An Irishman's Diary

 

A remarkable Irish publication issued its first copy just over 100 years ago and its last 30 years ago. D.P. Moran's Leader was an immediate success. A special horse and cart was engaged to supply newsagents, so great was the demand. The historian Patrick Maume gives Moran's "vigorous writing and candid criticism" as the reasons for the weekly's success.

The Leader attracted a lot of Irish advertising and Moran saw the publicising of Irish goods as one of its main roles. He advocated "buy Irish" campaigns but sensibly warned that the Irish people would buy Irish goods only if they were "as good and as cheap" as imports.

Moran supported the industrial development authorities set up in some Irish towns from 1903 onwards. Small and middle-sized businesses were represented in these, unlike the bigger and older enterprises that dominated the chambers of commerce. Moran attacked the latter as "chambers of importers", run by Protestants and a few "west-British" Catholics such as William Martin Murphy. The Leader took regular swipes at Murphy, and especially at his "ha'penny dreadful", the Irish Independent.

Clashes of opinion

Moran claimed his paper offered a new kind of leadership based on open criticism and debate. He welcomed clashes of opinion because he enjoyed a good fight. The readers of the Leader were mainly Roman Catholic, clerical and white-collar. They resented the domination of commerce and the upper reaches of the civil service by Protestants who used patronage networks such as the Freemasons to keep their positions. From the outset, Moran made no apology for defending the Catholic standpoint. Protestants could be Irish, he said, but they must realise Ireland was a Catholic country.

The Leader waged a campaign against anti-Catholic discrimination which included attacking Protestant assumptions of cultural and religious superiority. Moran lived on the edge of the then independent township of Rathmines, which had a large Protestant middle-class population. On his way home on a tram, shortly after Queen Victoria's death, he gazed at the long faces of many of the commuters, ostentatiously mourning the dead monarch, and coined his most famous nickname: "Sourface". He repeatedly denied it was a synonym for Protestant, claiming instead that it connoted an affectation of superiority.

As Patrick Maume has argued, Moran was a bigot, but because of his sense of humour, self-awareness and interest in the exchange of ideas, he never sank to the level of the "hate-filled diatribes" produced by J.J. O'Kelly in the Catholic Bulletin.

He ridiculed the English culture of cheap papers and music-hall entertainment, associating The Irish Times with this subculture by dubbing it "Alf Fox" (the pen-name of the paper's horse-race tipster) or, less subtly, "The Bigot's Dustbin". He knew Ireland must provide its own cheap popular culture and he thought that this could be done by the Gaelic League with its concerts and ceilithe.

Yeats and Russell

Many of the writers and political movements of the day drew Moran's wrath. W.B. Yeats was a minor poet and "a crypto-Protestant conman"; George Russell (AE) was "the Hairy Fairy" (referring to his voluminous beard and interest in the occult); members of Arthur Griffith's Sinn Féin were "tin-pikers"; and when Griffith put forward his dual-monarchy proposal based on the Austro-Hungarian model, Moran called them "The Green Hungarian Band".

The Leader welcomed the new Dáil Éireann in January 1919 and was delighted the first meeting was conducted entirely in Irish. Moran steered a fairly neutral course during the War of Independence, declaring that the newspapers were so full of horrors that he could not bear to review their contents. Satisfied with the Treaty, once the Dáil approved it he urged both sides to settle down as government and opposition. He was aghast at the Civil War: his view was that the Irish people had been given a unique chance and had wasted it, thus benefiting unionists and Freemasons.

He wanted the new government to follow a protectionist economic policy and the Leader became the press mouthpiece for that faction within the Free State government. He sometimes commended particular statements or proposals from Eamon de Valera's anti-Treaty Sinn Féin, but argued that until they realised Ireland was free they were an irrelevance.

When the newly formed Fianna Fáil produced a protectionist programme, Moran endorsed the party. But he turned against it in 1931 because he abhorred de Valera's convoluted self-justification, his refusal to admit any mistake in his attitude to the Treaty, and his view that poverty was the price of freedom. Fianna Fáil's refusal to accept that the government was completely legitimate and its failure to distance itself from the IRA also frightened him.

De Valera and Blueshirts

Nevertheless, he welcomed the party being given the chance to govern in 1932 and was delighted with the introduction of tariffs, but condemned de Valera's "economic war" with Britain. When General O'Duffy was dismissed as police commissioner, Moran attacked de Valera as a dictator. However, he criticised the militaristic behaviour of the Blueshirts and any resort to illegality and violence by them. As things settled down in the mid-1930s, Moran admired Lemass's industrialisation policies.

D.P. Moran died suddenly in February 1936. His daughter, Nuala, became editor of the Leader. Gradually the paper covered more social and cultural material (one of its profiles led to the famous libel suit by Patrick Kavanagh). It became a fortnightly in the late 1940s and was revived under the UCD academic T. Desmond Williams in the 1950s. But it went into decline in the 1960s and ceased publication in 1971.

Moran was a brilliant journalist, a talented businessman and an important spokesman for the rising Catholic entrepreneurial class. He greatly influenced his own generation and the Leader provided an important forum for debate in the crucial period between the fall of Parnell and the Easter Rising.

BRIAN MAYE