Frank McNally on the Dublin-born newspaper mogul, Lord Northcliffe, who died 100 years ago

The most successful newspaper publisher of his time

Between the deaths of Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins 100 years ago this month, there also died a Dubliner whose influence on the world, for good or bad, was probably far greater than theirs combined.

He was born in 1865 as Alfred Harmsworth, but became better known as Lord Northcliffe, under which title he was the most successful newspaper publisher of his time, or perhaps of any time since.

One measure of his influence by 1914, in the opinion of a rival title, was that “next to the Kaiser, [he] has done more that any living man to bring about the war”.

On the plus side, he also played a big role in changing British public opinion towards some form of self-rule for Ireland.


Whereas Griffith had described him as an “evil genius” and “the Cromwell of journalese”, the Connacht Telegraph was able to say of Northcliffe posthumously: “Towards Ireland he was – of late years, at any rate – a devoted friend.”

Harmsworth spent only the first two years of his life in Dublin. That those were in Chapelizod, in a house called Sunnybank, helped earn him mentions in both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, to whose author that suburb had an outsized importance.

In Ulysses, where Leopold Bloom visits “the great organ” of the Freeman’s Journal, Joyce has on of his characters pay the press mogul a back-handed compliment: “Ignatius Gallaher we all know and his Chapelizod boss, Harmsworth of the farthing press.”

In the Wake, set in a Chapelizod underworld, he references the house: “by this riverside on our own sunnybank”.

Before becoming a lawyer, Harmsworth’s father was headmaster at the nearby Royal Hibernian Military School, now St Mary’s Hospital, in Phoenix Park.

But he and the family had long departed to London by Joyce’s time, and it was there the young Harmsworth honed his talent as a newspaper man who never overestimated the popular taste.

Via the Daily Mail, from 1896 onwards, he created a newspaper that set world records for circulation. Price was part of the appeal, although Joyce’s reference to a “farthing” sold him short, by 50 per cent.

In fact, the Mail promoted itself as a “penny paper” that sold for a “halfpenny”. But sell it did, in vast numbers.

The then British prime minister Lord Salisbury thought it was “written by office boys for office boys”. And Harmsworth’s own eternal boyishness was a trait noted even by his close friends.

One summed him up as follows: “Boyish [in] the limited range of his intellect, which seldom concerns itself with anything but the immediate, the obvious, the popular. Boyish [in] his irresponsibility, his disinclination to take himself or his publications seriously; his conviction that whatever benefits them is justifiable, and that it is not his business to consider the effect of their contents…”

Of that effect, the historian Piers Brendon was damning: “…by confusing gewgaws with pearls, by selecting the paltry at the expense of the significant, by confirming atavistic prejudices, by oversimplifying the complex, by dramatizing the humdrum, by presenting stories as entertainment and by blurring the difference between news and views, Northcliffe titillated, if he did not debauch, the public mind; he polluted, if he did not poison, the wells of knowledge.”

Even so, the vast success of the Mail allowed him in 1908 to take over the Times of London too. And although he promised then that there would be “no change whatever” in its political direction, the paper soon moved away from the virulent opposition to Irish Home Rule that had been a core policy since the Parnell years.

He had preserved emotional ties with the city of his birth, even to the extent of buying back the old family home. But reacting to his death, this newspaper’s London Letter wrote:

“Lord Northcliffe […] had convinced himself – for economic reasons, I think, rather than sentimental, that Ireland would not prosper until she had control of our own local affairs. Very soon the [London] Times began to reflect his opinions, and since the war has steadfastly upheld the cause of Irish self-government.”

For some of the same reasons, he had become a virulent critic of the British prime minister David Lloyd George, who in 1919 accused him of “diseased vanity”.

By 1921, however, diseases of another kind were destroying Northcliffe’s health, mental as well as physical. A world tour failed to have the recuperative effect he hoped and he was back in London when died of a heart infection, aged 57, on August 14th,1922.

In a twist Arthur Griffith might not have appreciated, the two men’s obituaries ran side-by-side in some of that week’s newspapers.