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

Mon, Jul 7, 2014, 16:41

   
 

Book Title:
Mr Parnell’s Rottweiler: Censorship and the United Ireland Newspaper, 1881-1891

ISBN-13:
978-0716532347

Author:
Myles Dungan

Publisher:
Irish Academic Press

Guideline Price:
€25.15

Apart from O’Brien, other members of the staff of the offending newspaper were also jailed. The castle even managed to place a spy in its Abbey Street offices, and a series of coercion acts allowed for the seizure of copies of United Ireland even before distribution.

Despite all of these measures the Liberal government failed to silence O’Brien. Dungan offers persuasive explanations for the failure of these attempts at suppression.

The government hoped that where legislation had failed, O’Brien and his paper would be financially ruined as a result of a series of libel actions taken against United Ireland. Allegations in the paper of the existence of a homosexual ring involving senior castle officials – the director of detectives of the RIC, the secretary of the General Post Office, and the crown prosecutor – led to defamation-of-character cases in the courts.

The government’s hopes, however, were frustrated when the “Castle Scandals” were shown to have substance. And O’Brien used his escape from penury to damn Lord Lieutenant Spencer and Chief Secretary Trevelyan for employing men guilty of “abominations’ and “unnatural practices”. We might have heard more, however, about United Ireland’s engagement of the services of the disgraced ex-detective Meiklejohn and the methods he employed – which raise their own ethical questions.

The Tory government of Lord Salisbury, with “Bloody” Balfour as chief secretary, determined to get tougher with the nationalist press. Under the 1887 Criminal Law and Procedure (Ireland) Act, courts convened by two resident magistrates did not require trial by jury; branches of the National League were banned; and newspaper reports of their activities resulted in imprisonment.

TD Sullivan, editor of the Nation, was jailed for publishing a “proclaimed” report. O’Brien published the same report but he was already in jail because of his Plan of Campaign activities. During the turbulent 1880s, he served time in Kilmainham, Tullamore, Cork, Clonmel and Galway prisons and yet, with the help of others, managed to bring out his paper.

Between 1887 and 1891 more than a dozen editors of provincial newspapers were sentenced to prison for publishing “proclaimed” material, and half a dozen newsagents were jailed for selling copies of United Ireland containing the offending reports.

But Balfour did not have to wait to see whether his strongarm methods would eventually prove successful: the Parnell Split, besides everything else it destroyed, also ended O’Brien’s association with United Ireland. Fiercely engaged in the internecine wars between Parnellites and anti-Parnellites, the object of United Ireland’s attack was no longer the castle but the anti-Parnellite majority.

The penultimate chapter is entitled “Felo De Se”, which might suggest the paper died by suicide in 1891, an image also evoked in the final sentence of that chapter: “The journal that had weathered the best efforts of two coercion regimes to close it down, had, metaphorically, ended up by smashing its own presses.”

It survived, in fact, for almost a decade after the departure of O’Brien to the anti-Parnellites and the death of Parnell. Its post-Parnellite life, however, forms no part of the author’s present brief. Instead, what he has given us is a specialised study that is a valuable contribution to the historiography of the period.