Press played pivotal role in War of Independence

In light of Gerry Adams’s comments, it is worth recalling part newspapers played in conflict

Michael Collins. In December 1920, when the Irish Independent published a letter from Collins addressed to the Irish people, a party of Auxiliaries raided the paper’s premises. Photograph: Hulton Archive

Michael Collins. In December 1920, when the Irish Independent published a letter from Collins addressed to the Irish people, a party of Auxiliaries raided the paper’s premises. Photograph: Hulton Archive

 

During the War of Independence, newspapers were the targets of intimidation and violence from both the crown forces and the IRA.

The crown forces, primarily the RIC and its Auxiliary Division, were especially ruthless in their attempts to silence newspapers. However, there were also examples of republican violence against the press, the most famous of which is the IRA’s attack on the Irish Independent in December 1919.

Throughout that year, the Irish Independent had given a lot of coverage to the workings of the newly established Dáil Éireann and the activities of Sinn Féin.

By autumn the Irish Independent was the mainstream newspaper which provided Sinn Féin with its most sympathetic coverage. Nevertheless, the paper consistently denounced the IRA as “the extreme wing of the popular movement”.

IRA activities, such as attacks on the police, were described as “murders”, “outrages” or “dastardly crimes”, and it was this vein of reporting that eventually provoked retaliation.

On December 19th, 1919, a section of the Dublin IRA ambushed the cavalcade of the lord lieutenant as it travelled into the city. The attack failed, with the lord lieutenant escaping and the IRA suffering one fatality, a man named Martin Savage. The episode was, however, an indication of the IRA’s growing confidence and the following day, the Irish Independent gave extensive coverage to the “thrilling nature of the sensational occurrence”.

‘Deplorable outrage’

IRA members who had participated in the ambush were enraged by the editorial. One of these was Dan Breen, who later recalled that he had been particularly angered by the Irish Independent’s coverage of the ambush because: “This was the very paper which depended on the support of the people who had voted for the establishment of the Irish Republic.”

This anger turned to action the next day when an IRA group led by Peadar Clancy entered the paper’s offices.

The Independent reported that Clancy informed the editor, Timothy Harrington, that his paper was to be suppressed for having “endeavoured to misrepresent the sympathies and opinions of the Irish people” through its coverage of the ambush. The group, some of who wanted to shoot Harrington, caused “enormous destruction” to the printing machinery.

Despite the damage, the Irish Independent was able to restart publication. Breen later claimed that the newspaper had been taught a “salutary lesson” which caused it to become much more supportive of republicanism.

That argument was self-serving and is not backed by the evidence. Throughout 1920 the newspaper regularly pushed two aims in its editorials: its support for Irish self-government and its implacable opposition to partition. Yet the paper continued to condemn IRA violence, although it blamed the British government for causing the conflict.

During this time, there was no clear demarcation between republicans and journalists.

Breen wrote in his memoir that “many of the staff (of the newspaper) were members of the Irish Republican Army”. Breen, while an often unreliable source, was almost certainly correct in this belief.

The newspaper’s chief proofreader, Martin Pender, and drama critic, David Sears, were both long-time republicans and George Gormby, a sub-editor, was a member of the IRA.

Reporters Ned Lawler and Michael Knightly both regularly provided information to the IRA.

Intimidation

Alan BellMichael CollinsThe Irish Times

On his release, Knightly was re-employed by the Irish Independent. Clearly, within Independent Newspapers, there was no stigma attached to being a member of the IRA.

The offices of the Irish Independent would again be visited by armed men during the conflict. In December 1920, when the newspaper printed a letter from Collins addressed to the Irish people, a party of Auxiliaries raided the paper’s premises.

One of the sub-editors had a revolver held to his head while the leader of the Auxiliaries warned the staff not to print such letters. This threat was heeded by the editor, who refused to publish a subsequent letter from Collins.

The travails of the Irish Independent demonstrate that Irish newspapers were the subject of intense and often violent intimidation during the War of Independence, a fact that has not been properly incorporated into later accounts of the time.

Too often the press is used as a source without any consideration of the pressures and ideologies that formed what appeared on the page. A better understanding of those influences might help us to develop a deeper understanding of those times.

Ian Kenneally is the author of The Paper Wall: Newspapers and Propaganda in Ireland, 1919-21. iankenneally.ie