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Speaking to the nation

Maurice Walsh

The Voice of the Provinces: The Regional Press in Revolutionary Ireland, 1914-1921, by Christopher Doughan, Liverpool University Press, 308 pp, £80, ISBN 978-1786942258

The transformational role of the Irish provincial press in late nineteenth century Ireland is a classic illustration of Benedict Anderson’s famous argument that the printed word was central to how people began to think of themselves as members of a nation. Buoyed by the expansion of the railways and the rise in literacy, local newspapers flourished in the political turmoil generated by the Land War and the campaign for Home Rule. The age of the electric telegraph meant the words of Parnell and Davitt could often be read – and re-read aloud to an audience ‑ a matter of hours after they had delivered a speech. This power of transmission could look very subversive from London: in terms which might be deployed today about debate on Twitter, the Times urged the British government in 1887 to take action against the Irish press because “those who have addressed themselves to the masses in Ireland have been obliged to exaggerate, to falsify, to invent, until the habit of looking for any sort of correspondence between speech and fact has been altogether lost”.

Given their centrality to Irish political life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it is remarkable that the only comprehensive survey of local newspapers between the Famine and independence, Newspapers and nationalism: the Irish provincial press, 1850-1892, was published twenty years ago by the late Marie-Louise Legg. Christopher Doughan’s painstaking study of the regional press during the revolutionary period is therefore long overdue. Scrutinising seventeen different titles across all four provinces he provides a valuable account of the ownership and editorial positions of local newspapers during the decade of upheaval that began with the First World War. Not only does he extend the range of established titles that Legg studied, he also takes in a new burst of vitality in the regional press since, several papers were launched in the decade following the fall of Parnell.

By the turn of the twentieth century local newspapers were inextricably aligned with the Irish Parliamentary Party. Several of the best known editors and proprietors had been leading figures in the Land League or the party; Legg estimated that between 1880 and 1910 fourteen proprietor/editors stood for parliament and twelve were elected. It was not merely a question of political affinity. The reporting of Parnell’s speeches and campaigns in particular provided an enthralling narrative for a newly literate generation. Newspaper coverage contributed hugely to his celebrity. His death and the bitter split that preceded it did little to undermine the allegiance of provincial papers to the Home Rule cause: Doughan argues that the bonds between the parliamentary party and the provincial papers actually strengthened in the aftermath. In 1914 most provincial papers supported the war effort, backing recruitment and John Redmond’s commitment to the imperial cause, convinced that he had won Home Rule for Ireland.

The watershed for the provincial papers was 1916. Many of the papers read by Doughan were scathingly critical of the Rising to some degree, as one might expect from supporters of the parliamentary party (Pearse’s followers were described as insane). But many also berated the British government for creating the conditions for a desperate act of folly, in particular for tolerating the threatened armed defiance of Home Rule by Edward Carson’s volunteer army in the North. The Rising and its bloody sequel also shifted the national reality that the provincial papers had undertaken to describe. Significantly, General Sir John Maxwell, the military governor of Ireland, was worried more about coverage of the repression which followed the Rising than accounts of the insurrection itself. In acknowledgment of this anxiety, a press censor was appointed in June 1916, John Graham Hope Horsley de la Poer Beresford, the 5th Baron Decies, an old Etonian and polo player.

Decies was neither ruthless nor decisive (the republican propagandist Frank Gallagher recalled trying to distract him by discussing horse racing and excessive income tax) and he depended greatly on the co-operation of the newspaper editors to do his job of suppressing news and comment “likely to cause disaffection”. With the rise of Sinn Féin, the frequency of speeches likely to be considered seditious, inflammatory or provocative increased substantially. Provincial papers were also publishing letters from prisoners in Britain detailing maltreatment and, on the first anniversary of the Rising, memorial notices celebrating the executed leaders. Many papers also ran printing businesses reliant on publishing leaflets and Mass cards; Sinn Féin propaganda was good for business. But the newspapers now plied their trade in the shadow of martial law; Lord Decies himself thought the possibility of punitive suppression – such as happened to the Kilkenny People after a series of abrasive editorials by editor ET Keane, a recent convert to Sinn Féin – had a “salutary effect”.

In their display of cautious defiance and practical timidity in the face of censorship, the provincial papers were exemplars of that elusive “moderate opinion” constantly sought after by people like Lord Decies. Yet within two years of the Rising, most of the provincial press seemed to have moved in the direction of Sinn Féin. The Kilkenny People itself had been supportive of Redmond’s stance on the war and was still carrying recruiting ads in 1915. But by late 1917 the IPP was referred to as the “West British Parliamentary Party” and a man who eventually joined the IRA would later recall how his father read the People’s caustic editorials to people gathered at the crossroads and in the pub. The Meath Chronicle – which had condemned the rising as “folly” – began publishing notices for Sinn Féin clubs in July 1917 at the time of de Valera’s victory in the Clare by-election. The Tuam Herald described Sinn Féin as “degenerates” in April 1916 but after their election victory in 1918 the party had become “a compact, homogeneous body of active and intelligent young men, sincerely honest and unpurchasably patriotic, who may yet become the means and be the medium of bringing to this country the fullest measure of self-government”.

One explanation for this dramatic revision of editorial opinion might be that the papers were intimidated. As Doughan argues, a sympathetic local press was as important for Sinn Féin as favourable coverage abroad and the party was prepared to encourage the right attitude. Guidelines to local organisers in May 1917 suggested deputations should be sent to meet editors to impress upon them that “if local nationalist papers will not express local opinion on nationalist subjects there is no use for them”. In some cases Sinn Féin moved to take over hostile or indifferent newspapers. In December 1917 Michael Collins was one of the shareholders who bought the Southern Star in Skibbereen, a paper which had supported the war and deplored the rising. Doughan also highlights cases of “conflicted loyalties”, where reporters who supported Sinn Féin worked on established titles reluctant to commit to the party.

