Ireland’s ‘Charlie Hebdo’: the remarkable run of Dublin Opinion
Founded in 1922, the satirical magazine poked fun at governments for almost 50 years
Eamon de Valera was often the butt of Dublin Opinion’s satire. When he sought to replace PR with the “straight vote” system, this cartoon, capitalising on de Valera’s reputation as a maths genius, had him standing at Broom Bridge in Dublin – famously associated with Rowan Hamilton’s discovery of the formula for quaternion multiplication – and chalking up on the side of the bridge this formula: FF - PR = FF to the power of N. The March 1925 issue featured a full-length portrait of de Valera, so tall that his head pushes the top border of the cartoon upwards and distorts the text above it, with the caption “High Treason”
When recently I published an essay on Ireland’s most celebrated satirical magazine, Dublin Opinion, little did I know that soon afterwards the tragic Charlie Hebdo massacre would spark off a lively debate about the extent to which a cartoon may offend.
I have long had an interest in the history of political cartoons. I had previously written about the “Shemus” cartoons that appeared in the Freeman’s Journal from 1920 to 1924, and writing about Dublin Opinion was a logical follow-on from that. My essay appears in Periodicals and journalism in twentieth-century Ireland, published by Four Courts Press and edited by Mark O’Brien and myself. It is a collection of short studies of Irish periodicals ranging from Griffith’s United Irishman and An Claidheamh Soluis, through the Irish Statesman and The Bell, to Hibernia, Hot Press and Magill.
Dublin Opinion was founded in March 1922 by Arthur Booth and Charles E Kelly. They were soon joined by Tom Collins. Collins was the main writer; Booth and Kelly would contribute mostly cartoons, the latter signing his distinctive work as ‘C.E.K.’. Booth was the first editor. When he died of tuberculosis in 1926, Kelly and Collins became joint editors – and they continued in that partnership for the next 42 years. They were both civil servants, and Kelly enjoyed a conspicuously successful career. He was director of broadcasting for Radio Éireann from 1948 to 1952 and later director of the Post Office Savings Bank. Collins retired from the civil service in 1934 to work full-time on Dublin Opinion.
Dublin Opinion was published monthly, a miscellany of quips, short articles, poems and cartoons – all in a humorous vein, but with serious intent. Its masthead initially included a subtitle in Irish that translated as “Seriousness in humour”. The journal, without sacrificing its humour, always retained the capacity for conveying a serious message – and the message had greater impact because it was delivered in a humorous way.
More generally, it saw humour as an inherently serious matter: to quote Kelly, “true humour is not idle words ... but has a useful function as a corrective of folly, pomposity and injustice”. Dublin Opinion would claim “that humour is the safety valve of a nation, and that a nation which has its values right will always be able to laugh at itself”. Kelly characterised its policy as one of giving “kindly criticism ... without inflicting pain” – and he stated that “the successful critical cartoon or article was one which made the victim (if there was one) laugh”.
Its political bias has been aptly described as “being humorously ‘agin’ whatever government may be in power”. This meant that it did occasionally fall foul of politicians – a serious matter for Kelly, since he was a serving civil servant. One such occasion was shortly after Fianna Fáil had been defeated in the 1948 general election. Fianna Fáil took exception to a cartoon which was, admittedly, favourable towards the new government. It showed the ministers all superstitiously touching the cabinet table, with the caption: “The government, feeling that things are going with an almost alarming smoothness, touches wood”. The matter was raised in the Dáil by two former ministers, Seán MacEntee and PJ Little.
MacEntee described Dublin Opinion as “a certain party political journal published monthly in this country which has been consistently anti-Fianna Fáil”, while Little complained that “a permanent official is running a monthly magazine which has taken sides in politics with considerable emphasis”. He continued: “The Minister will have to take very grave notice of the completely partisan attitude taken up in that paper”. The Minister in question, James Everett, defended Kelly – and his civil service career was not adversely affected.
More usually, however, Irish politicians were as amused as everyone else by the fare on offer in Dublin Opinion, and most recognised its value in reducing the deep-seated tensions in Irish public life in the aftermath of the civil war. Seán T. O’Kelly once praised it for “pouring, month after month, the balm of laughter on our wounds”. There are many jocund references to Dublin Opinion in the Dáil debates, further testimony to its acceptance by the political establishment.
But it could be very tough. A notable instance of this was the cover of its March 1925 issue. It featured a full length portrait of de Valera, so tall that his head pushes the top border of the cartoon upwards and distorts the text above it, with the caption “High Treason”. For some, that might have been as outrageous as a cartoon about the prophet Muhammad.
De Valera was always a target of Dublin Opinion’s humour. It held de Valera largely responsible for the persistence of civil war divisions, and it ridiculed what it perceived as his autocratic tendencies. In the 1950s, it was exasperated by his determination to hold on to power – and this exasperation fuelled its campaign against de Valera’s proposal to change the voting system in 1959.
De Valera’s 1937 constitution had retained proportional representation – PR – but Fianna Fáil’s defeat in general elections in 1948 and 1954 caused de Valera to seek to replace PR with the “straight vote” system. Dublin Opinion stoutly defended PR in two remarkable cartoons. The first, capitalising on de Valera’s reputation as a mathematics genius, had him standing at Broom Bridge in Dublin – famously associated with Rowan Hamilton’s discovery of the formula for quaternion multiplication – and chalking up on the side of the bridge this formula: FF - PR = FF to the power of N.
The other cartoon set out the issue at stake with devastating clarity. It featured a schoolroom with three boys of differing heights standing at a blackboard on which their teacher had drawn three apples, and the teacher explains: “Under PR, each boy gets an apple; under the ‘straight vote’, the biggest boy gets the lot”.
The referendum to abolish PR was lost by a narrow margin – less than 4 per cent – and Dublin Opinion’s campaign was widely credited with having had a huge influence on the outcome. It celebrated with the quip: “A Straight Vote has retained PR”. Arguably, this was its finest hour.
In the 1960s the circulation of Dublin Opinion – which had remained constant at over 40,000 per issue since 1925 – began to decline. The politicians whom it had learned to lampoon so brilliantly were passing from the scene, and it did not have the measure of the next generation. Moreover, its humour now seemed very timid compared to the vicious satire in, for example, the British magazine Private Eye and the BBC television programme That was the week that was. Kelly and Collins sold up in 1968, though the journal struggled on under new ownership for a brief period afterwards – a pale shadow of its former self.