NPHFI 8th Annual Conference, UCD, 13-14 November 2015
Reporting revolution: what the newspapers said
Anatomy of displacement: editorial comment in the Freeman’s Journal, 1916-1918
FELIX M. LARKIN
13 November 2015
This paper is a report on work-in-progress on a project to analyse the editorials in the Freeman’s Journal in the years 1916 to 1918, and I should begin by explaining why these editorials are of interest to historians – for that may not be self-evident. After all, the Freeman was not at that time the foremost Irish daily newspaper. The Irish Independent, the Freeman’s main nationalist competitor, enjoyed a circulation many times that of the Freeman – due in part to being half the price of the Freeman, but also due to its more popular style of journalism. Moreover, while the circulation of the Irish Times stood at about the same level as that of the Freeman, the former was the more prestigious newspaper by virtue of its ‘quality’ readership in the upper strata of Irish society. Nor at that time did the Freeman exercise much influence over public opinion, unlike in certain earlier phases of its long history. In fact, one of the more remarkable phenomena of the 1916-18 period is that, as the late Professor F.X. Martin has noted, the Irish press generally – though united in opposition to Sinn Féin (if in nothing else) – found itself impotent to ‘stem the rising tide of feeling in favour of the rebels’.
So, what is the significance of the Freeman for historians of this period? The answer lies in the fact that – to invert Tim Pat Coogan’s phrase – newspapers at that time saw their role not as ‘stimulators of the mind’, but rather as ‘retailers of received prejudices’. The Freeman was, until after the general election of December 1918, the semi-official organ of the Irish Party at Westminster. By 1916, it had become – to quote an anonymous memorandum in the Redmond papers – ‘a sort of political bulletin, circulating amongst already staunch friends of the Party, and bringing them information and arguments with which they supported the movement and [its] policy’. The editorial columns of the Freeman were known to reflect the views of the party leadership – in particular, those of John Dillon. Thus, by examining their contents from April 1916, the month of the Easter Rising, through December 1918, one can trace the response of the Irish Party to the sequence of events that culminated in its downfall. In effect, the Freeman’s editorials enable us to view the rise of Sinn Féin, and the reasons for it, through the eyes of what it displaced.
The Freeman’s editorial comment over this period falls into six phases, as follows:
The 1916 Rising and its immediate aftermath (May 1916 – July 1916);
Marking time (July 1916 – November 1916);
Between the devil and the deep sea (December 1916 – October 1917);
The rally of constitutionalism (October 1917 – April 1918);
Conscription (April 1918 – June 1918); and
Armageddon (June 1918 – December 1918).
I propose in this paper briefly to outline the main thrust of the Freeman’s editorials in each of these phases.
The 1916 Rising and its immediate aftermath (May 1916 – July 1916)
The Freeman’s reaction to the 1916 Rising was predictably condemnatory, trenchant and bitter. In its first editorial after the Rising (on 5 May), it spoke of the ‘stunning horror of the past ten days’ and pointed out that ‘the insurrection was not more an insurrection against the connection with the Empire than it was an armed assault against the will and decision of the Irish nation itself, constitutionally ascertained through its proper representatives’, i.e. the Irish Party.
The Freeman was in no doubt about the causes of the Rising. It would not have happened but for ‘the licence’ that the unionists had ‘arrogated to themselves [in resisting home rule by force], and thus extended to every fomenter of civil strife’. Subsequently, the inclusion in the coalition government formed in 1915 of ‘the mouthers of sedition in Ulster’ had ‘robbed it of the confidence and respect of the people, and converted it into a scandal’.
The Government’s reaction to the events of Easter week 1916 was, from the start, of concern to the Freeman. In that first editorial after the Rising, it warned that ‘if good and not evil is to issue from the sufferings and sacrifices of the past ten days, the Government and those endowed with authority must have careful regard for Irish feeling and opinion in the measures that are to be taken’. On 9 May, in its first overt reference to the death sentences passed on the Rising’s leaders, the Freeman protested that ‘sympathy is being aroused with the victims [i.e. the executed leaders] where nothing but indignant condemnation of their criminal enterprise previously existed’, and on 12 May it warned that ‘the military dictatorship’ has produced ‘a lamentable revulsion of feeling’. In the following weeks it became increasingly concerned about the ‘condition of feeling generated … by the detention of prisoners and the prolongation of the court-martial regime’, and it condemned both the military and the governmental authorities for introducing ‘anger and disaffection where the masses of the people were wholly on the side of order’.
