The Lilliput Press was founded in 1984 by Antony Farrell in County Westmeath. Jonathan Swift spent his summers in a house nearby, and derived the name Lilliput from a local townland. The office was moved to its present locale in Arbour Hill, Stoneybatter, Dublin 7, in 1989. More than 600 titles have appeared under its imprint; these encompass art, music (both traditional and popular Irish music) architecture, autobiography and memoir, biography and history, ecology and environmentalism, essays and literary criticism, philosophy, current affairs and popular culture, fiction, drama and poetry, all broadly focused on Irish themes. We are particularly focused on publishing high quality books about Irish history, and have covered a wide range of topics in this area alone.
We sat down for a conversation with Antony in anticipation of the Lilliput Press 35th Anniversary event at the Dublin Book Festival!
EMILY: Thank you so much for talking to us today! Okay, the first question I have is, how did the creation of the Lilliput Press come about and why?
ANTONY: Well I’d been working in London since I left Trinity College, where I did history… and there was no work in Ireland at the time. So I went to London in ’71 or ’72, and began in book packing. I got a job as a junior editor in various places. I ended up with a company called Albus. But I also actually worked as a freelancer for some older imprints and for a literary magazine called Adam Quarterly. And I recruited people like Desmond Hogan to write for that. So, I kind of cut my teeth in the 70’s in London, got married at the end of 70’s, came back to Ireland to raise a family. My broad plan was to start an imprint, but I worked for Irish publishers – there weren’t very many then. There was O’Brien Press, Wolfhound and Irish Academic Press and I worked for them as a freelance editor. And then I came across a writer with Wolfhound who Seamus Cashman wasn’t interested in publishing, called Hubert Butler, he was amazing. He was a Kilkenny essayist, so-called Anglo- Irish. I went to meet him and found this treasure-trove of material. So I spent a year or so creating one of the early books that we published called Escape From the Anthill, which became a very celebrated volume of essays. At the same time I discovered Tim Robinson, who was a Yorkshireman living in the west of Ireland writing about the Aran Islands. I met him through a local author in Westmeath named Leah Davey. He gave me Stones of Aran, which was a classic, if you like. He’s gone on to be a very famous writer, as has Hubert Butler. So, we started out with two very strong voices, and that set the template for the press – small, beautiful, fine writing.
The name Lilliput came from a townland in Westmeath, where I grew up. Where Dean Swift used to come down in the 1720’s. He had a friend called Robert Rochford in Gaulstown on Lake Ennell. And so the name came from there. I brought the name up to Dublin, if you like, when I moved there in the late 80’s, and then established Lilliput in Stoneybatter. Lilliput stood for everything that was literary and specialized and small. The scale was right. And Swift was obviously, probably the greatest satirist and writer.
E: Yeah, so it was an homage as well. And so, like you said, there wasn’t that many publishing houses in Ireland at the time, and it’s the 35th anniversary of Lilliput this year.
A: Yeah! We’ve survived. Dolman Press also survived – it was a famous imprint of my day, run by Liam Miller, who created beautiful works. He’s an architect and designer and was a very high-quality writers. I think Dolman survived 36 years so, I’ve only got one year. [Laughing]
E: [Laughing] It’ll be a good year, 2020.
A: It was very much cottage industry in the 80’s. It was three or four imprints, the main literary ones, as I said, O’Brien and Wolfhound. And then there was Gill and MacMillan, and educational publishing which has always done well. And of course, there were poetry presses – Gallery, which has been going a long time.
E: I guess, in relation to that, I’m wondering… how do you think the publishing world in Ireland has changed in the last 35 years?
A: Well, the 80’s was a very poor period in Ireland. People didn’t have money. And then, I suppose, people became more affluent, working at home in the 90’s and beyond. They always bought books, books have never gone out of fashion. And the digital era, which came in in the 90’s… you could talk about the death of the book and all that, but that was never going to happen. It facilitated production in a strange way. It was easier to typeset, printing became cheaper as a medium. It was easier to publish physically because of that. So, in a way, the more specialist you were, the better you could do because you were creating your own audience.
E: That’s pretty amazing, in terms of accessibility and the way that there are more opportunities for writers to get their work out.
A: Yeah, people can upload their stuff to web if they’re passionate about being published and get their stuff seen. It’s a great escape hole. For us we can say, you know, we can’t do it but you could always try the internet. It’s very hard to create a serious following on the internet, in terms of literary representation.
E: But even the chance to do it is pretty great.
A: Yeah, like that bestseller, Fifty Shades of Grey. That began life as an eBook in Australia, they can take off. And [that book] is dreadful, but you know.
E: [Laughing] I have not read it, but it did make a lot of money. As for my next question, what are some landmark moments for the Press? Do you have any moments that stick out in your mind that you take pride in?
