No muzzling Parnell’s Rottweiler: Censorship and the United Ireland Newspaper
Review: A history of Charles Stewart Parnell’s ‘weekly insurrection in print’, presented with verve
A print from depicting the scene outside the National Rent Office after the arrest of O’Brien: The jailing of O’Brien in Kilmainham, along with Parnell and other leaders of the Land League, did not prevent the appearance of ‘United Ireland’. Photograph: The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Mr Parnell’s Rottweiler: Censorship and the United Ireland Newspaper, 1881-1891
Irish Academic Press
‘Parnell was the most remarkable man I ever met . . . his ascendancy over his party was extraordinary. There has never been anything like it in my experience in the House of Commons. He succeeded in surrounding himself with very clever men, men exactly suited to his purpose.”
This assessment came from Gladstone, who had spent more than 60 years in parliament and had been prime minister on four occasions. Of these “very clever men” surrounding Parnell, more than 12 were newspaper reporters, editors or proprietors.
Between the death of Daniel O’Connell, in 1847, and that of Parnell, in 1891, Ireland experienced a phenomenal growth in the establishment and spread of newspapers. Speeches, in and out of parliament and often reported verbatim, filled the pages of this highly politicised press.
Acutely aware of the political importance of the press, Parnell stated: “The profession of journalism is a great and powerful one in these days . . . the press is becoming ever mightier than the politician . . . politics and journalism run very much together, and a tendency is more and more to combine the two.”
When he found the Freeman’s Journal was not giving enough support to his Land League policies, he established his own weekly, United Ireland. William O’Brien, a reporter with the Freeman and one of the “very clever” lieutenants surrounding Parnell, was appointed editor. The first issue (August 13th, 1881) announced it would be “a weekly national monster meeting which cannot be dispersed with buckshot”. O’Brien was also to describe his paper as “a weekly insurrection in print”.
This book, by Dr Myles Dungan, details how United Ireland lived up to O’Brien’s intentions; how it boosted Home Rule and Land League policies; and how the government responded to its challenges. United Ireland has often been used by historians as an important source for the Parnell era.
But until now it had not been specifically examined or analysed for itself and its own history. Dungan’s assessment of the role of United Ireland during Parnell’s ascendancy is presented with verve and based on an impressive blend of archival sources, the files of the newspaper and a wide acquaintance with the best in modern scholarship.
O’Brien was given a free editorial hand with apparently little interference from Parnell. To what extent Parnell even read his own paper is not clear. Dungan’s main thesis, convincingly argued, is that United Ireland, under O’Brien, became Parnell’s “Rottweiler” snapping at the heels of the government, the Dublin Castle establishment, the unionist press and moderate nationalists. Incessantly it promoted the cult of Parnell’s personality while at the same time advocating a radicalism that, politically, Parnell could ill-afford to embrace.
The leader would never himself have used the vitriolic language and personalised attacks that characterised United Ireland. The Rottweiler, however, was allowed to bark and snarl and emphasise the aggressive side of Parnellism in order to keep his Fenian and agrarian revolutionaries and Irish-American paymasters on board. What Dublin Castle read as incitement to widespread social disorder was intended by O’Brien to scare the government into adopting more conciliatory measures towards Ireland.
Dungan outlines the steps taken by Gladstone’s Liberal government to silence and put down United Ireland. The jailing of O’Brien in Kilmainham, along with Parnell and other leaders of the Land League, did not prevent the appearance of the paper. It continued to be published in Dublin, Liverpool, London or Paris. And the Ladies’ Land League, using various stratagems, played an important part in its publication and circulation.