Flying columnists: the provincial press and the fight for Irish freedom

The press’s rise coincided with Parnell’s and played a key role in the War of Independence

March 1922: Destroyed printing equipment at the Freeman Journal’s offices in Dublin, during the Irish Civil War. Photograph: Walshe/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

March 1922: Destroyed printing equipment at the Freeman Journal’s offices in Dublin, during the Irish Civil War. Photograph: Walshe/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images


The dramatic political developments in Ireland in the 1880s, such as the demand for land reform, the emergence of the home rule movement, and the rise of Charles Stewart Parnell were accompanied by an equally significant period of development within the Irish provincial press.

From around 1880 onwards provincial newspapers, predominantly nationalist, were launched on a scale that had not previously been witnessed. In many cases the owners and editors of these new titles were heavily involved in nationalist politics with several being elected MPs of the Irish Parliamentary Party. During the 1880s titles such as the Leinster Leader, Drogheda Independent, Western People, Midland Tribune, and Limerick Leader were launched. The trend continued apace despite the fall of Parnell in the early 1890s.

The Parnell split of 1890-91 came at a time when the provincial press was still amid its evolution as a predominantly nationalist force. At the time, many of what were to become the most significant organs within the sector, such as the Limerick Leader, Kilkenny People, Clare Champion, and Connacht Tribune, were either in their infancy or had not even been established. Consequently, any analysis of how the broader provincial press responded to the split is of rather limited value.

This perhaps explains why historians who have documented this specific episode in Irish history, such as Frank Callanan, Roy Foster, and FSL Lyons, afford minimal attention to the response of provincial newspapers to the split. Callanan notes the fiercely anti-Parnellite sentiment of Jasper Tully’s Roscommon Herald while Lyons merely comments that Edward Harrington of the Kerry Sentinel was one of Parnell’s most prominent supporters. Foster, meanwhile, records the strange situation in Parnell’s native Co Wicklow where the nationalist Wicklow People assumed an anti-Parnellite position while the conservative-unionist Wicklow Newsletter defended Parnell. The latter publication’s defence was rather reluctant, however, and arose from Parnell’s position as a “local benefactor” in addition to his “efforts on behalf of the county’s ports, and his largesse as an employer”.

Marie-Louise Legg, whose study of the Irish provincial press (Newspapers and nationalism: the Irish provincial press, 1850-1922) covers the period up to and including the Parnell split, did not discuss how it was received by provincial newspapers. It is, nonetheless, interesting to note that some of those titles that went on to become the most significant Sinn Féin supporters, such as the Mayo News, Meath Chronicle, Enniscorthy Echo, and the Kerryman, were only launched after the fall of Parnell. However, such an observation should be regarded with some caution, as at least two of these papers (Mayo News and Enniscorthy Echo) had strong links to the Irish Parliamentary Party in their early years. Indeed, the links between that party and the provincial press grew even stronger following the death of Parnell.

Senior party figures, such as William O’Brien, enjoyed what Paul Bew describes as “a specially warm relationship with a wide range of important provincial newspapers”. This relationship embraced an impressive geographical spread that included titles in each of the four provinces. The close ties between the Irish Parliamentary Party and the provincial press drew further critical analysis from historians.

Legg made the point that the involvement of so many newspaper proprietors in active politics meant that “political parties gained a more subtle understanding of the way the press could be used” as such proprietors possessed “an intimate understanding of the working of politics in practice”. Boyce articulates a similar view in stating that the Dublin-based papers “did not possess the special local knowledge and intimacy that the editors and writers of the provincial newspapers enjoyed”. These circumstances allowed “able and talented journalists” like James Daly of the Connaught Telegraph and Tim Harrington of the Kerry Sentinel to become “local – and in some cases national – political leaders as well”.

The increasingly intimate relationship between the party and the provincial print media occasionally resulted in sympathetic newspapers seeking the assistance of the party. In October 1905, David Sheehy, MP for South Meath, wrote to party leader John Redmond requesting that some financial support be allocated to the Drogheda Independent (the paper had got itself into debt as a result of a libel action). Sheehy urged that generous help be provided to the editor, Michael A Casey, as the paper had “a great circulation in Louth, Meath, and North Dublin” and was “a very influential supporter of our movement”. In a similar manner, John Dillon, deputy leader of the party, wrote to Redmond concerning urgent appeals for financial assistance he had received from the Connaught Leader.

The close engagement with the provincial press also extended to involvement in the establishment of newspapers. In March 1901, John Muldoon, MP for North Donegal (and later East Wicklow and East Cork), introduced John Redmond to “two Omagh gentlemen” (Mr Lynch and Mr O’Connor) at the House of Commons who were seeking the party’s help “in the project of establishing in that town a nationalist newspaper for Tyrone and Fermanagh”. Muldoon urged Redmond’s endorsement of the project and merely asked that he write to Lynch and O’Connor saying that he had heard of the possibility of the establishment of a nationalist newspaper in Omagh and that he hoped it would be “entirely successful”. The Mr Lynch referred to by Muldoon was in fact Michael Lynch who subsequently was central to the foundation of the Ulster Herald in Omagh later the same year.

