Dublin, Four Courts Press, 1999, ISBN: 9781851823417; 238pp.
Liverpool Hope University
Date accessed: 30 November, 2023
A fascinating survey and analysis of the 'Fourth Estate'and its impact and involvement on nationalist politics in Ireland in the second half of the Victorian age. Dr Marie-Louise Legg gets inside the period and writes to us about the newspapers themselves, their editors, the people who bought them and, those who actually read them and whether or not were influenced by them in their morals, intellects and politics. It may well pander to a kind of historical voyeurism to ask who is reading what? In this respect this book greatly satisfied, not least to the extent of the satisfaction we get when reading other peoples' papers in the bus or on the train. In her penultimate chapter, 'What did the Irish read?' we are told of a David King, who wrote The Irish Question (1882) that when travelling in a third class railway carriage he noted that out of twenty -five farmers 'more than half the people read the morning papers, even those who looked the least intelligent, showing a great interest in the news. I discovered the man who sat opposite me, a ragged looking individual read the other side of my paper with evident interest'. Pope Hennessy who wrote on what the Irish read in 1884 claimed that the owners of such national papers as The Freeman's Journal, The Nation, and United Ireland had plenty of evidence to show that the Irish reading public was a large and increasing one.
Historians of late Victorian Ireland, duly acknowledged here, tell us that the rural population of Ireland was well educated: between 1851 and 1911 ( on the evidence of the census) the percentage of the population over five years of age which claimed to be able to read rose from 53% to 88%. There were plenty of laymen able to read and write and therefore capable of coping with the necessary paperwork and administration involved in political organization and electioneering not to speak of contributing to and running provincial newspapers. The papers became synonymous with political literature in nationalist Ireland. According to Alan J. Lee, The Origins of the Popular Press (1976), the number of newspapers and periodicals rose from 109 in 1853 to 230 in 1913. In the earlier Victorian period , as we might suspect, the Dublin based newspapers, especially The Nation became the leading voices of nationalist opinions though they had a small influence on the provinces lacking the specialised local knowledge of such editors as James Daly of The Connaught Telegraph, or Tim Harrington of the Kerry Sentinel. These able and talented journalists to mention but two had much to write about in the heady years of 1879-1881 when major political events impinged immediately on the rural population even unto the remote western seaboard. For a more specialised treatment of press influence on land agitation in the decade 1870-1880 the reader will find E.D. Steele, Irish land and British Politics: Tenant Right and Nationality (Cambridge, 1974) more authoritative on that aspect than the present work. However, as Dr Legg points out little serious work has been done on the role of the Irish provincial press in the nineteenth century - indeed, her select bibliography on that century tells its own tale of neglect. Too frequently Irish papers are a quarry for quotation by politicians and their latter day historians.
Having read every word of this work- I can honestly say that she fulfils her aim of providing the basis for further work since she has identified many of the dramatis personae examined the statistics of individual newspapers, the issues, not to mention the persecution , they faced and their impact in creating political power bases and helping to forge a new 'self -image of Ireland in the next century'. However, the critic may well ask if all the blague and blather of so many editorials and correspondence really had all that much effect on the politics and voting habits of a restricted electorate. Indeed, it was a long haul to mobilise public opinion behind change and reform particularly as the people's members of parliament at Westminster appeared to be always letting them down. Nevertheless, the analytical work in 17 clear and authoritative Tables and a 45 page Appendix 'Irish Provincial Newspapers in print, 1850-92' are indicative of thorough research and will obviously make the task of the future historian of the Irish provincial press an easier one. Again, the Appendix is no mere list but gives details of the life-span of the papers, their circulation, proprietorships, printers and advocacy.
