delivered by FELIX M. LARKIN as
Chairman of the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland
Dublin, 8 November 2013
(Sixth Annual Conference held at Dublin City University, 8 & 9 November 2013)
As many of you will know, some American presidents – beginning with George Washington – have made a Farewell Address to the nation on the completion of their term of office. Tomorrow, at our AGM, I will step down as chairman of the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland, and I would like briefly this evening to say a few words by way of farewell – just to put on record how we have reached the point we are now at and perhaps to chart possible ways forward from here. I promise I won’t speak for too long.
The idea of this Forum was hatched by Mark O’Brien and myself in the National Library in March 2008 after Mark had delivered a paper to a seminar on newspapers which I attended. I didn’t then know Mark, but I knew and admired his work. I introduced myself to him – and in the course of a brief conversation, we agreed that it would be a good idea to form some sort of a society in which those of us who have an interest in newspaper history could meet and exchange ideas, and which would encourage further research into the history of newspapers and other print media. Our focus was on print media; much work was already being done on the broadcast media, but the print media were comparatively neglected.
We decided on a plan of campaign to bring that about – and the first step was to contact other people who might share our objective and to convene a meeting to kick-start the proposed society. This meeting was held on 21 April 2008 in the School of Journalism in DIT – Dublin Institute of Technology – kindly hosted by Michael Foley, who would become the first chairman of the Forum. Those present, in addition to Michael and Mark and myself, were Professor John Horgan (now the Press Ombudsman), Patrick Maume and Caroline Connolly, then a post-graduate student at Dublin City University. These six people were the founders of the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum, and I regret to say that one of the decisions we made that evening when we met in DIT was to adopt that very cumbersome name – which, however, does have the merit of accurately describing what the focus of our activities is. If I remember correctly, John Horgan was the one who actually suggested the name – we can blame him for that.
Not part of that foundation meeting but nevertheless very supportive of the idea of the Forum from the very start was a young English academic in NUI Galway, Simon Potter. He stepped forward with an offer to host an inaugural conference – and this was held in the Moore Institute in NUIG on 31 October and 1 November 2008, just six months after the DIT meeting. The theme of the inaugural conference was, appropriately enough, ‘New Directions for Press History in Ireland’, and the keynote speaker was the very distinguished Professor James Curran, of Goldsmith’s College, University of London.
That was the first of six highly successful annual conferences which the Forum has held. The second conference was organised by Michael Foley in DIT, and our keynote speaker on that occasion was Professor Robert Schmuhl of the University of Notre Dame. Subsequent conferences were held in the University of Limerick, the National Library of Ireland and Kingston University – and keynote speakers have included Professor Chris Morash of NUI Maynooth and Laurel Brake, Professor Emerita of Literature and Print Culture at Birkbeck, University of London. In addition to these annual conferences, we held a special half-day seminar in May 2010 in conjunction with the Royal Irish Academy on the subject of ‘Journalism and the Dictionary of Irish Biography’. This followed the publication of the Dictionary – the DIB – which is a very rich source of information about Irish journalists. That seminar was chaired for us by Dr Art Cosgrove, former president of UCD.
I should add that Michael Foley was chairman of the Forum from 2008 to 2010, and I succeeded him at the AGM in 2010. Mark O’Brien has served as secretary since 2008, while Simon Potter and Aoife Whelan have successively acted as treasurer of the Forum. Caroline Connolly and Joe Breen have been successively membership secretary, responsible for our posters and for publicity generally. The posters for our annual conferences have always been a great hit with our members, and many have become collectors items. Indeed, just last week I was visiting Notre Dame University in Indiana and my good friend, Bob Schmuhl, invited me to his home one evening – and I was gobsmacked to find that he had on display in his office in his home a copy of the poster for our 2009 conference at which he spoke.
One final point about our achievements: The Forum has been associated with a number of publications – most obviously, a special volume of Irish Communications Review, a journal published by DIT. It is volume 12. Most of the essays in that volume are based on papers presented at our second annual conference held in DIT. In addition, I want to claim for the Forum two recent essay collections – Irish journalism before independence, edited by Kevin Rafter, and Independent Newspapers, edited by Mark O’Brien and Kevin Rafter. While neither of these volumes was promoted or supported by the Forum overtly, some of the essays in both volumes had their origin in papers delivered at our annual conferences, and almost all of the contributors were – and are – active members of the Forum and were approached for their contributions precisely because of their involvement in the work of the Forum. This is the type of networking which the Forum encourages. And at present, Mark O’Brien and myself are jointly editing a volume of essays on Irish periodicals which again draws its contributors from the pool of the Forum’s members. We hope to complete this work before next summer, with publication – we hope – before the end of 2014. We may even have the book launch as part of next year’s annual conference.
Looking to the future, I hope we will be able to continue the practice of holding annual conferences. The challenge here is finding institutions willing to host a rowdy band of print media historians for two days and, more importantly, willing to support the conference with an adequate subvention. And I must at this point acknowledge the continuing support which the Forum receives from the National Library of Ireland. Right from the Forum’s inception, through to the present conference in DCU, the Library has given us a significant grant to help meet our expenses – reflecting its position as the main repository of newspaper archives in Ireland and its commitment to further the study of newspaper history. I would like to thank the current Director of the Library, Fiona Ross, and her predecessor, Aongus Ó hAonghusa, for their support of the Forum, and also to pay tribute to the Library’s newspaper librarian, Justin Furlong, for his invaluable work quietly behind the scenes on behalf of the Forum.
Present here this evening are Martin Conboy, who gave us a memorable keynote address this afternoon, and David Finkelstein – who together have developed a proposal for a multi-institutional research project on the history of newspapers in Britain and Ireland from 1650 to the present day. Entitled ‘Communities of Communication’, this project, if it goes ahead, will complement the aims of our Forum in fostering the study of the history of print journalism. I greatly welcome their initiative – and I hope that the Forum will be in a position to make a significant contribution to this project if, in fact, it goes ahead. I know that Martin and David are currently seeking funding for the project, and we wish you every success with that – and look forward to working with you.
I want to conclude by quoting G.K. Chesterton – who once said that newspapers were ‘the largest work ever published anonymously since the great Christian cathedrals’. This anonymity has huge implications for historians using newspapers as a source for their research. Undoubtedly, newspapers are valuable sources of information. However, there are obvious dangers in relying on any newspaper – or, indeed, periodical – without some background knowledge of the publication in question, in particular its political bias and the people who controlled it. That is why research on the history of the press is so important – apart altogether from its inherent interest. It was for the purpose of facilitating such research that the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum was founded, and we must never lose sight of that purpose.