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Response to Review no. 122

I am grateful to John McGurk for his warm review of Newspapers and Nationalism. I wrote the text ten years ago, and since then there has been increasing recognition of the important place of newspapers for historians of Ireland. James Loughlin’s Constructing the political spectacle: Parnell, the press and national leadership in
D. George Boyce and Alan O’Day, Parnell in Perspective (London 1991) which analyses Parnell’s relationship with the press, was published just as I completed. Lawrence W. McBride recent edition of essays (Images, Icons and the Irish Nationalist Imagination (Dublin 1999)) includes work by Ben Novick on the nationalist response to atrocity propaganda during the First World War, and Gary Owens on images of the Manchester Martyrs, which explore the early twentieth century Irish press through analysis of political cartoons and illustrations. Their work treats the press, not as easy copy but as an important primary source. When Stephen Koss wrote The Rise and Fall of the Political Press in Britain (London 1990), he emphasised the role that newspapers played in forming public opinion. My original title claimed to present the ‘social and political influence of the Irish provincial press’, but I realised that influence is hard to prove. But, as Koss said, what we can discover about the workings of the press will throw light into the political process (p.29).

I began to think about working on the Irish provincial press after working on the archives of an estate in post-Famine Tipperary. I looked at the local press (The Tipperary Advocate and The Tipperary Free Press) to see what references there were to landlord and tenant relations in the county during the Land War. It then struck me that, unlike other primary sources, I could not properly evaluate these newspapers. I knew nothing who wrote them, who published them, and who, and how many, people read them. What were their politics, what was their social background? I looked for a general history of the Irish press to provide me with what would be considered essential to understand any other primary source. I found that no-one had written about the nineteenth-century Irish provincial press. True, there were odd, disjointed and anecdotal pieces, mainly about the Dublin press, but nothing of substance. Yet this period of Irish history – after the Famine – was one of great flux – Irish politics were moving from post-Famine stasis to nationalist action, and logically newspapers would follow this movement.

My intention in writing this book was to provide the background material that I had lacked. I did not intend to examine newspapers as ‘media history’ through page analysis, and I disappointed some readers by my resistance to modish theoretical critique. Nor did I want to do isolated case studies, except as part of a coherent whole.

This was the genesis of the work, but there were formidable problems. I found that almost no complete archive from the Irish provincial press existed. No correspondence, documents or financial accounts, no major collection of the papers of proprietors or journalists, apart from documents scattered within disparate archives. For the newspapers themselves, the best holding of back numbers of the Irish press is held in British Library Newspaper Library in London, and this is being enlarged by the Newsplan project which is surveying the holdings in libraries in the Republic and in Northern Ireland and filling gaps with microfilms. In the Newspaper Press Directory, published annually from 1846, I found information on the nuts and bolts of each title: the price and frequency of publication, the names of the editor or proprietor (or both), the area where the newspaper claimed to be read, and above all, their politics. Importantly, the Newspaper Press Directory revealed that the politics of the provincial press changed over time from claims to neutral political allegiance in 1850 to nationalist from the mid-1860s onwards. The very fact of these changes underlined the importance of exploring the background of each title. Gladstone’s abolition of newspaper taxes from 1855 coincided with the rise of Irish nationalism. By providing a cheap press, which in English provincial newspapers supported the growth of liberalism, in Ireland also provided the means by which the message and methods of the Land League was spread across the country.

One of the problems about writing about newspapers is the sheer size of the text itself. Severe self-discipline is required not to get involved in reading all the advertisements, invaluable though they may be as a source for the history of consumerism, or in pursuing minor heroes, lost dogs, train accidents or petty crimes. In one sense, in order to write the history of the press, one should refrain from reading newspapers at all. McGurk regrets that I did not refer to the sensational Maamtrasna murders in 1882, but my purpose was not to work on the events reported in the newspapers (even if they did have an effect on national politics), but rather to disinter those who ran and wrote the newspapers themselves and the effect of legislation, government policy and events on them. If an event did affect a newspaper – as the Galway County by-election petition hearing of 1872 revealed the role of the Tuam Herald in organising and subverting the by-election campaign for their candidate – then that was of importance to me.

