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Stephanie Rains

Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2022, 259 pp.

ISBN: 9781802070583

Stephanie Rains is one of the most informative writers within the often-overlapping fields of Irish media studies, visual culture, cultural studies, and Irish cultural history. Her previous books on mediated aspects of Irish cultural history and popular visual culture have encompassed studies of The Irish American in Popular Culture 1945-2000 (2007) and Commodity Culture and Social Class in Dublin, 1850 – 1916 (2010). Her latest book, Advertising and Consumer Culture in Ireland, 1922 – 1962: Buy Irish, straddles all of the aforementioned fields, but it is also an informed study of the relationship between consumer culture and Irish social and political history; it could even be regarded as a source text on the history of Irish advertising and marketing. Rains identifies the 40-years after independence as a period in which advertising, marketing and an emergent consumer culture played a significant role in the formation of contemporary Irish national identity, most obviously through ‘Buy Irish’ campaigns. The book also highlights how one of the most problematic contemporary Irish consumer obsessions – home ownership – became engrained within the Irish psyche, and how an idea of patriotic Irish femininity was constructed which confined women to a domestic role, but also paradoxically expected them to be experts in modern modes of consumption outside the home.

Advertising and Consumer Culture in Ireland, 1922 – 1962: Buy Irish is part of an interdisciplinary series titled “Reappraisals of Irish history” edited by Enda Delaney, Maria Luddy and Ciaran O’Neill and published by Liverpool University Press which aims to provide new insights into Irish history since 1750. Rains’s book provides new analyses of period visual culture, including advertising, branded imagery, and magazines. The author’s research is also based on a wide range of source material, combining the use of archives (from those of the national library to the Electricity Supply Board), original newspapers, magazines and periodicals, alongside primary printed resources and critical secondary sources. One of the clearest conceptual influences is Linda King and Elaine Sisson’s piece, ‘Materiality, Modernity, and the Shaping of Identity’ from their edited volume Ireland, Design and Visual Culture: Negotiating Modernity, 1922 – 1992 (2011). Neil O’Boyle’s New Vocabularies, Old Ideas: Culture, Irishness and the Irish Advertising Industry (2011), among others, can also be seen as an influence.

Divided into seven chapters, the book begins by focusing on the development of mass media in Ireland in the years after independence, highlighting the underlying forces that led to the development of consumer culture and modern advertising during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This in turn led to the growth of a print and magazine culture amongst lower middle class and working-class markets which could communicate ideas about ‘Irishness’ through print and image. The Irish consumer commodity landscape after independence was shaped by globalising processes and the process of Americanisation as described by Victoria de Grazia in Irresistible Empire: America’s Advance Through Twentieth- Century Europe (2006). This “soft power” of American consumer culture introduced aspirational purchases for new Irish citizens. Rains argues that at an early stage after independence the Irish public’s sense of identity became “mobilized” through the consumption of national imagery in Irish brands and industries. She states that this is reflective of Michael Billig’s notion of “banal nationalism”, in which the banal act of purchasing becomes a patriotic act. Rains then traces the growth of modern Irish advertising industries from 1922 and shows how the Irish Free State’s independence almost coincided with the birth of modern advertising and how advertisers promoted themselves as essential for the success of the new Irish national economy. She describes how a symbiotic relationship emerged between the Irish state, which desired the promotion of Irish nationalism, and advertisers who wanted to promote their own serious role in nation building. This led to the development of the previously mentioned “buy Irish” campaigns by Irish newspapers such as the Irish Independent, which publicised certain weeks as Irish shopping weeks. Rain’s states that advertising was “complexly connected to national identity and would frequently mobilise public appeals to patriotism and national feeling in ways that politicised consumption of the even the most prosaic kinds” (38).  This also ushered in a new political economy in newspaper and magazine industries that was based on advertising as a means to partially fund publication. The advertising industry was also predominantly male and middle class, often speaking only to its own social class.

The excellent chapters three and four are the strongest chapters in the book. Chapter three offers a fascinating exposition of the social history of Irish home ownership and consumer culture (the chapter is an excellent “how did we get here?” recap for anyone curious about the contemporary Irish obsession with home ownership). Rains shows how Irish national identity and ideas about the citizen’s role in the Irish Free State became intertwined with the consumer trend of house buying, as the home was the largest consumer item available to Irish people. Rains notes that “the equation of the national home to the family home makes sense within the tradition of romantic nationalism, in which connections are made between the national land, the national ‘family’ and inherited identity” (67). She argues that the new homes were a “crucible” of meaning for class and gender politics, ideas about femininity and child rearing, but also for consumer aesthetics. The chapter excels in its detail about the growth and development between the 1920s and 1950s of an Irish magazine culture focused on home ownership and improvement, with examples including Lady of the House (founded in 1890 and later becoming Irish Tatler), Model Housekeeping (1927), Modern Girls and Ladies Irish Home Journal (1935), Woman’s Mirror, Modern Girl, and Women’s Life (1936). The connections between Irish identity, the idea of the Irish “national” home, and home ownership cannot be overstated; the Ideal Irish Home magazine argued in 1925 that it was “vigorously in favour of house building and home ownership, going so far as to argue in the first issue that an owner-occupier was more interested in keeping up national traditions, and in helping realise the aspirations of his country” (p. 72).  The reality of this was often at odds with the traditional romantic image of the rural Irish cottage of the late 19th century, which had become a national fantasy. Rains uses an advertisement from Irish Home magazine in 1949 for new electrified homes in Sallynoggin to highlight the difference. These “national” homes were also set to become the place of work for Irish women; the same advertisement states of the ideal Irish housewife, that “the kitchen is not only her home, it is her workshop”.

