An Irishman’s Diary on ‘Our Boys’

A nationalist version of the ‘stiff upper lip’ adventure narrative

Murphy, the perennial schoolboy

Murphy, the perennial schoolboy

Mon, Jul 14, 2014, 01:00

As we consider this “decade of centenaries” marking such significant events of modern Irish history as the 1913 Lockout, the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence, there is perhaps another centenary that has its own particular resonance, this time in the realm of Irish popular culture. In September 1914, the Christian Brothers launched their version of the Boy’s Own genre, Our Boys. The purpose of this initiative was to compete with the perceived imperialist propaganda of British papers for boys. Our Boys was a highly successful publishing enterprise which at one stage of its long existence (ceasing publication in the 1990s) outsold all other magazines combined in this country, becoming in the process a veritable institution in the process of Irish boyhood. The influence of this magazine was to extend beyond the boundaries of Ireland as it was made available to the Irish communities of England, Australia and the US, and even as far afield as India, where it was distributed through the Christian Brothers’ schools.

The mission of Our Boys in its early years was to provide “acceptable” role models for Irish boyhood to counterbalance the influence of its metropolitan rivals with titles such as Boys of the Empire, Boys of England and Pluck, whose glamorisation of the empire through stirring tales of derring-do from the “with one bound he was free” school of popular literature was much resented in Irish nationalist circles. Thus many of the historical fiction stories in Our Boys drew on such episodes in Irish history as the Penal Laws, the Cromwellian era and 1798. These tales, with a pronounced Catholic/nationalist emphasis, witnessed the triumph of brave Irish heroes such as O’Hara the Outlaw – a daring raparee whose adventures featured in the long-running serial The Child Stealers, set in Cromwellian times and dealing with the government’s efforts to capture and export Irish boys and girls for a life of slavery in the sugar plantations of Barbados.

For all its stated mission to “enlighten and entertain” with a pronounced emphasis on Irish Catholicism (the missionary was a common role model), the Irish paper also offered its readers the full range of conventional adventure stories that were available in its British counterparts. There was, however, one crucial difference in the manner in which the Christian Brothers presented this material – the heroic figure whose exploits dominated these tales was, more often than not, Irish – cowboys, detectives, schoolboys and even space explorers were all indigenous figures with whom Irish boys could identify, a nationalist version of the “stiff upper lip” tradition of British adventure narrative. Thus the deeds of Sgt Maloney of the Mounties, O’Malley, the International Detective, the perennial schoolboy Murphy (who first appeared in the pages of Our Boys in the 1940s) and Prof O’Callaghan and his fellow space explorers, offered Irish boys local heroes with whom they could identify and emulate.

Perhaps the most consistently iconic feature of the Our Boys magazine throughout its long life, and an aspect that is recalled with a great deal of nostalgic affection by its many former readers, are the Kitty the Hare stories of Victor O’D Power. These tales first appeared in Our Boys in November 1924 and may be said to encapsulate the spirit of pastoral romanticism which permeated the early years of the Free State. This series went on to become a highlight of the magazine for the next 65 years (though Power died in 1929). His fictional creation, Kitty the Hare, was a travelling woman who roamed the countryside of Munster. Each issue found her recounting a tale, either from the comfort of her own fireside or the hearth of a household she was visiting.

Many of the elements of the social, economic and cultural tenets through which the newly independent Ireland defined her distinct identity are to be found in these tales of magic and mystery, fairies and poocas. The heroes and heroines of these tales live among the hills of west Cork and Kerry. Their lives are governed by the harsh reality of existence at a time of widespread poverty, high mortality (which explains, to a degree, the number of ghost stories among the material) and mass emigration.

The advent of television in the 1960s was to usher in a new era for serial papers for children. Developments in the youth reading market – with magazines devoted to pop music and soccer – also had a major impact on sales of such weeklies as Victor, Hotspur, Bunty and Judy.

Our Boys was not immune to these commercial pressures and, though supported by funding from the Christian Brothers, was forced to bow to the inevitable and ceased publication in 1990, thus marking the end of a unique chapter in the story of Irish children’s popular culture.

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