The effect on the Irish provincial press of the abolition of taxes on newspapers, carried through by Gladstone, was profound. McGurk quotes Alan J. Lee on the rise of the popular press in the second half of the nineteenth-century, but Lee’s book deals with the English press alone. A rough estimate of the number of Irish provincial newspapers published between 1850 and 1892 show a rise from 65 to 128. The interaction of government and the Irish press is a theme that runs from the suppression of the nascent nationalist press during the 1848 Rebellion, through to the Land War, and Gladstone’s inclusion of a clause giving power to prosecute newspaper editors in the Peace Preservation Bill of 1870 and was renewed in successive coercion bills. Gladstone’s reversal of his belief in freedom of expression and the self-determination of peoples was bitterly attacked at the time, and successive efforts to make this method of coercion work is echoed in modern debates on the freedom of the press.

Nothing is straightforward about those who ran the press, and it is here that I believe that John McGurk has missed the nuanced politics of the Gaelic nationalist, Martin O’Brennan of the Connaught Patriot, and the extreme Unionist, William Johnston of Ballykilbeg, who founded the Downshire Patriot. Martin O’Brennan was not a Fenian, as McGurk implies. O’Brennan embraced a west Galway version of Dublin Fenianism, and he devoted much of his paper to attacking Fenians, and was in the end repudiated as a fool by the Fenians who ran the Irish People. To begin to understand O’Brennan, and the role of his paper, it is important to highlight the support given by archbishop McHale of Tuam and the combative front that McHale and O’Brennan jointly presented, not only to Cardinal Cullen and to Dublin Castle, but to Propaganda Fide in Rome. Similarly, William Johnston of Ballykilbeg was indeed a member of the Orange Order when he ran the Downshire Protestant, but members of Orange Order lodges in county Down looked down on him, and believed that his extreme language and his sabre-rattling (or gun drilling) brought discredit on the Order and what it represented.

The example of O’Brennan’s newspaper, seen through the correspondence of the Catholic hierarchy and Dublin Castle who were concerned about its impact on what was seen as an volatile and ignorant population, high-lights what I believe to be the importance of examining the background of Irish newspapers as a primary source. Their content cannot alone reveal the nature of the society which they claimed to report and represent.

I was interested to learn about James Coyle, John McGurk’s ancestor, but my concern in the book was necessarily confined to people who ran newspapers. The antiquarians that engaged me were those who used their newspaper to spread knowledge about Irish history and antiquities and published local guidebooks. The Connaught Patriot demonstrates that the Gaelic revival did not begin in the 1890s, nor was it the sole preserve of the Dublin-centred intelligentsia. O’Brennan and others published columns of Irish history. He, and editors like John Davis White of the Cashel Gazette and Fr. Ulick Bourke of the Tuam News did much to teach their readers about Ireland’s historic claim to nationhood. McGurk says that it is surprising that they did not publish in Gaelic. But Gaelic type was an expensive investment and Gaelic speakers could not necessarily read the language. It was profitable to publish in English: English was seen as the language of the future. Those who spoke and read English could find work locally or migrate to an English-speaking world in Britain, Canada and America. In 1901, when the Gaelic revival was in full flood, Eoin MacNeill, a founder of the Gaelic League, asked Alfred Webb, the Quaker Home Ruler and printer, whether a printing business publish solely in Gaelic would thrive. Webb strongly advised against such a proposal on economic grounds – the cost of setting up the press and the limited readership – but MacNeill persisted, only to lose a great deal of money.

In my book I was attempting to present one piece of the picture, but there is still much to be done. For example, no-one has yet worked in depth on the major nineteenth-century Dublin newspapers. I wanted provide to a serious analysis of the Irish provincial press which contained at the same time a work of reference. I hope that future work will go further in opening up the society which was in part formed by the press.