Cork University Press is a publisher located in Cork, Ireland that was founded in 1925. They publish under their own imprint and two others: Attic (which specializes in women's studies) and Atrium.
Cork University Press (CUP) was in the first instance the creation of Alfred O’ Rahilly, registrar (1920–43) and president (1943–54) of University College Cork (UCC). A volatile and bustling polymath of seemingly inexhaustible energy and creativity, O’Rahilly was a controversial public figure and polemicist as well as being a vigorous and innovative university administrator. Among his other college interests, he was an effective and modernising director of the library, and the founding of CUP in 1925 was in one sense an expression of his enthusiasm as a bibliophile.
But the larger context was that of a newly independent state and the concomitant aspirations to new departures in various directions. For those who espoused the cause of a sovereign independent republic, the new Irish Free State was a disenchanting compromise, particularly so in 1925 when the partition of Ireland was copper-fastened. But for O’ Rahilly, who was both an optimist and a pragmatist and who had argued publicly for the acceptance of the Treaty settlement, the Irish state had sufficient independence now to forge its own destiny and create distinctive institutions in various spheres of activity, not least in the world of scholarship.
With the introduction of a new university structure in 1908, Queens College Cork had become University College Cork. What had generally been perceived as an alien institution ruled by a pro-British self-perpetuating clique was remodelled into a more modern, more ‘native’, more accessible and more representative seat of higher learning. Yet many would argue that its potential in these regards could not have been fully realised under British rule. With political independence from 1922, an Irish government provided a favourable climate for the fostering of education and the pursuit of scholarship in harmony with native traditions.
In setting up CUP, O’ Rahilly was giving expression to his profound conviction that national independence must be reflected in distinctively cultural enterprises, more specifically in the stimulation of Irish learning and the provision of a publishing outlet for the researches of his fellow academics. CUP would encourage, perhaps even embarrass, UCC academics into preparing good work for publication, work which might not otherwise see the light of day because of its lack of appeal to commercial publishers. ‘Our job is’, he was to explain some years later, ‘to produce books of cultural or national interest and so help to assert our position as an intellectual centre outside Dublin’.
By later standards of academic publishing, O’ Rahilly’s motivations were not of the loftiest perhaps. The Press was founded to stimulate and serve the publishing needs of UCC academics and to flaunt the Cork flag in Dublin’s face – the regional against the metropolitan, a lifelong preoccupation of O’Rahilly’s.
The ‘onlie begetter’ of CUP had more modest and local goals in mind than the ambitious concepts of later thinking on the role of university presses which would, for example, ‘enable them to speak as institutions to the world outside and give them a chance to exercise a quantum of influence: through publishing, universities can connect’. Yet at the least O’ Rahilly managed to steer CUP clear of major hazards of the prevailing culture of newly independent Ireland with which indeed he would have had instinctive sympathies. (There was a more general danger, of course, of succumbing to parochial, and academically local, self-indulgence.) In a state where the restoration of the Irish language was the shared objective of otherwise bitterly divided parties, and where Catholicism was the dominant and all but established religion, CUP avoided becoming a vehicle for the advancement of prevailing ideologies. The promotion of the Catholic ethos in UCC did not extend to the Press, though religiosity may have made an occasional appearance. It was significant also that O’ Rahilly (once described as ‘an Irish Catholic who happened to be a nationalist’) was not primarily or perhaps not at all an Irish language-revival enthusiast, and the handful of Irish language titles published by the Press from the 1920s to the 1940s were by and large, scholarly works.
Whatever its shortcomings, CUP was a visionary concept and an adventurous enterprise in a conservative and cautious time and place. The fact that it was the only Irish university press for most of the twentieth century speaks eloquently for itself. Not only was it Alfred O’ Rahilly’s brainchild (‘I took the initiative in order to convince the College of the feasibility and desirability of the project’) but he nurtured it, amid a welter of other preoccupations, during an always difficult and sometimes delicate and precarious period of growth. When he became president of UCC in 1943, he relied on Dr Kathleen O’ Flaherty of the French Department (later, professor 1970-81) to do much of the editorial and management work of the Press for the following ten years. At the end of that period, her unpaid and ‘generous service’ was acknowledged by the directors of the Press. She was to publish three books with CUP and long remained an active, reform-urging CUP committee member.
