Felix M Larkin



ACIS 2014

William O’Brien and the New Journalism


ACIS & CAIS @ UCD, 13 June 2014

Conference title: ‘Latitudes: Irish studies in an international context’


William O’Brien was born in 1852 and died in 1927. He is remembered today largely for three reasons:

·         First, he was one of Parnell’s closest associates – and, in the 1880s, was editor of Parnell’s personal organ, the weekly United Ireland newspaper;

·         Second, he was a long-time leader of the movement for land reform in Ireland – most particularly, the Plan of Campaign in the late 1880s – and he was one of the architects of Wyndham’s Land Act of 1903; and

·         Third, he was an Irish Party MP at Westminster from 1883 to 1918, albeit with some interruptions and with an increasingly maverick profile in the final years of the party.

Less well known are his earlier achievements as the star reporter on Dublin’s leading daily newspaper, the Freeman’s Journal, in the late 1870s and early 1880s when he was still in his mid-twenties. His highly innovative journalism in this period qualifies him to be considered Ireland’s first investigative journalist, and it parallels similar developments in journalism in Britain at that time, developments now regarded as the first phase of a new genre of journalism – the so-called New Journalism – associated with the legendary W.T. Stead. O’Brien’s work in the Freeman is an early example of the New Journalism, though it is not generally acknowledged as such in studies of the New Journalism published to date. This is due to some extent to the dearth of research on the history of Irish newspapers, but the limited research that has been done tends to ignore O’Brien’s journalism in the Freeman – or at least fails to recognise its importance. Among media historians, only Chris Morash – in his recent History of the Media in Ireland – refers to it, though even he does not put it centre stage as the harbinger of change in Irish journalism. My purpose this afternoon is briefly to consider O’Brien’s first and most famous piece of investigative journalism, the series of five articles entitled ‘Christmas on the Galtees’ published in the Freeman in December 1877 and January 1878.

When these articles appeared, the Freeman’s Journal had been the property of the Gray family for over 35 years. It was the Grays who made the Freeman an important newspaper. Founded in 1763, it was purchased by Sir John Gray and a small group of likeminded associates in 1841, and Gray became its sole proprietor in 1850. The repeal of the oppressive duties on advertisements, on the newspapers themselves and on paper in the 1850s and early 1860s opened the way for a great expansion in the newspaper market in Ireland. Gray exploited this opportunity, growing the circulation of the Freeman from as little as 2,000–3,000 copies per day to approximately 10,000 at his death in 1875. A Protestant, Gray supported repeal of the Act of Union, and later the Irish Tenant League and disestablishment of the Church of Ireland. He sat as MP for Kilkenny from 1865 onwards and had begun to ally himself with Isaac Butt’s home rule party in the last year of his life. He is best known today for his work as a member of Dublin corporation in bringing the Vartry water supply to the city, for which achievement he received his knighthood – and later a statue of him was erected in O’Connell Street, Dublin.

His son, Edmund Dwyer Gray, controlled the Freeman from 1875 until his death at the early age of forty-two in 1888. Under his stewardship, the Freeman’s production capacity was further increased; its circulation again grew threefold – to over 30,000 copies per day, a market share of about forty per cent – and it became extremely profitable. Like his father, Edmund Dwyer Gray was also active in politics. He was a Dublin city councillor and home rule MP, and was intensely ambitious for political advancement. But for Charles Stewart Parnell, his almost exact contemporary, he might have led the Irish Party at Westminster. A moderate, Edmund Dwyer Gray was first elected to parliament in 1877, two years after Parnell. They were rivals and never fully reconciled, though Gray eventually acquiesced in Parnell’s ascendancy and the Freeman became the semi-official organ of the Irish party.

Mark Hampton, in his work on perceptions of the Victorian press, reminds us that ‘before 1855 and for some time afterwards, newspaper owners and writers were chiefly “publicists”, not “journalists”: they wrote to advocate their politics and not primarily to sell newspapers’. The Grays père et fils aimed to do both – that is, to sell copy and to use their newspaper to promote their political objectives and ambitions. For them, these were not contradictory activities. On the contrary, their pursuit of business success complemented their political agenda. Their influence in politics was largely a function of their ownership of the Freeman’s Journal, and they had to ensure the newspaper’s survival in order to protect their political interests. However, the business of running a newspaper was at least as important to them as politics: they were exceedingly rich, and wished to preserve and expand their business. This, in turn, had an impact on the politics of the Freeman, requiring it to have regard to public opinion and to articulate positions broadly acceptable to its readers, so as not to lose customers. Likewise, the Grays as MPs needed to have regard to public opinion in order to attract and retain political support, particularly in a time of change – like the 1870s. They had to trim their sails to the shifting political wind. Such were the interrelated political and business contexts for the investigative journalism which William O’Brien would undertake, but the fact that the journalism in question must be seen in these contexts does not compromise its integrity in any way or lessen its significance as innovative journalism that conforms in style and content to the early model of the New Journalism. Edmund Dwyer Gray’s backing for William O’Brien’s investigative journalism reflects Gray’s appreciation of the business and political potential of the New Journalism – and it justifies the tribute that O’Brien paid to the younger Gray when, in his Recollections, he described him as ‘the most enterprising newspaperman Ireland ever produced’ and praised him for ‘those newspaper coups for which he had a Napoleonic genius’.

