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Partisan reviews

Bryan Fanning

Periodicals and Journalism in Twentieth-Century Ireland, Mark O’Brien and Felix M Larkin (eds), Four Courts Press, 240 pp, €49.50, ISBN: 978-1846825248

Beyond the need to earn a living there were, George Orwell reckoned in his 1946 essay “Why I Write” four great motives for writing prose: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, the desire to see things as they are ‑ and, fourthly, his own main reason, political purpose. Periodicals and Journalism in Twentieth-Century Ireland, edited by Mark O’Brien and Felix Larkin, is the first comprehensive survey of its kind of outlets for Irish public intellectuals and journalists who shared Orwell’s reasons for writing. While some of these periodicals championed reportage and were committed to investigative journalism many were explicitly partisan in the doctrines and ideologies these championed. Only one, The Bell, edited by Sean O’Faolain, overlaps with the choices in my own survey of Irish journals The Quest for Modern Ireland: The Battle of Ideas 1912-1986. My focus was upon Irish journals within which were ideas that were influential or representative of prominent ideological perspectives, where academics and intellectuals set out their stalls. The focus here is on specialist periodicals and magazines. These, according to O’Brien and Larkin, provided outlets for journalists writing against the grain of mainstream Irish society and a space for the diversity of opinion that was not available in the national newspapers or in the provincial press.

The list of periodicals covered includes The United Irishman edited by Arthur Griffith, An Claidheamh Soluis edited by Patrick Pearse, The Leader edited by DP Moran, the suffragist Irish Citizen edited by Francis Sheehy Skeffington, James Connolly’s The Worker and The Irish Statesman edited by George Russell (AE), along with more recent seminal magazines including Magill. Articles focus on content and context and the controversies these periodicals became embroiled in. In the cases of some long-running publications the focus is on a seminal phase or particular editor. A common thread is a focus on the often domineering editors who set the tone and were player-managers responsible for much of the content. Taken together, these periodicals covered the main fringes of political and intellectual life in the Republic of Ireland. Most were highly partisan advocates of an ideological position and explicitly engaged in propaganda. Others, while still partisan, contained fine journalism and reportage. There is no focus on Northern Irish periodicals and only one aimed at women is examined.

Griffith ran and wrote most of The United Irishman from 1899 to 1906. In it he serialised his blueprint for an independent Ireland, The Resurrection of Hungary (1904). The elephant in the room, necessarily addressed by Colum Kenny’s chapter, is Griffith’s anti-Semitism. Michael Laffan in the Dictionary of Irish Biography has described this as “the habits or prejudices of his youth”, referring to outbursts in 1904 that coincided with what has been called the Limerick pogrom, with the pithy qualification that “with occasional lapses, he outgrew them”. Kenny suggests that Griffith’s declared hostility towards Jews in Ireland was balanced by his support for Zionism and by some genuine friendships with individual Jews. In the same April 3rd, 1904 article in the United Irishman that denigrated nine-tenths of Irish Jews as “usurers and parasites”, Griffith praised those honest and patriotic Jews who desired to re-establish the Hebrew nation of Palestine. Intellectually, this was consistent with the case for self-determination proposed in The Resurrection of Hungary and with the claims of European romantic nationalism that nationality was one of the great truths of human nature and that people could only realise themselves fully by sticking to their own as members of an identifiable culture demarcated by language and tradition.

An Claidheamh Soluis (The Sword of Light) grew out of the short-lived Gaelic League periodical Fáinne an Lae (Dawn of the Day) founded by Eoin MacNeill in 1898. It incubated an “Irish Ireland” nation-building project that became institutionalised in the state after independence. Pearse was its editor from 1903 to 1909 and in his first editorial declared that: “Our ideal is to place in the hands of the Irish speaker in Glenties or Aran a newspaper giving him, in vivid idiomatic Irish, a consecutive and adequate record of the home and foreign history of the week.” Gaelic-speaking rural areas were idealised. There was nothing in the Gaeltacht, according to one March 1914 article, “like the cringing poverty and stunting misery of the city”. The English language, the article continued, had “bought no wealth to the 75 per cent of Dublin families that live in tenements”. How a Gaelic revival might lift Dublin’s slums out of poverty was not explained. In style and tone the debates rehearsed in An Claidheamh Soluis were, according to Regina Uí Chollatáin, those of “a middle-class urban elite movement”. Furthermore, the case for the Irish language, by necessity, had to be put in English. More than three hundred editorials by Pearse were published in both languages.

