The Irish Times in 1916: a newspaper in focus
Today's Irish Times newspaper is a souvenir edition of a 1916 paper that reported the Rising in microscopic detail – and carried some curious advertisements
The front page of the Weekly Irish Times published just after the Easter Rising
The front page of Easter Saturday’s Irish Times has been reproduced from a May 1916 edition of the Weekly Irish Times. This was a paper that appeared on Saturdays at the time. The weekly differed from the daily in carrying photographs and news on its front page in an era when most papers printed only advertisements on page 1.
The 1916 newspaper was a very different publication from today’s, and largely reflected the unionist point of view. Its editorial outlook would shift markedly during the 20th century, as independence was secured, the Catholic middle class grew, and the paper changed with society.
This edition covered three weeks, as publication had been suspended for a fortnight because of the disruption caused by the Easter Rising. It recounted in microscopic detail, over 12 pages, everything its journalists knew about the rebellion at the time.
When insurrectionists occupied key buildings in central Dublin on April 24th, 1916, The Irish Times was at the centre of a battle zone.
The paper sought to sustain publication in conditions where reporting and editorial staff were restricted to their offices because of the heavy firing. Military censorship was imposed, and the edition of Tuesday, April 27th, was published in a reduced form at the request of the authorities.
It included a “proclamation” that they had “taken active and energetic measures to cope with the situation. These measures are proceeding favourably”. As if to support such official sangfroid, the paper calmly observed: “We are glad to learn that in spite of the current troubles in Dublin, the Royal Dublin Society’s Spring Show will be opened today.”
Further pared-down editions followed as the week unfolded. On April 26th the paper included the proclamation of martial law by Maj Gen Lovick Friend, the UK’s commander-in-chief in Ireland, and – surely a sign of things getting serious in Dublin – the closure of all licensed premises.
The next day an editorial gave full support to martial law. The paper did not appear again until Monday, May 1st.
Other newspaper offices were immediately affected by the chaos of Easter Week. Those of Independent Newspapers were occupied by the rebels, and those of the Freeman’s Journal suffered damage from shell fire.
The Irish Times saw its own store on Abbey Street raided by the insurgents and “big reels of paper . . . rolled out on the street” to make barricades.
The reappearance of The Irish Times on May 1st gave the newspaper the chance to publish a considered editorial about the previous week, which had culminated with the surrender of the rebels on Saturday, April 29th.
The editorial reached a severe conclusion: “The State has struck, but its work has not finished. The surgeon’s knife has been put to the corruption in the body of Ireland, and its course must not be stayed until the whole malignant growth is removed.”
Arguably, this unflinching statement (which was matched in its intensity by the antagonism to the rebels of the nationalist Irish Independent) was not a direct call for the executions by firing squad that began on May 3rd, but The Irish Times maintained its stern position even as the executions took their ghastly toll.
But throughout those extraordinary events the newspaper had been more than a mouthpiece for unionism and loyalism in Ireland. The Irish Times knew it had an extraordinary story to cover.
By May 13th the company had gathered enough reports, photographs and comment to issue a bumper edition of the Weekly Irish Times – the one that is reproduced here.
Among the newspaper’s many notable stories in that edition were these five.
The Weekly Irish Times chronicles in detail what women did during the Rising, noting that men had no monopoly on courage – but also paying the backhanded compliment of remarking that the women were “doing unwomanly work utterly regardless of their personal safety”.
The paper’s correspondent “Shamus” prefers to concentrate on the work of women who looked after the wounded. He singles out the women of the St John Ambulance Brigade and the Voluntary Aid Detachment who dodged bullets and shells to rescue the wounded.
Shamus notes that most of these women were “typists and at other callings” when the Rising occurred. He believes that their bravery and diligence during Easter Week flatly contradict the assumptions that the work of the Voluntary Aid Detachment was “of a merely superficial character and little more than a pastime”.
A prisoner at the GPO
One of the most extraordinary accounts in the Weekly Irish Times came from inside the GPO.
Second Lieut AD Chalmers of the 14th Royal Fusiliers was off duty when the Rising broke out. He had the misfortune to be in the GPO when the rebels captured the building. Chalmers was taken prisoner, tied up with telephone wire and put in a phone box.
He was released on the orders of The O’Rahilly; he then spent most of the week under armed guard in a room overlooking the Metropole Hotel.
He was later released on Moore Lane, off Moore Street, and shot in the leg while escaping.
Chalmers’s account includes a lurid description of the death of a “Sinn Féiner” in the GPO who was priming a bomb. It exploded prematurely and “blew his head off”.
He notes that the rebels had plenty of food and that a cart arrived every morning with provisions. As it was the post office, they got a “good deal of amusement out of the telegraph instruments before destroying them”.
Trinity ‘true to its traditions’
As the voice of southern unionism at the time, The Irish Times had an affinity with Trinity College Dublin. The paper notes that during the Easter Rising the college was “true to its traditions” and defended the grounds from the rebels.
When the Rising broke out just eight men were guarding Trinity. By Wednesday that had swelled to 150. “Every graduate who could be rounded up readily answered the call,” the Weekly Irish Times said.
