Felix M Larkin

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ACIS 2015

 

Writing against the Grain: Periodicals and Journalism

in Twentieth-Century Ireland

 

FELIX M. LARKIN

 

ACIS @ UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI, FORT LAUDERDALE, FLORIDA

26 MARCH 2015

Conference title: ‘Irish Speculations: Time, Space, History’

 

 

 

Many media scholars have remarked on the dearth of research on the press in Ireland. This remains a problem, but it has been rectified to some extent in the last decade or so – partly (though not exclusively) through the work of the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland, founded in 2008. The Forum has held annual conferences which have stimulated interesting work – and, in addition, several essay collections have been published which, while not formally promoted or supported by the Forum, nevertheless originated in papers delivered at the Forum’s conferences and/or comprise work by authors who were – and are – active members of the Forum. Mark O’Brien, of Dublin City University, and I have recently edited another such volume, which was published at the end of last year – for details, see below. It seeks to address a particular gap in the field of press history in Ireland, namely the links between periodicals or journals of the twentieth century and current affairs journalism. The work that has been done to date on Irish periodicals has tended to concentrate on the journal as literary miscellany rather than as a vehicle for news and commentary. In contrast, our volume singles out for study fourteen journals that are broadly representative of the periodicals published in Ireland in the twentieth century, and evaluates their journalistic activities – and, by extension, their contribution to Irish society and political culture. My paper will attempt briefly to outline that contribution.

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Roy Jenkins, then British home secretary, pointed out in a Granada Guildhall Lecture in 1975 that ‘choice is as essential to a free press as the prestige of journalists and the protection of resounding constitutional declarations’ (such as in the U.S. Bill of Rights). In other words, there is no genuine freedom of expression in the public sphere unless a wide variety of outlets is available to accommodate those with something to say. In twentieth-century Ireland many of the national and provincial newspapers were effectively organs or semi-organs of political parties or other dominant interest groups, and there was little space for diversity of opinion. Professor Joe Lee, in his magisterial Ireland, 1912–85, notes ‘the intellectual poverty of Irish journalism ... [and] the lack of public demand for superior analysis’. He observes in this context that ‘any newspaper that sought to run too far ahead of its readers would quickly become defunct’. Whereas newspapers must appeal to a wide readership, periodicals – with a smaller cost base – can afford to reflect specialist or minority interests. Thus, the importance of Irish periodicals of the twentieth century is that, for however small an audience, many projected an alternative view of the world to the narrow one which was propagated by the Irish establishment in its various incarnations, both before and after independence – and which, in fairness, was accepted by the vast majority of the population. By providing an outlet for those writing against the grain of mainstream Irish society, they made freedom of expression a reality in Ireland. They created a space for diversity of opinion that was not available in the national newspapers or in the provincial press, or elsewhere.

From the early 1900s onwards journals advocating an Irish-Ireland, a republican Ireland, a workers’ republic, a Catholic Ireland, as well as journals promoting the Irish language, the co-operative movement and the rights of women began to appear. After independence in 1922, a new breed of journal flourished, critiquing the kind of society that was emerging in the new state. In the latter forty years of the twentieth century, the most prominent journals were those that concentrated on politics, promoted investigative journalism and exposed the often opaque goings-on within the world of Irish business. By virtue of their influence on the ideas of an intellectual elite who were the makers of public opinion in Ireland – in politics, the public service and the universities, to name but a few – many of these journals helped shape the final phase of the struggle for independence in Ireland and then, post-independence, the thinking that ultimately led to a more open society in Ireland from the late-1960s onwards. Malcolm Ballin, in his book Irish Periodical Culture, 1937–72, summarises this process as follows:

 

Journals record the evidence of challenge and change, and their contents illustrate the complex and interwoven terms of the contemporary debate, which commanded for these periodicals a relatively small, but committed and growing audience. This new audience had a key part to play in the process of change, in creating the climate that nurtured it and in making the democratic decisions that encouraged it.

 

Of course, the periodicals were never anything other than doubtful ventures in business terms; but individual journals had a faithful readership that sustained them for relatively long runs of publication, and the influence they had via that readership was entirely disproportionate to their circulation levels and profits, if any. They were the fulcrum on which the intellectual foundations of Irish society moved – slowly, but irrevocably. If sometimes it seemed as if these periodicals were – to again quote Joe Lee – ‘casting pearls before Paudeens engrossed in their pitch and toss’, the seeds that they sowed did eventually bear fruit. They are therefore worthy of study.