But a more likely explanation for the radical repositioning of provincial newspapers is that the censorship regime itself represented an attack by a discredited administration on the sinews of constitutional Irish nationalism. This was recognised by Bryan Cooper, who succeeded Lord Decies as censor and served a few months before the post was abolished in August 1919.  In a letter to The Times a month after he left his job in protest at the continued use of emergency legislation to suppress newspapers, Cooper saluted the conservatism of the provincial proprietors, pointing out that they were men “whose relatives had served gallantly in the war”. Now their businesses were being ruined because they were unable to second-guess the Irish executive. What looked to an editor like a harmless advertisement might lead to their newspaper being shut down. Apathetic readers would suffer “infinite irritation” because of the closure of their favourite newspapers and, Cooper concluded, their anger could only benefit Sinn Féin. By the time his letter had been published the days of tactful negotiation were over. During the revolutionary period, nearly a fifth of local papers were censored or suppressed and more than a dozen papers had their printing presses attacked or dismantled. Past affiliation with moderation made no difference. The Ballina Herald – which started out as a unionist organ and was regarded as “neutral” – was suppressed for printing a Sinn Féin leaflet. The Cork Examiner – regarded as hostile by republicans ‑ was forbidden to appear for five days for publishing the prospectus for the Dáil loan. By the end of 1920 Irish journalists were protesting against intimidation by the Crown forces. Local reporters covering incidents involving the Black and Tans were particularly vulnerable because they had to sign a pass when telegraphing their stories.

The attitude of the IRA was equally robust. In May 1921 IRA brigade commandants were told by headquarters to divide local correspondents into four categories: “friendly”, “friendly but intimidated”, “neutral” and “hostile”. They were told “drastic action” could be taken to make correspondents publish the correct material. Only an outright “friendly” demeanour was tolerated in some areas. Doughan cites the Cork County Eagle (aka the Skibbereen Eagle) which, although sympathetic to nationalism was critical of Sinn Féin. In May 1920 armed men broke into the home of the editor, Patrick Sheehy, bound him with ropes and covered him in tar.

Caught between the vindictiveness of both sides many papers adopted a prudent reserve. In 1919, the Tuam Herald described the RIC as “true Irishmen in every sense of the word” and condemned attacks on their barracks as “ruffian raids” which were “a hindrance to the realisation of the aspirations of the true nationalist”. But the paper never assigned responsibility for the attacks and criticised neither the IRA nor the Crown forces. Most papers surveyed by Doughan refrained from comment on the violence that developed between 1919 and 1921. And almost all supported the Treaty signed in London in December 1921.  In this they followed almost exactly the policy and practice of the Catholic church hierarchy. As the violence intensified bishops desisted from the earlier denunciations of IRA attacks conscious that their fulminations were being ignored and that priests they nominally led were sympathetic to the violent pursuit of the independence struggle. But when the Treaty was signed the church threw its weight behind it and unequivocally supported the Provisional Government during the civil war. Doughan highlights how the church exercised a powerful influence on the provincial press. Three Catholic priests established the Midland Tribune in 1881; the Western People was launched in 1883 at a meeting in the cathedral in Ballina and the Southern Star was bought in 1892 by a consortium led by a monsignor. Where the church had no direct involvement, proprietors or editors were guaranteed to enjoy a public reputation for piety and devotion, profusely celebrated in their obituaries. In opening up this neglected dimension of the provincial press, Doughan has identified a powerful conservative influence on Irish life during the revolutionary period.

Perhaps his next project should be to take this further. In his conclusion Doughan refers to the work of the historian Anthony Keating on sexual crime in the early years of the Irish Free State, in which he found that most cases brought to court were never reported in the press despite the fact that the courts were a major source of copy for provincial papers. The few cases that made it into print were described in prose so elliptical as to conceal the nature of the crime. A similar widening of his lens would have enriched Doughan’s own study. Although he makes good use of editorials to chart the positioning of provincial papers on the national question, an examination of the news columns, court reports, readers’ letters and even sports coverage would have yielded a more comprehensive account of the relationship between the press and the society it served during the revolution. The examination of editorials in each newspaper – many of them similar – becomes a touch repetitive and it also has the effect of isolating the war from a feeling of daily life.

In 1915 the editor of the Connacht Tribune, TJW Kenny, argued that the local paper was not a “one-horse show” whose contents “never embrace anything outside the rural district of the demesne walls”. It was the editor’s job to understand “that its readers know something of the existence of the telegraph, the railway train, the Atlantic liner – or the war”. Doughan conveys some sense of the social context of the revolution by mentioning the appearance of columns such as “Woman’s Corner” or “Garden Gossip” and by listing the ads in each paper he examines. Alongside notices for draperies, estate agents and optometrists there was a growing volume of advertisements for cinemas in provincial towns. Farmers were potential customers for fertilisers, harrows, tractors, harvesting machinery and animal medications. And in a reflection of how local newspapers mirrored the market then developing even outside the major towns and cities, their pages were filled with brand names: Raleigh bicycles, Dixon’s soap, Laurence’s Hair Dye, Veno’s Cough Cure, Golden-Spangled Cigarettes, Andrews Liver Salts, Beecham’s Pills and Beecham’s Powders. Although provincial papers had started out as vehicles for nationalist politics in the nineteenth century, editors in newly independent Ireland clearly saw their readers as consumers as much as political subjects.

1/11/2019

Maurice Walsh is the author of Bitter Freedom: Ireland in a Revolutionary World 1918-23 (Faber) and is working on a book about Graham Greene and the 20th century. He teaches history at Goldsmiths, University of London.

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