There was an abortive attempt to settle the home rule question soon after the Rising. The initiative was announced by the British premier, Herbert Asquith, at the end of May 1916, and Lloyd George was put in charge of the negotiations with the various interests in Ireland – both nationalist and unionist. The Freeman, speaking for the nationalists, pledged that ‘there is no sacrifice that they are not prepared to make, short of the genuine freedom and the permanent integrity of their country, to remove the fears, secure the rights and conciliate the prejudices of their northern fellow-countrymen’. The settlement proposals when they became known were, from the nationalist point of view, less than ideal. They involved partition – albeit, it was understood by the nationalists, on a temporary basis. But the Irish Party decided to endorse them, and the Freeman inevitably followed suit. The proposed settlement collapsed when it was revealed that, in contradiction of assurances given to the party leaders, Lloyd George had privately conceded to the unionists that partition would be permanent. The Freeman, reflecting the response of the Irish Party to this subterfuge, was aghast and an editorial published on 25 July 1916 noted that this ‘breach of faith will inflame the feeling already sufficiently inflamed by the blunders of the coalition [government]’.
Marking time (July 1916 – November 1916)
During the months following Lloyd George’s settlement attempt, the Freeman and the Irish Party found themselves in a difficult political dilemma. Their policy was inextricably based – as it had been since Parnell’s time – on an alliance with the British Liberals, yet they realised that the events of May, June and July had effectively shattered that alliance and that the trust they had placed in the Liberal alliance had been betrayed. More importantly, public opinion in Ireland had been alienated. The only course open to the newspaper during this period was to avoid the issues raised by the break-up of the Liberal alliance – for the Irish Party had no alternative plan to move its Home Rule agenda on – and simply to reiterate the need for ‘a salutary and effective measure of Irish freedom’.
The threat of conscription dominated the editorial columns of the Freeman at this time, but that threat petered out – at least for the moment – towards the middle of November 1916, enabling the Freeman to claim a victory for the Irish Party leaders. The Freeman wrote: ‘They [the party leaders] defeated for the second time the cabal of Conscriptionists who endeavoured, when Ireland lay prostrate and Martial Law reigned, to extend compulsory military service to the country’.
Between the devil and the deep sea (December 1916 – October 1917)
For the Freeman, the year 1916 ended on a note of optimism - despite all that had happened since Easter, and despite Lloyd George’s accession to the premiership in December 1916 in circumstances that could only enhance the power of the unionists within the British government. Three factors influenced that optimism: General Maxwell’s appointment in Ireland was terminated in November; at Christmastime more than six hundred prisoners, interned without trial since the Rising, were set free; and the Irish Party had won the West Cork by-election on 15 November, taking the seat from William O’Brien’s dissident ‘All-for-Ireland’ League in its own heartland.
But its mood of confident jubilation was shortlived – for the next four by-elections were lost by the Irish Party in quick succession: lost to Count Plunkett in North Roscommon in February; to Joseph McGuinness in South Longford in May; to Éamon de Valera in East Clare in July; and to W.T. Cosgrave in Kilkenny in August. The Freeman accepted that these results meant that the electorate was (and I quote) ‘repudiating the policy of a constitutional settlement of our secular quarrels with Great Britain and … declaring uncompromisingly for an Irish Republic’. The Party now saw itself, in the words of John Dillon, spoken in the House of Commons, ‘between the devil and the deep sea. On one side we have the Irish revolution, and on the other side we have the Castle gang’.
The rally of constitutionalism (October 1917 – April 1918)
Throughout 1916 and for most of 1917 – despite the by-election victories already noted – the Freeman viewed the evolving political situation in Ireland in terms of an exclusively extra-constitutional challenge to the supremacy of the Irish Party. Towards the end of 1917, however, all this changed. Following the Sinn Féin convention held on 25 October, the Freeman began to appreciate that the country would now be faced with a trial of strength between two essentially constitutional movements: one espousing representation at Westminster; the other, abstention – but with an eventual appeal to a post-war peace conference. The Freeman took some satisfaction in the apparent abandonment by Sinn Féin of physical force. It stated: ‘It is quite evident that the “men who went out” [in 1916] are now a small minority of the conglomerate political party which has rallied under Meagher’s tricolour’.
Ironically, in the weeks and months immediately after the Sinn Féin convention and its adoption of a constitutional programme, the Freeman detected signs of a revival in the Irish Party’s fortunes. To some extent, this was because of the Irish Convention which had been meeting since July 1917. When the Convention assembled on 25 July, the newspaper had exuded a cautious optimism about it – even publishing a ‘Special Convention Number’. It remained hopeful at the dawn of the New Year, 1918. In an editorial on 1 January, it proclaimed: ‘… 1917 was not totally barren, and the assembling of the Convention will always be memorable as the first attempt by Irishmen, on Irish lines, to achieve a settlement of Irish difficulties … [It] offers the best hope of a satisfactory solution of the problems that have baffled the wit of British statesmen for generations’. The revival of the Irish Party, of which the Freeman spoke, derived in no small measure from these great expectations.