Yet O’ Rahilly’s was the dominant presence here as elsewhere in UCC. Practically speaking, he was the director. Even when there was a semblance of committee direction in the earlier years, he ruled the roost. On one occasion when only the College secretary and himself (then registrar) turned up for a directors’ meeting, business was conducted as usual. Even while president (1943–54) he seems to have devoted an inordinate amount of time to Press matters - trying to hurry up printers, chiding authors for sneaking in additions at proof stage (his quip that publishing would be enjoyable where it not for printers and authors was hardly original but was sincerely felt for all that) and corresponding with readers, agents and publishers. CUP’s association with Blackwell was more personal than commercial, and arose out of a personal affinity between O’ Rahilly and Basil Blackwell who exchanged visits in Cork and Oxford in 1946. The English publisher gave his new Irish friend ‘various pieces of advice’, particularly with regard to marketing CUP titles (B.G. MacCarthy’s Women Writers, for example) in the difficult American market.
O’ Rahilly had realistic views about the limited impact of advertising, in his time at any rate, on the promotion of sales, believing that a combination of favourable reviews, window displays and circulars was more effective. The best that could be hoped for, in his view, was that specialised academic publications would break even and then only after a period of time. The aim should be (this was 1952) to publish about four books a year, one of which could be afforded as a loss. In a characteristically pungent comment, he noted that ‘…the market for our books is limited by their nature: no amount of advertising will convince the average creamery manager that he should read The Psychology of Sartre or the psychologist that he should buy Commercial Methods of Testing Milk’.
In two ill-fated experiments to promote sales through the employment of an outside manager (one in 1942-45, the other in 1954), O’ Rahilly took the reverses very much to heart. He lamented in the first case that he had been taken in by ‘grandiose’ and ‘utopian’ proposals, the collapse of which might force him to propose ‘a complete closure’ of the Press. A similar debacle ten years later made him ‘despair of carrying on the CUP’. In both cases, the academic and part-time amateur publisher was the loser in a fraught relationship with a tough, commercial world operating on a very different scale of values. O’ Rahilly’s disenchantment with the cavalier incompetence of commercial agencies as he experienced them was all the greater because he had ‘worked very hard and gratuitously at the Press’.
Reviewing his stewardship of CUP in 1953 an eve-of-retirement memo to the Governing Body (which duly recorded UCC’s gratitude for his generosity and long service to the Press) O’ Rahilly showed he was sensitive to possible accusations that he had operated CUP as an ego-boosting mechanism. Indeed, ‘no loss has been incurred by any of my publications. I should have had no difficulty in finding other publishers for my books’. (In a report of her own to the Press, Kathleen O’ Flaherty was concerned to confirm ‘in view of certain rumours’ that his CUP works had sold very well).
The Press, declared O’ Rahilly, was never his personal property, notwithstanding a popular belief to that effect.
‘In 1928 I handed the CUP to the College: since that date the College owns and controls the Press. I have never made nor do I now make, any claims, financial or proprietary, on the CUP.’
The financial position of the Press ‘is quite sound’. This satisfactory state of affairs was due in part to O’ Rahilly’s benefactions. Never one to hide his public lights under a bushel, he gave details of his various subsidies to the Press. Not only had he ‘never taken one penny by way of remuneration’ but a voluntary reduction in his salary from 1948 to 1953 had resulted in a free grant from him to the Press of £700. In addition, he had never drawn his salary as a lecturer in Sociology and had asked the Governing Body to pay the equivalent amount to the Press. He had also made over fees from various newspaper articles. All told, his efforts had secured free grants amounting to over £1,250 for CUP over the course of its existence ‘as well as more than a quarter of a century’s tedious and exacting work gratuitously’.
For all his tribulations with the Press, O’ Rahilly confessed himself well satisfied with the enterprise: scholarly works had been published, young writers encouraged and the academic status of the College had been enhanced. The books displayed in the public showcases on campus constituted ‘a fine record of publications’. A generation later, commentators were less starry-eyed. While the caustic remark of one academic (‘what the Press has published has largely depended on what the post has brought in’) seems excessively harsh, the more measured comment of a College officer pointed to ‘several successes and also to a number which we prefer to forget’.
