Tuesday 27 September 2016

Coogan blows Ferriter away in explosion of 1916 books

John Spain on the real story behind all the Easter Rising titles

John Spain

Published 10/01/2016 | 02:30

Battle of the books: Historian Diarmaid Ferriter has crossed swords with Tim Pat Coogan.
Battle of the books: Historian Diarmaid Ferriter has crossed swords with Tim Pat Coogan.
Joe Duffy's book massively outsold all the other 1916-tomes.
Tim Pat Coogan

Last year saw what can only be described as an explosion of 1916-related books from Irish publishers in advance of this year's centenary, with more than 20 new titles appearing. They ranged from heavyweight histories to biographies and individual accounts, children's books to coffee-table tomes full of pictures, documents and memorabilia.

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In fact, so many 1916 books were published last year there was considerable doubt in the book trade about whether there could possibly be a readership for all of them. With so many 1916 titles shoulder to shoulder in bookshops clamouring for attention, who would be the winners and losers?

Now all has been revealed in the Nielsen figures for total book sales in Ireland in 2015, covering the year up to Saturday, December 26, which includes the important Christmas period when most books are bought.

The bestselling 1916 book by far was Children of the Rising by broadcaster Joe Duffy, which sold 25,418 copies worth €506,371. This larger-format book with lots of pictures gave the stories of the 40 children who died during and after the Rising, collateral damage that had been largely forgotten as we approached the centenary year. It was also a reminder of what life was like for ordinary people in Dublin at the time and a welcome antidote to all the narratives of glorious sacrifice, something that seemed to strike a chord with many readers.

The result was that Joe Duffy's book massively outsold all the other 1916 books out there.

Given the favourable reviews it received and the author's high profile, that was not surprising. What was surprising in the Nielsen figures for 2015, however, was the extent to which popular historian Tim Pat Coogan had blown away academic historian Diarmaid Ferriter in the battle of the 1916 books.

Coogan's book, 1916: The Mornings After, and Ferriter's book, A Nation not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution 1913 - 1923, both appeared last year.

Given the war of words there has been between the two historians over the years, there was a good deal of interest in how their respective new 1916 books would do. This war of words goes back some time to their competing biographies of De Valera, with Coogan's book being highly critical and Ferriter's later book much more admiring, leading to the two historians crossing swords back then.

That rivalry intensified late last year when Ferriter wrote an absolutely scathing review of Coogan's new 1916 work.

He called it a "truly dreadful book," a "travesty of 20th century Irish history". Ferriter also said it contained mistakes and "varieties of cods-wallop" and that Coogan had failed to do proper research and was arrogant and "puffed-up."

Such a vituperative review is very unusual here. But it is now clear from the Nielsen figures for 2015 that Coogan is having the last laugh, since his book has outsold Ferriter's by a factor of more than four to one.

Coogan's 1916: The Mornings ­After sold 8,069 copies in 2015 worth €158,121. Ferriter's A Nation not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution 1913-1923 sold 1,711 copies, worth €57,435.

Coogan achieved this even though his book did not appear until the first week in November, whereas Ferriter's book had been published in March, giving it far longer in the bookshops.

One thing that is clear from the Nielsen figures for 2015 is that the ­enthusiasm of Irish publishers in bringing out so many 1916-related books was not matched by ­interest among the book-buying public. ­Despite the huge success of Joe Duffy's book, in general the sales of 1916-­related books have been disappointing.

What is also clear is that books that are a bit different from straight forward histories have done better.

Like Duffy's book, which was about one peripheral aspect of the Rising rather than the rebellion itself, Coogan's book was more about the legacy of 1916, the political and moral development of the country after independence all the way up to the recent financial crash.

After Coogan's book, the next most popular 1916 book was Gene Kerrigan's The Scrap, which was also different because it was a novelised account - accurate in every detail - of the experiences in Easter Week of the Fairview volunteers of F Company, 2nd battalion, Dublin Brigade. Instead of being yet another book centred on Pearse or the other leaders, it was a true story of rank-and-file rebels, compellingly told as only Kerrigan can. It sold 4,409 copies taking in sales revenue of €78,793.

The Nielsen chart for the top 1,000 titles sold in Ireland last year is ranked by the number of copies sold but also gives the value of sales, a figure that is more important to publishers. Only a few more 1916-related books made it into the list of the top 1,000 titles.

Sinéad McCoole's Easter Widows, which sold 2,345 copies worth €39,329, was also a bit different in that it told the story of seven of the women left behind after the executions and what happened to them. Just behind that in the value of sales was Turtle Bunbury's coffee-table book Easter Dawn, which sold 1,356 copies, worth €39,188.

Also in the list is Ronan Fanning's much praised new biography, Éamon de Valera: A Will to Power, which sold 2,118 copies worth €49,409. And two editions of Michael Foley's The Bloodied Field: Croke Park, November 21, 1920 together sold 3,260 copies worth €47,074.

All the other 1916-related titles failed to make the list. This means they all sold less than 1,349 copies, which is what the 1,000th book on the list sold.

In fact, many of them are likely to have sold just a few hundred copies which means they will have struggled to cover their costs. All of which puts a question mark over how interested the public really is in 1916-related books, despite all the hype about the centenary.

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