• Steven Heller

Get Your Irish Up

The Catholic Truth Society of Ireland was founded in 1899, its mission to expunge the “scourge of foreign influence, in the form of British and American books, films, magazines and newspapers,” wrote Naill McCormack, editor of Vintage Values: Classic Pamphlet Cover Design From Twentieth-Century Ireland and author of Vintage Irish Book Covers blog. The CTS’s target audience was attracted to the covers that had a somehow pulp allure and The Church, it seems, had no problem using it for their ends. I asked McCormack to tell us more about CTS and its design legacy.

Where does this stand along the spectrum of historic Irish graphic design? Unfortunately, the history of Irish graphic design is largely overlooked and very little has been written on it so it is hard to place the artwork from the Catholic Truth Society pamphlets in an Irish design context. What we do know is that many highly accomplished commercial artists were engaged by the CTS to create artwork over the years.

George Altendorf and Karl Uhlemann, both Irish born to German fathers, are probably the best known of the cover artists and both had long and prolific careers. Altendorf studied at Dublin’s Metropolitan School of Art under Austin Molloy while Uhlemann gained much of his early experience at The Sign of the Three Candles Press under Colm Ó Lochlainn.

How popular were these books and pamphlets? The pamphlets were very popular in Ireland in the ’40s and ’50s. The Catholic Truth Society claimed it distributed over 1,250,000 booklets throughout Ireland in 1951 alone. The books were sold for 3d (3 old pence) and were displayed in racks at the back of churches where they could be taken in return for a small contribution to the poor box. To an older generation of Irish people these pamphlets are a reminder of a simpler time when the authority of the church went unquestioned but to younger eyes they are a fascinating window into a world that it is hard to believe existed.

How did you assemble your collection? I had collected a small number of these pamphlets over the years and was intrigued by the cover artwork. I wrote about them on the Vintage Irish Book Covers blog.

Shortly afterwards I was contacted by Lir MacCárthaigh, Art Director at Veritas, who informed me that they hold a full archive of the pamphlets and have details of the cover artists behind each of the designs. The Catholic Truth Society of Ireland became Veritas in 1969 and is still active today. Thankfully the company have held onto the archive and understand it’s cultural and historic importance.

So they not considered heresy by the Church? Far from being heresy, these were Church sponsored publications. They used quite progressive tactics to engage with young urbanites that they felt were too under the influence of foreign cinema, popular magazines and dance music. It is interesting that the Church chose to embrace the visual language of popular culture while being so suspicious of it’s influence.

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