Sunday 8 December 2019

Strident Corkmen who built huge circulation

Owner: William Martin Murphy
Owner: William Martin Murphy
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

The two dominant figures in the Irish Independent in the era of the Rising were its owner William Martin Murphy and founding editor Timothy R Harrington.

Both men came from Castletownbere, Co Cork, and helped to turn the Irish Independent into a paper with a circulation that had reached 100,000 by the time of the Rising.

According to his obituary in the Sunday Independent, Harrington liked to tell a story "quickly, brightly, and crisply, yet accurately and completely".

The Dublin-born Fleet Street press baron Lord Northcliffe is reputed to have said: "Harrington had a greater nose for news than any other man in Europe."

Murphy has attracted heavy criticism over the decades as the tram tycoon who led Dublin employers against the trade unions led by Jim Larkin in the disputes that culminated in the Lockout.

The Irish Independent's proprietor has also been lambasted over the paper's editorials after the Rising, where the rebels were denounced. But historians now suggest that these denunciations were written by the editor without the owner's knowledge and Murphy repudiated them in private.

Under the headline 'Criminal Madness', the first editorial after the Rising said: "The men who fomented the outbreak, and all who were responsible for the devastation surrounding us, have to bear a heavy moral and legal responsibility from which they cannot hope to escape. They were out, not to free Ireland, but to help Germany… (They) have not, and had not, a shred of public sympathy."

A subsequent editorial appeared to call for the execution of James Connolly without actually naming him: "Let the worst of the ringleaders be singled out and dealt with as they deserve."

The editor was normally well tuned to public opinion, but according to the historian Felix Larkin, in this case he misread the shifting mood of the people. As the executions continued after the Rising, the public became more sympathetic to the rebels. Harrington later complained: "The people cried out for vengeance and when they got it, they howled for clemency."

The owner of the paper, Murphy, placed a lot of trust in Harrington, and the editor seems to have been given editorial autonomy most of the time. But Harrington wrote to his proprietor on at least two occasions before the Rising urging him not to interfere with the political stance of the paper.

In the aftermath of the Rising, Murphy travelled to London to seek compensation for business owners who suffered damage and employees who had lost their jobs.

His biographer Thomas Morrissey quotes Murphy's friend the politician Tim Healy as saying: "Without his knowledge or approval, a leader was printed which haunted him till his death."

Healy reported that Murphy had told him "he did not know of the articles in the Independent recommending vigour until his attention was called to them afterwards."

Healy said: "He was greatly affected by the thought that he had been accused advising the shooting of Connolly, and said that, so far from it being true, he used to pray for Connolly owing to the antagonism he showed him."

At first Murphy was bitterly opposed to the Rising, but according to Healy, when the Tories gloated over the executions and imprisonment, he said: "Every drop of Catholic blood in my veins surged up."

In folk memory, William Martin Murphy is portrayed as the epitome of a vindictive capitalist, but he was far from being an imperialist stooge.

The paper was nationalistic in its outlook, and Murphy wanted more autonomy than that provided for in proposed Home Rule legislation in 1914. He was staunchly against Partition, and the paper could be sharply critical of the Irish Parliamentary Party.

The commentator TP O'Connor later observed: "Of all the many agencies that finally broke down the Irish party and led to the regime of Sinn Féin, and its accompaniments, the Independent and William Murphy behind it must be regarded as perhaps the most potent."

In the years after the Rising, the paper gave tacit support to Sinn Féin, as it became the most powerful political force in the country.

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