Newspaper coverage of the Rising
The coverage of the Rising in Irish newspapers was largelyshaped by their ideological positions on Irish nationalism
In the capital, the newspaper forces were more or less evenly divided.The Irish Times and the Daily Express were unionist.
On Easter Saturday 1916, as both the Irish News and the Derry Journal reported with evident approbation, an enthusiastic crowd witnessed a military demonstration by the Third Royal Inniskillings in the grounds of St Columb’s College, Derry, at which “the spectators were thrilled by a sham fight between Zulus and British soldiers”.
Earlier, on April 20th, the unionist Fermanagh Times had been complaining about a special tax break that the Asquith government had engineered for the benefit of the GAA.
“If the Sinn Féiners want their hurling to be free of taxes,” it grumbled, “they can go into the trenches and hurl bombs.”
In the capital, the newspaper forces were more or less evenly divided. The Irish Times and the Daily Express (which did not long survive) were unionist. The Freeman’s Journal was wholeheartedly Redmondite (the Irish Parliamentary Party supported it financially as it fought, Canute-like, against the rising tide of William Martin Murphy’s Irish Independent).
The Irish Independent, for its part, espoused an idiosyncratic nationalism which was tempered by a deepening suspicion of Redmond and the IPP, particularly on the question of the North. Murphy privately described the IPP members at Westminster to his editor, TC Harrington, as a “place-hunting gang”.
The Rising had a tsunami-like effect on the press. Although unionist papers generally contended (without offering anything convincing by way of evidence) that it had been foreseeable for ages, and that Birrell’s administration in Dublin Castle had fatally failed to prevent it, the nationalist papers were evidently caught totally unawares.
A stone’s throw from the GPO, 111 Abbey Street was appraised of developments almost immediately. As Maurice Linnane, an Irish Independent reporter (and later news editor) remembered many years later: “One of our caretakers, a man with plenty of avoirdupois named Pat Gaffney, shoved in the door of the reporters’ room. ‘The Volunteers have gone into the GPO. They are breaking the glass with the butts of their rifles and sandbagging the windows.’ My colleagues and I rushed wildly down the stairs and into the street.”
In that newspaper’s chief reporter’s day book on that particular day, an enthusiastic but anonymous hand scrawled a single word across the whole page: “Revolution breaks out in city between 11am and noon.”
Restrained responseThe Irish Times
“Few people heard the beginnings of the official declaration of an Irish Republic. Fewer stayed to the end . . . A revolutionary went to Nelson’s Pillar to make his speech which gained fervour and thundered out the phrases he had used so often, before his audience became progressively bored.”
All the Dublin newspapers suffered breaks in production because of the fighting. The Irish Times was the first to reappear and, in its editorial on May 1st, it unforgettably demanded: “The State has struck, but its work has not finished. The surgeon’s knife has been put to the corruption of the body in Ireland, and its course must not be stayed until the whole malignant growth has been removed.”
The Freeman’s Journal, which reappeared on May 5th, spoke of the “stunning horror of the past 10 days” and argued that “the insurrection was not more an insurrection against the connection with the Empire than it was an armed assault against the will and decision of the Irish nation itself, constitutionally ascertained through its proper representatives”.
It then turned its fire on The Irish Times, charging that its “malignant growth” editorial was a “bloodthirsty incitement to the government”.
The Irish Times responded in kind a day later: “Our readers know that all this is wicked nonsense. We have called for the severest punishment of the leaders . . . It would be the worst kind of folly and the poorest sort of economy to shear the stalk of sedition and leave the roots uninjured.”
By May 8th the Freeman was also turning its guns on the Irish Independent as “foremost among the agencies of distrust and despair”, which had filled its columns with “matter calculated to arouse and extend the feelings and opinions in which the Sinn Féin party found its best means of seduction”.
The two editorials which the Irish Independent published on May 10th and 12th have generally been interpreted as calling for the execution of James Connolly, and Murphy is credited with having motivated them, even if he did not actually write them, because of his experiences with Connolly and Larkin three years earlier.
In the first of these, the Irish Independent, despite some ambiguity, left its readers in no doubt that it was opposed to leniency for the ringleaders, while urging (as did many papers, unionist as well as nationalist, North and South) clemency for those more marginally involved. Twelve people had already been executed: if others, who were as guilty, were treated “with too great leniency they will take it as an indication of weakness [and] may be more truculent than ever”.
“We do not think that extreme severity should be generally applied, nor do we think that there should be extreme leniency all round . . . When, however, we come to some of the ringleaders, instigators and fomentors not yet dealt with, we must make an exception. If these men are treated with too great leniency, they will take it as an indication of weakness on the part of the government . . . Weakness to such men at this stage may be fatal . . . Let the worst of the ringleaders be singled out and dealt with as they deserve; but we hope that there will be no holocaust of slaughter.”
