As the country’s longest-running magazine, Ireland’s Own has weathered many recessions and withstood turbulent changes to the media landscape.
While the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic have left many media organisations reeling due to falling ad revenue, Ireland’s Own - which relies on sales - has seen an increase in readership over the past year. Editor Seán Nolan puts this down to the fact that people are spending more time at home.
But why has the magazine’s popularity endured when others haven’t?
The development of its unique format
Launched by John Mellifont Walsh on November 26, 1902, the first issue of Ireland’s Own cost just one penny and featured six articles, including 'Some Irish Bon Mots’ and ‘Silkworms in New York’. It has been published without interruption in Wexford by People Newspapers ever since.
The magazine’s original aim was to compete with the British tabloids that were in the Irish market at the time. By publishing literature, education and information of an Irish nature for Irish families, Ireland’s Own aimed to offer readers an alternative.
Its nationalist focus was strengthened under Michael Wall, who was editor of the magazine from 1955 to 1971. His involvement with organisations like the GAA and the Gaelic League influenced the magazine’s content and helped grow the readership.
By the end of World War II, Ireland’s Own was selling roughly 28,000 copies each week. By the 1970s, that figure had risen to 42,000. Today, the magazine’s circulation figures fall somewhere in between. Though the Christmas annual usually sells more than 70,000 copies.
Today, Ireland’s Own continues to feature articles on Irish history and culture. In fact, the content remains similar to what was published throughout the 1900s. There are recipes, song lyrics, prayers, puzzles, personal ads, short stories and a children’s section. Profiles of Irish icons and well-known members of the diaspora are often featured too.
The key to its continued success
After almost 120 years, Ireland’s Own is still one of Ireland’s best selling magazines. During the magazine’s centenary celebrations, RTÉ News spoke to critics who were baffled by its continued popularity.
The key to its survival is remaining the same. Ireland’s Own hasn’t adapted to modern trends or technology. Instead, it retains its outdated masthead, hand painted cover images and cheap, non-glossy paper.
Some readers like its simplicity and familiarity, while others enjoy the sense of nostalgia it can evoke - and this is no accident.
Past and present editors deliberately create content for all ages to ensure Ireland’s Own is read by generations of families. This is key to its continuity.
The kid’s section and kid’s club appeal to lots of young readers. Though they forget about the magazine as they get older, later in life, they realise that Ireland’s Own is still there to entertain their own children. So many come back to it.
Ireland’s Own also avoids politics and aims to be non-controversial, which means it offers something different in a world of 24-hour news. In her foreword to the 2010 Ireland’s Own Anthology, the late Irish author Maeve Binchy commented: "It is always a friend and a cushion against the harshness of life."
The magazine’s biggest changes to date have included a move to colour printing and the launch of its online edition in 2014. But as its old-fashioned, family-friendly content is part of its appeal, Ireland’s Own is unlikely to undergo any other major changes.
Popular at home and abroad
Ireland’s Own has followed Irish emigrants around the world. It is popular with the Irish community in Britain, where WHSmith sells thousands of copies each week.
700 subscribers from across the UK, Europe, Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand also receive the magazine through their letterboxes twice a month. A couple of subscriptions go to Hong Kong too.
Overseas subscribers have significantly increased since the pandemic’s outbreak. "Expats have been calling home more often in the past year," says editor Seán Nolan. "Ireland's Own gifts them a regular rekindling of warm memories of the homeland."
Then there’s the option to purchase the digital version of the magazine too. A reader in Kenya was the first to download the ezine every Tuesday morning.
Looking at recent reviews, it’s clear that the magazine’s unique format appeals to readers abroad too. One reviewer says: "I enjoy the magazine, it is different from any we have in the US."
While another recent review from a UK-based reader states: "Ireland's Own has traditional Irish values and that means it is a refreshing alternative to today's frantic pace of life… The magazine doesn't have any airs or graces."
Attracting a diverse audience
Despite its popularity among the emigrant community today, the magazine actually lost readers to emigration throughout the 1900s. Its readership of young men and women were the main demographic leaving Ireland at that time.
According to research by Dr Stephanie Rains, a lecturer in media studies at Maynooth University, a steady flow of anti-emigration rhetoric could be seen throughout the magazine’s fiction, factual articles and editorials in the early 20th century. Men were told of the economic difficulties of life abroad, while women were warned of the moral hazards, to deter them from leaving.
But occasionally Ireland’s Own played a part in attracting people to Ireland too. Recently on The Ryan Tubridy Show, one woman shared the story of how her parents met through the personal ads in the back of the magazine. After writing letters back and forth, her father moved from Newcastle to marry her mother.
Today, the personal ads remain a point of connection for people who have left Ireland - and people who have moved here. The 2020 Christmas issue, for example, includes personal ads from natives of Galway, Wexford, Glasgow and the Philippines.
Thanks to loyal readers and its reliance on sales, rather than advertising, Ireland’s Own has managed to weather all sorts of upheavals in Irish history - from wars through to recessions. But nobody could have predicted a pandemic would bring increased interest to the magazine.
Interested in Irish history? Check out EPIC’s virtual tour. Like Ireland’s Own, it features the stories of inspirational Irish people who have made an impact on the world.