Analysis: the guerrilla phase of the Irish Civil War was mirrored by furtive propagandist publications challenging the official narrative

Republican printer and propagandist Riobárd Lankford pithily described a period of his active service during the Civil War as producing 20,000 copies of the southern edition of Poblacht na h-Éireann 'on a hillside under war conditions, 15 miles from the nearest town.' During the more conventional warfare of July and August 1922, the Anti-Treaty IRA (ATIRA) sought to control established newspapers. The subsequent guerrilla phase of the war was mirrored by furtive propagandist publications which sought to challenge the official narrative of established newspapers.

Perhaps cognisant of this, copies of the National army’s newspaper An t-Óglach were dropped over the city of Cork by a military plane following the National Army’s capture of the last remaining Anti-Treaty citadel. As outlined by Claire Guerin, women were responsible for producing and disseminating much civil war propaganda.

Dorothy Macardle wrote for Éire and the Dublin Poblacht na h-Éireann. Brighid O'Mullane, Director of Propaganda for Cumann na mBan, oversaw the production of the monthly paper Cumann na mBan in March 1922, while Eithne Coyle produced the Tírchonaill War Bulletin until its plant in Donegal was confiscated by the National Army in July 1922. Cumann na mBan later produced the Republican War Bulletin up to late December.

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From RTÉ 2FM's Dave Fanning, Graham Finlay of UCD School of Politics talks about where propaganda came from

Constance Markievicz lent her artistic talents to the movement by producing cartoons for Poblacht na hÉireann: Scottish Edition and Republican War Bulletin. By July 11 the Free State offensive found its way to Limerick City. Prior to the Battle for Limerick, the city witnessed a remarkable feat of self-censorship, with four papers closing down rather than submit to the censorship the Anti-Treatyites attempted to impose upon them. In a bid to fill the void in the interim came the Pro-Treaty publication, Sgéal Chatha Luimnighe (Limerick War News), produced by the National Army, and the Anti-Treatyite Republican Bulletin.

Both the IRA and National Army raided each other’s printing locations in Limerick, highlighting the significance with which they were viewed. When the Kerry People was incapacitated by Anti-Treatyites, Kerry was left without any locally published newspaper. Members of Cumann na mBan attempted to fill the gap with the Invincible, produced and circulated around Tralee.

Riobárd Lankford Photo: Courtesy of Eoin Lankford, Lee Press
Front row, left to right: Seán ÓFaoláin, Professor William F. Stockley. Middle, seated l to r: Daniel Corkery, Tilly Fleischmann, Rev Patrick MacSwiney. Back, standing l to r: Marie Germaine Stockley née Kolb, Aloys Fleischmann, three German visitors. Montenotte, Cork, 1929 Photo: Photograph albums of Tilly Fleischmann (1882-1967), University College Cork Archives, Fleischmann Collection

The best known of these Anti-Treaty propaganda sheets was Poblacht na hÉireann: Southern Edition, edited by Erskine Childers. Having had a press set-up by Lankford, Childers set to work, assisted by Frank O'Connor and Seán Hendrick. Isolated from events nationally, he recorded that 'I have fortunately received a few 'Examiners' by casual means. No ‘Independents’ or Dublin Poblachts [sic] for a long time past.’

The trials and tribulations of producing the paper in the rural Muscraí Gaeltacht were compounded when an entire issue had to be abandoned when it became too dangerous to transport them around the environs of the mid-Cork/Kerry border area. Referring to ATIRA successes, a memorandum argued that ‘These might as well have never happened if the people don’t hear our story.’

Having left mid-Cork for Wicklow where he was ultimately captured, Childers was succeeded by Lankford and Seán Ó Faoláin. The latter glibly recalled that he had been decorated with Childers’ title of director of publicity for the First Southern Division: ‘It was not as impressive a job as it may sound. He had at least possessed a typewriter, I had only pen and paper; but I had a fine comrade in Bob Lankford of Cork City.’

Poblacht na hÉireann: Southern Edition Photo: Supplied

Outside of Ballingeary village, Lankford and Ó Faoláin churned out copies of the paper in isolation in a ‘dead-end valley.’ The propaganda aspect of the war in Tipperary also mirrored that in Cork, with Chun an Lae distributed in south Tipperary using a printing press (confiscated from the Clonmel Nationalist) and was furtively produced in a dugout near the village of Rosgreen.

Republican propaganda continued to attack 'the rotten capitalist' press and the ‘Doped Press’, with the ‘Free State Press Bureau’ supposedly installed at the Cork Examiner being singled out for specific attention. In the spring of 1923, Lankford reported on the deaths of eight anti-Treatyite prisoners who had been tied to a landmine by National army soldiers near Ballyseedy Cross in Co. Kerry. The Examiner's initial reporting on the Ballyseedy killings was based on official statements of the National army.

Ré na nDoiríin in Mid-Cork, a location used for producing propaganda Photo: Courtesy of Niall Murray.
'An Long' War Sheet, another short-lived propaganda sheet published by Anti-Treatyites Photo: Supplied

Lankford’s work was praised in 1945 by Minister for Defence Oscar Traynor who wrote that 'the publicity given by him on the Ballyseedy murders and other Kerry atrocities … under the most adverse conditions’ brought them to the general public’s attention.’

The discourse around the Civil War doesn’t end with Aiken’s order to dump arms. In November Lankford began producing a Sinn Féin tri-weekly paper called An Fírinne (Truth), which, like Poblacht na h-Éireann, utilised a Terence MacSwiney quote in its masthead. Like its predecessors, the short-lived An Fírinne also employed some of the usual Anti-Treatyite propaganda tropes.

Ultimately, the war of words would continue in different guises, with the launch of papers like the Irish Press, while cries of ‘77 ’ (an inaccurate reference to the 81 men officially executed by the first Free State government), continued to reverberate around Leinster House for decades.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