Adams, Michael (1937–2009), publisher and catholic activist, was born in Dublin on 22 June 1937, eldest of three children (two boys and a girl) of Francis Adams, cattle dealer, victualler and JP for Co. Fermanagh, and his wife Mary or Maud (née Atteridge), a protestant and daughter of an RUC county inspector. Francis Adams was a member of the local hunt and yacht club. Michael grew up in Enniskillen and was educated locally at St Michael's College, and at QUB, where he took a degree in economics and political science (1958). He had previously undertaken an apprenticeship as a butcher, which suggests he had been intended to inherit his father's business.
In 1956 he joined Opus Dei, a catholic organisation founded in Spain in 1928 by Fr Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, which spread to Ireland in the late 1940s and recruited initially among university students. Adams was attracted by its distinctive lay spirituality based on a universal call to holiness, involving sanctification through combining prayer and devotional practices with the conscientious performance of one's daily work. He stressed Opus Dei's emphasis on the vocation to holiness as an heroic choice offered by God, which may be freely declined, albeit at the cost of mediocrity, and Escrivá's insistence that religion is not merely to be believed but lived, and holiness is achieved not by isolating oneself from the world but by working to sanctify it. These principles, regarded by admirers of Opus Dei as embodying anew the essential demands of Christian faith, and by detractors as implying brainwashing and theocracy, underlay Adams's career.
Adams became a numerary member: making a commitment to celibacy, living in Opus Dei centres (in his case mainly in south Dublin, close to where he practised his favourite recreation of hillwalking), and following a structured routine of prayer and asceticism. He was always open about his membership, and from the early 1960s was one of the organisation's highest-profile Irish members, combining his publishing career with work in youth clubs and university residences run by Opus Dei. During a 1981 newspaper controversy on alleged Opus Dei secrecy, Adams described himself as 'an Opus Dei publicist on and off for twenty years' (Ir. Times, 24 January 1981). In 1973 he co-founded, and for about twenty years coedited with Fr Charles Connolly, Position Papers, a monthly catholic magazine which commissioned and reprinted articles explaining and defending catholic teaching on controversial issues. (It was still being published in 2014.)
Having studied journalism at the Opus Dei-affiliated University of Navarre in northern Spain, Adams began his publishing career in 1959 with the Chicago-based, Opus Dei-linked religious publisher Scepter, as a director and one of two employees in its Dublin office. He edited Vatican II on ecumenism (1966), incorporating a brief history of the ecumenical movement by Adams citing Escrivá as a pioneer of ecumenism. (In 1947 Opus Dei secured papal permission to enrol non-catholics, even non-Christians, as 'co-operators'.) Adams extended Scepter into less conventionally pious areas, planning to reprint the works of James Stephens (qv) (only The charwoman's daughter and The insurrection in Dublin appeared). He told the Irish Times that Scepter published ten titles a year, exporting 50 per cent of its output, with significant markets in India and the Philippines.
Adams denied that Opus Dei had a corporate political 'line'; he maintained that Francoist ministers who belonged to the organisation, like other Opus Dei members, represented only their own views (Ir. Times, 3 November 1969). His own political views were generally liberal in the context of the 1950s and 1960s: he was for some years a member of the Labour party, admired US President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert, and participated in demonstrations against nuclear weapons at the RAF airbase at Aldermaston. In 1968 he wrote to the Irish Times to defend Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae vitae, which reasserted the traditional catholic prohibition on artificial contraception. For the rest of Adams's life, his commitment to Opus Dei would be primarily associated, for those not personally acquainted with him, with the culture wars fought in late twentieth-century Ireland over the legislative reflection of catholic sexual morality. He campaigned against the legalisation of contraception, argued against the removal of the constitutional ban on divorce, and debated in support of the 1983 constitutional amendment prohibiting abortion.
