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
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.
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.