Chronicles of an Irish bookman

Chronicles of an Irish bookman Sir Arthur Quiller- Couch
Some Occasional Writings 2003-2024, by J. Anthony Gaughan

(Kingdom Books, €25.00 / £21.50) 


Reviews and occasional writings are exactly that, articles written to meet a specific occasion. And yet since the 18th century such pieces have provided some of the finest and most entertaining writing available. 

I relish and reread such collections as Graham Greene’s collected essays and the collected reviews of Anthony Burgess, which are  both a constant delight, as are Edmund Wilson’s Classics and Commercials.  

But on my shelves, I have two other books of the same kind, Adventures in Criticism by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch from 1896, A London Bookman by Frank Swinnerton from 1928, books from “my period” as academics would say, as I have long been a student of Victorian and early 20th century  English literature.

The very idea that Ireland could have a history of ideas at all, does not attract us”

The Quiller-Couch book contain an essay which I found is quite unknown to Irish literati, “A Case of Book Stall Censorship” a critique of our famous firm of Eason’s, from March 1895, about  the founder  Catholic businessman Charles Eason  refusing to lend or sell the notorious  novel of the day, “The Woman who Did”,  to the general public, but was prepared to put aside “under the counter” a copy for the favour of His Highness Prince Francis of Teck, a disreputable member of the Royal family, then on duty in Ireland. A case of censorship Irish style.

These remarks are, I think, a necessary preliminary to persuaded people in Ireland who can see the value of current book reviews but hesitate to read them in volume form.


What Fr Gaughan’s book  provides, and it is an important provision, are insights into the intellectual, even moral, culture of Ireland in the 21 century.

Here in Ireland we are obsessed by political history, but the history of ideas, of moral reflection unattached to denunciations of ‘sin’, even the very idea the very idea that Ireland could have a history of ideas at all, does not attract us.  

But this collection of pieces ranges far and wide over time and space – he writes on Mount Sinai, for instance,  on Oberammergau and on a visit to the Palace of Westminster.  His reviews for a variety of publications aside from The Irish Catholic where he appears regularly. These pieces are arranged in some eighteen categories, and like the reviews, are  rich in insights concerning previous decades,  centuries, and even millennia. 

I can’t think of another writer,  here in Ireland who provided  such a long continued chronicle of books and people. If a reader enjoys this book, there is a back catalogue of earlier books to take up and read in turn.  

Bookmen like Quiller-Couch to Fr Gaughan are the true literary history of a country”

In a sense the labours by bookmen like Quiller-Couch to Fr Gaughan are the true literary history of a country, and not those briefly celebrated novelists who flourish for a season or two and then are heard of no more.