The ties between the provincial press and the Irish Parliamentary Party have received significant attention from historians but links to Sinn Féin have drawn far less analysis. In many respects this is quite understandable; Sinn Féin’s victory at the 1918 general election sounded the death knell for the constitutional party but Sinn Féin’s time as the major force in Irish politics effectively lasted only four years (1917-21). On the other hand, the party founded by Isaac Butt in 1873 occupied this position for over four decades.

Allied to this is the fact that following its 1918 election victory Sinn Féin placed great emphasis on gaining favourable publicity in the foreign press. The distribution list for the Irish Bulletin (the newsletter of Dáil Éireann) provides firm evidence of this concentration of attention on the foreign media. This aspect of Sinn Féin strategy is dealt with comprehensively by Maurice Walsh (The News from Ireland: Foreign Correspondents and the Irish Revolution) but it should not mask the fact that the party’s desire to enjoy the benefits of a supportive and sympathetic provincial press was just as strong as that of the party it had vanquished at the polls in December 1918.

Guidelines issued to local party organisers in May 1917 stressed the need to “take steps to bring all possible influence to bear” not only on “members of public boards and other persons of importance in their districts” but also “on the local press to secure support for the policy of Sinn Féin”. Further instructions assumed a decidedly more menacing tone as those organising local branches were bluntly told that “the influencing of local newspapers” was to be secured by sending: “deputations to the editor or proprietor, before whom the prospect of support or its opposite should be intelligently and candidly put. If local ‘Nationalist’ papers will not express local opinion on national subjects there is no use for them.”

The party’s apparently ambivalent attitude towards the maintenance of a free press in the country was further indicated by the instruction that: “articles and letters on Sinn Féin should be sent to the press, and their insertion demanded if necessary”.

This hard-line attitude towards provincial newspapers did not always translate into actual intimidation. Apart from Co Cork, where the Cork Examiner, Cork Constitution, and Skibbereen Eagle attracted the undesired attention of the IRA, there is little evidence of republicans threatening any other provincial newspapers. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that Sinn Féin regarded this section of the print media as a crucially important medium for their publicity.

From around the middle of 1918, the party’s propaganda department (the forerunner of the Department of Publicity set up by Dáil Éireann) commenced a series “of weekly notes, written from the national point of view and sent out to the provincial press”. These notes were sent to “upwards of 40 newspapers in all parts of the country” that “received and in the majority of cases used these notes”. The person in charge of Sinn Féin’s propaganda department at this time was Robert Brennan, formerly a provincial journalist himself, having worked at the Enniscorthy Echo.

The Department of Publicity, headed initially by Lawrence Ginnell and then by Desmond FitzGerald, that superseded the department headed by Brennan, was similarly focused in its intent to influence, to the greatest extent possible, both national and local press coverage of the unfolding situation in Ireland. To this end, it included among its tasks not only the “daily supervision of the press” but also, where possible, “a daily supply of news to the press”, “the provision for the press of suitable articles”, and the “indirect influencing of the editorial policy of the press”. With this is mind daily interviews were to be held with the Dublin press allied to correspondence with the provincial press. However, if possible, a representative of the department “should be free to travel to the provinces to interview editors of the provincial papers”.

Irish republicans continued in their endeavours to dictate the nature of the press coverage of the increasingly hostile situation in the country right up to the closing stages of the Anglo-Irish War. As late as May 1921, Erskine Childers, who had succeeded Desmond Fitzgerald as head of the Department of Publicity, reported that “constant efforts are being made to influence the Irish press to present news in a form more favourable to the National movement”.

However, by this stage the more militant side of Irish republicanism had begun to display a concerted interest in ensuring favourable newspaper coverage. In May 1921, the IRA issued a set of directives to local brigade commanders that clearly illustrated this desire. A general order was sent to local IRA units stating that brigade commandants were to “be held responsible for the prompt transmission to GHQ [General Headquarters] of reports of conflicts, ambushes, attacks, execution of spies, and enemy outrages in their district”.

If a written report could not be sent without undue delay the brigade commandant was to “immediately send a suitable man to GHQ to report verbally to the Director of Publicity”. This instruction, seeking to ensure the swift documenting of the IRA’s version of events, was accompanied by a memo requesting specific information regarding local newspaper correspondents.

Brigade commandants were required to divide local newspapers or their correspondents into four different categories: “friendly”, “friendly but intimidated”, “neutral” and “hostile”. Those local journalists classified as friendly were to be supplied regularly and promptly “with all information with regard to military activities which it was desirable to make public”. However, the recommended method for dealing with newspapers or their correspondents that fell into any of the other three categories took on a decidedly more sinister tone. Those categorised as hostile, neutral and even friendly but intimidated were to be “regularly supplied with information, and pressure brought to bear on them to publish it”. Where such pressure did not produce the desired result then “drastic action” could be taken.
Christopher Doughan is the author of The Voice of the Provinces: the Regional Press in Revolutionary Ireland, 1914-1921 (Liverpool University Press)

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