose writing has sadly suffered from a dearth of critical commentary. Among these authors, May Laffan Hartley (1849–1916), Fannie Gallaher (fl. 1880–8), Katharine Tynan (1861–1931), Margaret Hungerford (1854–97) and L. T. Meade (1844–1914), are the most observant and outspoken. In these authors’ writings, child education standards and the effect that consumerism and advertising copy inscribed upon a receptive child-consciousness are related. By 1900, following Lockean tabula rasa, Rousseau’s innocent child and amid a psychoanalytical climate of Freudian interpretations about childhood, the Irish child may have been at the forefront of theoretical debates anyway. So, given the theoretical inflection, is Irish children’s involvement in such disparate fields as advertising, consumer culture and literature a matter for critical child’s play or something worthy of serious contemplation? How can one possibly maintain that from 1848 to 1921 Ireland developed an autonomous advertising industry and a consumer culture bolstered by children if background material on the matter remains buried in the archives? Answering these important questions is challenging without some explication of the practice of reading advertisements contextually. Advertising and consumer culture are not born of a cultural vacuum and are highly representative of the evolving positions of particular social groups in society as well as what critics might consider as hierarchies of discourse in literature. With ← 5 | 6 → this is mind and in working towards a sustained synthesis of advertising-informed critical scholarship, this study will begin by describing how the Irish child came to be an ideal signifier in advertising copy and what the role of the Irish child-consumer was from 1860 onwards. Next an historical overview of key legal, pedagogical and state means to contain children in Ireland will be paired with concurrent examples of Irish literature which speculated about children as consumers. Finally an overview of each of the chapters in this study will be provided to trace the thus far untold story of how children and Irish advertising were entwined with other literary discourses from the post-Famine era to the year of the inauguration of the Irish Free State in 1921.

The Irish child-consumer

The Irish ‘child’, for descriptive purposes, will primarily be considered as an individual in a state of infancy; however, terminology suggesting youths at earlier or later stages of physical development may also appear explicitly at points in this text. By employing the term ‘consumption’, I refer to the intake and utilisation of goods produced in a market economy and ‘consumer culture’ therefore refers to the study of individuals as consumers engaging (physically, spiritually and psychologically) in a process of consumption. Whilst these terms are fluid, open and indeed ever-evolving it is vital to note here that they will be applied mainly in a neutral sense which aids the type of cultural materialist approach that this study seeks to embrace.

Any notion of the Irish child-consumer is likely to raise questions amongst scholars about political arithmetic12 rather than forging immediate links to consumption and advertising. This is due to the enduring legacy of Jonathan Swift’s satirical pamphlet which endorsed consuming children, ← 6 | 7 → literally. A Modest Proposal was written in 1729, more than a hundred years before children as active consumers can be detected in Ireland. Nonetheless, Swift employs a rhetoric littered with references to commerce and, despite the gruesome recipes contained in his work, the Irish child is maintained as a potent signifier for cultural and economic betterment. Swift notably positions Dublin as the locus for child-consumption in this proposal and emphasises that native industry would be encouraged to prosper amid the indigenous ingestion of children’s flesh:

