Paper politics: Keeping in touch with home news when living abroad
As Irish communities formed abroad, so too did a network of media focused on Irish affairs. But in the digital age, do emigrants still want these local papers, asks BRIAN O'CONNELL
In the mid-1990s, I spent a number of summers in Cape Cod. We had one direct link with home, a house telephone, which enabled us to call family once a week to get the latest news. None of us had a mobile phone and access to the internet was limited. When Veronica Guerin was shot and killed in June 1996, it was 24 hours before the news filtered through.
The only other news link to home was chancing upon copies of the Irish Emigrant, a weekly newsletter emailed from Galway to a worldwide mailing list. It began in 1987 when Liam Ferrie emailed a number of his colleagues in Digital Equipment Corporation who worked abroad, with snippets of what was happening in Ireland.
It began to spread, but the only people with email at the time were those working in IT or academia, so circulation remained limited.
By the time I arrived in America a decade later, however, copies of the newsletter were being printed off and left on bar counters where Irish people socialised. The Irish Emigrant gave a concise breakdown of the main headlines in Ireland along with some opinion pieces, and by the time it ceased last year it had become one of the oldest online publications in the world, reaching emigrants in dozens of countries.
With emigrants and Irish communities now able to read newspapers such as The Irish Times every day online or listen to RTÉ’s Morning Ireland as they come home from work in Sydney, I began to wonder why anyone would need a filtering of the news several days behind in print form, and whether Irish community newspapers still had a role to play. Over the past year, I have travelled to Belfast, London, New York and Sydney to make a radio series, Home News, which explores how Irish communities stay in touch with Ireland.
Some titles have been quick to recognise the shift in attitudes among newer emigrants, who are as likely to identify with fellow international professionals as they are with exclusively Irish communities. They are less likely to attend Irish centres in Boston or Birmingham, and their sense of place is less reliant on being articulated by community newspapers, given that they can digitally maintain links with home.
The Irish Voice, under editor Niall O’Dowd, has been a strong voice and advocate for the Irish in America for a quarter of a century. O’Dowd, who also publishes Irish America magazine, is now focusing more on his online product, irishcentral.com, than on his printed offerings.
“The whole game has changed overnight,” says O’Dowd. “I’m an old timer when it comes to media. You need well researched, good stories and I’m not into all the bells and whistles. Our website has a lot of original content and we are doubling our audience every year. The number of unique visitors each month dwarfs anything we ever did with the Irish Voice and we get more advertising now in our online products than we do in the newspaper. The train has left the station in terms of print. We are on a new journey.”
The Irish Post in London has had a dramatic two years. The paper, which calls itself the “voice of the Irish in Britain”, went into liquidation in 2011. A large effort was undertaken by leading members of the Irish community in the UK to get it back in print, before Cork-born businessman Elgin Loane stepped in to rescue the title.
Under then-editor Murray Morse, it quickly found itself in controversy when the paper accused President Michael D Higgins of snubbing the Irish community in London by reneging on a promise to give the paper a one-on-one interview on his visit to the UK in 2012.
Many of those who had campaigned for the paper to return were calling on it to apologise, and the issue raised the question of whether the paper was still relevant at a time when newer Irish arrivals in the UK didn’t feel as strong a need to assert their Irishness as past generations had? The circulation had slipped from a high of 31,400 copies to under 20,000 by the time it closed.
It remains to be seen whether or not the title can regain the trust of the community it once served.
In Sydney, the Irish Echo is attempting to benefit from the large influx of Irish emigrants in recent years and is targeting new arrivals with free copies of the paper handed out in bars in areas such as Bondi Beach. But some of those new arrivals are somewhat ambivalent to the title, while the sheer size of the continent makes it difficult for the Irish Echo to reach many in its printed form.
To counteract this, the paper has invested in its online product and has a breaking-news section with regularly updated stories relating to the Irish community in Australia. The paper and its staff are also active on social media.
In Belfast, the Irish News is something of a success story and has begun selling more full-price editions than rival title the Belfast Telegraph for the first time in its history. It has moved from being preoccupied with “deaths and the dogs” to a title now doing some strong work on social issues and gaining a level of cross-community appeal. The paper’s success is perhaps reflective of a rising Northern Irish identity and the ways in which media in Northern Ireland has had to seek out new readers following the Belfast Agreement.
Riverdance co-founder John McColgan’s new project WorldIrish.comaims to connect the Irish diaspora in new ways in the future. The site describes itself as an online portal, and has a team of journalists who help source material and stories that they feel may be of relevance to the site’s members, many of who are of Irish extraction, but based outside Ireland. McColgan hopes his website can become something of a virtual Irish bar, allowing the Irish community abroad to be the content creators of the project.
“Gabriel Byrne, who is on our advisory board and a great supporter of the project, put it very well when he said that Ireland has forgotten about the diaspora but we haven’t forgotten about Ireland,” says McColgan.
“They do feel ignored. The diaspora are not one group and there are different levels of engagement. The common glue that holds them all together, whatever their own perspective, is their interest in Ireland, either currently or in their heritage or in their genealogy.
“On so many levels, Ireland is an emotive and powerful brand.”
Home News begins on RTÉ Radio 1 at 7.30pm tomorrow, and continues every Saturday until December 22nd. Podcasts can be downloaded from rte.ie/radio1/
'The paper was a touch of green in your fingers'
David Egan , an Irish artist originally from Dublin, emigrated to Sydney in the 1980s. egangallery.com
“When I came here, I wanted to stay for a year at least and then I stayed on after that. The difference now is that my parents aren’t around any more. I have four boys and the trip to Dublin is very difficult. I feel homesick and it doesn’t particularly get any easier. You do crave and hunger the country as much as you ever did. I always say it is like there is 10 per cent of me missing while I’m living in Australia, and I know when I go home that 10 per cent is topped up.
“I listen a lot to [Irish] radio, especially Dave Fanning and I find that great. When I first came here I remember getting enough coinage, at least $10 worth, and popping them all in [to the phone] and speaking for three minutes and that was the end of the contact with home. With The Irish Times, for example, if it was posted it would have taken at least a week to get here.
“I bought the Irish Echo all the time when I arrived first and I still do buy it. I don’t know why. I’d say it is more a patriotic thing to buy the paper and for me it is about not letting go of a past routine. The paper was a touch of green in your fingers and I suppose there are a lot of Irish advertisements, community events and local news that you wouldn’t access elsewhere. That could be the reason it will survive.”
'The community here has become very underground'
John Normoyle (31), from Ennis, Co Clare, moved to New York in 2003 to work at the Clinton Foundation. He currently works as director of digital strategy with DraftFCB
“Traditional news sources like The Irish Times or RTÉ are feeding me content that I find entertaining or useful if I am having conversations with other Irish people. What I’m seeing in Irish newspapers here in America is not really useful for me. I am much more interested in news that is actually happening in Ireland and being generated from there.
“The Irish American interpretation on things, or what is happening with that community, is not so important to me. I came here independently and was very lucky to have a job set up and somewhere to live. A lot of emigrants in the past didn’t have that safety net and I understand how Irish newspapers here helped them in networking.
“ It is very difficult now to enter the US without a qualification or a job set up. I made very strategic choices in my career and put my head down with my green card in mind, literally from the day I landed. I feel the community here has become very segregated and gone slightly underground because of the undocumented situation.”