Among the titles published in O’ Rahilly’s time with the Press were ‘several successes’, commercially as well as academically so. James Handley’s The Irish in Scotland (1945) was critically acclaimed and continues to be sought after. O’ Rahilly’s own book Money (1941) caused considerable controversy to say the least. Daniel Corkery’s Synge and Anglo-Irish Literature (1931) contributed to that writer’s seminal influence. James Hogan’s Election and Representation (1945) has an enduring presence in the bibliography of Irish political science. Bridget G MacCarthy’s Women Writers (1944) was a pioneering work with an obvious appeal later in the century. Important books in the Irish language included T. F. O’ Rahilly’s Dánta Grádha (1926) and Measgra Dánta (1927), as well as the festschrift Feilscribhinn Torna (ed. S. Pender, 1947). E. MacLysaght’s Irish Life in the Seventeenth Century (2nd edn. 1950) ploughed a fresh furrow in Irish social history, and Seán P. Ó Riordáin’s Antiquities of the Irish Countryside (2nd edn. 1944) enhanced the reputation of a distinguished field archaeologist. Such titles, in scope and quality would have done any academic press proud.
Cork University Press initiated, and continued to be responsible for, the publication of the Cork University Record (from 1956, the UCC Record). Appearing from 1944 to 1980, initially three times a year and then annually, the Record served a variety of purposes: it chronicled the year’s events, carried statements of college policy, detailed staff appointments and obituaries, and included articles on college history as well as personal reminiscences. Record matters took up much of the time and energy of CUP committee meetings, and at one point the members very sensibly decided that since the Record was essentially an internal College service, its not inconsiderable publication costs should be borne by the Governing Body. But the real question somehow escaped the CUP committee's attention (and this indicated a certain parochial short-sightedness) : why was an academic press with scholarly pretensions wasting its time on an in-house campus magazine ? The answer is that in O’ Rahilly’s time the Record was a useful medium for the expression of his cultural and educational philosophy, and long after his departure there was a general expectation that it would continue to provide an information service for staff and graduates.
In the early years, a triumvirate of three ‘directors’ ran the Press. These were the College president, the registrar (O’ Rahilly up to 1943) and the secretary/bursar. Subsequently, in 1934, Professor Daniel Corkery (English) was added, presumably to provide a critical literary dimension. Corkery was already becoming an ideological and literary influence in the national debate about history and culture. O’ Rahilly acted as editor, and the office work was carried out by the secretary/bursar. Storage and dispatch were problems from the beginning and this general business end of the enterprise was entrusted for short experimental periods to a paid ‘manager’. The first of these, L. J. Wrenne, who had a Cork publishing and printing background, claimed that already by 1943, despite wartime difficulties, he had set up ‘direct trading relations’ between the Press and booksellers in the British Isles and throughout the Commonwealth. He was not short of bright ideas, including a proposal that university staff and graduates be invited to become associates of the Press: in return for their annual subscription they would receive a free copy of each book published. But Wrenne’s boast that ‘CUP as a business organisation is definitely and safely established and the machinery of trading is now running smoothly’ was unfounded or premature, and the relationship was terminated in tears. It was a measure of O’ Rahilly’s naïveté in business dealings that Wrenne was given an annual remuneration equivalent to UCC’s subvention to the Press. The failure of the first managerial experiment did not deter the Press from embarking on a similar ill-fated relationship with Captain John M. Feehan of the Mercier Press in the mid – 1950s.
After O’ Rahilly’s departure, the affairs of the Press were conducted by a committee of senior staff members. This was a small inner circle to begin with, but became larger and more representative of academic disciplines in subsequent decades.
From the mid-1950s, Denis Gwynn became a dominant presence on the Press committee. A member of a distinguished scholarly and literary family, Gwynn was research professor of modern Irish history at UCC (1947–63) and had strong links with the spheres of journalism and publishing in Britain and Ireland. He acted as (part-time salaried) general editor of the Press from 1955 until 1963, when he retired from UCC. He reported annually to the Press committee and produced memos teeming with suggestions. For example, the committee accepted his proposal that important lectures by visiting dignitaries should be published, such as the Italian minister’s talk on European unity. However, despite Gwynn’s influential connections, the Press did not experience any significant growth during his editorship.
