Fit to print – Brian Maye on pioneering publisher James Duffy

An Irishman’s Diary

Ireland has a long and rich publishing history and among those who stand out in that history is James Duffy, who died 150 years ago on July 4th. "Judged by the distinction of his authors (who included William Carleton, Thomas Davis, John Mitchel, James Clarence Mangan and Richard Robert Madden), the number and popularity of his productions, and their formative influence on Catholic popular opinion, he can be considered the most important Irish publisher in the middle decades of the 19th century," according to CJ Woods, who wrote his entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography.

There is uncertainty about his date and place of birth; the former is variously given as 1808 or 1809 and the latter as Monaghan or Cavan. CJ Woods believes he was probably born at either Shercock or Kingscourt, Co Cavan.

He was educated locally at a hedge school and it has been suggested that he made a living initially as a pedlar in Cavan and Meath. His dealing with a bookseller from Anglesea Street in Dublin showed the direction his career was to take. With this person, he exchanged Irish manuscripts for Catholic prayer-books and he also bought up bibles given out by Protestant missionaries in Ireland and resold them in Britain.

By his late twenties, he was able to set up his own publishing, printing and bookselling business, initially in Anglesea Street and then in Wellington Quay in Dublin. An early publication was a cheap edition of Boney's Oraculum or Napoleon's Book of Fate, which sold extensively. There is a reference to it in Seán O'Casey's 1924 play, Juno and the Paycock. Captain Boyle, referring to his daughter Mary's boyfriend Bentham, says: "He's too dignified for me – to hear him talk you'd think he knew as much as a Boney's Oraculum."


But his speciality tended to be low-priced Catholic devotional books, for example, A Pocket Missal for the Use of the Laity (1838). In 1848, he published a new edition of the Catechism by the 18th-century priest and educator Andrew Donlevy. Its full title was An Teagasg Croísduidhe, do réir Ceasda agus Freagartha, and it was a catechism of Catholic doctrine with facing Irish and English text. It aimed to make up for the lack of Catholic catechetical material in Ireland at the time. Duffy's company also printed and distributed Catholic ecclesiastics' public statements and he referred to himself as "bookseller to the Cardinal Archbishop of Dublin".

As well as catering for the growing Catholic middle class, he collaborated with Charles Gavan Duffy (no relation), thereby becoming involved in the burgeoning nationalist movement of the day, Young Ireland. "He was particularly significant in providing the Young Ireland movement with a cheap and reliable publisher for the dissemination of their writings", according to CJ Woods.

The Spirit of The Nation, published in 1843, was a selection of poems, ballads and other writings from Young Ireland’s newspaper, The Nation. Other related publications included The Poetry of Ireland, The Ballad Poetry of Ireland and The Book of Irish Ballads.

By the 1860s, Duffy was employing a staff of 120 in his various enterprises. Having published Duffy's Irish Catholic Magazine in the late 1840s and Duffy's Fireside Magazine from 1850 to 1854, in 1860 he initiated Duffy's Hibernian Magazine, with contributions from well-known writers such as Denis Florence MacCarthy, John O'Donovan, William Carleton and Thomas D'Arcy McGee. Published monthly and priced at eight pence, it ran for a few years and was succeeded by Duffy's Hibernian Sixpence Magazine.

These relatively inexpensive magazines reflected and inspired confidence in home-produced writing and gave Irish authors a useful outlet. CJ Woods said that they were aimed at Catholic readers and that they “combined pietism and patriotism with hagiography”. The view has also been put forward that these magazines may be seen as a forerunner of Ireland’s Own magazine, which began publication in 1902 and is still going strong.

It seems that James Duffy never took a holiday and did not allow his staff to do so either, although he was otherwise a good, generous and kindly employer. At the time of his death at his home in Clontarf, Dublin, he was a justice of the peace and was quite wealthy.

He was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery and his business was carried on by his sons. It was based at 7 Wellington Quay and later at 14 and 15 Wellington Quay ,and James Duffy and Co Ltd was still in business at 38 Westmoreland Street late into the 20th century.