Newspaper reactions to the Rising, Part 3: A National Sample
By Alan McCarthy, UCC School of History
As reporters and correspondents filed their copy with their local and regional weekly newspapers for publication on Saturday 22 April 1916, all seemed normal.
The papers were filled with the usual advertisements for cattle, kidney pills and weather forecasts and, after two years, even the carnage and collective mass homicide being conducted on continental Europe was part of the ‘new normal’.
Newspapers in 1916: Business as Usual
The incendiary Rising of Easter 1916 was to change this situation for Irish journalists irrevocably. This is showcased by a sample of the reaction of local and regional newspapers throughout Ireland in 1916, below.
The rebels of Easter 1916 were greeted with an incredulous and ultimately sympathetic attitude, as the state of public opinion changed towards the Rising. Taking a broad view across the whole of Ireland, it is apparent that the reactions of most papers followed this pattern. Many key individuals at these papers would have considered themselves Redmondites, inevitably shaping their perspective.
To a certain extent, our historical understanding takes this change for granted: of course public opinion changed after the Rising. Here we will examine local and regional newspapers for more tangible explanation of the gradual sea-change in Irish politics.
The West’s Awake
The stasis of fear and confusion that immediately followed the Rising was no doubt exacerbated by the lack of information emanating from the capital. Wild rumours gripped the nation.
The Mayo News copied its initial reports on the Rising from the Irish Times, as rumours of a German invasion and national rising spread orally.[i] In the mass round-ups that followed the insurrection, the proprietor of the Mayo News was himself interned. This was despite the paper’s unblemished record with the authorities during his 23 year tenure as proprietor, his own commitment to the constitutional methods of the Irish Parliamentary Party, and the fact that his own brother was a Redmondite MP.[ii]
Until the Rising, the Galway Express was a similarly unoffending paper. By 1917, Ireland’s new Press Censor Lord Decies lamented that “The Galway Express has now changed hands, and was purchased by Dr. Walsh of Galway, and hitherto, it has been a Unionist paper, but it will now be found to be one of the strongest Sinn Féin papers.”
Following the Easter Rising of 1916, the Express had referred to the rebellion as a “rank nauseating stain” on the history of the country.[iii] In contrast, by the summer of 1918, the Sinn Féin-supporting Express took the rather unique approach of discouraging recruitment to the British Army and disparaging the war effort by warning its readers about the dangers of syphilis being brought back from the front.[iv]
The Clare Champion in Ennis also drew the ire of the authorities. The military removed key sections of the press in April 1918. At the time, the paper was run by Sarsfield and Josephine Maguire, a sister of founding editor Tom Galvin.
“The Maguires (sic) were given an ultimatum: if they guaranteed not to publish subversive and seditious articles, undermining the official Dublin Castle line, they could continue publishing. They refused, so the Clare Champion remained silent until September that year.”
-Hugh Oram [v]
The Connacht Tribune was supportive of both the Great War and the campaign to establish a munitions factory in Galway.[vi] Consequently, it was, like many of its contemporaries, aghast at the outbreak of the rebellion and gave extensive column space to the Committee of Public Safety formed in Galway against the “ill-advised persons in the County of Galway, who have at a time when the valour of Irish troops has done so much to shed glory on the arms of the Empire, choose to shock and outrage public opinion by bloodshed and civil strife.”[vii]
Certainly, the paper employed the most condemnatory language at its disposal in a bid at pacification. In reality, the Galway mobilisation had been shackled by indecision and like many other areas, impaired by the failed arms landing in Kerry.
In the midst of the Rising, the Connacht Tribune reported that Dr. Walsh (future owner of the Galway Express) had been taken in to custody.[viii] The subsequent executions throughout May 1916 were to have a mollifying effect on the paper, which had reacted more angrily than most to the rebellion. In a more reflective editorial on 13 May, the tone changed considerably:
“We are now at a sufficient distance from the dreadful events that took place in Dublin during Easter Week to view them dispassionately.”