Bleak observationThe Irish Times
When the Irish Independent returned to this theme in the second of its two controversial editorials on May12th, Connolly and Seán Mac Diarmada were the only two signatories of the Easter proclamation who had not been executed. The offence this subsequently generated would have been at least in part related to the fact that it did not appear on the streets until after Connolly and Mac Diarmada had been shot, which meant that nobody involved in making the decision to execute them would have read it before issuing the final orders. This made it seem particularly cold-blooded.
“We cannot agree with all those who insist that all the insurgents, no matter how sinister or abominable the part they played in the rebellion, should be treated with leniency. Certain of the leaders remain undealt with, and the part that they played was worse than that of some of those who have paid the extreme penalty.”
Contentious authorshipIrish Independent’s
The most telling contemporary evidence, however, comes from anti-Parnellite MP Tim Healy writing to his brother in October of the same year. In Frank Callanan’s biography of Healy, Murphy is depicted as a man thrown off balance by the tumultuous events he has just lived through, unwilling or unable to use the power of his newspapers for political ends (or at least those ends desired by Healy), and deeply unhappy at the fact that he was being held responsible for the executions.
Murphy, according to his own version of events as told to Healy, “was not responsible and did not know of the articles recommending ‘vigour’ and that they were written by Harrington, and, until his attention was called to them, he had not even read them. He was evidently greatly affected by the thought that he had been accused of advising the shooting of Connolly, owing to the antagonism the man showed him.
“He said of course at first he felt bitter against the insurgents but, finding all the Tories gloating over the executions and imprisonments, he said every drop of Irish blood in his veins surged up, and he began, like others, to sympathise with them. He was quite moved; and his face flushed.”
In the North, the Irish News, owned and controlled by nominees of the Catholic bishops, gave the Independent and the Times both barrels. Arguing that the real rebellion was against the Irish Party, it charged that “the hand of the Independent was on the handle of every pickaxe wielded against the foundations”.
And there was not a decent man in the country “who will not shudder with repulsion at the spectacle of that infamous incarnation of hypocrisy, The Irish Times, sitting on its uninjured perch in Westmoreland Street, and shrieking aloud for blood and more blood, like a monstrous combination of witch and vampire . . . The Irish Times helped to manure the ‘malignant growth’ when it assured the Volunteers that manliness and true patriotism should induce them to follow the MacNeills and the Casements. Now it brazenly advocates the wholesale slaughter of those who took its advice.”
The Irish News maintained that the “MacNeill Volunteers” were never a numerous or formidable force until their leaders “joined hands with Larkin, the Syndicalist-Anarchist”. The unionist Lurgan Mail blamed the Citizen Army as “apparently directly responsible for the outbreak”, as did the Carrickfergus Advertiser, the Banbridge Chronicle, the Belfast Newsletter, and the Northern Whig.
The nationalist Derry People, not to be left behind, helpfully informed its readers that Larkin was “reported to be in an insane asylum on White Plains in America”, and described the Citizen Army as the originators of the entire Rising.
It blamed Larkin “and desperate characters of his type . . . disciples of men like Proudhon and Bakhunin”, who were responsible for fostering “in the minds of an impetuous and reckless crowd an utter abhorrence not only for the payment of taxes, tithes and stipends, but also for all regularly constituted government”.
While nine out of some 18 Northern papers I have consulted published the full text of the proclamation, it is remarkable that eight of these were unionist, and published the text generally without much by way of commentary.
Entrepreneurial spiritNorthern WhigBelfast Evening TelegraphEvening
Overall, reading these papers before, during and after the Rising tends to support the historian Fearghal McGarry’s well-documented contention that the republican tradition of Irish Fenianism, of which the IRB was the standard-bearer, was by this time weak, or even dying, and enjoyed only a marginal influence.
But the attitudes of these newspapers also support the view that one of the chief effects of the Rising, when it happened, was to expose and deepen potentially great fissures within Irish nationalism, while significantly reinforcing the forebodings within unionism about its future under a home rule parliament.
Sources consulted for this article include the newspapers cited, the Harrington papers in the National Library of Ireland manuscript collection, 1916 and Irish Republicanism: Between Myth and History, by Fearghal McGarry, in Towards Commemoration: Ireland in War and Revolution 1912-1923, edited by John Horne and Edward Madigan (Royal Irish Academy 2013), and TM Healy, by Frank Callanan (Cork University Press, 1996)
John Horgan is a former Irish Times journalist, professor of journalism and press ombudsman