November 13, 2004

UNDER COVER -- The State publisher, An Gum, had a simple mission: to produce a national literature that created its own heroes, drawing on the new nation's mythology, folklore and patriotic struggle. But it never bargained on artists coming up with subversive covers for the heavily edited tales, writes Anna Mundow.

Brian O Conchubhair, who is now Professor of Irish at Notre Dame University, was helping the archivists at Boston College to catalogue some newly acquired Irish language manuscripts earlier this year when David Horn, head of the Archives and Manuscripts Department, wheeled in a trolley of books.

"There were about 40," O Conchubhair recalls. "All in brown paper covers and the minute I saw them I was reminded of my schooldays. Remember when you got your new books for the year and you had to cover them in brown paper?"

When he removed that brown paper, O Conchubhair, a Tralee native in his 40s, was astonished to find himself drawn even further back in time, to the infancy of the Irish Free State. "The books were early publications by An Gum," he explains, referring to the Free State publishing agency, established in 1925, "and each cover was in perfect condition. I had never seen anything like them. We all just went 'Wow'."

There was vibrant colour, bold composition, experimental style. There were echoes of Russian, European and American graphic art. This was not what O Conchubhair expected. "An Gum - the Free State in general - has a grey, dour image. But these covers were exactly the opposite."

O Conchubhair and his colleagues in the Irish Studies department at Boston College had, of course, seen many An Gum books before. But they had rarely seen the original covers. "Librarians don't like dust jackets," O Conchubhair complains. "They always throw them away. So these jackets have been discarded over the years."

The John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College decided not only to preserve but to display the dust jackets on the college's website in a permanent exhibition called Free State Art: Judging Ireland By Its Book Covers. The exhibits, many from private collections in the Boston area, were part of the John W. Gorman gift which included the library of the Goody Glover Gaelic Society, an association that promoted Irish language and dancing in Boston during the 1950s.

The exhibition is far more than a nostalgia trip. Certainly, those of us who are old enough to become misty-eyed at the sight of original Enid Blyton covers may be similarly affected by the hurler on the cover of Dha Sgeal, by Tadhg Saor O Seaghda, published in 1929 (artist unknown). Put a cricket bat in the hero's hand and he could be Biggles or William. The fact that he is not was, of course, the point.

An Gum's mission, as the first government publisher of Irish language school texts and popular fiction, was to produce a national literature that created its own heroes, drawing on the new nation's mythology, folklore and, most notably, on its patriotic struggle. The fact that it also commissioned translations of English, European, Russian and American classics, such as Wuthering Heights, Chekov's short stories, and Jack London's The Call of the Wild, indicates the breadth of the undertaking.

"There was a sense that in order to be recognised as a modern European language, Irish had to have a body of literature," says O Conchubhair. "But the books had to be cheap and attractive enough to make people want to read them."

So, the colourful dust jackets on display in Free State Art which were once lures - intended to catch the eye - are mirrors now. In them you see not only the ideology of an impoverished nation emerging from civil war but also its aspirations: the affluent gentleman reading in the easy chair, smoking his pipe; the maiden strolling in the peaceful valley or on the unspoilt island.

AT THE SAME time, you notice the influence of foreign artists and contemporary international aesthetics in the work of these popular artists, many of whom signed only their initials or remained anonymous.

Sean O Suilleabhain's covers from 1927 for Fanai, by Sean Og O Caomhanaigh or for Beal na hUaighe Agus Scealta Eile, translations of French, Russian and English short stories, could themselves be Russian or French illustrations of the strong peasant, the suffering mother.

M.A. Kane's covers, on the other hand, for An Gum's translations of Kidnapped (1931), Captain Blood (1937) and Lorna Doone (1934) are reminiscent of N.C. Wyeth's romantic illustrations for similar American classics, while Micheal Mac Liammoir's cover for his 1929 novel, La agus Oidche, is unashamedly Modernist.

Not that it is all high-minded stuff. An Gum published plenty of detective novels - Ciaran O Nuallain, brother of Brian O Nuallain, wrote two of them - and their grittier illustrations owe a clear debt to the American pulp fiction cover art of the 1930s.