After the executions, the paper proclaimed that the rebels did not take life “wantonly.” Less than a month after the rebellion, this previously sympathetic paper negatively appraised the actions of the British Government towards Ireland.[ix]
The North Began
The newspaper market in Derry was similarly saturated, with popular titles including the nationalist Derry Journal and the unionist Londonderry Sentinel. Thrown into the mix in 1902 was the Derry People and Donegal News, declaring that itself a “national journal, and will support the movement to make our native land a real Irish Ireland.”[x] Before and after the Rising the paper carried essays on popular nationalist figures like John Mitchel and Hugh O’Neill, but also mixed with coverage of the thousands of Irishmen at the Western Front.[xi] While arguing that the role of Dublin Castle was tottering, the paper was somewhat more conservative.
The main offices of the Derry People and Donegal News were in Omagh, Co. Tyrone, and Letterkenny, with the latter also being the home of the Derry Journal’s Donegal office. Later J.J. McCarroll took over The Derry Journal, whose circulation was concentrated in Donegal. Having been previously “run on lines favourable to the Anti-Treaty section though not exclusively partisan”, McCarroll and two others took over the paper in the autumn of 1922, using the pages of the paper to support the Treaty and the Free State government. Consequently, Eoin MacNeill sought to garner revenue for the paper by accepting extensive advertising for the government.[xiii]
Down south The Kerryman, based in Tralee near Banna Strand, the site of Sir Roger Casement’s ill-fated landing, was one of the country’s most republican-minded papers. On the eve of the Rising, articles attacked both Redmond and ‘shoneenism’”[xiv] Like many papers, the Kerryman found the loss of life that the Rising entailed abhorrent, but was full of praise and admiration for the fighting men and women.[xv] Having rowed in behind the rebels, the paper fell foul of censorship, as Decies suppressed the Kerryman during the summer of 1916. Furthermore, one its founders, Maurice Griffin, was arrested.[xvi]
The paper’s first editor, Tom Nolan, refused to accept this suppression and the damage it would reap on the paper’s circulation. Indeed, economic issues had already brought about the closure Tralee’s Kerry Evening Post, Kerry Sentinel and Kerry People in quick succession in the years post-1916. Tom arranged for the printing of the paper in Dublin and its transportation to Kerry by railwaymen sympathetic to the cause, and sold copies of the paper at Nolan’s pub in Tralee.[xvii] Later, the paper would be noted for its support for the Labour movement, provided it did not threaten Sinn Féin’s political pre-eminence, a noteworthy idiosyncrasy for the Kerry weekly.[xviii] During the War of Independence, the offices of the paper were burnt out in a reprisal by Auxiliaries.[xix]
The Limerick Leader was one of four papers in the Treaty City, along with the Munster News, Limerick Echo and the unionist Limerick Chronicle, that shut their doors rather than submit to anti-Treatyite censorship during the Civil War following the rise of the ‘Munster Republic’, when anti-Treatyites controlled much of the South of Ireland.[xxii]
The Limerick Leader similarly greeted the rebellion with shock, but it was firmer than most in its denunciation of the policy of executions. Editors echoed the Daily News’ hope “that we have now heard the last of the death penalty, not merely on the grounds of humanity but as a matter of policy, and says that anything resembling ‘a reign of terror’ (emphasised by the Leader) would be the gravest mistake.[xx] The paper’s sympathies lay with the rebels and its coverage was quite obviously affected by emotive incidents such as Joseph Plunkett’s ‘doomed’ marriage to Grace Gifford.[xxi]
The intensification of censorship by the British Administration in Ireland in the aftermath of the Easter Rising 1916 quickly became apparent. It was exemplified by the experience of Margaret Matthews, part owner of Louth’s Dundalk Examiner, “a disloyal local paper”, who was prosecuted under sections 27 and 43 of the Defence Of the Realm Act. Her crime? Displaying two copies of Amhráin na Bhfiann, set to music, in her stationary shop, in September 1917.[xxiii]