Chapter four follows this connection between home advertising and domesticity of women with an incisive analysis of the role of Irish housewives and consumption processes. Rains articulates that the principal consumers in these new homes (as enshrined in the constitution) were women, who were expected to maintain the domestic space, but also to be the main shopper. Rains describes marketing images of the era as “idealised” visions of Irish middle class femininity, which took their cue from the dominant capitalist economy of the United states. Rains again highlights this in contemporary period advertising and magazines such as Ideal Irish Homes and Model Housekeeping. Urban middle-class Irish women had to navigate the meanings of branding and consumer identities whilst being prepared by both state and the advertising industry for a “life within the home”. Lady of the House highlighted in 1890 that “the ideal readers relationship to her house was central to her identity” (99). Rains describes that “domestic femininity was inherently consumerist. The requirement that a good wife and mother also be a skilful shopper, distinguishing expertly between different brands, understanding how to avoid false economies, and navigating the ever-expanding landscape of products in order to create a home her family members would wish to remain in, was one demonstration of this inherent consumerism” (101). Women’s magazines also distinguished between different social classes such as Model Housekeeping (middle class) and Women’s Mirror (lower class), both published by Grafton publications, and both with advertisements tailored to the specific groups. Women were in fact the most common image to appear in advertisements of the time for everything from electrical appliances to tinned foods, yet they were largely absent from public life. Rains employs Claire Wills to highlight how the “austere republicanism” of Irish political and religious policies merged with 20th century capitalism to create an idealised vision of Irish women as domestic beings. This feminine consumerism was seen to be patriotic because the notion of the ideal nationalist woman was enshrined in the Irish constitution, to the extent that the Irish Housewives association referred to themselves as “citizen housewives”.

Chapter five looks at advertising and public space in Dublin, and shows how increased urbanisation linked with increased consumption as public spaces slowly became interpellated as spaces for capitalism through a barrage of neon advertisement signs, and marketing images, in the same way that advertisements had begun to dominate print spaces. Rains notes O’Connell street as the centre for this in an Irish context, but it is not clear how much the rest of Ireland was affected. Rains also points out that there was little contemporary public resistance to what was described as the “people’s picture gallery” (147). Chapter six argues that similar processes were at play via the medium of radio, as advertising and sponsorship further engrained consumer capitalism into the fabric of the Irish state. The best example of this is Rains’s analysis of the Irish soap opera The Kennedys of Castleross, which began broadcasting in 1955. Unlike American radio dramas, The Kennedys wasn’t actually sponsored by a soap company, but by the chocolate company Fry-Cadbury who wrote and produced the programme for Irish radio. Chapter six focuses on Christmas abundances and wartime scarcities in Ireland, showing how department stores such as Clery’s on O’Connell street took on the role of the “national” department store in marketing constructs aimed at Irish consumers. The chapter also highlights how consumer capitalism was so engrained in the new Irish state that it became part of modern Irish tradition and a distinct influence on Irish cultural identities; in 1926, the first annual “Irish shopping week” established the 8th of December as a day when people from rural areas and farming communities would travel to Dublin to buy Christmas shopping, a constructed tradition that still exists today.

Advertising and Consumer Culture in Ireland, 1922 – 1962: Buy Irish is at its most interesting when analysing the visual culture of magazines and advertising, and it excels when in its analysis of the consumer culture of home ownership and the role of the Irish housewife as a site of ideological attack from patriarchal, Catholic, nationalist, and consumer capitalist value systems. Rains believes that Irish identity has been distinctly affected by a consumer culture that deliberately instilled ideas of Irish national identity into Irish public life in the decades following independence. This can be seen in Irish themed products and brands, in magazines, the imagery of advertisements, and on national radio. It can also be understood in the role that the consumer culture of home ownership played in the idea of “national” home, and in how women were routinely prescribed as domestic beings by both Irish constitutional values, and by advertising industries. In its scope, Rains’s study compliments John Horgan’s critical history of Irish media in the years after 1922. It is also a fine critical analysis in its own right in the study of Irish media and cultural studies. Although his work is not mentioned in the text, Rains’s idea corresponds to Benedict Anderson’s notion of imagined communities, wherein nationalism can be regarded as a cultural artefact and the public come to understand their national identity through a variety of “nationalizing” processes, one of which is the consumption of print media. Rains produces enough well-researched evidence to show that consumer culture became embedded within the Irish state following independence and that through a process of banal nationalism the Irish public partially came to imagine themselves not only through national art, literature, cinema or theatre, but through their image in magazines, marketing, branding and advertising and the patriotic duty to “buy Irish”.

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict (1991). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism.  London and New York: Verso. 

Billig, Michael (2010). Banal Nationalism. London: Sage Books.

De Grazia, Victoria, (2006). Irresistible Empire: America’s Advance through Twentieth-Century Europe. London: Harvard University Press.

Horgan, John, and Roddy Flynn (2017). Irish Media: A Critical History Since 1922, Revised Edition. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

King, Linda and Elaine Sisson (2011). Ireland, Design and Visual Culture: Negotiating Modernity, 1922 – 1992. Cork: Cork University Press.

O’Boyle, Neil (2011). New Vocabularies, Old Ideas: Culture, Irishness and the Irish Advertising Industry. Bern: Peter Lang.

Rains, Stephanie (2007). The Irish American in Popular Culture, 1945 – 2000. Dublin: Irish Academic Press.

Rains, Stephanie (2010). Commodity Culture and Social Class in Dublin, 1850 – 1916. Dublin: Irish Academic Press.