A: I was very proud at having published the first Dublin edition of Ulysses in 1977, we brought that home. It was the first time it ever appeared here. I had a wonderful textual editor called Danis Rose, and he also edited Finnegan’s Wake with John O’Hanlon. Again, we produced that in 2010. So the two landmark Joyce texts were published by us in Dublin. Finnegan’s Wake was remarkable because it was completely reset for the first time since 1939. It was textually impeccable, the limited edition. Penguin bought it and it will be in print forever in the form that we gave it, so I was very happy with that.
E: That’s absolutely incredible.
A: I would think that we’ve published maybe five literary geniuses. Joyce would be one. Hubert Butler would be another, Tim Robinson, who I mentioned, is certainly a third. Then we came across John Moriarty, who is a poet-philosopher from Kerry. He died, sadly, about twelve years ago – but within his lifetime we published 8 books, beginning with Dreamtime and ending with Serious Sounds. He was an amazing writer; he lived in Galway for fifteen or twenty years, before going back to Kerry. There is now a Moriarty Institute in Kerry and he’s becoming an international figure, he was a remarkable writer. He was a naturalist, a mystic, he absorbed all world philosophy – except Islam, oddly. But he was completely fluent in English and Irish – I’m a monoglot, sadly. He had beautiful Irish, could quote three-quarters of Yeats and William Blake and everybody else – he had a polyglot mind. Amazing man. So he was a real privilege to have discovered.
Desmond Hogan, who I regard as Ireland’s great short story writer, also a Galway man, we publish him. Donal Ryan, who has gone on to great things, we published his first two books. A wonderful writer and a wonderful man, a great ambassador for Irish letters. So, we developed these writers and sold them on to New York or London or Paris. We’re very happy to do that, too, from an Irish foundation. So our list is broadly focused on Irish writers and scenes, but I suppose we claim careful editing and high production values in terms of the books we do publish here. Sadly, they are printed abroad, because they have to be stitched and finished.
So, we are eclectic. Those are the core writers. I was also very privileged to publish J.P. Donleavy, he was a navy man in Westmeath – we have his last, posthumous novel going live this month.
E: Yes, the Letter Marked Personal event at the festival is to celebrate that publication!
A: That’s an important book set in New York. We have a strong history list. Fiction would comprise, maybe 20% of what we publish. Memoir, biography, history, collected letters would be part of our repertoire. I suppose we’ve published maybe six or seven hundred titles.
E: That’s amazing, again over the last thirty-five years, you know, you’re still here.
A: I know, thank God. [Laughing] Ireland is perfect because of the scale. It’s a country you can encompass in your lifetime, unlike anywhere else I know.
E: There really seems to be a community, too.
A: Our bookshop as well, is a heart of the community. Down with you, you have wonderful Charlie Byrne’s, which is a great bookshop.
E: It’s a great place to find, especially, Irish independent literary magazines. Such a great selection, which can be weirdly hard to find.
A: And they’re the hotbed of writing – Stinging Fly, The Moth…
E: Banshee. They’re all incredible. This is my last question – do you have anything new coming out that you’re excited about?
A: We have an amazing autobiography coming out called The Last Footman by Gillies McBain. A perfect piece of writing about a 60’s maverick. He kind of sways through Irish society, in a strange way. We’ve also got A Letter Marked Personal and another autobiography called From Lucifer to Lazarus: A Life on the Left by Mick O’Reilly, who is the union leader of TGWU. And another book called Skelligs Haul by Michael Kirby, a kind of seanchaí figure from South Kerry, who I got to know well in Ballinskelligs. We published three individual volumes, and they were all put together into one. He died a long time ago, but we’re relaunching that.
We’ve also got two great new writers – Adrian Duncan with Love Notes from a German Building Site and his new book is called A Sabbatical in Leipzeig, coming out next year. A most wonderful book. We also have Alice Lyons from Sligo, a book called Oona, which is a novel set in the West of Ireland and New Jersey. Amazing book. She is an artist who became a novelist. Every morning you wake up and hope to find people like that – they’re rare, I have to tell you. [Laughing]
E: Love Notes does look like an incredible book, I can’t wait to read it.
A: Another facet to the press is that we’ve have a lot of interns, maybe three or four hundred over the years, who stay here for three months – it’s a kind of mentoring process. Our interns usually go on to get very good jobs and and become good writers, I mean… Elske Rahill would be one, Nicole Flattery would be another.
E: I interviewed Nicole Flattery a few weeks ago!
A: She’s fantastic. A great intern. [Laughing] It’s lovely to be able to give people like that a platform.
E: Absolutely! Well, thank you so much for speaking to us, Antony, and we can’t wait to celebrate the 35th anniversary of The Lilliput Press with you!