One of the standout chapters in this collection is Patrick Maume’s “Irish-Ireland and Catholic Whiggery: D.P. Moran” on The Leader. Moran viewed separatist nationalist rhetoric as a self-deception that reinforced Irish unionism. Under his editorship The Leader advocated clerical nationalism and a pragmatic approach to Anglo-Irish relations aimed at securing Catholic influence over Irish administration. Maume argues that “The Leader is best understood as the product of the relative quiescence of political nationalism between the Parnell split of 1890 and the revival of home rule as an immediate political prospect from 1910.”

In Moran’s analysis, three elements were needed to secure Irish independence. He endorsed a nationalism that insisted, firstly and secondly, that to be Irish was to be Gaelic and to be Gaelic was, with a few honourable exceptions, to be Catholic. Thirdly, he emphasised economic development as a means to self-determination. Its then leading advocates were Horace Plunkett, the Protestant moderate unionist founder of the Irish co-operative movement and, among Catholics, Fr Tomas Finlay, a Jesuit, who with Plunkett and George Russell (AE) had been the driving force behind The Irish Homestead, the co-operative movement weekly. Initial capital to launch The Leader was secured by Finlay, who was a serial founder of Catholic magazines and periodicals.

Moran endorsed Plunkett against nationalist parliamentary candidates in 1900 and 1901. He later turned against him following the publication of his book Ireland in the New Century (1904), which alienated Catholics by claiming that their faith, unlike Protestantism, constituted a barrier to economic development; its repression of individuality seemed calculated to check the qualities of initiative and self-reliance that Max Weber emphasised in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, published in 1905. The Leader serialised an anti-Plunkett polemic by Fr Michael Riordan that was published in book form as Catholicity and progress in Ireland (1905). It campaigned against discrimination within the civil service and in Protestant-dominated firms, notably banks and railways, which, as public companies with many Catholic shareholders and reliance on state charters, were more vulnerable to criticism than family-owned firms. Between 1902 and 1904 Moran supported efforts by the Jesuit-run Catholic Association, again sponsored by Finlay, to expose anti-Catholic discrimination and promote Catholic interests in business and the professions.

At the same time Moran denounced “Cawtholic” secondary schools like Clongowes, Castleknock and Blackrock for playing foreign games, slighting the Irish language and turning pupils into “pseudo-aristocratic West British snobs who sneered at trade and industry and gravitated into overstocked and underpaid white-collar professions at home and abroad”. He believed Catholic power and a Gaelic revival would not be enough to make Ireland independent. The problem was finding Catholic advocates of economic development or ways of promoting this that did not seem anti-Catholic.

At the beginning of the second decade of the twentieth century, with John Redmond’s Home Rule movement in full swing, socialists and suffragists published historically significant if not necessarily politically influential periodicals. The Irish Citizen was the official organ of the Irish Woman’s Franchise League, a suffragette organisation modelled to a considerable extent on Christabel Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). The franchise league was founded by Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington and Margaret Cousins. Its organ, however, was, edited by their husbands, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington and James Cousins. In 1913 Margaret and James Cousins emigrated, leaving the Sheehy-Skeffingtons in charge. The Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) saw the suffrage question as a threat to Home Rule, which depended on its alliance with the Liberal Party. Fearing that if Asquith’s government fell Home Rule would also fall by the wayside; male fellow travellers of the league such as Tom Kettle toed the Irish Parliamentary Party line. Not one IPP member of parliament supported the 1912 suffrage bill, not even those who were on the cross-party committee that drafted it.

The Irish Citizen was modelled on the WSPU’s Votes For Women, just as the league’s activism was inspired by that of the union. But in 1914 Pankhurst echoed Redmond’s gambit of supporting the war and setting aside their respective demands for its duration. The Irish Women’s Suffrage Federation also decided to suspend active suffrage propaganda once war was declared, a policy that drove some members to resign, most notably Mary MacSwiney, who argued in The Irish Citizen that most in the league were “Brits first, suffragists second and Irishwomen perhaps a bad third”. The focus in much of the writing on early Irish feminism tends to focus, as it does here in Sonja Tiernan’s chapter, on a small group of notable Republican women. It is not often emphasised that the vast majority of Irish suffragists were unionists. Some 228,991 women signed a similarly worded declaration to the Ulster Covenant, signed by 218,806 men. More emphasis could also have been given to pioneering journalism and opinion pieces in The Irish Citizen, such as those on how the courts and all-male juries dealt with rape cases, wife-beating and concealed illegitimate pregnancies. For example, a July 1914 article ‑ part of a campaign to monitor court cases involving sexual offences against young girls ‑ emphasised the need to hear the woman’s point of view in courts where judges saw “the natural and irresistible impulses animating the man” as mitigating circumstances in their rulings. The Irish Citizen also made the case for female barristers and judges.