Thereafter, a new direction seemed to be indicated in 1963 when it was decided that the post of general editor would be replaced by an editorial committee serviced by an executive secretary already on the College payroll. Essentially this was the situation obtaining up to the radical reorganisation of the early 1990s.
From the beginning, the Press was fairy clear that its business was academic publishing, with some variations. It set itself good standards even if it did not always achieve them, and its horizons gradually widened. "The CUP is not intended to be a commercial business", O’ Rahilly asserted. His successors kept two or three basic rules in mind when considering submissions for publication – academic worth, the prospect of subventions or grants and the likelihood of reasonable sales. For some time, the authors’ pool was envisaged as a local one. A discussion on general policy at a Press committee meeting in a 1956 ended in agreement that ‘it was the function of Cork University Press to undertake as far as possible the publication of scholarly books and pamphlets for members of the staff. This of course may frequently involve loss…’ to cover which the Press was in receipt of a grant from the College. The same meeting rather quaintly expressed the opinion that the Press "should exclusively undertake occasionally the publication of a first-class book of general interest and even one of some magnitude". According to Denis Gwynn, a proper function of the Press was to provide opportunities for younger writers. UCC graduates should be shown preference in this respect. There was general agreement that the subject matter for publication should be "Irish and Anglo-Irish works", the phrase used to explain the rejection of a proposal to publish a collection of essays on Shakespeare.
Whether commercial and utilitarian ventures would lower academic standards was a frequently discussed question. When a study called ‘Legislation affecting the price of milk’ from the high-profile Daily Science department was under discussion, Press director Daniel Corkery expressed his reservations, stating his preference for ‘a more academic type of publication’ and suggesting that the creameries or the Department of Agriculture would be more appropriate publishers. But then perhaps, he concluded with a touch of self-deprecation, his attitude was ‘out of date’.
The same question presented itself in other ways. Although the Press recoiled in horror from a commercial publisher’s crude suggestion that it should publish five ‘potboilers’ to one serious work, it was not averse to profiting from in-house bestsellers of the kind occasionally listed in its catalogue. Although Denis Gwynn snootily disapproved of CUP publishing texts prepared by professors for their students, that was not the majority view of the Press committee. There was a brisk sale in the late 1960s for Laboratory notes on inorganic semi-micro analysis and an extramural bestseller was Commercial Methods of Testing Milk. And there was also a ready student demand for titles like Introduction to Practical Chemistry and A Notebook for Practical Botany. In theory, sales revenue from such publications would subsidise purely scholarly works like classicist W. H. Porter’s Plutarch’s Life of Aratus.
Though the Press over the decades was chronically troubled by problems arising from its part-time, peripheral and amateur nature, from its lack of resources and from the petty dimensions of its operations, the later perception that for a long period it accepted ‘any old thing’ for publication is very much wide of the mark. The files indicate that the assessment of manuscripts was surprisingly rigorous, and a reader’s appraisal and recommendation was accepted as a basic principle. Readers chosen were of an impressively high calibre, whether UCC-connected or based in academic institutions in Dublin or London. (Back in 1960, readers were effusively appreciative of the modest 5-guinea honorarium – raised to 10 guineas in 1967 – but when a Belfast academic said in 1983 that he thought £20 was an inadequate recognition of ‘two or three days’ hard work, the Press committee increased the fee to £40 plus a choice of two books from the CUP catalogue).
For a short period critical standards of acceptance seemed to be compromised by a Press committee decision that a reader could be dispensed with if postgraduate thesis were recommended for publication by the professor concerned ‘and an extern examiner of high repute’. Generally, however, a firm stand was taken against publishing theses whether pushed by the author or by an enthusiastic supervisor. Short shrift was similarly given to amateur antiquarians and self-important would-be memoirists. As the UCC academic staff greatly increased in size in the 1970s and 1980s, so too did the number of submissions and the number of rejections, not only on critical grounds but because of inadequate resources. The occasional publication of a work of exceptional quality indicated what could be achieved in the proper conditions: in this respect, Raymond Crotty’s Irish Agricultural Production (1966) was a notable landmark.
