Tuesday 23 July 2019

Out of step: Dublin newspapers' reaction to the Rising

British officers opening fire at protestors during the riots following the Easter Rising
British officers opening fire at protestors during the riots following the Easter Rising
Ruins of Freeman Press and Telegraph, 1916. Photograph: Irish Independent/NPA
Felix M. Larkin at the statue of Sir John Gray in O'Connell Street, Dublin. Gray owned the Freeman's Journal from 1841 until his death in 1875, and it remained in the hands of the Gray family until 1892.

Felix M Larkin

There were four daily newspapers in Dublin in 1916: the Freeman's Journal, the Irish Independent, The Irish Times and the Daily Express. The first two had moderate nationalist sympathies, while the other pair were staunchly unionist. All four roundly condemned the Easter Rising, but they rapidly found themselves out of step with the growing tide of feeling in favour of the rebels.

The Freeman's Journal was the oldest of them, dating back to 1763. It was also the most eloquent in commenting on the Rising. In its first editorial on the subject, on 5 May, it spoke of the "stunning horror of the past ten days" and pointed out that "the insurrection was not more an insurrection against the connection with the Empire than it was an armed assault against the will and decision of the Irish nation itself, constitutionally ascertained through its proper representatives".

Those representatives were the elected members of the Irish Party at Westminster, committed since before Parnell's time to achieving Home Rule. The Freeman was the semi-official organ of the Irish Party, and it was only natural that it should defend the party's interests against the rebels.

The effect of the Government's reaction to the Rising was of immediate concern to the Freeman. On May 9, in its first overt reference to the death sentences passed on the leaders, the Freeman protested that "sympathy is being aroused with the victims [i.e. the executed leaders] where nothing but indignant condemnation of their criminal enterprise previously existed", and on May 12 it warned that "the military dictatorship" has produced "a lamentable revulsion of feeling".

The Freeman's nationalist competitor, the Irish Independent, was not so troubled. In the first of two notorious editorials, on May 10, it stated that "we do not think that extreme severity should be generally applied... When, however, we come to some of the ringleaders, instigators and fomenters not yet dealt with, we must make an exception". Two days later, on May 12, it called again for the execution of those leaders who "remain undealt with". The leaders in question, James Connolly and Seán Mac Diarmada, were shot early on 12 May, a few hours after that second editorial had gone to press; they were already dead when most people read it.

The Independent had been founded by Parnell after the so-called Parnell Split in 1891, when the Freeman defected to the anti-Parnellite side. It was later acquired by William Martin Murphy, who in 1905 transformed it into a mass-circulation newspaper along the lines of Lord Northcliffe's revolutionary Daily Mail, launched in London in 1896. It cost a halfpenny, half the price of the other Dublin dailies, and it had a more modern format and a less partisan editorial policy.

It was a resounding success, and quickly superseded the Freeman as the more popular nationalist daily newspaper. Its circulation rose from an initial 25,000 to 100,000 in 1915, whereas the Freeman's circulation was stuck at between 30,000 and 35,000 copies per day.

William Martin Murphy is often blamed for the Independent's bloodthirsty editorials in 1916. They are seen as part of a personal vendetta against Connolly, one of his chief adversaries in the 1913 lock-out. However, they were written by the Independent's editor, TR Harrington, without Murphy's knowledge. Murphy was in London at the time for discussions with the Government on compensation for property damaged during the Rising. He repudiated the editorials in private, but never in public - apparently out of loyalty to his editor.

Why did Harrington write them? The probable explanation is that he simply misread the shifting public mood, for he was quoted soon afterwards as saying - somewhat ruefully - that "the crowd cried out for vengeance and when they got it they howled for clemency".

The Irish Times was even more vociferous in resisting the calls for clemency. In its first editorial after the Rising, on May 1, it noted that "the surgeon's knife has been put to the corruption in the body of Ireland, and its course must not be stayed until the whole malignant growth has been removed... Sedition must be rooted out of Ireland once for all".

Such sentiments were to be expected from the main unionist organ in Dublin. Its chairman in 1916 was a pillar of the Irish unionist establishment, Sir John Arnott, and the editor was John E Healy, who also served as Irish correspondent of the London Times.

Unlike the other Dublin newspapers, The Irish Times' premises were unaffected by the fighting in Easter week. Their reporters were thus in a position to gather the news as it happened, albeit that publication of the newspaper was restricted.

The Times published all the contemporary reportage a year later in the Sinn Féin Rebellion Handbook, together with maps of the battle sites and lists of those killed or taken prisoner. The Handbook remains today an important source for the history of the Rising.

The Irish Times' circulation in 1916 was similar in size to that of the Freeman, and it attracted readers from the intellectual and commercial worlds in addition to the unionist community whose views it reflected.

The other unionist newspaper, the Daily Express, had a narrower base comprising the remnants of the landed gentry and Protestant clergy. There is a reference to it as a 'West Briton' organ in James Joyce's The Dead. Since 1915, it had been owned by HL Tivy, a Cork butter merchant who also owned the unionist Cork Constitution newspaper. The Express would close in 1917, and be absorbed into its sister publication, the Evening Mail, which survived until 1962.

The Express' office on Parliament Street, opposite City Hall, was occupied by the rebels during Easter week. Its recapture by troops was recounted in detail in its issue of May 9. The following day's Express carried a feature by its racing correspondent bemoaning that the horse-racing form books, the bible for turf correspondents, had been stolen in the commotion.

This is a manifestation of what Conor Cruise O'Brien called "the Fairyhouse tradition" in relation to 1916: in other words, for many people the news from Fairyhouse racecourse on that Easter Monday was more important than the news from Sackville Street.

Felix M Larkin is a former chairman of the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland, and he was academic director of the Parnell Summer School 2013-2015. He is pictured (opposite page) at the statue of Sir John Gray in O'Connell Street, Dublin. Gray owned the 'Freeman's Journal' from 1841 until his death in 1875, and it remained in the hands of the Gray family until 1892

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