The focus of James Curry’s chapter, “The Worker: James Connolly’s ‘organ of the Irish working class’”, is on a shortlived 1914-1925 small circulation periodical edited by Connolly after its much more widely circulated predecessor, The Irish Worker, had been banned. The Irish Worker was founded in 1911 as the organ of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) It ran for 189 issues over a three-and-a-half-year period and at its peak racked up sales of about twenty thousand. It was suppressed in December 1914 for opposing Britain’s involvement in the Great War. In a November 1914 article in The Irish Worker Connolly had made an anti-conscription case for revolution in Ireland: no rebellion, he argued, could conceivably lead to such slaughter of Irish manhood as would result from John Redmond’s call to Home Rulers to enlist in the British army.

The debut issue of The Worker was published on December 26th, 1914. It had a limited circulation and was, Connolly wrote in January 1915, but a shadow of its predecessor. It relied a lot for content on reprints of articles that had appeared elsewhere. These included an interview with James Larkin first published in New York and extracts from an article by George Bernard Shaw that had first appeared in the New Statesman. It was printed in Glasgow and one of its issues was intercepted by the Dublin Metropolitan Police. All copies were destroyed except ten kept “for official purposes”. The Worker was replaced in turn by The Worker’s Republic, a title Connolly had first used in 1898, which ran until his death in 1916.

The Irish Bulletin (1919-1921) was conceived of as a daily news bulletin to foreign correspondents on behalf of Dáil Éireann as part of a £500 budget for propaganda measures, including entertainment of friendly journalists and weekly lists of atrocities. Just thirty copies of the first issue were printed. It had five main themes: exposing the violent repression instituted by crown forces in Ireland; highlighting what it considered to be the disastrous policies of the British government, demonstrating that Dáil Éireann and its attendant counter-state was the legitimate and effective expression of the will of the Irish people; showing the national unity of the Irish people in the face of British aggression; and defending the activities of the IRA and their attacks on crown forces as a war against illegal forces of occupation. It came to be regarded, Ian Kennelly argues, “as an untrammelled success, a powerful influence on press opinion”.

Ian d’Alton describes The Irish Statesman as a “pivotal publication, melding the best of the intellectual Anglo-Irish literary tradition with a coming to terms by an elite that, perhaps naively, had hoped for a freer Free State”. George Russell edited The Irish Statesman for seven years, from 1923 to 1930. In his final elegiac editorial, he described it as belonging to a movement that began in the late nineteenth century and “which has by now almost spent its force”. Funding to set it up was brokered by Horace Plunkett, who was also a contributor; both had been involved in The Irish Homestead. By its very existence, The Irish Statesman challenged the “Irish Ireland” orthodoxies of the Free State. Most articles were in English and a few in French; itnever published any content in Irish. Illustrative titles include “Cricket in Ireland”, “Jazz” and “The mystical aspect of the revolution”. According to d’Alton, the general tone – Ireland as part of Europe and the Empire, with something to offer to both ‑ owed much to Plunkett. Is audience was an elite one: “it is probably true to say,” d’Alton writes, “that a subscription to the Statesman would enable an Irish lady or gentleman to hold their own at dinner-parties in London or Dublin”. It covered the arts and music as well as international current affairs. It was derided in The Catholic Bulletin as “the weekly of the New Ascendancy” and “Plunkett’s House Journal” and, with a degree of humour, the subsidised organ of “The Aesthetes”. Under AE’s editorship, it sought to promote a “humane, politically engaged and broadly literate” intellectual climate. What killed it in the end was the Wall Street crash, which impoverished its American backers.

To a certain extent its successor was The Bell,which, under Sean O’Faolain’s editorship professed similar liberal goals, was born out of “searing frustration” with “the conservatism – or counter-revolution – that had followed Irish independence” and targeted “an intelligent selective readership”. The Bell included a focus on documentary journalism as well one on literature and intellectual topics. Seminal articles on prisons, illegitimacy, workhouses, slums and pawnshops were commissioned. O’Faolain’s editorials used the term Voir Clair to mean pretty much what Orwell referred to in “Why I Write”: the desire to see things as they are. This aspiration O’Faolain contrasted with the prevailing abstract idealism of Irish society. Here The Bell differed from many, if not most, Irish periodicals before and of its time.

