Four Courts Press at 50

Published in Issue 5 (September/October 2020), News, Volume 28

By James Kelly

Above: Michael Adams (right) at the launch in the National Library in 2006 of Print culture and intellectual life in Ireland, 1660–1941, a collection of essays in his honour, edited by Martin Fanning and Raymond Gillespie. His death in 2009 deprived Ireland of one of its most energetic and influential publishers.

Anniversaries naturally lend themselves to reflection. It is appropriate, therefore, as Four Courts Press celebrates its 50th anniversary this year that its formative contribution to academic publication in Ireland generally, and to historical publication specifically, does not pass unnoticed.

Founded in 1970 by Michael Adams, whose death in 2009 deprived Ireland of one of its most energetic and influential publishers, it began with little fanfare. Indeed, it was the least visible of the three publishing imprints—the others were Round Hall Press and Irish Academic Press—that Adams oversaw on behalf of Frank Cass between 1974 and 1996. It also reflected its founder’s interests, most obviously in the priority it afforded theology and commentaries of a socio-religious nature. Religious history was also one of Adams’s interests, and while this was sufficient to justify the re-publication of a number of classic titles in the 1980s, its potential was not fully revealed until the early 1990s. A significant moment was reached with the publication in 1991 of the first volume of Ignatius Murphy’s history of The Diocese of Killaloe, which attested to the enduring public interest in diocesan history. It was reinforced a year later by the re-publication of Anthony Cogan’s monumental three-volume Diocese of Meath: ancient and modern, while the publication of Liam de Paor’s seminal St Patrick’s world in 1993 was another important milestone. Heartened by the realisation that there was a demand for such works, and encouraged by Alfred Smyth, whose study of Cogan was published in tandem with the reprint of the Diocese of Meath, Adams and Four Courts Press carved out a distinctive niche as a publisher of medieval and Celtic studies. It was a logical development since it complemented Irish Academic Press, which emerged at this very time as one of the main publishers of modern Irish history. It dovetailed, moreover, with the increasing emphasis on publication, as the research-active generation of historians then shaping the discipline required publishers to distribute their work.

It also meant that Adams was well positioned to avail of the opportunity to expand the remit of Four Courts Press to embrace the full chronology of Irish history when, in 1996, Frank Cass restructured his Irish publishing companies. This was not without challenge. Operating at the outset out of premises (once occupied by James Joyce) on Prussia Street which can best be described as functional, and then from a better-appointed space in Fumbally Court, he quickly won over an academic community which was initially disposed to look warily on an imprint that was identified in the minds of many with one side in the ‘culture wars’ of the 1980s and 1990s. These concerns, however,  were soon laid to rest by Adams and the talented team he assembled. The process was assisted by Adams’s avuncular manner. He could be firm when necessary, but he was decisive, generous and true to his word. Moreover, born out of his many years’ experience of the industry, he had a clear idea of what the books he published should look like, what the academic market would bear and what the interested reader would buy. He was, to be sure, assisted by his capacity to generate loyalty in his authors and editors, one positive outcome of which was the migration of a number of already established series from Irish Academic Press, where they commenced, to Four Courts. The most enduring of these is the Maynooth Studies in Local History, which will reach its 150th title this year. This is unprecedented in the annals of Irish publishing, and the order of the achievement is augmented when it is set beside the allied series of Research Guides for Local History. In parallel with this, long-standing publishing arrangements, which have resulted in key titles (both monographs and edited collections), with the Irish Legal History Society, the Friends of Medieval Dublin and the Society for the Study of Nineteenth-Century Ireland have sustained research and publication in areas that might otherwise have struggled to achieve visibility. And, more recently, following on from five seminal collections devoted to the Irish in Europe between 2001 and 2013, the press has published seven of the planned 30-volume series of county studies of the Irish revolution, 1912–23.

As important, however, as series are as a vehicle for the encouragement of Irish historical inquiry, historical authorship is still the backbone of historical publishing. Consistent with this, the monograph and the edited collection comprise a majority of the 40–50 books that Four Courts Press has published annually for many years. It may seem invidious to single out one work from a list of nearly 2,000 titles, some 800 of which are currently in print, but it is apposite, given the centrality of Celtic and medieval studies in the evolution of Four Courts from a ‘small press’ into ‘Ireland’s leading publisher of academic books’, that 2020 will see the publication of Katharine Simms’s major study of Gaelic Ulster in the Middle Ages. Moreover,  in keeping with the press’s tradition, it will exemplify its commitment to quality, elegance and learning.

Prof. James Kelly is Head of the School of History and Geography, St Patrick’s campus, Dublin City University.


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