The Irish Press

From Modern Ireland: Its Vital Questions, Secret Societies, and Government, 1868

By 'An Ulsterman'

There are few countries which, in the life-time of one generation, have witnessed greater or more hopeful changes in their condition than Ireland. These changes, however, have been achieved so laboriously and with such suffering, no amelioration ever having been at any time conceded promptly and graciously, that the nation considers less the advance made than the obstacles which still lie in the way of its progress. As might be expected, this applies chiefly to the younger politicians, whose tendency is to think nothing done until all they want is obtained, and who, not remembering the many triumphs won, are led to despair by seeing the slow advance of their cause and the many checks thrown in its way. From despair they fly to conspiracy and to arms; for whilst novelists and others have painted the Celt as volatile, history shows that no defeat however great, no persecution however sanguinary, has prevented the Irish from clinging to a purpose with extreme tenacity. When the elders lay down their weapons and desist from the combat, either through hopelessness, or because they are to some degree content with the advance made, their juniors take them up, and in spite of warnings and forebodings, enter the arena to renew the struggle at the point where their fathers left off.

This is the secret of those exacerbations which, from time to time, are to be observed in the history of Irish politics; the new generation is then entering the contested field, fresh and vigorous, and impatient of delay. The want of statesmanship shown in dealing with Irish questions has established this condition of things as a permanent one, and it will endure so long as the same policy is continued. The popular demand has never been met frankly or discussed fairly unless under evident pressure of circumstances; so that the Irish have been trained to feel that they are dealing with a grudging opponent, and not made to consider that they are an integral portion of an Empire with constitutional rights as sacred as those of the English or the Scotch. Still, the successes which have been gained, and the considerate tone adopted by some English politicians, have availed to temper the hostility generated by such a strife. There are many, indeed, who advocate a total separation of the two countries by arms; and if affairs be allowed to continue as they are, this party may grow with greater rapidity than heretofore, in consequence of the new importance of the transmarine Irish emigrants and their descendants in the United States and other countries. But if demands of a more moderate kind were frankly conceded, these extreme views would practically disappear. The mere rectification of such grievances as the exclusion of Irish Catholics from this or that position and post, or the absenteeship of the Sovereign, almost perpetual as it is and always alienating in its effect, would do little if anything to the permanent pacification of Ireland, for the nation believes it has a right to all this, and to much more; so that, although some irritation might be allayed, the change would not be enough to give solid satisfaction.

The Irish Nationalists complain that Ireland has no real weight in the councils of the Empire, and little influence in the management of its own affairs. A whole revelation, they say, is found in the fact that Ireland is never asked to be loyal to the Crown and Constitution. Whenever the question of loyalty arises in connection with Ireland, the only phrases which emanate from statesmen and political writers are those which declare that Ireland is or ought to be "loyal to England," "loyal to English institutions," or "loyal to the English Government"—phrases which indicate that in the habitual thought and action of the English with regard to Ireland, an equality under a common Constitution is not realized, but the subjection of one nation to another is assumed. The same spirit is displayed when even Liberal writers desiring to be friendly become patronizing, and promise that though England injured Ireland in the past, Englishmen will "do something" for her bye and bye. Even men who admire the Union are offended by this lofty tone of superiority, indicative as it appears to be of the utter insignificance into which their nation is assumed to have fallen, whilst the Union-pact promised at least a certain equality. If they are offended by what may, perhaps, be often a mere vice of expression, the masses accept it as a deliberate insult, the token of a subjugating policy, and resent it accordingly.

All these shades of feeling have been represented in the Irish press, the history of which is symptomatic of the important changes that have taken place in the condition of the people and of parties in Ireland. About the Union period the newspaper press in Ireland reflected the opinions prevalent in the country to a limited extent. There were Government organs and popular papers; but they did not exist upon equal terms. Freedom of the press was to be understood with many qualifications. Those journals which advocated popular opinions had every obstacle thrown in their path; whilst those which supported the policy of the Government were largely subsidized, and place and perquisites lavished upon their proprietors. During the agitation of the Volunteer question, Mr. Eden wrote, in 1781, from Dublin to Lord North:—"We have hitherto, by the force of good words and with some degree of private expense, preserved an ascendancy over the press not hitherto known here; and it is of an importance equal to ten thousand times its cost, but we are without the means of continuing it." For many years the notorious Francis Higgins was favoured with large bribes, official countenance, immunity for his crimes, promotion to magisterial office, and protection against all opponents. Bribes were awarded in various ways, direct and indirect. In the latter case frequent insertions of Government proclamations as advertisements were ordered, for which a disproportionately large price was paid.

Sir Arthur Wellesley, in 1809, writing to the Under-Secretary of State, refers to the measures which he had in contemplation with respect to newspapers in Ireland:—"It is quite impossible to leave them entirely to themselves," he says, adding that he was one of those who thought it would be very dangerous to allow the press in Ireland to take care of itself, particularly as it had been so long in leading-strings Some retrenchments had been made, with regard to the number of proclamations given to be published as advertisements; but reform in that direction he thought had been carried as far as it would go, except, indeed, that some papers of small circulation might be now totally struck off the list. There were papers, it seems, whose circulation was not worth naming, but which were kept in existence in order to secure these proclamation subsidies, on which they wholly depended. But while he considered that these might be deprived of official support, and that the sums charged for proclamations might be diminished, Sir A. Wellesley directed that the better kind of papers should be allowed to charge an increased amount for other advertisements and publications. The expenses, however, should be kept within the sum of ten thousand pounds; and care should be taken to set out the account of this money in such a presentable fashion that it might be laid be-fore Parliament. On the other hand, the organs of the popular party were subject to harsh treatment; and their owners were not unfrequently taught by fine and imprisonment for everything which partial judges could construe as an offence, how imprudent it was to advocate views which authority wished to silence.