Dublin Opinion was a monthly miscellany of cartoons and humorous short articles that ran from 1922 to 1968. It held on to a readership of about forty thousand for most of its existence. Its first cover featured a cartoon of Arthur Griffith and Eamon de Valera smoking pipes of peace with “unity blend” tobacco. Its first editorial (“Pull together”) expressed hope that all would unify in a spirit of friendliness and goodwill. Its political manifesto, set out in November 1922 during the civil war, declared:

Our politics – we have none. It is our duty to support the Free State, because it is here, for good or ill, by the wish of the people. Against the principle of the Republicans there is nothing to be said. Principle is written in letters of gold, proof against the acids of logic and sophistry. And so, if in these pages we poke a little fun or make a weak jest at the expense of men of various political views, we mean it in the spirit that will be theirs again –the spirit of camaraderie – the spirit that is so necessary, particularly between men who have been comrades in arms.

Dublin Opinion, as the title suggested, represented an urban Ireland, in contrast to the Irish-Ireland idealisation of ruralism found in Gaelic nationalist periodicals such as The Leader. But by the 1960s this kind of nationalism had lost ground. In Felix Larkin’s words: “The politicians whom it had learned to lampoon so brilliantly were growing old and passing from the scene, and it simply did not have the measure of the next generation then emerging to claim power.” Its successor was perhaps the television programme Hall’s Pictorial Weekly, which ran from 1971 to 1980 and starred Frank Kelly, son of Charles E Kelly, one of the founding editors of and main contributors to Dublin Opinion. Kelly also held down a “conspiciously sucessful” parallel career as a civil servant. This included a period, from 1948 to 1952, as director of broadcasting for Radio Éireann, which was at the time part of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs.

Hibernia had been established in 1937 by the Knights of Columbanus. It was run from the same premises as The Leader. In 1968 the title was sold to John Mulcahy and under his editorship it established a reputation for critical anti-establishment commentary on politics on and business. Hibernia focused on stories about bad planning, illegal property development and local government corruption. Its coverage of the Northern Ireland conflict repeatedly went “where other media would not” in, for example, exposing the mistreatment of prisoners by the Royal Ulster Constabulary or factional conflicts within the republican movement. When Hibernia closed in 1980 Vincent Browne offered the following assessment:

[Hibernia] acquired a liberal and sometimes radical aura. The paper maintained a consistently liberal line on the North, repression, prisons, women’s liberation and industrial relations … Whilst maintaining a courageous line as editor [Mulcahy’s] concept of journalism as an intelligent summation of the known facts, mingled with informed opinion, and usually conducted almost entirely by phone from the office, results in a style that may lack the investigative edge required by a serious paper.

Magill was founded in 1977 by Browne with an explicit remit for such well-researched investigative reportage. In its first incarnation, under his editorship, it was the most important and influential periodical of recent decades. Browne identified five themes for the magazine and these dominated its editorial pages – civil liberties, Northern Ireland, women’s rights, the redistribution of wealth and, most prominently, the issue of accountability. As argued by Browne in the January 1985 issue: “The whole purpose of journalism is to enforce accountability on the part not just of public bodies but on the part of all institutions of power in society. Thus journalism is concerned not just with Governments but also with police forces, bureaucrats, courts, big business, trade unions, churches, even newspapers themselves.” Magill’s forte was investigative journalism, whether on the Arms Crisis, the trial of Joanne Hayes that came to be known as the Kerry Babies case or the treatment of patients in mental hospitals. An article on the latter by Helen Connolly was the result of a six-month investigation. Gene Kerrigan’s Kerry Babies article weighed in at more than fifteen thousand words.

The chronological structure of Periodicals and Journalism in Twentieth Century Ireland provides a fascinating overview of the development of critiques of Irish society from the margins as well as insights into the main ideological shifts across the period it covers. In our own time, where much of the focus of critical commentary is upon accountability, the chasm emphasised by O’Faolain between ideology and polemics on one hand and non-fiction investigation on the other remains pertinent. Many of the chapters in this book have precious little to say about the actual contents of the periodicals under discussion and focus instead, to good effect, on ideological positions and editorial politics. A number of fringe periodicals are mostly interesting for the doctrines these espouse. Much of the writing that appears in many of these is too much in thrall to in-house doctrinal orthodoxy to stand on its own merits. That John Horgan (one of the contributors here) does not include pieces from most of these in his 2013 anthology Great Irish Reportage says a lot. Horgan concludes that much of the best Irish journalism appeared in mainstream newspapers, though a number of his selections first appeared in Magill.

Bryan Fanning is a professor in the School of Applied Social Science at UCD. He is the author of Histories of the Irish Future (Bloomsbury, 2014) and, with Tom Garvin, co-author of The Books that Define Ireland (Merrion, 2014).




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