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Inevitably, the process of choosing the subjects for inclusion in our volume was a trade-off between, on the one hand, the editors’ view of which titles should be there and, on the other, the research that has been undertaken or is in progress. The editors needed to find an author willing and able to write about a specific periodical before it could realistically be included in our selection. So we make no claim that ours is a definitive selection of the ‘best’ or ‘most important’ Irish periodicals of the twentieth century; it is merely a representative selection, with a clear focus on the journalistic rather than on the literary or cultural aspects of the titles under review. However, we encouraged our contributors to take a ‘long view’ and locate each of the chosen periodicals within the general framework of media history in Ireland, especially the preceding, competing and subsequent titles with similar aims and interests.  In this way, we think we have made our volume as comprehensive as possible.

So what titles in the volume? Tom Clyde, in his bibliographical study of Irish magazines, identifies the years 1892 to1922 as, and I quote, ‘the second golden age of Irish literary magazines, the period of greatest fecundity and innovation since before the Great Famine’. It is therefore not surprising that over half the journals considered in this volume, eight out of the fourteen, were founded in that period. The earliest of them are the United Irishman and An Claidheamh Soluis, both launched in 1899 and both notable for seminal pieces of journalism that undoubtedly changed the course of Irish history. Arthur Griffith, editor of the United Irishman, first published his Resurrection of Hungary as a series of articles in that journal in 1904; it provided the blueprint for the final phase of Ireland’s struggle for independence. Eoin MacNeill’s article ‘The North began’ that called for and led to the foundation of the Irish Volunteers was published in 1913 in An Claidheamh Soluis.

D.P. Moran, editor of The Leader, is often bracketed with Griffith as the two leading dissident journalists of the pre-independence period in Ireland, though each was, in fact, strongly opposed to the other and they ridiculed one another in their journals – a good example of the ‘narcissism of small differences’. We also have a chapter on Moran and The Leader. The spotlight is on the Irish suffrage movement and the Irish labour movement in chapters on the Irish Citizen and on The Worker, and the latter chapter includes a reference to James Connolly’s final editorial in The Worker that was presumed ‘lost’ because it was thought all copies of the issue in which it appeared had been destroyed in February 1915.

Each of the aforementioned journals clearly represented a specific minority interest and sought a popular following for the principles and policies it espoused. The Irish Bulletin, the official paper of the pre-independence Dáil Éireann, was different: it was not intended primarily for popular consumption but was rather a tool with which to provide information to foreign journalists and public figures of influence. The Irish Bulletin is therefore something of an outlier in our volume, but it is arguably more important – and more influential – than many of the other periodicals in our selection.

The Irish Statesman, modelled on the British New Statesman, had two separate periods of publication, 1919 to 1920 and 1923 to 1930 – and while this journal has received much scholarly attention to date, in our volume its two phases are considered in tandem for the first time. Of particular interest is the extent to which this journal in its second phase was financed by Irish-American backers channelling money anonymously through Sir Horace Plunkett, its founder. The chapter on the Irish Statesman in our book explores in some detail the circumstances behind the Irish-Americans’ support for it.

There is also a chapter on Dublin Opinion, a humorous magazine started in the very first months of the new Irish state with the aim of using the healing power of laughter to counter deep-seated tensions in Irish public life resulting from the Civil War divisions. In its later years, Dublin Opinion conveyed serious – and effective – criticism of politicians and others through the medium of humour. It continued publishing until 1968, a run of forty-six years.

Such longevity in Irish periodicals is not as unusual as is sometimes thought. The Leader survived until 1971, a run of seventy-one years, and An Claidheamh Soluis folded in 1932 after thirty–three years of publication. In comparison, the Irish Statesman closed a mere seven years after its ‘second coming’ in 1923. None of the other journals discussed in our volume that were established during Tom Clyde’s second ‘golden age’ of Irish magazines survived beyond 1922, the end date of that ‘golden age’.

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This accounts for eight of the journals included in our volume. The remaining six fall equally into two distinct categories: the first, publications founded in the first three decades of the Irish state which, while not primarily current affairs journals, nevertheless offered their readers coherent and sophisticated analysis of the new state and its institutions and culture – thus complementing what was already appearing in the earlier journals that survived after 1922: An Claidheamh Soluis, The Leader, the Irish Statesman and Dublin Opinion. The dominant theme was disillusionment with the new state and its failure to live up to expectations. The second category is the brasher, post-1960s current affairs journals – essentially organs of investigative journalism and radical social commentary. Their focus was on the strictly contemporary: they had moved beyond post-revolutionary angst, and drew inspiration from sources other than the unrealised expectations associated with the 1916 Rising and its aftermath.