In those days, however, the Irish Press was wholly in the hands of the colonial section of the people, and thus whether liberal in politics or the reverse, was no complete index to the mind of the masses of the nation. With O'Connell, organs to represent these began to appear. He was, it is true, ably and consistently supported by one or two Protestant Liberal journals in Dublin; but as the agitation which he conducted proceeded, popular papers sprang up in many of the chief provincial towns. He took a lesson out of the book of his opponents, and whenever the funds were in a state to afford it, the organs of his party were duly remembered to their advantage. This may have been not unnecessary at first; but the interest which his proceedings excited among his countrymen made the establishment of independent popular journals a profitable possibility. Thus it was that such a paper as the Nation could be planned and published, a journal which very soon gave evidence of talent, and even of genius. The spread of education favoured the establishment of representative organs; and the ardent thirst for knowledge on the part of those to whom it had been long refused, and who were called from apathy to agitation, promoted and enlarged their circulation. When "Young Ireland" separated from the "moral force" party, more than one journal sprang up to urge their opinions on the country.

The government of the day resumed its traditionary tactics, and the Birch trial revealed to the public in 1850 that the editor of the World had been subsidized to write down the leaders of the extreme Nationalist party, and to denounce them as Socialists and Red Republicans. This, however, was found insufficient; and other means were adopted. The police were directed to prevent the sale of certain journals; and even before their editors were brought to trial, the agents of authority had directions to arrest any newsvenders selling the Nationalist organs, and to confiscate copies wherever they might be found. Next followed the period of forcible entry and destruction of type and printing cases, and afterwards came the trials and banishment of the leaders of Young Ireland, including several editors.

The momentary lull was succeeded by the Tenant-Right agitation, in which the revived Nation under Mr. Duffy, and the Tablet under Mr. Lucas, chiefly figured. The policy of forming an Irish "independent opposition" party was then adopted to promote the success of the Tenant-Right Bill; and members of Parliament were pledged not to accept place until it was carried. Mr. Sadlier, the present Judge Keogh, and some others soon departed from this purpose, and in order to defend their course, Mr. Sadlier founded and subsidized a special organ, called the Telegraph, which denounced abstention from office, even under such circumstances, as unpatriotic and highly prejudicial to the "interests of religion." Some dignitaries of the Church coincided in this view; and the most prominent of the advocates of tenant-right amongst the clergy were directed to hold their peace or removed to quiet mountain parishes, where they would run no risk of being involved in political squabbles. Mr. Lucas carried an appeal against this system to Rome, but in vain; Mr Duffy, in despair at the break up of the party, went to Australia; Mr. Lucas died; and Mr John Sadlier, in the midst of his triumph, was discovered one morning to be a suicide and a bankrupt.

The paper which he founded has perished also. The Nation on the contrary lives and is supplemented by the Weekly News, a penny paper with cartoons, which are a new feature in Irish journalism. In the office occupied by the Tablet before its transfer to London, the Irishman, maintaining nationalist views, is now published, and is supplemented also by an illustrated periodical. These papers advocate a settlement of the Irish question somewhat analogous to that which has been adopted in Hungary, and are supported in their views by several papers in the provinces, and by some even in England and Scotland. Since 1848 no paper except the Irish People has been supposed to advocate the immediate appeal to arms; and that journal differed from all others, inasmuch as it was established to promote the spread of the Fenian confederacy. After a year's existence, its office was forcibly broken into by the police, on 15th September, 1865, and the trials of its conductors as chiefs of the "Irish Republic" followed. Three years after, in last spring, no legislative amelioration of admitted grievances having been accomplished, a government prosecution of the proprietors of the Irishman and Weekly News was undertaken. The cartoons of the latter paper constituted its chief offence. For the defence, it was urged that whilst London prints are permitted to caricature Ireland and the Irish with impunity, it was unfair to indict a Dublin journal for repaying them in kind. The Irishman was charged with having offended in publishing Fenian news, and in one original article, to which two others were afterwards added. The Attorney-General having paid a compliment to the eloquence and learning of the incriminated articles, declined to consent to have the cases tried before a special jury, as suggested by a judge on the grounds that the jury thus found would be more intelligent. The proprietors of both papers were convicted and sentenced respectively to terms of six months' and of twelve months' imprisonment—these terms being subsequently abridged by one-half in both cases.

It is to be hoped that the policy of coercion without concession shall have ended with the present Parliament, and in its fruits—these frequent prosecutions —shall have left no seed to perpetuate the poisons that have sprung from it too often.

In Dublin and the South of Ireland the Protestant papers are as a rule—with scarcely an exception—Conservative and advocates of ascendancy. Northwards a few Presbyterian papers advocate Liberal principles, whilst the journals connected with the Established Church are Conservative, and even tinctured with Orangeism. The Liberal press throughout the kingdom agrees in urging the settlement of the Land Question by the establishment of security of tenure and compensation for improvements, and a few Conservative journals support the same principles. All the Liberal papers advocate the disendowment of the Church Establishment, and, though doubtless differing on points of detail, they are unanimous in deploring the unsatisfactory state in which the question of University Education has been allowed to remain. In the advocacy of their respective principles the several sections of the Irish press not unfrequently display much talent, epigrammatic smartness, and rhetorical power.