Michael Adams: Academic publisher whose Four Courts Press led the market in Ireland

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The Independent Online

Michael Adams was a memorable and influential publisher in Ireland for more than 30 years. One of a group which salvaged something from the wreckage of Irish University Press, he helped to run Irish Academic Press from 1974 to 1995. Retiring from the latter, he retained one of the subsidiary imprints – Four Courts Press – and developed it into the most active Irish academic publishing house. Between 1977 and 2005, Four Courts issued approximately 650 separate titles. The authors included many well-established scholars: in literary studies, Andrew Carpenter and John Scattergood; among historians, Raymond Gillespie, James Kelly and Anthony Malcomson; and the art historian, Nicola Gordon Bowe. More crucially, his list gave many novices a chance to publish a first book.

Adams, born in Dublin, was brought up in Enniskillen (of the dreary steeples), where his parents were involved in the businesses of butchery and hotels. Adams, educated first at the local St Michael's College and then at Queen's University Belfast, recalled unexpectedly how he had helped to organise a hunt ball in a wooden shed in which chickens were being reared. Perhaps partly in reaction to the Protestant greyness and Unionist allegiances of the County Fermanagh squireens, he joined Opus Dei, with which he would be associated for the remainder of his life.

At Queen's he wrote a doctorate in political science, but gravitated quickly towards publishing. Experience was gained in America with the Scepter Press. Soon enough he returned to Ireland. There, during the 1960s, the stifling conformities of the black north were matched in the south by the still-tight grip of the Catholic church, particularly in the person of the then archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid. Adams's well-informed observations on censorship, based on his thesis, were published in 1968. Meanwhile, the débâcle over the over-ambitious ventures of Irish University Press taught him the navigational skills to stay afloat in the choppy waters of the Irish book trade.

Important to the buoyancy of Irish Academic Press and Four Courts was the Opus Dei link. The Navarre Bible provided a financial bedrock comparable to bible publishing for Oxford and Cambridge University Presses. In addition, there were commentaries on and digests of Josémaria Escrivá's writings. Adams neither concealed nor obtruded his devotion: he lived in a lay religious community to which he would retire after riotous book launches and dinners. The extent to which Opus Dei underwrote a succession of important publications about the Protestant interest in Ireland was guessed but never quantified, and amused the numerous beneficiaries.

By the time that Adams struck out on his own with Four Courts Press, he was a veteran. He was helped by the economic vitality in the Ireland of the 1990s. There was money to buy specialised books. Also, he assembled a small équipe of dedicated helpers, whom he schooled in the varying qualities of Rioja and the best delicatessens from which to buy lunches. Since humping boxes full of books bulked large in the duties, young men were generally but not invariably preferred. In the office, moving between a succession of economical locales in Dublin (including Fumbally Lane), chaos threatened but never engulfed the operations. He sought advice from respected academics, and occasionally followed it. His long service in the trade made him a fine judge of what he and his auxiliaries could sell. Accordingly, he usually followed his instincts. Once, when quizzed as to why he had turned down a particular book, he answered that he had not liked the shirt that the author was wearing.

The austere and pernickety sometimes sneered at the apparent amateurism of the enterprise. It is true that Adams's attention to copy-editing fluctuated. He was easily distracted from applying the red pen. Lunch-time draughts of Rioja speeded the process. Yet, he was discriminating about the designs for dust-jackets and could calculate at a glance how best to lay out a printed page. Many of his authors, among whom I was delighted to be one, were happy to step back into a world not so remote from the printing houses of Georgian Dublin. No less than the legendary Grierson and Faulkner with their 18th-century firms, Adams stamped himself on the Four Courts imprint. He had the fortunate knack of making his authors feel that he wanted to publish their writings. He relished the parties at which the books were launched, whether in marble halls or a draughty parochial centre in the Irish midlands. Diffident in speaking publicly, with the colourful bow tie, generous embonpoint, glass of red wine and cigarette, he exuded an ebullient enthusiasm. The affection and gratitude in which he was held led to a festschrift, Print Culture and Intellectual Life in Ireland, 1660-1941, published in 2006. The enduring value of his contribution to scholarship, through the numerous works of history, literature, classics, law and theology that he published, was recognised with the award in 2005 of a doctorate. As in so much else in Adams's career, there was an irony, which he savoured. Trinity College Dublin, for long identified with Protestant Ireland, not the one-time Catholic National University, conferred the honour.

Toby Barnard

Michael Adams, publisher; born Dublin 22 June 1937; died County Dublin 13 February 2009.