TODAY (Friday September 4) is publication day for a new book telling the story of the newspapers in Cork city and county that played a key role in shaping and reflecting public opinion during the Irish Revolution, 1910–23.
Newspapers and Journalism in Cork, 1910-23: Press, Politics and Revolution is by Alan McCarthy. From the Echo to the Skibbereen Eagle, Mr McCarthy looks at how Cork papers covered and were involved in the historic events of the period.
The author attended UCC, where his interest in the topic was piqued.
“As an undergraduate, I took Dr Donal Ó Drisceoil’s module on ‘Censorship in Twentieth-Century Ireland’ and was really struck in particular when we covered in-class the IRA’s suppression of the Examiner, still the Cork Examiner then, in December 1920,” he says. “In particular, I was really intrigued by the use of sledge-hammers in the raid to destroy the paper’s printing machinery.
“We’ve all heard the phrase that ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ but that idea of wanting to silence someone so badly that such violent methods would be attempted, that really was the nucleus of the book.”
He is keen to stress that it covers more than political and revolutionary history, there’s a lot of sport, social and labour history there as well.
“I look at the different sports covered by these papers during the revolutionary period and the nature of that coverage as a signifier of their political affiliation,” he explains.
“The book also engages with the experience of the ‘Echo boys,’ the boys from poorer backgrounds who sold the paper on the street, as well as the working conditions of the printers who produced these papers during a time of massive upheaval.
“Furthermore, the book engages with a host of diverse but relevant topics to the newspaper industry at this time, whether it be the appearance of advertisements for Beamish Stout in the Skibbereen Eagle or the appearance or non-appearance of Mutt & Jeff cartoons in the Echo.”
So, how big a role did newspapers in Cork play in the momentous events of the time period his book covers?
“It’s important to stress that this was a time when the newspaper industry was the only form of mass media in the country and didn’t face opposition or competition from radio, television or the internet,” Mr McCarthy says.
“How influential were these newspapers? In precise terms, this is something that can’t be accurately collated or analysed. While enjoying a lack of competition from other media, the opinions contained in Cork’s press could not be automatically transplanted to their readership. These papers contributed to the dim roar of opinion that filled the socio-political world of their readers.
“Throughout the revolutionary period, the Cork papers were right in the thick of the action and certainly viewed their mission as hugely significant. Following the Irish Convention of 1917, for example, Ned Broy, Michael Collins’ famous double-agent, wrote that William Martin Murphy, originally of Castletownbere, was included in the Convention to guarantee favourable reports in his newspaper, the Irish Independent. Newspapers and their proprietors also played a central role in the brokering of a truce in the summer of 1921 between the Dáil and British government, with senior British officials meeting with important newspaper owners, among them George Crosbie of the Cork Examiner.”
So did the journalists and owners of individual titles tend to take one side or another, or were debates within the pages?
“Yes they did and yes there were!” Mr McCarthy says. “Certainly, newspaper proprietors tended to choose a side and this allows us to categorise the various newspapers in Cork during this period: for example, the Southern Star was purchased by Sinn Féin supporters and was very much a republican paper, while the Cork Constitution was a committed unionist paper.”
The situation was a little different for the journalists.
“I found that journalists might try and find work with a paper whose editorial views reflected their own but could make peace with gathering copy and writing reports for newspapers that expressed differing politics editorially,” Mr McCarthy says. “Most papers did allow debates within their pages which made for some really interesting content.
“The nature of social media in the present day means that lots of people can insulate themselves from contrasting opinions; you can block people on Twitter who express differing views or join specific groups on Facebook where everyone shares the same opinion as you.
“In stark contrast, newspapers in revolutionary Cork often aired contrasting opinions in an effort to affirm that paper’s own point of view to its readers. I think what I found most interesting and, I suppose, inspiring, is that regardless of what their opinions were, editors were content to defend them and engage with contrasting views rather than suppress dissenting views. This, of course, did not protect the papers in turn from being suppressed by the British government or IRA.”
Mr McCarthy also describes how editors and journalists did not sit on the sidelines during the conflict but were centrally involved and experienced very real danger.
“Practically every reporter and those involved in newspaper work at this time faced some degree of danger as they were working in one of the most intense centres of revolutionary activity in an industry that brought them to the attention of both republicans and forces of the Crown,” he says. “Even the cover image of the book, a newsboy selling the paper amongst the smouldering ruins of the city centre the morning after the ‘Burning of Cork’ attempts to get this notion across.
“In terms of specific examples, there’s the rather cinematic image of Alan J. Ellis, who roamed about the city the night the infamous ‘Burning’ took place to get the story.
“Patrick Sheehy, the anti-republican editor of the Skibbereen Eagle, was attacked and tarred by IRA Volunteers during the War of Independence while George Crosbie, the proprietor-editor of the Examiner had his home burned down during the Civil War.”
In addition to long-established titles like the Echo, the book also looks at fascinating but short-lived radical papers like Terence MacSwiney’s Fianna Fáil. A must-read for anyone with an interest in media, politics or the history of the time.
Newspapers and Journalism in Cork City and County, 1910-1923 Press, Politics and Revolution by Alan McCarthy, published by Four Courts Press. Available now.