The book is classically structured into three parts- with four chapters in each part-: 'The Moral Nation 1850-1865'; 'The Emergent Nation 1866-1879' and 'The Militant Nation, 1880-1892' and well written in a style devoid of jargon and, not without humour, which is rare in an academic monograph. Each section devotes a complete chapter to the newspaper business whereby focusing on the evidence of the directories, business records, the correspondence of proprietors and editors we are given valuable insights into the survivors and new arrivals among a remarkable spate of provincial newspapers making it difficult to avoid the conclusion that Victorian Ireland was a nation of newspaper readers. The present reviewer was pleasantly surprised to find the order and account books of D.Wynne, Newsagent, photographer, souvenirs and Circulating Library, Main Street, Castlebar ,Co.Mayo much used to illustrate the reading of one west of Ireland town during the height of the Land War. Though Wynne's still sell newspapers and magazines, clients in the 1890s and the habitués of Castlebar's reading rooms, would hardly recognise the modern county capital of Mayo. In the 1890s the population of the town was artificially increased by army detachments in barracks and the trade brought by tourism after the apparitions at Knock in August 1879. The interdependence of the small farmers, 95% of the Mayo farming community, and the town's traders made for a social elite which came into conflict with the landlords and the clergy. Surprisingly there is no mention of the Maumtrasna murders in the locality, gruesome events which sparked off so much in the Land War and may have had an influence on Gladstone's introduction of a Second and Third Home Rule Bills. However, on the social level it is fascinating to find out what the various groups of Wynne's customers, gentry, army, clergy, professional and small farmers read - The Freeman's Journal, the diet of doctors, solicitors, and engineers, The Irish Times, and London Times the staple of the army officers, the R.I. C. and the minor gentry and Protestant clergy. The Catholic priests took The Freeman's Journal, United Ireland, The Mayo Examiner and one priest subscribed to The Nation.
Of the specifically local press, The Mayo Examiner, The Connaught Telegraph, The Western People, and The Cork Constitution were patronised by the army and the clergy; and, from the evidence of Dublin Castle ( Tables 12, and 14 ) which kept a keen surveillance on the local press throughout the country, about 300 small farmers, artisans, and shopkeepers took The Connaught Telegraph. The case study 'Gaelic nationalism: Martin O'Brennan and the Connaught Patriot is of great interest to show how Gaelic history was raided for a vast range of political aims especially as Brennan was central in the Fenian movement. His paper railed against 'the great neglect of a knowledge of Irish History, in comparison with the histories of every other people on the globe' ( p.97) Brennan's paper continued the work of Thomas Davis in The Nation and in that sense the Connaught Patriot was no mere local west of Ireland paper; the teaching of history and the fostering of Irish nationalism, though nowadays a well ploughed furrow, was then of more immediately relevant. Brennan's Plea for the Evicted tenants of Mayo written at the height of the Land War and sent to Gladstone is in effect an historical tract. Despite all the hype then on race and language it is surprising to read that before 1870 apart from the Gaelic language column in Nation and another column in The Tuam News and, in the final years of the century, The Cashel Gazette, there was no provincial newspaper printed solely in the Gaelic language.
On a personal note, I was disappointed not to find a mention of the scribal and antiquarian contributions made by my maternal great-grandfather, James Coyle, to the work of the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language, the Gaelic Union, and the Gaelic League in the 1880s and 1890s. The other case study which nicely balances Brennan's is the attention given William Johnston and his Downshire Protestant - an organ of the Orange faction - and whose radical populism was well ahead of his time. The celebrated and thoroughly unionist Belfast News-Letter, still going strongly and very recently bought by Antony O'Reilly ,a Republic of Ireland businessman, dubbed Johnston, 'a rural buffoon'. His prosecution and imprisonment for taking part in a march forbidden by the Party Procession Act in 1868 - has a decidedly 20th century Northern Ireland touch about it. Indeed the past into present theme which runs throughout Dr Marie-Louise Legg's Newspapers and Nationalism- the Irish Provincial Press 1850-1892 is an important and enchanting aspect of her work which must be essential reading for future studies in the subject.
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.