Obituary: Rena Dardis

Book publisher who founded Anvil Press and The Children’s Press

Rena Dardis (left) with her friend Peggy Blunden. A keen sportswoman, Rena played tennis at Brookfield Tennis Club.

Rena Dardis (left) with her friend Peggy Blunden. A keen sportswoman, Rena played tennis at Brookfield Tennis Club.

 

Publisher Katherina “Rena” Dardis was a founder member of Anvil Press and The Children’s Press.

She was born in Kilkenny in January 1924 and as an infant moved to Dublin with her parents and her older sister, Margaret. Her father was a schools inspector from Kinnegad, Co Westmeath and her mother was a native of Killybegs, Co Donegal.

The family lived on Palmerstown Road, Rathmines, renting at first but later availing of the opportunity to buy the period house. The girls gained three more siblings when their mother gave birth to triplets Christopher, Rachel and John. Rena and Margaret lived there for the rest of their lives until Rena through ill health moved to a nursing home in 2009. Rachel and John had moved to the US in early adulthood.

A keen sportswoman, Rena played tennis at Brookfield Tennis Club and was a golfer and member of Milltown Golf Club. Her early working life began in the offices of Guinness Brewery but realising that prospects for career advancement there were limited for women, she moved into advertising. She became a director/copywriter with the well-known Dublin advertising firm O’Kennedy Brindley, where she was highly regarded by her colleagues. She was President of the Institute of Creative Advertising and Design from 1969 to 1971.

War of Independence

In 1962 Rena co-founded Anvil Press with Seamus McConville and Dan Nolan of the Kerryman (the latter her business and life partner). Anvil reprinted several books on the Irish War of Independence, including Ernie O’Malley’s books and Rebel Cork’s Fighting Story, in a print run of 10,000 copies.

Anvil published many new novels on the theme of the national struggle including Tom McCaughren’s In Search of the Liberty Tree.

Tom says of his working experiences with Rena, “She was honest and forthright, considerate and generous, a lady in every sense of the word”.

Dan Breen’s My Fight for Irish Freedom and Tom Barry’s Guerilla Days in Ireland were among the many titles to be added to the Anvil list. In Anvil, Dan brought to the job his considerable skills as director of the Kerryman newspaper while Rena’s experience in advertising ably complemented his talents.

In 1982 Anvil published Caroline Walsh’s Homes of Irish Writers. After Dan’s death in 1989, Anvil continued under Rena’s management. In response to ongoing popular demand Anvil continued to reprint works relating to the years 1916-1924 with a strong emphasis on themes relevant to the struggle for national independence and the Civil War.

In the early 1980s Rena lobbied, along with several authors, and was successful in securing financial support for children’s literature. She set up The Children’s Press, an imprint of Anvil Press, one of the first Irish publishing houses established for children. In 1996 Rena, was one of those who received the Children’s Books Ireland Award for her outstanding contribution to children’s literature.

The Children’s Press published a diversity of books for different age groups – beginner readers to young adults – spanning genres from myths and legends, to animals, fantasy, time travel, history and even cook books. Her publications were by Irish authors about Irish places and people, for Irish children and were highly successful and won much acclaim.

Children’s Press

In 2009 most of the Anvil and Children’s Press titles were acquired by Mercier Press. Rena’s sister, Margaret was the editorial director of Anvil in the years lead-up to that.

Acerbic at times, Rena did not suffer fools gladly; she expected her authors to work hard and deliver on time.

She had great awareness (honed by her previous life in advertising) of the importance of book launches, publicity and marketing, and advertised her lists in specialised magazines such as Children’s Books in Ireland.

She encouraged her authors to engage with their audience, by talking in libraries and at events, unusual for the time but which showed great prescience – thanks to social media, most authors are now expected to be public figures. She was a wonderful storyteller, entertaining guests in her sitting room with a gin and tonic and fresh raspberries from the garden. Extremely helpful to her authors and to booksellers, she was ethical, trustworthy and generous.

Rena is predeceased by her sister Margaret (September 2016), survived by her siblings, Christopher, Rachel and John, as well as his wife, Courtney. She is further survived by her nephew, Christopher and his wife Talia Javid and their two children.