In neighbouring Meath, the Thomas Daly-published Meath Chronicle was ostensibly Redmondite in its politics, like the vast majority of the mainstream nationalist press. Prophetically, the paper carried an advertisement for William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory’s Cathleen Ní Houlihan at the Market House, Athboy. Highly nationalistic in nature, the play that would make the poet later query “Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?”[xxiv] Of course, C.S. ‘Todd’ Andrews later quipped that “Yeats certainly flattered himself in thinking that anything he ever wrote or did might have sent anyone out to die.”[xxv] The Chronicle was much akin to the Kilkenny People, for example, as both were critical of both the British Coalition Cabinet and the “tragic blunder” that was the Rising itself.[xxvi]
What set the Chronicle apart from many of its contemporaries, however, was the marked religious character of its content. On 13 May, the Chronicle copied a disapproving piece on the Rising from leading English Catholic journal The Catholic Times.[xxvii] Nevertheless, the paper was stung by “the undue severity of the military tribunals in Dublin” and joined in the chorus of protest, now amounting to a cacophony of discontent, against the executions.[xxviii] Editorialising on 20 May that “In all its history perhaps at no time has the Irish Parliamentary Party had a greater responsibility than to-day,” the Chronicle too soon moved beyond Redmondite politics.[xxix] Hugh Oram notes that:
“The Meath Chronicle was similarly outspoken: after 1916, it called repeatedly for full independence for Ireland. It suffered the same fate as the Clare Champion, in the same year, 1918. Its printing factory at Newmarket Street, Kells, was raided and pieces of the press were taken away, but the paper soon reappeared. The first issue after the ‘ban’ apologised for the first failure to appear since the paper was founded twenty-one years previously and took a few sideswipes at the authorities.”[xxx]
One of the more forgettable causes of such suppression was when the Meath Chronicle accidentally implicated themselves having circulated seditious leaflets with typescript stating that they had been printed at the Chronicle’s offices in Navan and Kells![xxxi] While the Chronicle was guilty of this Freudian slip, there appear to be certain steadfast truths that never waver, as exemplified by the Kilkenny People’s GAA correspondent. Following the 1916 County Final between Tullaroan and Dicksboro, the People’s hurling scribe proclaimed that “If there is one thing more than another that last Sunday’s match has proved beyond a shadow of a doubt, it is that we have in the county an abundance of hurling material of the first order.”[xxxii] While consistent on the pitch, the county’s politics were thrown into a state of flux by the Rising.
A Redmondite journal supportive of the Great War effort, the People was more independent-minded than other Irish Parliamentary Party organs and engaged in open criticism of the British Wartime Coalition Cabinet and their failure to enact the Home Rule Bill.[xxxiii] The Kilkenny People was founded in 1892 by former lord mayor P.J. O’Keefe and E.T. Keane, who also served as the paper’s unflappable editor. The advanced nationalism of the People served as a counter-weight to the unionist Kilkenny Moderator and conservative nationalist Kilkenny Journal.[xxxiv] In the aftermath of the Rising, the paper’s editorial, ‘The Voice of the People,’ was emotionally charged but aimed for balance, critiquing both the “hopeless” endeavour in Dublin and the British government for tolerating the formation of the U.V.F., which “fired a fuse which has resulted in this most appalling calamity.”[xxxv] Agitated by the imposition of martial law, the People soon began to side with the insurgents, carrying pieces that alluded to the rebels good conduct in combat and criticised “the extra special dose of martial law” prescribed for Kilkenny, despite its relative calm during the insurrection. ‘The Voice of the People’ queried “Perhaps the ‘powers that be’ considered that ‘like a dog and a greenwood tree, the more they beat us the better we’ll be’.”[xxxvi] Rather than be cowed, the dog (or rather, the cat) bit back.
The counter-productive imposition of martial law, as far as the Kilkenny People was concerned, was mirrored by the conduction of state censorship.