Adams's most enduring contribution to Opus Dei was as a publisher. The principal writing project of his later years was the translation and publication (in volumes containing the New Revised Standard Version English text) of the Bible with a commentary produced by the University of Navarre. Twenty volumes of this translation were published (at considerable profit) by Adams's Four Courts Press. He also translated and published some twenty-five volumes on spirituality, mostly by Opus Dei authors. He himself produced two original works of spirituality. His most personal publication, Single-minded: a tract on chastity, mainly in the context of celibacy (1979), expounds celibacy as a positive attempt to transform the world and the self by means of personal love of God. The hard life: religion for young adults (1977) is a series of short discursive reflections, resembling in style the spiritual works of Escrivá, challenging readers to shape their lives as an achievement rather than an accident.
In 1963 Adams received the first Ph.D. awarded by the politics department at QUB, for a dissertation (supervised by Cornelius O'Leary (qv)) on the workings of the Irish system of literary censorship (published by Scepter and University of Alabama Press as Censorship: the Irish experience (1968)). The book's focus is primarily on the legal framework of censorship; it provides the first comprehensive account of the journalistic and parliamentary debates surrounding the enactment and enforcement of censorship legislation, and analyses the structure and workings of the secretive censorship and censorship appeals boards. As well as extensive research in published sources, Adams interviewed supporters and opponents of censorship and examined the private papers of some censors; his depth of research and clarity of exposition makes the book an indispensable resource for historians of Irish censorship.
In the mid 1960s, Adams was a founder member of the Censorship Reform Society and engaged in debate on RTÉ's Late late show and in catholic periodicals such as The Word with defenders of censorship such as John Sheridan (qv). Adams declared many bannings 'illegal', since the censorship board could not read all the books submitted to them, and that censorship suppressed legitimate social criticism and limited Irish awareness of important strands of modern thought (whether or not he agreed with them). The tension between Adams's anti-censorship activities and his catholic 'conservatism' is often noted. He recalled confusion and embarrassment as a young man because he believed that while the motives behind censorship were legitimate its enforcement was shamefully provincial. Adams always explicitly opposed the view that adults should be allowed to read anything they liked: he thought Lady Chatterley's lover by D. H. Lawrence deserved to be banned irrespective of literary merit, and in 1970 remarked that while the first works of the novelist Edna O'Brien were 'unjustly banned', her later productions were 'singularly repulsive' (though he thought 'legal quietism' preferable to banning them). His view that earlier censorship legislation derived from a mistaken desire to shut oneself off from the 'wicked' world accurately reflected the open-to-the-world spirituality of Opus Dei. Adams saw the 1967 legislation which relaxed censorship not as leading to complete non-enforcement (as in subsequent decades) but as a necessary updating producing a workable system. In 1972, reviewing books dealing with British debates on pornography (Ir. Press, 14 October 1972), Adams suggested Britain should copy the 1967 Irish legislation.
In 1968, after applying for the position of managing director of the educational publishers C. J. Fallon, Adams was recruited as sales manager of the short-lived Irish University Press, created through acquisition by Trinity Holdings – an international book-publishing conglomerate funded by the former owner of the Scottish publishers and printers Thomas Nelson and Co. – of a number of Irish firms, including C. J. Fallon, the Cahill Group printers and Mellifont Press. Trinity used the tax concessions attached to the new town at Shannon, Co. Clare, to establish an enormous printing operation, which from 1967 under the IUP imprint reprinted texts for sale to the expanding international university sector. Its major project, suggested by T. P. O'Neill (qv), was the editing and republication of selected nineteenth-century British parliamentary papers ('blue books') on topics such as the great Irish famine and the slave trade.
IUP's plans (the reprint series grew to one thousand volumes in eighty-two sets, initially with print runs of 2,000, then 1,000, and eventually 400) were recklessly optimistic, with senior management devoting more attention to prestige than to long-term viability. By mid 1971, sales were severely affected by a recession in the USA; the Nelsons discovered the scale of expenditure, retook control of Trinity, and undertook drastic cost cutting and asset sales. The Dublin solicitor Christopher Gore-Grimes became non-executive chairman and managing director of IUP, with Adams as personal assistant, and the firm was sold to a property developer, William G. Stern, in December 1971. In 1972 Adams was appointed sales director, restructuring IUP to make it viable, but Stern went bankrupt in 1974.
