‘Mirror of a changing Ireland’: The Bell’s view on The Irish Times in 1945

Magazine said the newspaper was ‘slowly but surely becoming the organ of the entire professional class’

The legendary editor of The Bell, Seán O’Faoláin wrote in 1944 that it was the policy of the magazine “to open as many windows as possible on the lives of as many people as possible, so that we may form a full and varied picture of modern Ireland”. One of the windows opened by The Bell was on Irish newspapers and periodicals, in a series of six articles that appeared under the general title The Fourth Estate in successive issues of the magazine between December 1944 and May 1945.

Mark O'Brien, in an essay on The Bell published in 2014, argued: "The Bell represented a dramatic intervention in the journalism of mid-20th century Ireland." For The Bell to have trained its sights on its fellow newspapers and periodicals – and indeed on itself in the final article of the series – was certainly a "dramatic intervention" in that it broke the convention that the press did not hold itself to account, at least not in the public sphere. Thus, Hugh Oram, in his foreword to the Newspaper Book (1983), could say: "Irish newspapers have been chronicling the passing of time for over three centuries. By contrast, they have been singularly slight in recording their own progress for posterity."

This reticence was less the product of modesty about their role in Irish society than of a recognition that freedom of the press was a delicate thing – always under threat in subtle and not too subtle ways – and that, while it was fair game to comment on and criticise anything that was published in another newspaper or periodical, to dig deeper into the affairs of other organs might delegitimatise the status of the press generally, diminish its influence and give ammunition to those wishing to circumscribe its freedom. There was also a certain esprit de corps within the press, notwithstanding often fierce competition between individual newspapers and periodicals – a sense of "dog doesn't eat dog".

New Ireland

O’Faoláin’s purpose in commissioning a series of articles on “some typical papers and periodicals” was “to see what, if anything, they reflect from the bright (or dirty) face of this new Ireland”, and in a long note preceding the first article he expressed the “hope that an analysis of six typical periodicals and papers of the day may cast some further light on that mysterious entity, the Irish character”.


The organs featured in the series were the leading ones of the day: three daily newspapers – The Irish Times, the Irish Independent and the Irish Press; the Catholic press – principally, the Irish Catholic and the Standard; and two monthly periodicals – Dublin Opinion and The Bell. All were published in Dublin, though they had a countrywide circulation and were addressed to an audience that was not limited to the Dublin urban elite that guided their fortunes. To that extent at least, they could validly be regarded as reflecting the “face of this new Ireland”.

Declan Kiberd has suggested that one of the reasons The Bell was so influential – and why it survived in the difficult circumstances of the period of O’Faoláin’s editorship, 1940-1946, was that “he was one of the ‘risen people’ himself, the son of humble parents in Cork, and therefore not perceived as greatly ‘above’ the people to whom he addressed his journal”. Born in 1900, he had fought in the War of Independence and later took the republican side in the Civil War. He then spent most of the period between 1926 and 1933 in the United States and in London. The Ireland to which he returned was not much to his liking. As Kiberd writes: “Having said ‘revolution or death’ in 1921, he was by 1940 confronted by the death of the revolution.”

In June 1943, he expressed his disillusionment in what is probably his own most searing piece in The Bell, entitled The Stuffed Shirts, as follows: “The final stage of the Revolution was – and is to this day – a middle-class putsch. It was not a society that came out of the maelstrom. It was a class.” That was the “face of this new Ireland” that The Bell saw reflected in the newspapers and periodicals – not bright, but dirty.

Literary critics

To write these articles on newspapers and periodicals, O’Faoláin recruited two recent graduates of Trinity College Dublin, Vivian Mercier and Conor Cruise O’Brien – both of whom would later become respected literary critics and, in the case of O’Brien, distinguished in other fields as well. Both seem to have shared O’Faoláin’s disappointment with “this new Ireland”.

