Vintage pamphlets offer a glimpse at the rules of 50s-era Irish Catholicism


The covers of more than 100 of these pamphlets -- which were striking because of their outstanding design -- have now been gathered together in the new art book titled Vintage Values which was published last week.   The titles of the pamphlets were unforgettable.
The Young Lady Says No!  What To Do on a Date?  Shall I Be a Nun?  Divorce Is a Disease!  Shall I Start to Drink?  The older generation of Catholics will remember them.

The booklet covers -- some of which you can see here -- were provocative, even faintly titillating.  They were designed to be “modern,” to catch the attention of the young faithful, promising to answer their questions about sexuality, spirituality and life in general.

Inside the covers, however, there was the same old conservative message, even if it was sometimes couched in language that tried to be liberal or even “hip”.  Many of the authors were priests, doing their best to be “modern” and usually not succeeding.

One of the most striking covers, The Young Lady Says No!, is on a pamphlet by a priest, Rev. Wm. P. O’Keeffe, C.M.  We’re not told on the cover what question the Young Lady was asked, but you can guess.  But Fr. O’Keeffe, in spite of being a male celibate, had no problem supplying the answer!

Another striking cover is Shall I Be A Nun? This one, believe it or not, was written by another priest, Rev. Daniel A. Lord, S.J.   Presumably Fr. Lord felt able to put himself into the mind of the girl on the cover to answer this question.

The same talented priest is also the author of What To Do on a Date?  Again, how is a celibate priest -- even a Jesuit -- supposed to know anything about what to do on a date?

But my favorite cover of all is on a pamphlet by another Jesuit, Rev. Martin J. Scott, S.J., titled Divorce Is A Disease!  He does not pull his punches with that title (even if, as a priest, we can assume he was never married and therefore knows nothing of any real value whatsoever about marriage or marriage failure and divorce).

The booklets kind of sum up everything that was presumptuous, arrogant and wrong about the Catholic Church in Ireland at the time.  Despite this, they were incredibly popular.  In 1951 alone, one and a quarter million pamphlets were distributed in Ireland, selling at three old pennies each.

Whatever about the message inside, the striking covers on the pamphlets clearly worked.

The best of these covers -- 117 high quality images with notes on the artists -- have been showcased in the new art book. Catholics of a certain age, including those who immigrated to the U.S., will get all nostalgic over them. But the book will also appeal to be those interested in graphic design and comic book art.

Bold, bright and vibrant, the covers rejected the usual symbols of Catholic nationalism in Ireland at the time -- Celtic interlace, shamrocks and harps — in favor of contemporary American showcard art and typography.

The artists who produced the covers were among the best commercial artists of the day in Ireland.  They were more in tune with popular visual culture in America at the time than with European design, and they were using that to get across the Catholic message.

It was a clever strategy by the church, using the same American poster style art to package its message.  It was battling against what it saw as the “scourge” of American and British influence coming into Ireland at the time from films, magazines, dance and music.

The Catholic Truth Society of Ireland, founded in 1899, produced the pamphlets from the 1920s to the early 1970s.  Was there anything like this in America?