Representatives from the People complained to Decies that content concerning the reading of a letter by an interned Sinn Féin supporter at a local meeting was cut from the proofs of the Kilkenny People, but allowed to appear in both the Kilkenny Moderator and Kilkenny Journal. Decies replied rather incongruously that while the Editor of the People was “placed at a disadvantage with other papers,” the editor “may congratulate himself that by his actions he avoids any breach of the Defence of the Realm Regulations.” Decies concluded this letter by suggesting that both the Kilkenny Journal and Kilkenny Moderator would have to “answer for their actions,” threats that were not followed up on.[xxxvii] Shifting it’s support to Sinn Féin, the suppression of the Kilkenny People earlier in 1917, ordered by Decies in an effort to make an example of the quarrelsome broadsheet, was viewed by some to effectively launch W.T. Cosgrave’s successful campaign for the vacant House of Commons seat in the Kilkenny by-election, and apparently De Valera’s nomination of Cosgrave took place in the newspaper’s offices.[xxxviii]
Cosgrave would eventually rise to the highest post in the country following the assassination of Michael Collins during the Civil War. Years prior, Frank Geary served as the People’s chief news reporter, ultimately leaving for the Irish Independent. During the Civil War, the courageous Geary was the only national daily newspaper reporter left in Cork City following the amphibious landing of Free State troops who began an assault against retreating Anti-Treaty combatants. These combatants destroyed the offices of the Cork Examiner and Cork Constitution before evacuating, delaying the passage of the paper into Free State hands, making Geary’s account for the Independent invaluable.[xxxix] Geary recalled that the Fall of Cork “has easily beaten anything I have experienced from the point of view of thrilling and dangerous experiences.”[xl]
The staff of The Enniscorthy Echo were themselves no strangers to danger. The paper began publication in 1902 under the editorship of William Sears and continued to advocate the ideal of an Irish Ireland throughout the revolutionary period. Angela Bourke notes that as editor Sears celebrated “all that could be celebrated locally, heaping scorn on the British administration in Ireland, the police and the Irish Parliamentary Party, and raising readers’ consciousness about nationalism and women’s issues.”[xli] Indeed, the Echo was one of the few openly Sinn Féin papers pre-Rising. Owned and edited by Sears, Séan Etchingham was also employed by the paper, working as a columnist. Noted for his “strongly pro-labour” viewpoint, Etchingham was one of several Echo employees who participated in the skirmishes in Enniscorthy as Easter and was interned after the Rising.[xlii]
Indeed, such was the advanced nationalist nature of the Echo’s content that Military Intelligence Officer Major Ivor Price had the staff’s mail censored in 1915. Price’s decision was more than justified: in April 1915 Laurence De Lacey, the paper’s assistant editor was arrested, along with his house guest Seán O’Hegarty, a man to later emerge as a leader within the Cork IRA, for possession of explosives.[xliii] Furthermore, Dick King, a clerk attached to the staff of the Echo, was a signatory to Enniscorthy’s proclamation of 1916.[xliv] Also included amongst the staff of the Echo was one Robert ‘Bob’ Brennan. This former GAA Correspondent later served as the Dáil’s Under-Secretary of Foreign Affairs and worked on the Irish Bulletin. He was later appointed Irish Emissary to Washington D.C. Brennan’s wife, Una contributed pieces to the Echo and was one of the few female journalists working at this time.[xlv] The Brennan’s daughter, Maeve, enjoyed fame later as a fiction writer and diarist with the renowned New Yorker magazine and is alleged to have provided the template for her colleague Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.[xlvi]
In the aftermath of the Rising the Unionist journalist Warren B Wells wrote that the impact of the execution policy on the Irish national psyche was akin to “the feeling of helpless rage with which one would watch a stream of blood dripping from under a closed door.” This stream was, however, slow: increasing incrementally, day-by-day in the national daily press, as more names and more heartbreak cast a gloom over breakfast tables throughout the country, and cause and conduct were dissected in the weekly regional and local papers.
Emerging from the wreckage of the Rising, horrified, traumatised and ultimately inspired, many turned to the Press, whose sympathies clearly lay with the rebels, following an interim period of digestion. This sympathy was encouraged by counter-productive state censorship which served to further agitate an increasingly hostile press. This wearisome exercise in public opinion being dismissed by the British Administration was repeated that August following the hanging of Sir Roger Casement.[xlvii] In the subsequent years of revolution and political upheaval the Fourth Estate continued to play a pivotal role in dissecting these events, propelled by the committed and dynamic individuals working for these newspapers.