The evidence for the revival was the three by-election successes enjoyed by the Irish Party in the first months of 1918 – in South Armagh, Waterford and East Tyrone. The Freeman claimed that these victories had ‘turned the tables [on Sinn Féin] with a vengeance’ and noted that a few more victories like these ‘would leave such prestige as their party can still boast, sorely tattered and torn’.
Conscription (April 1918 – June 1918)
Whether genuine or not, the Irish Party’s revival in early 1918 came to an abrupt halt in April – for two reasons. One was the ‘ineffectual’ report of the Irish Convention, but more important was the renewed British government’s resolve to impose conscription upon Ireland in the wake of the German offensive in March. The Freeman protested that ‘all this talk of imposing conscription upon Ireland is sheer lunacy. The mere agitation of the question will do untold harm in Ireland. It was this cry … that made the insurrection of two years ago possible’. It added that the threat of conscription would ‘defeat any chance of a peaceful settlement of the Irish question upon the lines of Home Rule’. This did sound the death-knell of the Irish party: their Liberal alliance was now irrevocably ruptured – and the Irish Party revealed its strategic bankruptcy by withdrawing from Westminster to co-operate with Sinn Féin and others in a nationwide campaign of opposition to conscription. The Freeman commented that ‘the most indifferent of people have now been made to realise what serfdom is, and what alien rule signifies’.
To make matters worse, there was in May 1918 what the Freeman called the ‘fantastic episode of the “German plot”’ with the rounding up and imprisonment of Sinn Féin leaders. It was scathing about the Government’s failure to connect the individuals arrested with any German agent. One of those arrested was Arthur Griffith, and he went on to win a by-election in East Cavan in June 1918 – of which the Freeman wrote: ‘Six weeks ago, the Nationalists of East Cavan were confident of being able … to repeat the victories of South Armagh and East Tyrone’ but then the government ‘came to the rescue with the story of the fake plot’.
Armageddon (June 1918 – December 1918)
Between the East Cavan by-election and the 1918 General Election campaign, there was little that the Freeman could say to redeem the situation. It complained, with some eloquence, but to no avail, that the government’s ‘sole formula for dealing with Irish problems is the formula of Chichester, Cromwell and Castlereagh – naked, brutal force, divorced from even the pretence of statesmanship. Irish history is one long demonstration of the utter futility of such a policy as that on which the Government has embarked’.
Needless to say, the Freeman recognised that the Irish Party’s position in the upcoming General Election was untenable – and it warned as early as in September 1918 that ‘if the mood of popular exasperation is maintained by the measures of the government, the mood will express itself, at the coming General Election, in a fashion that may seem to doom all hopes of a friendly and honorable settlement of the Irish question’.
However, while the Freeman correctly anticipated that the General Election would oust the Irish party from its long-standing position of political supremacy in Ireland, it did not foresee just how complete and overwhelming its defeat would be. When the results were announced, its reaction was one of incredulity – and horror. In an editorial of considerable length, it acknowledged that the party ‘has, for the time being, practically ceased to exist’. The Freeman listed reasons for the result: ‘The executions, the courtsmartial, the imprisonments without trial … the successive betrayals of the constitutional leaders by the so-called guardians of the Empire [and] the threat of conscription’.
More in sorrow than in anger, the Freeman noted that ‘the Sinn Féin leaders asked the people to condemn as a betrayal of Ireland attendance at the Westminster parliament and to denounce as traitors to Ireland those who would venture to take the oath of allegiance to the British monarch. Thus they invited the people not merely to throw away the weapon of parliamentary action, but to condemn as false to Irish nationality the long line of leaders whom the Irish people had followed in the past – from Grattan and O’Connell, to Parnell and Davitt. The people have given an unmistakable answer’. That is how the Freeman finally portrayed the collapse of the movement with which it had been identified since that movement’s glory days under Parnell.
After the Irish Party’s defeat in 1918, the Freeman itself was in danger of sinking with its political masters. It was not viable without the support of the Irish Party. It was, however, saved for a brief period by a prominent Dublin businessman, Martin Fitzgerald – who purchased the paper in October 1919, and gallantly kept it going for another five years. Its last issue appeared on 19 December 1924 – and so it passed into history, unlamented just like the Party whose cause it had upheld to the bitter end.