Felix M Larkin



DIB Seminar


The Freeman’s Journal and the Dictionary of Irish Biography

Remarks by FELIX M. LARKIN at the seminar on

‘Journalism and the Dictionary of Irish Biography

Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, 14 May 2010

under the auspices of the

Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland



G.K. Chesterton 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 fostering such research that our Newspaper and Periodical History Forum was founded just two years ago.  The new Dictionary of Irish Biography has made a significant contribution to lifting the veil of anonymity that has shrouded the history of Irish newspapers, and what I would like to do this afternoon is to illustrate this by reference to the Freeman’s Journal, the newspaper which has been my long-time research interest.

The Freeman’s Journal was published in Dublin continuously for 161 years, from 1763 to 1924.  In its early years, it was associated with the ‘patriot’ opposition in the Irish parliament.  There was then a brief interlude when it had a dubious connection with Dublin Castle – under the editorship and later proprietorship of Francis Higgins (known as the ‘Sham Squire’), between 1784 and 1802.  It would later become the foremost nationalist daily newspaper in Ireland in the nineteenth century, and eventually (from the 1880s onwards) the unofficial organ of the Irish parliamentary party at Westminster.  Its decline and fall had its origins in the Parnell spilt, and parallels the slow decline and fall of its political masters in the Irish party.  After the 1918 General Election and the collapse of the Irish party, it was saved – albeit for a brief period – by a prominent Dublin businessman, Martin Fitzgerald.  Under Fitzgerald, it became the unofficial organ of the Free State government – a political role similar to that it had had with the Irish party.

The central position that the Freeman occupied in Irish society for most of its long life is reflected in the Dictionary of Irish Biography.  The search mechanism on the DIB website throws up 340 entries that contain a reference to the Freeman.  That’s over 3¾ per cent of the total.  Some are merely references to the newspaper in the bibliographical paragraph at the foot of the entries, and it seems to me that the option of excluding the bibliographies from a word-search would be a worthwhile modification to the website, enhancing the ease with which scholars can find entries relevant to their field of study.

A word-search will, by default, list the required entries in alphabetical order – by surname of the subjects.  This is not particularly helpful if, for example, you are working on the Freeman as a source for, say, the 1850s, and wish to find out something about the proprietors and/or leading journalists in that decade.  However, help is at hand – for you can re-sort the list under a number of criteria.  The most useful is, I think, the date of death of the subjects.  This will bring together somewhere on the list most of the people that you seek – since it is likely that they were at the peak of their careers, or not long passed it, when they died. 

Another criterion on offer is ‘relevance’.  This may seem at first glance the best way of arranging the search results, but I do not find it so.  The first page of 25 entries on the Freeman’s Journal listed by ‘relevance’ includes nobody of top-rank importance except Martin Fitzgerald, the last owner.  Francis Higgins, the Sham Squire, appears on the second page.  You have to scroll down to the fifth page to find Sir John Gray (proprietor from 1841 to 1875) and Thomas Sexton (chairman from 1893 to 1912).  Arguably the pre-eminent figure in the history of the Freeman is Edmund Dwyer Gray, Sir John Gray’s son (proprietor from 1875 to 1888), and he does not emerge on the list sorted by ‘relevance’ until page 10 (out of a total of 14 pages).  I don’t know how ‘relevance’ has been established for the purpose of ordering the entries, but suffice it to say that it isn’t very effective for researching the Freeman’s Journal – the ‘death date’ criterion is a much handier search tool.

But this is a minor quibble, and the information to be found in the DIB about the Freeman at any point in its 161 years of publication is remarkably comprehensive – and in many cases represents the fruit of original research not previously published.  The entries in question are too numerous for me to review fully in the time remaining to me this afternoon, but let me draw your attention to the highlights.

Three generations of the Gray family were associated with the Freeman.  Sir John Gray, who purchased the paper in 1841 and whose statue is in O’Connell Street, Dublin, has a fine entry contributed by Christopher Woods – while Fergus Sinclair has written about Sir John’s brother, Moses Wilson Gray, also associated with the Freeman in the 1840s before emigrating to Australia and later New Zealand.  I have written about Sir John Gray’s son, Edmund Dwyer Gray – and about Edmund’s remarkable wife, Caroline, who was a daughter of the English philanthropist, Caroline Chisholm, caricatured by Charles Dickens as Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House.  Their son, also Edmund Dwyer Gray, is the subject of an entry by Richard P. Davis, a former professor of history in Hobart, Tasmania – appropriately so, for ‘Young Gray’, as he was known in Dublin, emigrated to Australia after his family lost control of the Freeman and settled in Tasmania where he became a successful politician, serving briefly as premier in 1939. 

