Belfast paper celebrates significant birthday

Sat, Dec 1, 2012, 00:00

INewspapers are thought to be dying, but this one is still alive and kicking

Newspapers may be in the post-Leveson doghouse, but one section of the Irish press was celebrating this weekend.

Belfast’s News Letter – the oldest daily paper still in circulation in the English language anywhere in the world – is marking 275 years of continuous print.

A special anniversary supplement released with yesterday’s paper contained tributes from former editors and historians, and messages from Queen Elizabeth and British prime minister David Cameron on the historic significance of the paper.

It was established in 1737 – 50 years ahead of The Times of London – and charted world-changing times at home and abroad, including the American War of Independence, the French Revolution and the emergence of the Irish Volunteers and later the United Irishmen.

The newspaper’s founder Francis Joy was a Presbyterian merchant who supported a degree of reform, but he was no radical – unlike his grandson, Henry Joy McCracken, who was hanged for his part in the United Irishmen uprising.

Conservative unionism

Much of the anniversary supplement is given over to discussion of the paper’s editorial stance and its journey from liberalism to a more conservative Ulster unionism.

While it cautiously supported the American and French rebellions, and was on the side of limited reform such as Catholic emancipation, it stopped short of endorsing the revolutionary fervour of the United Irishmen.

Historian Eamon Phoenix said the paper’s most important contribution was in documenting “the last quarter of the 18th century – one of the most vibrant, exciting and liberal phases in Belfast’s history”.

Jonathan Bardon, author of A History of Ulster, said the News Letter, which had its first offices at the Belfast docks, was instrumental in spreading the “spirit of the Enlightenment, brought in with cargoes from Scotland, the American colonies, France and Holland, and promoting toleration, scientific enquiry and new ideas”.