By Charlotte Bonner and Amy Tighe
The protection and preservation of history and culture is an important worldwide issue that is often the focus of stories following slights and injustices against different cultures. Promoting the voices of local authors and speaking out about local histories is an incredible way to help preserve our heritage.
One incredible independent publishing house that actively seeks to promote and publish authors with this very philosophy in mind is Mercier Press. As the oldest independent publishing house in Ireland, Mercier Press itself is just as much a part of the history they publish. Their remarkable work has made a massive impact in the support of Irish authors, readers and scholars, as well as educating a worldwide audience on Irish history and culture. They have a focus on historical non-fiction, biography, and lifestyle of Irish voices, whilst also publishing children’s, sports, political and fiction books.
Set up in 1944 by husband and wife Seán and Mary Feehan, Mercier began by publishing religious texts, which is reflected by the press being named after a Belgian cardinal. However, from the beginning, they chose to publish books that challenged conventional Catholic beliefs, and encouraged their readers to question what they had been told. During a long period where the influence of the Catholic Church did more harm than good in many parts of Ireland, Mercier Press published thought-provoking books that helped shape and develop alternative ways of thinking in Ireland.
Indeed, this influence was felt internationally, as Seán Feehan was the first Irish publisher to attend the Frankfurt Book Fair, setting a Mercier tradition which remains unbroken since 1955 (international pandemics notwithstanding). On his first attendance, eager readers were disappointed to not find a range of Irish books at his stand. Mercier decided to address this issue and thus began a period of growth in which they took a leap of faith and began publishing Irish books depicting Irish culture without flattery or the stage Irishry that was popular at the time.
Mercier continued to push the limits of possibility by publishing books such as The Tailor and Ansty, a biography by Irish writer Eric Cross that depicts the life of tailor and seanchaí (storyteller) Timothy Buckley, which was banned for its depiction of sexual relations and premarital cohabitation, alongside the hilarious Sex Instructions for Farmers, which disciplines against bum-pinching and advises monthly sock-changing in order to find a wife.
A great friendship between the Feehans and John B Keane was formed when Mercier began publishing the Irish writer's work. Mercier was instrumental in Keane becoming known as one of Ireland's most forthright and controversial playwrights, writing with brutal honesty of the trials of rural Ireland. Through the decades that followed, Mercier continued to make waves by publishing the radical Irish Marriage How Are You! by Nuala Fennell, a feminist activist who fought in the 70s for women's rights within marriage, as well as making room for humour, such as the Kerryman Jokes, 101 Reasons Why Ireland Is Better Than England and Thanks, Penneys, the latter celebrating the Irish love affair with Primark clothes.
An upcoming event that Mercier will be attending, alongside some of their authors and Irish historians, is the centenary event for the National Conference of the Irish Civil War, where they will be speaking about and promoting their military history series. The books involved in this series are The Fall of Dublin by Liz Gillis, The Battle for Kilmallock by John O’Callaghan, The Battle for Limerick City by Padraig Óg Ó Ruairc, The Battle of Cork by John Borgonovo and The Summer Campaign in Kerry by Tom Doyle.
Mercier Press also promotes transgender rights, publishing the biography My Name is Philippa, a beautiful recounting of love, life, truth and optimism from the LGBTQIA+ activist, feminist and human rights speaker Philippa Ryder. This wonderful biography speaks of Philippa’s journey from a young boy growing up in the 1960s to the woman and activist she is today.
Mercier’s children’s books also place an emphasis on Irish culture and heritage – for example, Irish Leprechaun Stories by Bairbre McCarthy. This beautifully fun collection of stories is about a shoemaker leprechaun from the Irish fairy kingdom who gets up to all kinds of mischief and can make all your wishes come true if you successfully catch and outsmart him.
Another amazing collection of children’s stories that Mercier published is Darby O’Gill and the Good People by Brian McManus, which depicts 19th century Ireland as a place where humans and fairies collide and tells of friendships, enemies and quests through a charming and witty anthology dedicated to Irish folklore.