Far from gratefully accepting offers of co-publishing, Press committees cautiously measured the pros against the cons. It was felt that joint publications should be the exception, that the prestige of the CUP imprint should not be exploited by undistinguished publishers and that in any collaborative enterprise the Press should be responsible for final editing.
Over the decades, the Press was never short of outside advisers and would-be sales agents. Contacts with these, as sometimes with printers, often revealed Press committees as naïve and inexperienced. Dealings with printers were frequently vexatious, involving interminable correspondence and, in one case at least, disastrous overruns in costs. In the 1980s the Press was fortunate to have a fruitful relationship with Seán Daly of Tower Books, an outstanding printer and book designer and a valuable unofficial advisor.
Financing was not the Press’s greatest problem since publishing ventures were modest and only when the list of titles began to expand significantly did the deficits begin to soar. Apart from what might be expected from sales revenue the annual grant from the UCC Governing Body was an essential component. This began at £250 in 1928, was increased to £500 in 1949 and jumped to £10,000 only in 1987. (Mary Ryan’s Introduction to Paul Claudel cost £318 in 1951.) For a long time, authors were expected to make a substantial personal contribution towards costs. A subvention payable from the National University of Ireland in respect of individual publications was another financial mainstay, though it might not be forthcoming where a work had no Irish context nor even a remote NUI link. The Arts Council was not interested in giving grants to the Press since it was already receiving aid ‘from State sources’. On an almost comic note, the Press was involved for a time in publishing Christmas cards, in the entirely mistaken belief that they would supplement revenue.
For much of its existence CUP was financially tied to the apron strings of UCC’s generally parsimonious secretary and bursar’s office. The relationship is tellingly illustrated in a plaintive cri de coeur to the bursar from the Press’s executive secretary, pleading for basic office equipment as late as 1967. (Then and for over twenty years thereafter, the Press, its executive secretary, its chaotically stored book stock and the College porter who dispatched orders in his spare time, were all housed in sparse quarters in the Staff House in the East Wing of UCC.) "There is an urgent need for the use of a room with access to a telephone and a typewriter in good working order as well as a press or filing cabinet for CUP work". The response was in the "we’ll see – meanwhile do your best" category.
In the early 1980s when Irish publishing generally was making strides and greatly enlarged and critical academic staff were offering numerous suggestions, solicited and unsolicited and not always helpful, the Press was still living a hand-to-mouth existence and, through no fault of its staff or committee, was slow in getting to grips with an urgently needed formulation of policy. Its output was frustratingly small, and regrettably it was seen by many as ‘a publisher of last resort’. Its catalogues were badly designed and unimaginative though this situation greatly improved later in the decade. Otherwise first-class publications were badly served by the printing process. For example, the Committee were disconcerted by a reference in a Victorian Studies review in 1980 to ‘an ancient Irish press badly in need of repair and bound in the style of nineteenth-century chapbooks’. On the other hand, the Press was presumably cheered up by a visit from UCD academics in 1986 seeking advice on setting up a press of their own, and by evidence around the same period that sales were increasing, due in large part to the work of an additional part-time member of staff.
The accumulated deficit was nearly £77,000 by the end of 1988 but, more importantly, fundamental issues were being pinpointed as demanding urgent attention. The involvement of the periodical, The Irish Review, with the Press in the mid-1980s was academically satisfying but it revealed basic inadequacies in areas like packaging and distribution, leading to immense frustration.
Discussion documents and reports from various external advisers raised a number of points ranging from the obvious to the penetrating. In June 1988 the Press committee stressed the ‘need to blend our existing type of publications with specially commissioned works which would enable cross-subsidization to take place’. One adviser raised a question which was easier to ask than to answer: how could a small university press ‘raise its profile in the academic market without spending a disproportionate amount of money?’ More searchingly, the same adviser, noting slow progress in a proposal to place the CUP list with an American university publisher, observed that ‘the list is simply too small to create the sort of turnover which would make the earning of the commission worth the importing press’s while’. Crucially, what was being raised here was the lack of a critical mass of publications.