The Trinity garrison kept a watch on College Green and Westland Row for rebel movements. When one group of insurrectionists on bicycles tried to round the corner at College Green and make for St Stephen’s Green, they were shot.
The college became a focus for British troops in the days after the Rising; it accommodated a brigade of infantry, a battery of artillery and a regiment of cavalry. The newspaper reported: “The spacious quadrangles and lawns afforded excellent accommodation for the troops and it was surely a sign that Trinity had given itself wholly over to the military when one found soldiers playing football on the tennis courts.”
Death of a policeman
Charles McGee, a constable in the Royal Irish Constabulary, was a native Irish speaker from Inishbofinne, Co Donegal. In 1916 he was 23 and stationed at Castlebellingham, in Co Louth.
On the evening of Easter Monday a group of Irish Volunteers under the command of Seán MacEntee (who went on to be a prominent Free State politician) were ordered to hijack cars leaving Fairyhouse racecourse, in Co Meath.
They captured two RIC officers, Sgt Kieran and Constable Donovan, who attempted to stop them. Constable McGee was also taken prisoner, along with a military officer and his chauffeur.
The men were gathered in Castlebellingham, where it appears somebody shot McGee, who died later from the wounds. He was a popular member of the constabulary, and his death enraged locals.
MacEntee was later sentenced to death for his part in the Easter Rising, and he might have been shot had it not been for the intervention of an Ulster Unionist member of Belfast Corporation who knew his family.
The view of Grace Gifford’s mother
In other circumstances they would have been a respectable middle-class Dublin couple – and, like many such couples, they placed a wedding notice in The Irish Times, on May 5th, 1916.
Gifford was from a well-to-do Protestant family, few of whom sympathised with the rebels. But Grace’s sister Muriel was married to Thomas MacDonagh, one of the seven signatories to the Proclamation of the Irish Republic.
An Irish Times reporter spoke to Grace Gifford’s mother, who said: “I did not know of my daughter’s marriage to Mr Plunkett until yesterday. I did not even know definitely that they had been engaged, although I had heard it stated. I did not ask Grace and she did not tell me, because she knew I disapproved of the whole thing.”
Mrs Gifford blamed Countess Markievicz for turning her daughters into nationalists. “They got to know her several years ago and have largely been under her influence,” she said.
The advertising of 1916 was not so much a foot-in-the-door salesman as a discreet footman trying to catch attention with a quiet cough. Appeals to common sense (“to dread your tyres is as needless as it is unwise”) sprinkled with the odd ornately extravagant claim (“a luscious cigarette of distinctive character and unvarying excellence’) are couched in Victorian formality.
An obsession with dubious patent medicines is apparent as Widow Welch’s Female Pills vie with Dr King’s Liver Pills. Clarke’s Blood Mixture is perfect for your ulcerated leg. Steedman’s powder for the fretful child reassures us that the powders “do not contain poison nor are they a narcotic”.
Mostly, though, the adverts make apparent the enormous impact of the Rising on Dublin’s commercial life. Business as usual is the prevailing message, although the reader can sense the shell shock and dismay among the merchants of the city.
Many of the advertisements remind readers that the GPO was the centre of the insurrection: businesses ask customers to resend letters posted before April 22nd, presumably as mail was lost forever in the turmoil. Several of the businesses were insurance companies, no doubt themselves under siege as a result of sudden, extensive damage to property.
It’s heartening to note how many of the trade names of 1916 endured for much of the 20th century. Several are still in business in the city today, among them Findlater, Prescott, Brooks Thomas, Dockrell, Dunlop, Paul & Vincent, Tyler and Elvery.
Hely’s, a stationer and printer, proves the saying that it’s an ill wind that blows no good. Its 500 staff waste no time in producing a set of six commemorative postcards of “Dublin after the Sinn Féin insurrection”, for sixpence a pop. Note that Hely’s also sells shades for both candle and electric lights, as well as an intriguing 14-carat-gold-nibbed “Motor Pen”.
Tylers’ central locations put the company’s shops in harm’s way. Given the number of branches it has, it is probably lucky to have only two destroyed by fire. After the Rising many Dubliners will, presumably, have had a great need for new or mended boots.
The British Empire is still very much at war, and Spratt’s reminds readers that producing eggs and poultry for British tables can be lucrative, especially if you use the company’s feed. Like many adverts carried in Irish newspapers, it runs unchanged from UK editions.
James Weir and Co
It’s not entirely clear to what this grocer holds the key, but it is clear that it’s “not affected by the rebellion”. It has large supplies, after all, and is only going to charge the usual prices. The image of ship and fortress either raises the spectre of German invasion or alludes to the reassurance of imports from the stable centre of the British Empire, across the Irish Sea. In any event, it must be a relief to know that one’s grocer and wine merchant are impregnable.
Forrest & Sons
By 1914 nearly 20,000 cars and motorcycles were registered in Ireland. Cars and vans had an important role in the conveyance of arms during the Rising, and the De Dion-Bouton owned by The O’Rahilly was important in the preparations for the rebellion. (It was then burnt out, on North Prince’s Street, during what The O’Rahilly called “the glorious madness”.) Forrest’s indispensable and very becoming Motor and Sports Hood is “made in all the leading shades” – and a snip at 8/11.