‘Social media’ in 19th century Ireland

Before the internet, TV and radio, the role of newspapers is captured in art

‘Reading The News’ by Richard Staunton Cahill in Whyte’s art auction on February 23rd

‘Reading The News’ by Richard Staunton Cahill in Whyte’s art auction on February 23rd

 

Newspapers have been an important element of Irish life since the first, Belfast’s News Letter, was established in 1737.

Improved communications via the railways, a reduction of taxes on publications and improved education via the National Schools’ system – all contributed to a huge increase in the number and circulation of newspapers in the 19th century.

The major national titles included The Nation (established in 1844); The United Irishman (1848); and The Irish Times (1859). But the biggest paper – and nationalist in outlook – was the daily Freeman’s Journal (founded in 1763). It, and other papers, were often read aloud – often by priests and schoolteachers in houses, which enabled the illiterate to keep abreast of current affairs.

A painting illustrating this social aspect of Irish media – dating from 1871 – and titled Reading The News has turned up at Whyte’s auctioneers and will be auctioned in Dublin next month with an estimate of €8,000-€10,000.

The artist was Richard Staunton Cahill (c.1827-1904) who was born in Co Clare, trained at Royal Hibernian Academy School, painted in Clare and Galway, and later moved to London where he exhibited at The Royal Academy. His most famous paintings include: The Irish Peasant Boy (1853), The Spinning Wheel (1879) and An Impending Eviction (1888).

News of their world

Reading The News depicts a group of people gathered in a rural cabin listening to the news being read.

According to Dr Claudia Kinmonth, the art historian and author of Irish Rural Interiors In Art (published by the Yale University Press), the setting “‘suggests a small farmhouse, with its flagged floor and comparatively well-dressed, well-fed, comfortable inhabitants.

“The men, on the left, are close to the open half-door, which allowed light; the young mother, on the right, sits on a stool beside a treadle spinning wheel, with her head covered, indicating her married status; and the petticoat-wearing boy, listening attentively in the centre, wears green, a colour symbolic of Fenianism.”

Dr Kinmonth said: “The juxtaposing of the male figures, with the older men sitting passively, the young man standing (with his green hat band), and the child centrally placed representing the future, suggests an active stance towards a nationalist future, which by the time this was painted in 1871, had started to become a reality.”

The newspaper in the painting has not been identified but is likely either The Nation or the Freeman’s Journal.

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