Balancing the books — Brian Maye on pioneering publisher Rena Dardis

A major force behind Irish children’s literature

Katherina (better known as “Rena”) Dardis, who was born 100 years ago this month, played a significant role in the Irish publishing industry during the second half of the 20th century. She was a founder member and one of the driving forces behind Anvil Press and the Children’s Press.

She was born in Kilkenny, the second eldest of five children of Christopher Dardis, a school inspector from Kinnegad, Co Westmeath, and Sara Conwell, a farmer’s daughter from Killybegs, Co Donegal. The family moved to Dublin when she was an infant and they lived on Palmerston Road in Rathmines, which continued to be her home (along with her older sister Margaret) until she needed specialised care in 2009.

As an enthusiastic sportsperson, she played tennis in the local Brookfield Tennis Club and golf in Milltown Golf Club. Initially, she worked in the offices of Guinness Brewery but because career prospects there were limited for a woman, she decided to enter advertising, becoming a director/copywriter with O’Kennedy Brindley, a prominent Dublin advertising firm, where she established a well-respected reputation. For three years (1969-1972), she was president of the Institute of Creative Advertising and Design.

Dardis co-founded Anvil Press in 1962 with journalist and newspaper editor Seamus McConville and Dan Nolan, owner of the Kerryman newspaper, who was her life partner as well as her business partner. Anvil established its reputation by publishing many books relating to the Irish War of Independence and Civil War. It republished memoirs such as Dan Breen’s My Fight for Irish Freedom and Tom Barry’s Guerrilla Days in Ireland and in 1978 published Ernie O’Malley’s Civil War memoir, The Singing Flame. Rebel Cork’s Fighting Story and Seán Cronin’s The McGarrity Papers were two other Anvil publications that sold well.


It also published novels on the theme of the Irish independence struggle. One of these was In Search of the Liberty Tree by Tom McCaughren, who became an award-winning children’s and young-adult author. “She was honest and forthright, considerate and generous, a lady in every sense of the word,” he has recorded of his experiences of working with Dardis. Her knowledge of advertising combined well with Dan Nolan’s years of experience running The Kerryman newspaper.

One of their significant publications in 1982 was Homes of Irish Writers by Caroline Walsh, who became literary editor of this newspaper. When Dan Nolan died in 1989, Dardis continued to manage Anvil Press for nearly another 20 years. Having also developed an abiding interest in the publication of children’s literature, she had lobbied successfully with others in the 1980s to get it financial support, and she established the Children’s Press as an imprint of Anvil Press, one of the first such publishing ventures in Ireland. In 1996, she was given the Children’s Books Ireland Award for her major contribution to the publication of children’s literature.

The Children’s Press provided a wide range of books to cater for different age groups, from beginners to young adults, and included genres such as myths and legends, animal stories, time travel, history, fantasy and science fiction. “Her publications were by Irish authors about Irish places and people, for Irish children, and were highly successful and won much acclaim,” her obituary in this paper stated (February 18th, 2017). Mercier Press acquired most of the Anvil Press and Children’s Press titles in 2009, by which time Dardis was in ill health and her sister Margaret had been editorial director for some years.

“Acerbic at times, [she] did not suffer fools gladly; she expected her authors to work hard and deliver on time. She had great awareness (honed by her previous life in advertising) of the importance of book launches, publicity and marketing, and advertised her lists in specialised magazines such as Children’s Books in Ireland,” The Irish Times’ obituary observed. It also pointed out that she encouraged her writers to engage with their readerships by attending events and giving talks, which was not very prevalent at the time but is now common practice (which shows great prescience on her part).

“She was a wonderful storyteller, entertaining guests in her sitting room with a gin and tonic and fresh raspberries from the garden. Extremely helpful to her authors and to booksellers, she was ethical, trustworthy and generous,” her obituary concluded.

Rena Dardis died on January 6th, 2017, at Leeson Park Nursing Home in Dublin and was buried in Deansgrange Cemetery.