Of the journals in the first of these categories – journals of the early years of the new state – The Bell is the pre-eminent one, easily the most famous. Like the Irish Statesman, it has been put under the academic microscope on many previous occasions – most recently, in a full-length study by Kelly Matthews. However, its contribution to the development of journalism in Ireland has not been assessed in any study to date, and that is the focus of the relevant chapter in our volume – with reference especially to Sean O’Faolain’s editorship from 1940 to 1946, though the journal survived until 1954. The other two pre-1960s periodicals that we consider are both overtly Catholic organs, but very different in character. The first is the Capuchin Annual, edited from 1930 to 1954 by a remarkably charismatic priest, Fr Senan Moynihan – a larger-than-life figure. Hitherto largely neglected by students of post-independence Ireland, the Capuchin Annual was a powerful force in defining the conservative culture of that period. At the opposite end of the spectrum was The Furrow. Under the editorship of another extraordinary priest, Fr J.G. McGarry, from 1950 to 1977, it became a beacon for change and renewal within the Catholic Church in Ireland in the period immediately before and after the Second Vatican Council. Its ‘quietly subversive effect’ is the focus of a particularly interesting chapter in our volume.

The final three chapters of the book focus on Hibernia, Hot Press and Magill – post-1960s journals of investigative journalism and radical social commentary. None of them have been the subject of extended analysis before. The chapter on Hibernia characterises it ‘as an independent, frequently dissenting voice’ in Irish media in the years 1968 to 1980, but it had a prior existence as a Catholic publication associated with the influential lay order, the Knights of St Columbanus – the equivalent of a Masonic lodge for Catholics. Hot Press, established in 1977 and still extant, is best known as the magazine of the Irish music industry, but it has also been an important platform for alternative opinion in Ireland, both political and social, especially that of disaffected youth. Particularly noteworthy has been the impact of the ‘Hot Press Interview’, highly innovative in its capacity to provide deep insight into the personalities of well-known figures. The chapter on Magill magazine locates that journal within the context of the party political battles and the social and moral debates that defined the 1980s in Ireland. The British newspaper, The Guardian, bestowed this encomium on Magill in 1986: ‘Magill has gained a political influence that has no parallel in British, or indeed European, magazine publishing’ – a tribute without equal in the history of Irish periodicals.

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What, if anything, did these journals have in common? The most obvious common feature is the omnipresence within each of them of a dominant personality, or two – as editor and/or proprietor. Those that I have already mentioned – Griffith and Moran, Eoin MacNeill and Sean O’Faolain, Frs. Senan and McGarry – were not aberrations. To that roll call must be added the names of Eoin MacNeill and P.H. Pearse (An Claidheamh Soluis), Francis Sheehy Skeffington and James Cousins (Irish Citizen), James Connolly (The Worker), Desmond FitzGerald and Erskine Childers (Irish Bulletin), Sir Horace Plunkett and George Russell (Irish Statesman), C.E. Kelly and Tom Collins (Dublin Opinion), John Mulcahy (Hibernia), Niall Stokes (Hot Press) and Vincent Browne (Magill). Every one of the journals considered in our volume can be identified with specific individuals, and this omnipresence of a dominant personality is the generally recognised paradigm for journals both in Ireland and elsewhere. Thus, Malcolm Ballin – in his study of Irish Periodical Culture – observes that, and I quote, ‘a periodical is produced by a guiding intelligence, seeking to project an identity’.

Another common feature is that the periodicals were largely a metropolitan phenomenon. Even where the journal was one that championed the ideal of Irish-Ireland or Irish language revival, its message was addressed principally to urban readers – mainly Dublin-based ones. The content of the journals is, by and large, indicative of a middle class urban elite engaging in public debate. The only exception was the Irish Statesman in its second phase under the editorship of George Russell (‘Æ’): it had absorbed the Irish Homestead, the organ of the agricultural co-operative movement, in 1923 and it retained some bucolic elements of the Homestead for at least a few years afterwards.

 Finally, these journals had in common a certain style, which derived perhaps from a sense of their own necessity: without them, who or what would facilitate critical thought – or, indeed, any thought – in the Ireland in which they strove to exist? Without them, how would change occur in Ireland? The journals were not always stylish in their physical appearance (quite the contrary, in fact), but there was a quality in the writing – and, in the case of Dublin Opinion, in its cartoons – that conveyed a confidence that the work they were undertaking was important. It should therefore be done well, and it usually was. And this is another reason why these journals are worthy of study.

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Mark O’Brien & Felix M. Larkin, Periodicals and journalism in twentieth-century Ireland
Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2014.

 

 

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