An insurrection in print

 

MEDIA: LUKE GIBBONSreviews Irish Journalism before Independence: More a Disease than a ProfessionEdited by Kevin Rafter Manchester University Press, 240pp. £65hb, £14.99pb

IN 1922, at the height of the Civil War, Ernie O’Malley was given the invidious task of executing the editors of the Irish Timesand the Irish Independent, but fortunately for those concerned, did not carry out his orders. Some months earlier, republican forces under Rory O’Connor had smashed the printing presses of the Freeman’s Journalfor its vociferous support of the Treaty. Attacks on free speech were of course decried, but it is a measure of the impact of the press that at the founding of the state, it had come to rival the Catholic Church as an influence on Irish society.

It is remarkable that so little attention has been paid to the press as an institution and this valuable collection of essays on Irish journalism makes a major contribution to redressing that deficit. Too often, as the editor Kevin Rafter points out in his introduction, the press is used merely as an archival source and not as part of the story in its own right. In two overviews of the rise of the profession, Mark O’Brien and Michael Foley discuss how journalism came in from the cold – or rather, how journalists had to brave the cold as the new role of “reporter” forced them to leave the comfort of their desks. As one reporter noted, this was not without its hazards: during the Land War, a journalist turning up at an eviction ran the risk of being mistaken for a bailiff, and being treated accordingly.

One of the rewards of the book is the discussion of several journalists who, though not household names, were key figures in their own time. Matthew Potter writes on Frederick Potter of the Skibbereen Eaglewho, like Sarah Palin, could see Russia from his back window; as the author points out, local papers carried large swathes of international news and were not nearly as “provincial” as they are today. Female journalists had to fight for recognition and Gillian O’Brien discusses the Tyrone-born Margaret Sullivan who, based in Chicago, linked the Irish to the Mexican struggle for freedom. Sullivan’s reputation was so incendiary that when Parnell saw her in the Ladies’ Gallery of the House of Commons, he expected her to throw a bomb into the chamber. Martin O’Brennan, from Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo, was another Fenian sympathiser and Andrew McNicholas recounts how his Connacht Patriotnewspaper in Tuam – “a malicious Garibaldian rag” – and the Irish Newsin London ran foul of both church and state, forcing him also to emigrate to Chicago.

That the press constituted an “insurrection in print” is highlighted in ML Brillman’s discussion of Daniel O’Connell, Young Ireland and the Nation, and is evident in the fact that the Land War and Parnellite period gave rise to 31 newspapers, of which 20 were nationalist. Paul Rouse looks at the role of Michael Cusack’s the Celtic Times, and the IRB-run the Gael, in establishing an extensive nationwide profile for the GAA within a few years of its founding.

All roads, however, did not lead to Croke Park or the GPO. Maurice Walsh writes about the London Timesleader-writer, James Woulfe Flanagan, scourge of the Land League and author of the notorious Parnellism and Crime series, who lived long enough to work at the Timeswith the young Graham Greene. Peter Murtagh relates the story of the Dublin-born WH Russell, whose vivid report of the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade, and evocation of the “thin red line”, made him the most famous journalist of his generation.

Kevin Rafter traces how another Dublin-born foreign correspondent, EJ Dillon, used his mastery of disguise and 26 languages to cover events in Asia Minor and Eastern Europe for the Daily Telegraph, exposing the first wave of Turkish massacres in Armenia. By contrast, the widely travelled journalist Francis McCullagh put in a good word for Turkish culture, comparing the conviviality of the coffee-house to an Irish pub. As John Horgan notes, this crossing of cultures did not go down well with a Moorish chief, Kaid Gilhooley, who, notwithstanding his Irish name, expelled the journalist from Agadir for a gift of dodgy Irish whisky (McCullagh thought that, as a Muslim, the chief would not sample it). If Margaret Sullivan encouraged Mexican radicalism, McCullagh deplored it, and his later reporting of “Red Mexico”, revolutionary Russia and the Spanish Civil War relapsed into a zealous Catholic conservatism.

IN A FASCINATING discussion of Irish language journalism, Regina Uí Chollatáin shows how the literary aim of writing good Irish with a view to reviving the language, clashed with the need to write good journalism which just happened to be in Irish, and which risked, as An Claidheamh Soluis put it, “degenerating into a mere patois”. At the other end of the spectrum, Ciara Meehan examines in detail how Arthur Griffith placed his prodigious energies at the service of the Sinn Féin movement, but such was his professional standing that he headed a list of the best known journalists in the city. Felix Larkin analyses the manner in which Griffith’s initial strained relationship to the Freeman’s Journalaltered as, under its new proprietor, Martin Fitzgerald, it threw its weight behind him in support of the Treaty. The role of the press as peacemaker in the run up to the Treaty is charted by Ian Kenneally, but it was precisely this productive role that came to grief during the Civil War, leading to the ransacking of the newspaper’s offices by republican forces.

The Freeman’s Journaloffices were the location for the “Aeolus” episode in Ulysses and Terence Killeen notes how Joyce’s meticulous recall of his visits to the office was put to good use in the chapter. Unlike the Irish language revival, Joyce had little difficulty distinguishing between literary language and journalism, but in Ulysses he paid the press the ultimate compliment by modelling the epic structure of the novel on the lines of a newspaper – though, admittedly, with a longer shelf-life. In this collection, newspapers also acquire a new historical importance, long after their sell-by date is gone.


Luke Gibbons is professor of Irish Literary and Cultural Studies at NUI (Maynooth)