American viewers of the exhibition have also noted the similarity between An Gum's covers and the government-sponsored art of the 1930s New Deal era in the US when the Works Progress Administration (WPA) commissioned everything from public health posters to murals and sculptures. The cover for Thomas O Criomhthain's Allagar na h-Inise (1929) by AOM is one of the most striking in the exhibition. With its rocks, currachs and brawny islandman, it is unmistakably Irish. But the outrageous colour contrast and stylised figures belong to a different tradition. Place Allagar na h-Inise alongside a WPA poster from 1940 depicting a ship disabled by a German submarine and you could be looking at the work of one artist.

There is also the unmistakable imprint of Socialist Realism, a style most familiar from Soviet poster art and from the propaganda art of Nazi Germany. Take three publications from 1933. The cover by V.C. for Teacht Chuchulainn in a translation by Standish James O'Grady, could illustrate a Wagnerian rather than a Celtic fantasy, while the covers by AOM for Iarann An Tuascairt, translated by Muiris O Cathain, and Ben Hur, translated by Seosamh Mac Grianna, might easily be mistaken for fascist posters.

The comparison would probably have delighted An Gum's critics who lambasted the agency for its totalitarian control and censorship. "An author will not put up with restrictive rules, and excessive interference," Peadar Mac Fhionnlaoich wrote in 1934. "And if he has an independent mind, his writings will not please An Gum or the people behind An Gum."

Philip O'Leary, author of Gaelic Prose in the Irish Free State 1922-1939, points out that writers whose works were published or edited by An Gum were "required to consent to any changes the editors requested". Consequently, independent writer Donn Piatt concluded in 1932 that " . . . it is not possible to be certain that it is the work of the author himself that we have at all when we are reading a book from the Government".

Brian O Conchubhair argues that An Gum's early publications and policies should be viewed in their historical context. The agency had to confront the absence of a standard form of spelling, the lack of a codified grammar, rival type fonts and competing dialects. "An Gum had to get the native speaker in Kerry to read these books," O Conchubhair explains.

He insists that the numbers speak for themselves. In 1893, there were just six Irish language books in print. Between 1926 and 1964, An Gum produced 1,465 publications: 1,108 general literary works, 230 pieces of music and 127 textbooks.

Most of those volumes may have been, as Mairtin O Cadhain famously remarked, "as harmless as cement or tractor novels . . . written for children or nuns", but the agency undoubtedly became, as one of its translators, Leon O Broin, observed, "a machine for turning out books".

The content of those books was An Gum's chief concern. The dust jackets, by contrast, seem to have evaded scrutiny. "Whereas the text is controlled, the artwork isn't," says O Conchubhair. "We see a freedom of expression on the dust jackets that the writers and translators didn't have."

THESE ILLUSTRATORS MAY not have regarded their dust jackets as subversive. By displaying the breadth of their influences, however, An Gum's graphic artists ironically undermined - as artists arguably should - the idea of purity in cultural nationalism. Illustrators such as M.A. Kane, Olive Cunningham, Sean O Suilleabhain and others of the period demonstrate, even in these disposable covers, that Irish artists were inspired not so much by their inner Celt as by their European, Russian and American contemporaries.

The stated aims of this exhibition are "to preserve these covers, to make them available to a wider audience, and to celebrate the achievements of An Gum by . . . reclaiming this 'lost' art". Perhaps its greatest (presumably unintended) achievement, however, is to show how this popular art of the Free State transcended its nationalist confines.

Reading the short biographies, you quickly realise that many An Gum writers and translators did the same, in their lives if not in their work. Daisy MacMackin, for example, translated a selection of Chekov's short stories for An Gum and was a leading translator of Russian into Irish with an M.A. from the Sorbonne. She first visited the former USSR in 1932 at the age of 33; married Patrick Breslin there in 1935; returned to Ireland to give birth in 1938; was denied re-entry to the USSR and never saw her husband again. She died in 1983.

". . . Books which are books are living things," poet and short story writer, Riobard O Farachain wrote in 1937, "and civil service which is civil service is very nearly a dead thing; inertia being a sign of the inanimate, and absence of choice, of slavery." Hidden for decades under brown paper, these covers are sly reminders that it was never quite that simple.

Free State Art: Judging Ireland By Its Book Covers is online at http://www.bc.edu/libraries/centers/burns/exhibits/virtual/bkcovers/