Perhaps a turning point was reached in December 1989 with the appointment of a new re-structured committee. This was quickly followed by the presentation of the most comprehensive analysis so far of the state of Cork University Press. The consultant was the widely experienced Alec McAulay, publisher with Leicester University Press. Having usefully reminded the Press that the raison d’être of academic publishing was to communicate, McAulay suggested approaches by which CUP could become a significant force, and he outlined plans for short-term survival and long-term progress. The new Press committee recommended that, following McAulay, UCC should adopt a policy of developing the Press into a thriving scholarly publishing house but warned there would have to be considerable outlay by way of subsidy. The UCC president then posed the basic questions: was it in the institution’s interest that the CUP be continued and, if so, was the money available to ensure its success? This was the central issue UCC had long evaded: it had shied away from any commitment to a policy involving substantial funding.
However, the McAulay report did not usher in an immediate golden age. At the end of 1990, the president was being warned that the Press was "in an even more demoralised state than ever", though being told at the same time that winding it down would be a tragedy. But the momentum for reform and restructuring was now unstoppable. There was general acceptance of the argument that if a university was to have a publishing unit it should be a real arm of excellence or else it should be dispensed with entirely. Total reorganisation and a formal re-launching took place in 1992. The publishing list was radically expanded, and while the highest standards were maintained in an impressive output of commercially orientated academic titles, there was a novel venture into the non-academic area with the launching of the imaginative The Cork Anthology in 1993. Outstandingly successful also was the visionary and highly acclaimed Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape (1997). Moreover, commissioning became a serious Press strategy for the first time. The new Press also contributed to public debate – and this was very much in the O’ Rahilly tradition – with the production of the Undercurrents series on current affairs.
Above all, under the direction, for the first time, of a professional publisher, backed up by full-time staff, the Press was now able to face the competitive world of academic publishing with confidence, and to meet the challenges presented by new technologies. It quickly became a distinguished and culturally vital expression of the academic community.
UCC’s confidence in the reformed Press was reflected in its reaction to the criticism by the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee of Press ‘losses’ of several hundred thousand pounds. The Committee was firmly informed that such losses represented necessary ongoing investment in an ambitious development. This courageous and prescient approach was to be vindicated by the end of the decade when the Press’s dependence on the College subsidy was reduced to only twenty per cent of its total income.
The acquisition by CUP of Ireland’s oldest feminist publishing house, Attic Press, was another significant development under the new dispensation. Attic would in future operate as an independent imprint of the Press, continuing to produce high-quality titles in feminist politics and history while the Press would sell and market Attic’s back list. The deposition of Attic’s archive in UCC represents an additional valuable research resource.
Behind all these profound changes in the fortunes of the Press, some of O’ Rahilly’s original objectives are still relevant and valid. In the totally different circumstances of the 1990s, it remained a constant of CUP’s publishing philosophy to stimulate Irish learning by reflecting distinctive and distinguished scholarship in its lists. The founding father would have been gratified that the Press was strikingly active in providing an outlet for impressive original work which might otherwise have remained unpublished because of commercial considerations. Such titles are detailed in the anniversary catalogue and are too numerous to discuss here but they might include James Kelly’s fascinating Duelling in Ireland (1995); Joep Leerssen’s probing study of identities, Mere Irish and Fior-Gael (1996); Kevin Whelan’s challenging The Tree of Liberty, 1760-1830 (1996); Fintan Vallely’s groundbreaking Companion to Irish Traditional Music (1999); Terry Eagleton’s erudite and provocative Crazy John and the Bishop (1998); Michael Cronin’s innovative Across the Lines: Travel, Language and Translation (2000); and, of course, the incomparable Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape (1997).
On this anniversary occasion, tribute must be paid to those who sustained Cork University Press during the lean years before its resurgence. Its continuity was ensured and its interests were well served by executive secretaries with scanty resources, and by the dedication, decade after decade, of academics on Press committees. They might have lacked professional publishing expertise but they always strove after high scholarly standards.
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