PARNELL AND THE PRESS
Charles Stewart Parnell is remembered each year in Dublin on Ivy Day, the Sunday closest to the anniversary of his death on 6 October 1891. In 2009 it fell on Sunday, 4 October. There was a wreath-laying ceremony at 12 noon organised by the Parnell Commemoration Committee at the Parnell plot in Glasnevin cemetery, and then the following address was given by FELIX M. LARKIN, historian and author.
The wreath of ivy leaves that we have just laid on the grave of Charles Stewart Parnell honours his life and achievements – achievements that the poet W B Yeats referred to in these lines from his poem ‘Come gather round me, Parnellites’:
He fought the might of England
And saved the Irish poor,
Whatever good a farmer’s got
He brought it all to pass…
Elsewhere in this poem, Yeats refers to the last year of Parnell’s life and writes as follows:
The Bishops and the Party
That tragic story made…
The bishops and the party were not, however, the only ones to blame – and it is perhaps surprising that Yeats did not include the press as another of the great forces within Ireland that brought Parnell down in 1891. It was equally important.
The power of the press to influence public opinion was reaching its zenith in the years of Parnell’s public career. And few attested more eloquently to the central position which the press occupied in political and social life at that time than Parnell himself. Speaking at the end of August 1891, just over two months before his death, he said:
The profession of journalism is a great and powerful one in these days. It is likely to become more influential as the years go by. The readers of newspapers increase, and the press is becoming even mightier than the politician… In these days politics and journalism run very much together, and the trend is more and more to combine the two.
This was a very prescient comment – and indeed it is remarkable that many of Parnell’s closest associates were, or had been, journalists. The most prominent examples are William O’Brien, Justin McCarthy, TP O’Connor, Thomas Sexton, TC Harrington, JJ O’Kelly – and, of course, Tim Healy and his uncles, the Sullivan brothers.
At the start of his career in the late 1870s, as well as at its end, Parnell was opposed by elements of the press. The main nationalist daily newspaper then published in Dublin was the Freeman’s Journal, controlled since 1875 by Edmund Dwyer Gray – who is also buried in Glasnevin cemetery. From 1877 onward, Gray was successively MP for Tipperary county, Carlow county and the St Stephen’s Green division of Dublin. But for the advent of Parnell, he might have led the Irish parliamentary party at Westminster.
So as to protect his own political prospects, Gray strongly opposed Parnell’s rise within the party. He threw the weight of the Freeman unsuccessfully against Parnell’s candidate in the decisive Ennis by-election of 1879 – and he later smeared Parnell by accusing him of having called certain colleagues in the Irish party ‘papist rats’. When, after the 1880 general election, Parnell was elected chairman of the party, Gray was one of some eighteen MPs who voted against him.
Thereafter, however, he largely supported Parnell’s leadership – partly because he accepted that Parnell was now invincible, but also because Parnell established in 1881 his own newspaper, the weekly United Ireland, with William O’Brien, as editor. The threat that United Ireland might be turned into a daily publication to rival the Freeman was enough to copper-fasten Gray’s loyalty to Parnell.
The United Ireland newspaper remained under O’Brien’s management until the Parnell split – though from November 1887 it was edited by Matthias McDonnell Bodkin, later county court judge for Clare. At the outset of the split, acting on instructions from O’Brien who was in America, Bodkin followed the majority view in the party and steered United Ireland into the anti-Parnell camp. He declared his position unequivocally in the issue of 6 December 1890, at which time the Irish party’s protracted debate in Committee Room Fifteen at Westminster on the question of Parnell’s continued leadership was drawing to a conclusion, and its sad outcome was abundantly clear.
When Parnell returned to Dublin four days later, the first thing he did was to re-establish his authority over United Ireland, forcing his way into the offices of the newspaper with some associates and ejecting Bodkin. One of the Parnellites present described the scene thus: ‘I went up to Matty Bodkin. “Matty”, says I, “will you walk out or would you like to be thrown out” and Matty walked out.’ An attempt by anti-Parnellites, led by Tim Healy, to re-occupy the offices failed.
In contrast to United Ireland, the Freeman’s Journal came out strongly in favour of the beleaguered leader when the split occurred. Edmund Dwyer Gray had died in 1888, and the Freeman was now under the control of his widow, Caroline Agnes Gray. A somewhat histrionic woman, she was proactive in her support of Parnell. She even appeared in public with him in Dublin in early 1891, dressed – according to Archbishop Walsh of Dublin – in a scarlet cloak. Walsh subsequently described Mrs Gray as ‘a rock of scandal’.
However, once the anti-Parnellites launched their own daily newspaper, the National Press, in March 1891 and the Freeman began as a result to lose circulation and revenue, Mrs Gray wavered in her support. Under the influence of her son – just returned from an extended visit to Australia, aged 21 and justifiably fearful for his inheritance – Mrs Gray resolved that the Freeman should abandon Parnell. This required a special general meeting of the Freeman company, held on 21 September 1891, at which the pro-Parnell board was replaced with one opposed to him.
When he realised that the Freeman would switch sides, Parnell – now in the final weeks of his life – made arrangements to establish a new daily newspaper to counter the opposition of both the Freeman and the National Press. This was the Irish Daily Independent, the precursor of today’s Irish Independent. It first appeared on 18 December 1891, two months after Parnell’s death. It survived as the organ of the Parnellite wing of the Irish party until the party’s reunification under John Redmond in 1900, and was then purchased by William Martin Murphy. In 1905 Murphy transformed the paper into the modern Irish Independent, at half the price of the Freeman – a halfpenny, instead of a penny – and with a more popular format and a less partisan editorial policy. In effect, he copied what Lord Northcliffe had done in London in 1896 when he launched the Daily Mail, the first mass circulation newspaper in these islands.
The new Independent was an immediate success, and it would eventually absorb the old Freeman’s Journal when the Freeman went out of business in 1924. We might well be justified in regarding the Independent as Parnell’s most enduring legacy to the Irish people – though that newspaper rarely acknowledges Parnell as its founder, but instead locates its origin in the restructuring effected by William Martin Murphy in 1905. This is presumably because of its pro-clericalist editorial policy under Murphy and, afterwards, under his son and grandson – before it was acquired by Tony O’Reilly, now Sir Anthony O’Reilly, in 1973
But it is right and proper that we today should recognise both Parnell’s engagement with the world of newspapers in Dublin and his lasting contribution to it. He would be proud of that contribution, as well as proud of his real political achievements, for – and again I quote from the Yeats poem –
… Parnell was a proud man,
No prouder trod the ground,
And a proud man’s a lovely man.
Long may we remember and pay tribute to that ‘lovely man’ – who is buried in Glasnevin cemetery under a fine rock of Co. Wicklow granite which, most appropriately for a proud man, bears no inscription other than his surname.