Adams was one of a four-member syndicate, headed by the publisher Frank Cass, who formed Irish Academic Press (IAP) in November 1974, originally to buy up and sell IUP's remaining stock. IAP became a significant publishing imprint, initially through its high-profile legal publishing imprint, Round Hall Press (which, developed by Adams in 1981, became the leading Irish legal imprint and was sold to the Sweet and Maxwell subsidiary of the Thomson organisation in 1996), and the associated Irish Law Reports Monthly, which Adams played a major role in establishing. It also was the only Irish publishing company to publish works on archival and manuscript materials (including the Directory of Irish archives from 1988) largely due to Adams's influence.
Shortly after the establishment of IAP, Adams sold his share in the company, while remaining managing director (from November 1974). He used his lump sum to finance an imprint he had established in 1970, initially as Michael Atteridge Press; it became Four Courts Press in 1977, possibly in the expectation that it might become a legal imprint. At first the new imprint simply published poetry collections, including Gradual wars (1972), the first collection of the writer and critic Seamus Deane. (Adams himself had poetic ambitions, publishing an attempted imagist poem on the Irish Press's 'New writing page' (9 October 1971)). In the late 1970s and early 1980s the list was dominated by theological works, including Adams's own publications and commentaries on current affairs by Bishop Jeremiah Newman (qv). During the 1992 controversies about the public pronouncements on abortion of the Opus Dei member Judge Rory O'Hanlon (qv), the Irish Press described Four Courts as 'the publishing arm of Opus Dei' (7 April 1992), although it had then branched out into mediaeval and Celtic studies. Adams's personal involvement in socio-religious debates almost ceased in the last two decades of his life, due to his increasing workload.
In 1996 Cass restructured his businesses and retained IAP, while Adams, seeking more control over his publishing ventures, launched Four Courts as a full-scale academic imprint. Due in large part to the role of computer technology in simplifying the editorial aspect of publishing (which Four Courts largely entrusted to authors themselves); Adams's tight cost-control, judgement of what the market would bear, and general financial realism; his skill in designing page layouts; and the fact that decisions could be made in Dublin rather than being referred to a remoter chain of command; the post-1996 Four Courts rode the wave of increasing Irish affluence, a growing market for peer-reviewed academic publications, and interest in high-standard local and institutional history, to establish itself as Ireland's foremost academic publishing house. It developed a number of high-profile academic serial publications. Many young scholars published their first works through Four Courts; Adams deliberately sought to encourage them. Authors generally respected Adams as a tough-minded facilitator of projects, who could be trusted to keep his word once he had given it. This involved certain apparent ironies; scholarly anglican friends commented on an Opus Dei numerary presiding over numerous publications on Church of Ireland history and participating (within the limits of official ecumenism) in anglican services at book launches; when Adams received an honorary doctorate in 2005 for services to Irish publishing, it was from the historically protestant TCD. In 2006 a Festschrift, Print culture and intellectual life in Ireland, 1660–1941, was published in his honour, edited by Martin Fanning and Raymond Gillespie.
It was also noted that Adams never attempted to impose his own beliefs on his authors, even when they criticised views he himself held; that he did not discuss Opus Dei with them; and that his fondness for detective stories, good food and Spanish Rioja wine, and (despite a certain self-protective irony) the wit and humour displayed in his speeches at book launches, did not accord with stereotypes of stern Spanish catholic asceticism. His Opus Dei colleagues, and Adams himself, saw no contradiction, regarding Adams's professionalism and belief that academic publishing possessed its own integrity as reflecting the Opus Dei project of living out spirituality through one's daily labour. At the time of Adams's death, Four Courts Press had published some 750 titles, with over 500 in print.
Michael Adams died 13 February 2009 of complications following treatment for cancer in St Vincent's University Hospital, Dublin. He was a central figure in the Irish publishing industry and reflected many of its shifts from a fragmented and provincial market with a strong religious component to a more affluent, specialised, secular and outspoken industry.