Ireland’s 18th-century provincial book trade

The Dublin book trade experienced a golden age in the eighteenth century. Its prosperity was largely due to the reprint business. The provisions of the British Copyright Act of 1709 were not considered by the Irish Parliament and were not adopted as law in Ireland. Dublin booksellers could legally reprint any new publication first published in London, without having to pay for copy. Production costs were also lower in Dublin resulting in substantially lower prices for the reprints than for the London originals. This angered the London booksellers who labelled the Dublin booksellers ‘pirates’. The loss of the Irish market was considerable (Ireland was the second largest export market for books after America), but when Irish reprints were sold into Britain, undercutting local publications, steps were taken to reduce the impact. The British Importation Act of 1739 forbade the importation into Britain of any book first written, printed and published in Britain and reprinted abroad.[1] This act also had implications for the Dutch book trade. Relations between Irish and British booksellers were not all negative, authorised reprints and exchange of copy did occur. Subscriptions were taken for British publications and advertising of London publications did appear in the Irish press, but this was less than it would otherwise have been.

Irish provincial towns in which the eighteenth-century book trade was centred acted as focal points for their own regions, but all were inextricably linked to the Dublin trade. Dublin dominated all other ports in the importation of books, and Dublin booksellers provided for the bulk of the country trade in books and stationery. Yet from at least mid-century the regions could boast a vigorous local trade which, while largely dependent on the capital, displayed distinct local characteristics. Each of the four provinces can be seen to have regional variations, in some instances linked to linguistic or ethnic factors. The Post Office network, so vital to the book trade up to 1800, employed four clerks to administer the service, clerks of the north, south, east and west roads, connecting the four provincial capitals to the G.P.O. in Dublin. These clerks were responsible for newspaper and periodical distribution to subscribers in the country. The publication days of the early Dublin newspapers were set to coincide with post days for the country.


A spread of towns was active in the eighteenth-century book trade, towns where printing was carried out, where a newspaper was produced, where books were imported from abroad, or where books, periodicals and stationery were sold by wholesale and retail. Chief among these towns by mid-century were Kilkenny, Carlow, Drogheda and Athlone in Leinster, Galway and Sligo in Connacht, Cork, Waterford, Limerick, Ennis, Tralee and Clonmel in Munster, and Belfast, Derry and Newry in Ulster, with many others becoming important in the last quarter of the century. It is noticeable that towns in the hinterland of Dublin were slower to set up their own printing and newspaper businesses, as they could be supplied promptly and cheaply from the main distributors in Dublin.

Seaport towns had many advantages over their inland counterparts when it came to book and newspaper production and sale. As transport costs contributed greatly to the price of books, booksellers who could directly import paper, type and leather for binding, as well as unbound books, periodicals and newspapers, could dispense with the extra costs involved in purchasing through a wholesale distributor in Dublin. In practice, provincial booksellers tended to employ both methods of acquiring materials. Up-to-date news was also more readily available in the ports, where incoming packets brought personal and commercial correspondence and foreign newspapers and gazettes. During the American war of independence, newspapers from southern ports like Cork and Waterford, often scooped the Dublin papers with the latest news, gathered from trans-Atlantic shipping carrying the mails. For the sale of books also the ports had the advantage of regular connections with other ports in Ireland and abroad. John Ferrar, printer and bookseller in Limerick, and proprietor of the Limerick Chronicle, offered quantities of his publications at special reduced rates to ‘Masters of ships’ in 1769. [2] It has long been suspected that an illicit trade in book exportation may have been carried on with the American colonies in the period prior to the free trade acts of 1780/81, but evidence to date is slight. It is known that a thriving trade in smuggled books existed between Dublin and Scottish ports in the late eighteenth century. [3]

Literacy and the means of communication: Two basic elements are necessary for a provincial trade in books to be viable. The first is the ability to read, combined with the wish to acquire reading matter, on the part of a significant proportion of the population, and the second involves the means of supplying the printed texts to likely consumers, advertising to draw attention to them and to create a demand among readers. By the middle of the eighteenth-century in Ireland both elements were beginning to be in place. Literacy in the English language increased substantially throughout the country, but development was uneven.

Image courtesy of Dublin City Library & Archive ( )

  1. M. Pollard, Dublin’s trade in books 1550-1800, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1989, pp 70-72.
  2. Limerick Chronicle, 13 March 1769.
  3. Warren McDougall, ‘Smugglers, reprinters, and hot pursuers: the Irish-Scottish book trade, and copyright prosecutions in the late 18th century’ in R. Myers and M. Harris eds. The Stationers’ Company and the book trade 1550-1990, Winchester, 1997, pp 151-183.







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