‘An indefatigable journalist’ – An Irishman’s Diary on WP Ryan
Photograph: Courtesy of UCD Archives
Journalist, historian and writer Brian Inglis, writing about WP Ryan in The Shaping of Modern Ireland (1960), described him as “a prolific author, indefatigable journalist, poet, playwright and philosopher rolled into one”. Declan Kiberd, in his Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation (1995), called him “one of the great crusading journalists of his day”.
Although he was born 150 years ago on October 25th, he is still very much of contemporary relevance in that the debates he engaged in with the Catholic Church in the early 20th century, especially on the control of primary education, continue to strike a chord today.
William Patrick Ryan was born in Castleiney, Templemore, Co Tipperary, and was the eldest of a family of 12 children. His paternal grandparents also lived with the family and as they were Irish speakers, this early exposure left him with a lifelong love for the language. He attended national school locally and trained to be a teacher. He was also a local correspondent for the Freeman’s Journal and had poems published in the Nation newspaper.
He became involved in Land League activities, and when TP O’Connor came to the area to promote the league, Ryan reported on his speeches for the Freeman. O’Connor encouraged him to become a journalist and he went to London in 1886, where O’Connor arranged work for him with various publications. He joined the Southwark Irish Literary Club and his first book, The Heart of Tipperary: A Romance of the Land League, was published in 1892. He worked for a time as private secretary to Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, who was involved with the New Irish Library, which published Irish texts. Ryan’s The Irish Literary Revival was published in the library series in 1894.
Working as a sub-editor and literary editor, he continued to write for various publications. In 1899, he joined the Gaelic League and became secretary of its London branch in 1902. He had articles in Irish published in An Claidheamh Soluis and was considered as its possible editor in 1903 but Pádraig Pearse got the position. He returned to Ireland and settled in Navan, Co Meath, in 1905, having got a job as editor of a paper called the Irish Peasant.
The move was a big sacrifice on his part as he had been paid £200 a year as literary editor of the Daily Chronicle and he received two guineas a week in his new post.
James McCann, who had factories and farms in the Boyne Valley, owned the Irish Peasant, and the paper reflected his and Ryan’s concerns for workers in the region.
Under Ryan’s editorship it changed from a mainly local publication to a more national one. Although a devout and liberal Catholic, he campaigned to make schools more national and advocated they come under local than clerical control, thus attracting the church’s ire.
When Cardinal Logue, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, denounced the paper as “a pernicious anti-Catholic print” with a “poisonous influence”, the McCann family closed it.
Ryan revived it and kept it going in Dublin under the title the Peasant and it became the Irish Nation and Peasant in 1909 before closing at the end of 1910. The latter publication became more interested in working-class issues and supported the cause of organised labour.
In 1911, Ryan returned to London as editor of the left-wing Daily Herald and became one of the foremost labour journalists of his time.
His 1910 novel, The Plough and the Cross, is a fictionalised account of his clash with Cardinal Logue, while in The Pope’s Green Island (1912), he wrote about his experiences in Ireland during the six years following his return and the changing nature of the country that he had witnessed.
Ryan was a thinking Catholic and had the support of many younger priests, some of whom wrote for the Peasant.
As Brian Inglis remarked, he was manifestly sincere and by no means “an insidious enemy” of the church. “Indeed, had things gone differently, he could have been one of its most useful supporters”.
Sadly, the church could not see that and suppressed any sign of what it considered dissent or criticism.
He spent the rest of his life in London, where he died at the end of December 1942. His son Desmond attended Pearse’s St Enda’s in Rathfarnham, joined Fianna Éireann and fought in the 1916 Rising. Like his father he became a journalist, was also a fine historian and biographer and author of a very interesting memoir called Remembering Sion.