Perhaps, a historian could be added to Swift’s charge here, namely Moira Maguire, whose recent study Precarious Childhood in Post-independence Ireland (2009) asserts that a fatal flaw in twentieth-century Irish historiography is ‘the absence of any discussion of family (and childhood)’.14 If consuming children were not a modest enough proposal to refocus scholarship on the plight of the Irish child as a consumer in the 1860s, leading historians admit lacunae in twentieth-century historiography, too. It is the ability of mid-nineteenth-century Irish children to engage with advertising by dint of their heightened literacy skills which supports claims that the advertising industry was highly home-grown. Considering that British ← 7 | 8 → imperial advertising consistently utilised a copy privileging the visual, pre-Raphaelite images of children in the campaigns for Pears’ soap and Fry’s cocoa, it is of stark contrast that Irish children were appealed to as early as 1860 in fashion ads. An example is an early advertisement for the Dublin boys’ tailor and outfitter B. Hyam’s of Dame St, Dublin. The young boys featured on Hyam’s copy appear to be in St Stephen’s Green and are likely to be vaunting the school uniforms of that esteemed school by the same name. None of the children are looking outwith the frame of the advertisement which itself is a miniature narrative. The relaxed consumer-complicity of these boys is evident in their body language. Thus, the potential child-consumer witnessing Hyam’s copy is addressed not by a pre-Raphaelite artistic depiction of youth but in an elaborate departure from this model. Indeed, these fashionable ‘miniature adults’ that have been illustrated here using the same wood engraving techniques common to children’s book imprints of the period. Further, the Intermediate Act of 1870 sought to rebrand Irish mainstream educational institutions and constrict the market for independent and non-denominational pedagogical print output. As a result, Hyam’s copy can be regarded at once as a fashion statement as well as an incitement for young gentlemen to quickly enrol in St Stephen’s Green school before the educational reshuffling that the Intermediate Act brought.

As can be evidenced in this example, advertising in Ireland in the mid-Victorian period was highly informed and bore traces of surrounding social concerns which perhaps could not be filtered through other forms of cultural representation. Nonetheless, ephemera and advertising material can be considered in terms of their abilities to interact with an evolving mass culture. Theoretical readings that apply advertising and consumer culture include Barthesian semiotics and the completely distinct issue of commodity culture. These functional approaches have been used to digest and reinterpret advertising discourses in much twentieth-century scholarship on the subject. Judith Williamson’s Decoding Advertisements (1994), for instance, applies a semiotic reading to twentieth-century advertisements utilising Barthes and Lacan as springboards:

As such, Williamson encapsulates the cultural exchange imbricated in advertising copy where the ‘meaning process’ is relational, reciprocal and interactive and dependent upon reader-interaction. In this illuminating volume advertisements are considered bearers of meaning which transmit thought processes to encourage the consumption of goods. In research which was one of the first of its kind to link advertising and nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature, Jennifer Wicke offered further interrogations of Charles Dickens, Henry James and James Joyce in Advertising Fictions. As seminal as this work was, Wicke’s study will not be used as a model to be applied here. Rather, the thematic aims of Advertising Fictions shall be elaborated upon and bolstered by historical and literary research. An evaluation of the rise of an advertising and consumer culture in Ireland by focusing upon the plight of the child amidst literary and historical contexts can be provided in this manner. Before delving into the literary matter, an overview must be given of state means to contain and care for Irish children between 1860 and the turn of the century so as to account for the influx of child-consumers in the Irish marketplace thereafter.

The first chapter of this study will examine the post-colonial theoretical implications of ‘infantilising Ireland’ and the Irish figurative family to situate the Irish child in a period of evolving social and economic values from 1860 to 1921. Here, critically neglected Irish authors May Laffan Hartley and Fannie Gallaher’s ‘slum fiction’ from the 1880s and French children’s literature and social history writings by George Sand are placed alongside periodicals and ephemera. The aim is to demonstrate to what extent an encroaching consumer culture incited rebellious behaviour in children.

Building upon aspects of rebellion, Chapter 2 considers the revolutions in the Irish National Education system in the mid- to late nineteenth century to suggest that children were part and parcel of a new era of educational advertising. The commercial success of Patrick Pearse’s St Enda’s and ← 9 | 10 → St Ita’s schools are two of a number of pedagogical institutions examined to evidence that consumerism was being embraced as nationalistically edifying.


VIII, 280
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (December)
History of advertising and consumer culture Literary criticism and cultural theory Irish studies
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2017. VIII, 280 pp., 6 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Lauren Rebecca Clark (Author)

Lauren Rebecca Clark completed her doctoral studies at the University of Sunderland and is currently a lecturer in English at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, China. Her research interests include Irish studies, world literature, literary theory, cultural studies and comparative studies.


Title: Consuming Irish Children