O'Brien was already serving in the Irish department of external affairs and to preserve his anonymity, as was required of civil servants at that time, his articles were published under the nom de plume Donat O'Donnell. He contributed two of the articles, those on the Irish Independent – for which his father, Frank Cruise O'Brien, had worked unhappily in the last years of his life – and on the Catholic press. The other four were written by Mercier, with O'Brien adding a rider to Mercier's article on The Bell, in which he deftly parodied the magazine's style and content.

In Mercier’s article on The Irish Times – the second in the series – he describes the newspaper as “this mirror of a changing Ireland”. Change is the theme of his article – the changes forced upon The Irish Times as it adapted to the new Ireland emerging “out of the maelstrom” of revolution. Indeed, his article concludes with the Latin adage which, he says, The Irish Times “is never tired of saying”: Tempora mutantur et nos mutamur in illis, meaning the times are changing, and we change in them.

Mercier claims that, while 20 years have elapsed since “the final stage of the revolution”, The Irish Times was still perceived by the plain people of Ireland as “a dyed-in-the-wool, dry-as-dust, dead-in-the-last-ditch ascendancy organ, the sworn enemy of the Irish people”. He, however, dismisses this view of the newspaper as “fantasy”. He argues that “The Irish Times is now, and perhaps to a certain degree always was, the newspaper of the Protestant professional classes rather than of the landowners”, and that over the previous 20 years it had served the Protestant middle class well by “finding for it compromise formulae, which have made the passage from unionist to ‘ex-unionist’ to Fine Gael supporter to Fianna Fáil supporter seem natural and honourable instead of a hideous betrayal of tradition”.

He writes: The clergy, the lawyers, the doctors, the artists and the professors were the true “people of Burke and of Grattan”. . . And their allegiance belonged in the end not, as the landowners’ did, to England, the country which preserved their power, but to Ireland, the country which employed their talents.


Likewise, The Irish Times’s allegiance was ultimately to Ireland – where it plied its trade and found much of its news and most of its readers – and it made the changes necessary for survival. Mercier concludes that “it may be that one of its attractions is that it alone presents the public with the spectacle, in its own reincarnations of the protean nature of modern Irish life – subject, of course, to the limitations which a heritage is said to present to rebirth”.

The extent of the changes by 1945 were such that Mercier could say that “slowly but surely it is becoming the organ of the entire professional class, Protestant and Catholic” – and that process would, of course, continue apace in the following years.

He concedes, however, that “a great many of its Protestant readers must follow it a little breathlessly as it boxes the compass, ever moving a few points farther away from the true or fixed north of unionism. They must frequently be shocked by its liberalism”. He thus, very obliquely, alludes to the growing differences in mentality – which were, however, always there – between southern Irish Protestants and the northern variety.

Mercier characterises the politics of The Irish Times as “on the left” – but he qualifies this by saying that it had “its own particular brand of conservative progressivism”, and that its policies were wholly consistent with the approach favoured by the greater part of Irish society which “whatever extreme name it may call its politics, was. . . not much more than conservative progressive”. He comments: “It has been maliciously said that The Irish Times, in its anxiety not to appear green, has turned more than a little pink – if some readers do not positively see red.”

He judges that its journalism, like its politics, is “10 times more alive than its rivals in the newspaper world. . . always ready with a campaign, a controversy, or an appeal”. It had a freedom that its rivals, being closely identified with political parties and/or business interests, did not have.

He adds that “the other papers must envy The Irish Times for its fun, if not its circulation”. Mention of circulation touched a raw nerve, for daily sales of The Irish Times in 1945 amounted to a meagre 27,000 copies; the equivalent figures for the Irish Independent and Irish Press were approximately 140,000 and 110,000 respectively. However, with its great capacity to change with the times – which Mercier feted in his article – The Irish Times has survived despite its apparently parlous situation in 1945.

Felix M Larkin is a "non-stipendiary" historian and former public servant. This article is an extract from his essay Mirrors of a Changing Ireland: The Bell's series on The Fourth Estate, 1944-1945 in Periodicals and Journalism in Twentieth-Century Ireland 2: A Variety of Voices, which he has co-edited with Mark O'Brien and which will be published by Four Courts Press in November.