The Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Collection of Irish Poetry: Fine Press and Reaction

The Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Collection of Irish Poetry is one of the richest parts of the Celtic Collection at St. Thomas. The collection features a healthy assemblage of early 20th century poetry, focused specifically on the fine press movement. This movement featured a number of small presses that were devoted to producing fine poetry editions. The first of these was Dun Emer, which was started by Evelyn Gleeson, Elizabeth Corbet Yeats* and Lily Yeats (sisters to William Butler Yeats, who acted as the content editor up until his death). Dun Emer, which was renamed Cuala Press when it was moved to Dublin, was devoted to producing books in the style of traditional Irish handcrafts made by Irish women. Women employed by the press were taught needlework, embroidery, typesetting, bookbinding, and more; this press was established with the intention of teaching young women useful, traditional crafts. Each book was made with fine linen binding and paper made in Ireland—these are artful, expensive, and now-rare creations that are significant to women’s history, Irish history, and bookmaking history. St. Thomas’ archives hold copies of about 80 percent of Dun Emer/Cuala’s publications.

The mid-1950s brought another small art press called Dolmen, which was founded by Liam Miller and his wife Josephine. This press, which was in operation until Liam’s death in the late 1980s, also began with the intent of focusing on fine press printing. This was true for many years, though the press made an eventual shift away from making all of their books by hand. This press frequently printed works by and about Yates who had died about 10 years before the press was established; the press primarily printed Irish poetry. St. Thomas also has about 80 percent of their collection.

This kind of fine press printing was neither easy nor cheap—this meant that the books themselves were rather expensive and not widely available. Maunsel and Co., a publisher in Dublin, saw the fine press movement as an opportunity to publish more mass-produced books. They produced The Shanachie: An Irish Miscellany Illustrated, which was intended to bring Irish writers to readers outside of Ireland in the first part of the 20th century. They were also responsible for a number of chapbooks published by Tower Press, a subsidiary devoted to publishing emerging Irish poets.

Raven Arts Press was also established as a reaction to the fine press movement, though they were founded much later, in the late 1970s. This press was headed by Dermot Bolger, who was quite young and without funds; therefore, Raven Arts printed more cheaply made, mass-printed paperbacks and broadsides. Though less established and refined, this press published exciting new voices in a more accessible format; Katie Donovan (the 2017 O’Shaughnessy prize poet) published some of her first writings with Raven Arts. 

*For more information on Elizabeth Yeats, please see Princeton University's Unseen Hands