James Joyce has left us a very harsh assessment of the Grays: in his story ‘Grace’ in Dubliners, when one of the characters recalls the elder Edmund Dwyer Gray ‘blathering away’ at the unveiling of his father’s statue, another comments that ‘none of the Grays was any good’.  However, it was the Grays who made the Freeman’s Journal an important newspaper.  The repeal in the 1850s of the oppressive duty on advertisements and on the newspapers themselves opened the way for a great expansion in the newspaper market, and Sir John Gray exploited this opportunity – growing the circulation of the Freeman from between 2,000 and 3,000 copies per day to approximately 10,000.  Under his son, Edmund Dwyer Gray, the Freeman’s production capacity was further increased, its circulation grew threefold – to 30,000 copies per day – and it became extremely profitable.  So successful was it that in 1887 – the year before he died – Edmund converted the Freeman into a public company, while retaining control for himself.  William O’Brien MP – who first came to the fore as the Freeman’s star reporter in the 1870s – wrote of Edmund Dwyer Gray that he was ‘the most enterprising newspaperman Ireland ever produced’.

O’Brien himself has, as you would expect, a lengthy entry in the DIB – a very good one, by Philip Bull.  Its focus is (correctly) on O’Brien’s political career, and there is little information about his time with the Freeman or his many later ventures in journalism.

For the Freeman’s early years, before the advent of the Gray family, there are entries on the first editor, Henry Brooke, by Seán P. Donlon; on Francis Higgins (the ‘Sham Squire’), by Christopher Woods; on his successor as owner of the Freeman, Philip Whitfield Harvey, by Bridget Hourican; and on the next owner, Henry Grattan, a son of the parliamentarian, by Daniel Beaumont – all highly competent pieces on essentially obscure people.  The owner between Grattan and Sir John Gray, Patrick Lavelle, is unfortunately missing – but much information can be found about him in the entry for his nephew and namesake, Fr. Patrick Lavelle, a radical advocate of Tenant Right in the 1850s and ’60s, again written by Christopher Woods.  Of the journalists working on the Freeman in this period, there are excellent entries on Mathew Carey by Johanna Archbold and Sylvie Kleinman, and on Michael Staunton by Bridget Hourican.

I have been responsible for many of the entries relating to the Freeman in the period after the Grays, and those of most value to the general historian are, I think, my entries on Thomas Sexton and Martin Fitzgerald – both persons I have mentioned already.  I have also written about the last two editors, William Henry Brayden (editor from 1892 to 1916) and Patrick Hooper (editor from 1916 to 1924).  Brayden was replaced as editor for policy reasons after the 1916 Rising – in the course of which the Freeman’s premises beside the GPO were completely destroyed.  Brayden’s predecessor but one, Edward Byrne (editor from 1884 to 1891), is the subject of another fine entry by Christopher Woods.  The man who served as editor for just a few months between Byrne and Brayden, William J. McDowell, does not merit an entry of his own – but much valuable information about him can be found in a fascinating entry on his granddaughter, Kay McDowell, a trade union activist, written by Lawrence William White.  White, however, does not tell us that William was also the great-grandfather of Michael McDowell, the former leader of the PDs.   

Freeman people other than journalists and proprietors are also represented in the DIB, notably the printer J.P. Nannetti, who was also a local politician and Lord Mayor of Dublin from 1906 to 1908 – his entry is by Marie Coleman.  The famous late nineteenth-century cartoonist John Fergus O’Hea is profiled by Carmel Doyle. 

When the last edition of the Freeman’s Journal appeared on 19 December 1924, Dublin Opinion magazine commented:  ‘The Freeman is dead.  Bad circulation.’  A nice pun, but (of course) not the whole story.  The message I want to leave with you this afternoon is that the whole story of the Freeman’s rise and fall can be reconstructed by judicious browsing in the DIB – and I daresay that the same is true for many of the other influential newspapers that historians constantly use as source material.  Use them at your peril if you don’t first check out their credentials in the DIB!


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