Account of 'artistic bombs' by brilliant cartoonist


PATRICK M GEOGHEGANreviews Terror and DiscordBy Felix M Larkin AA Farmar in association with the National Library 80pp; €14.99

THE FIRST all-night sitting of Dáil Éireann took place on July 12th, 1923, when there was a 17-hour debate on the continued internment of anti-Treaty prisoners. The Freeman’s Journal reported that by five o’clock in the morning a number of deputies were “sound asleep on the benches, but the debate went on with no sign of slackening”. It finished at 8am and the scenes in the chamber were captured brilliantly by “Shemus”, the newspaper’s resident cartoonist, who showed the deputies exhausted and desperate to get home (in this way also suffering from “internment”), except for the instantly recognisable figure of George Gavan Duffy, who was leading the opposition to the Bill.

Few readers would have known who Shemus was, even though his work was often cited as a reason why many people purchased the newspaper. It had even been discussed in a Dáil debate a few weeks earlier, on June 26th, when Labour TD Cathal O’Shannon attacked the cartoons for being “artistic bombs”. One of the most controversial of these bombs was published on February 10th, 1922, in that tense period between the Treaty and the Civil War, and showed Erskine Childers standing behind an elaborately dressed Éamon de Valera and reminding him “to say it exactly as I told you”. The title of the cartoon was “Giving him his lines” and it contributed to the demonisation of Childers, “the damned Englishman”, who was blamed for directing the opposition to the Treaty. Desmond Ryan worked for the Freeman’s Journal in this period, and was so disgusted by this attack on Childers it convinced him to leave the paper.

As Gerry Danaher SC, chairman of the National Library of Ireland, points out in an entertaining foreword to this book, one of the ironies of the controversy was that Shemus himself was an Englishman, born Ernest Forbes Holgate in Leeds in 1879, though he later dropped the Holgate. And what we learn from Felix M Larkin’s superb book, which presents and discusses a selection of the best cartoons, was that the cartoons were an extension of the editorial policy of the paper, with the titles and captions often changed to make them reflect it. For example, Forbes had suggested “The Autocrats” as the title for the one of Childers and de Valera, with the innocuous caption of “Come now, that’s something like a get-up”. But the paper was determined to portray de Valera as the puppet of Childers, and so it was rewritten.

Perhaps Forbes’s most moving cartoon was the one published immediately after the assassination of Michael Collins on August 22nd, 1922, which showed a female figure – Ireland – weeping inconsolably wrapped around a broken column with Collins’s name on it. The title was “Ireland’s Via Dolorosa”, or “Ireland’s Way of Suffering”, and in the background were broken columns inscribed with the names of Daniel O’Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell, Robert Emmet, Wolfe Tone and others from the pantheon of Irish heroes.

The caricatures could be vicious. Lloyd George was always shown as a poisonous dwarf, Sir James Craig as a bloated buffoon and Sir Henry Wilson as a crazed officer who commanded the Grim Reaper. But they were always worth looking at – sometimes moving, often hilarious.

Patrick M Geoghegan teaches history at Trinity College Dublin and is the presenter of Talking Historyon Newstalk