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Response to Review no. 501

I would like to thank Simon Potter for his thoughtful review of my book. I am in substantial agreement with his placement of my work within the existing historiography and with his analysis of the different methods of using newspapers as a source. Potter’s description of my approach as ‘broad brush’ is accurate and his reservations regarding using newspapers as a ‘cultural product’ without regard to the ‘supply side’ are certainly valid.

I would respectfully disagree with Dr Potter, however, on one important issue. Potter comments that my analysis of certain subjects, such as Gladstone’s Irish reform efforts, does not consider how or why ‘prejudice gave way to more considered comment’, resulting in various concrete attempts to address Irish grievances. I would argue that Potter is perhaps overlooking one of the primary themes of my study. That is, prejudice never fully gave way. But this is not say that negative views of Ireland were always foremost in the English public mind. To the contrary, my work demonstrates that British press opinion on the Irish question and its proposed solution was fundamentally ambivalent. Coercion and conciliation, sympathy and hostility, were in constant interplay in British newspaper reporting on Ireland in the nineteenth century, producing (often simultaneously) urgent appeals for reform and bigoted descriptions of the Irish people. These stereotypes never precluded earnest attempts to redress Ireland’s grievances, but they did deeply influence British conceptions of what exactly was wrong in Ireland and the press’s response to the prospects and results of remedial legislation.

Potter argues, quite rightly, that a more thorough exploration of the staff and ownership of individual newspapers will deepen our understanding of press response to certain events and issues. I second his call for more detailed studies in this area. In my book I have opted instead to highlight the dominant trends and opinions on Ireland that were repeated across the political divide and over the nineteenth century. In using this broad perspective I have not, however, completely lost sight of the differences and debates within the press. The book demonstrates a clear partisan divide in the press on a number of issues, such as the disestablishment of the Irish Church or Gladstone’s land bills, as well as highlighting several running debates between particular newspapers.

This brings us to the heart of the methodological question – how to interpret the recurring themes (both prejudicial and sympathetic) in Victorian reporting on Ireland? Without extensive reading of the personal papers of a host of British politicians, journalists, editors and newspaper proprietors we cannot posit any direct connections between commentary and policy. But, can we not consider the hopes and fears regarding Ireland and the Irish people persistently and repeatedly expressed in the British press over an 80-year period as constituting some sort of Victorian conventional wisdom? I believe so. Furthermore, I believe that this wisdom formed the wider context in which critical Irish policy decisions were taken.

My study analyses the numerous occasions between 1798 and 1882 when Irish policy initiatives closely resembled those prescribed, though often in more general terms, by members of the press. It is unlikely that every Irish bill was drafted in response to a clearly articulated demand from the press or public. But the press did have a role in defining political boundaries all the same. Editorials, cartoons and letters to the editor on the Irish question did not necessarily tell British politicians what they must do, but collectively the press did provide a sense of what politicians could or should not attempt in Ireland.

My thanks again to Dr Potter for his considered analysis and kind words.