The dominant Irish politician of the 20th century, Eamon de Valera, attained and retained power for one-third of that century with the help of the newspaper that he published for the first time 90 years ago this week.
De Valera assumed power after the 1932 general election, exactly six months and four days after the Irish Press appeared for the first time, on September 5th, 1931. For 35 of the next 42 years, he was either head of government (taoiseach or president of the executive council) or president of Ireland.
The Irish Press was established with money de Valera solicited from members and supporters of the Fianna Fáil party that he founded in 1926 and from Irish exiles in the United States, where he made three lengthy fundraising visits and where he lodged controlling shares in the lax corporate-law state of Delaware. He told the Dáil the launch money had been "given by our kith and ken" and by "generous Irish servant girls" in the US. He then used his first parliamentary majority to enact legislation to inject more Irish-American money – nearly half of the Republican bonds cash that had been frozen in the US since the Irish Civil War – into the fledgling newspaper.
The new daily was an instant success, differing from long-established rivals by putting news instead of advertisements on its front page and by devoting more pages to sport. Daily sales reached 100,000 and it briefly eclipsed its biggest-selling rival before maintaining its place as the second biggest-selling newspaper on the island until the late-1980s. Its success spawned the Sunday Press, launched in 1949, and the Evening Press, first published in 1954. Both these titles were the top sellers in their markets by considerable margins until the late 1980s.
Denounced by opponents as Pravda, after the Soviet daily, or as “a kept newspaper” of the Fianna Fáil party, the Irish Press was nonetheless respected for adhering to its masthead slogan of “The Truth in the News”. Its editorials appeared under the rubric of the Four Masters: Do chum Glóire Dé agus Onóra na hÉireann and its telegraph address was the nonpareil Scéala Éireann.
Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan, Benedict Kiely and Brian Nolan (later Myles na gCopaleen) became regular columnists. Edna O'Brien got her first newspaper byline on its pages in the late-1950s and Maeve Binchy wrote one of her first journalism articles for it in September 1968.
The New Irish Writing page, introduced in 1968, was the launch pad for numerous authors including the internationally-acclaimed John Banville, Neil Jordan, Sebastian Barry, Patrick McCabe, Niall Williams and Frank McGuinness. Their successes were offset, however, by the denigration of de Valera's newspaper and his "Irish-Ireland" in the pages of the simultaneous 1990s New York Times bestsellers Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt, and Are You Somebody? by Nuala O'Faolain.
Two long-serving Irish Press staffers, Erskine Childers (advertising manager) and Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh (Irish editor) became president, and a third, Seán Lemass (general manager) was elected taoiseach.
National newspaper editors who had spent their formative years on Press titles included Douglas Gageby and Geraldine Kennedy (Irish Times), Vinnie Doyle (Irish Independent), Vincent Browne and Nóirín Hegarty (Sunday Tribune), Damien Kiberd (Business Post), Brian Loony (Irish Examiner) and Des Gibson (Star on Sunday).
De Valera claimed falsely in the Dáil (July 6th, 1933) that the Irish Press “belongs to the proprietors, who are the Irish people”. He conceded more presciently however that it would die if “the Irish people will not support it” and if it failed to attract advertisers.
The Irish Press survived just short of 20 years after de Valera’s death in 1975. It appeared for the last time on May 25th, 1995, exactly 74 years to the day after the IRA destroyed Dublin’s Custom House and its ancient records on the orders of Eamon de Valera, the then Sinn Féin president. The newspaper’s demise was hastened by a panicked conversion from broadsheet to tabloid format, a dearth of advertising and plummeting sales.
The ailing title was one of the first newspapers in these islands to introduce a Corrections and Clarifications column, years before most others. Its final correction, on its last day of publication, was an apology to Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness for mis-titling him in a leading article. The newspaper founded by an IRA gunman-turned politician ended its days apologising to another IRA gunman-turned politician.