In his Recollections, O’Brien recalls that Gray personally gave him the commission to write the ‘Christmas on the Galtees’ articles – described in O’Brien’s own words as ‘the investigation of a historic agrarian struggle on an estate around the Galtee mountains’. The estate in question was ‘a poor mountainous estate’ in Co. Tipperary, which had been acquired by a wealthy English manufacturer, Nathaniel Buckley. He raised the rents – in most instances, by a factor of two or three – and resistance to this impossible burden escalated to the point where a bailiff was killed, and the estate agent and a policeman wounded, in a gun attack. The plight of the tenants on the estate was highlighted in letters from a prominent local Fenian, John Sarsfield Casey, published in the Freeman and in the Cork Examiner, which resulted in a libel suit against Casey. When the suit failed and Casey was vindicated, Edmund Dwyer Gray decided to pursue the matter further, for the estate was located in the constituency for which he had recently been elected MP. The candidate he defeated on that occasion was the same John Sarsfield Casey who had first drawn attention to the deplorable conditions on the estate, and Gray was clearly anxious not to be outflanked in his own political backyard.

O’Brien was dispatched to Co. Tipperary with instructions ‘to see for myself; to avoid heated and exaggerated language; and to tell the plain truth, whatever it might be, without fear or favour’. These are O’Brien’s own words. Sally Warwick-Haller in her biography of O’Brien has outlined the shocking contents of his articles – ‘the shameful scenes which passed under my own eyes’, to quote O’Brien again – and there is no need to repeat her summary here. Suffice it to say that what makes these articles extraordinary is the quality of the analysis that underpinned O’Brien’s powerful exposition of the wretched circumstances of the tenants and its focus on the experience of individual tenants. It is this combination of precise analysis and vivid language that makes ‘Christmas on the Galtees’ such a perfect specimen of the early New Journalism. In this regard, O’Brien himself writes:

The inquiry was original in this sense, that it was, so far as I know, the first time when, in place of general statements, there was substituted a house-to-house visitation, telling in detail the story of every family – their crops, their stock, their debts, their struggle for life – from documents examined on the premises, and in words taken down in shorthand from the peasants’ own lips. Two hundred and twenty-six households on the Galtee estate were thus visited, one by one, and the statements of thirty other tenants were inquired into.

O’Brien’s articles also display the passionate advocacy that is so much a part of the New Journalism. The fifth and final article concludes with the following appeal to public opinion, which, with its implicit assumption that the articles would galvanise public opinion, is entirely characteristic of the New Journalism:

This, then, is the issue – whether a quiet, pious, simple race, whose hands have made the barren places give forth food, are to be driven from their poor shelter, or forced to undergo burdens which are in reality a species of veiled eviction, in order to add one paltry thousand more to the revenues of a princely stranger? Time was when, in those distant glens, a wrong like this might have been done and nothing have been heard of it, save some maddened wretch sent to the gallows, some procession of houseless paupers, some emigrant ship gone down. That time is, one may hope, passed ... One wave of that English opinion, before which Cabinets have fallen and nationalities been raised up – one generous impulse, such as was at the call of undeserved human misery in Bulgaria – would either end this unhappy strife or sweep away for ever the law that allows it.

This passage prefigures by nearly a decade W.T. Stead’s famous boast that, and I quote, he had ‘seen Cabinets upset, Ministers driven into retirement, laws repealed, great social reforms initiated ... by the agency of newspapers’. By linking his exposé of conditions on the Galtee estate with the Bulgarian atrocities controversy of 1876, O’Brien was very deliberately identifying himself with the newly-minted, crusading school of journalism that would become known as the New Journalism. Stead, as editor of the Darlington Northern Echo, had played a central role in publicising the Bulgarian atrocities, and this first brought him to national prominence in Britain. Many elements of the New Journalism began in the provincial press in Britain and were brought to London by former provincial journalists such as Stead, who arrived there in 1880 to become assistant editor, and later editor, of the Pall Mall Gazette. The Freeman’s early espousal of the New Journalism put it on par with the British provincial press – at the very cutting edge of innovative journalism. And, of course, within the framework of the then United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the Freeman’s profile was indeed that of a provincial newspaper.

The consensus view among historians of the press is that the launch of William Martin’s Murphy’s new halfpenny Irish Independent in 1905 marks the advent of modern journalism in Ireland. Not so, in my view. The Independent may have been our first mass circulation newspaper, but the publication of O’Brien’s ‘Christmas on the Galtees’ articles is a much more significant watershed, the first instance of the New Journalism in Ireland. Though the purpose of the articles may have been to shore up Edmund Dwyer Gray’s political base, their publication was, as William O’Brien notes, ‘not without perils for the proprietor of a great newspaper’ – specifically, the risk of a libel action. Gray must be given credit for his courage in publishing the articles in these circumstances, as well as for his openness to the new kind of journalism which they exhibited. In addition, their focus on the land question at this relatively early stage is remarkable. The articles appeared almost twenty months before the founding of the Land League by Michael Davitt. Gray, notwithstanding his personal agenda, was extraordinarily prescient in attempting to bring this issue to public attention.

But did the articles have any immediate impact? O’Brien concedes that they did not. He states in his Recollections that ‘no relief came to the Galtee estate, or to any other, until, a couple of years later, the Land League Revolution shook the earth’. The failure of his ground-breaking journalistic effort leads him to ask this awkward, somewhat despondent question: ‘who can be surprised if, in the cabins among the Galtee Mountains, there was sometimes a weary suspicion that the only effective force of public opinion lay in the crack of Ryan’s blunderbuss?’ Ryan was the name of the man who had killed the bailiff on the Galtee estate. This is one instance when the crusading impulse of the New Journalism had no obvious political effect – and I suggest, in conclusion, that this may be why it has been largely forgotten.

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