The Civil War was fought not only in the streets and townlands of Ireland, but also in the pages of newspapers and pamphlets, as Donal Ó Drisceoil explains
When civil war broke out, both sides sought to control the media to their own benefit. The early ceding of control of Dublin to the pro-Treaty forces by the numerically superior but disorganised anti-Treaty forces facilitated the former in presenting themselves as the sole legitimate government, army and authority in the country. They proceeded to establish a propaganda and censorship system that would underpin that position for the Irish public and foreign readers.
As well as controlling military information in the press, the Provisional Government/National Army also imposed a political censorship that had the purpose of delegitimising the anti-Treatyites through refusing to allow them their preferred titles, such as 'Republican', and forcing the press to portray them as ‘bands’ of ‘armed men’ rather than ‘troops’ or ‘forces’ of any legitimate kind.
Republican political arguments and statements in the mainstream press were gradually eliminated and anti-Treaty propagandists were chased underground as the tides of war turned against them.
Anti-Treaty censorship and propaganda
In the initial, conventional phase of the conflict (from the end of June to mid-August 1922) the Provisional Government/National Army-censored Dublin newspapers were mainly kept out of, or could not reach, areas in the control of the republicans.
By 15 July 1922 parcels of Dublin and British newspapers and magazines were no longer being accepted by the GPO in Dublin for eleven counties including all those in Munster and all the Connacht counties except Leitrim. In response, the Provisional Government purchased an aeroplane in order to drop Free State propaganda into republican-held areas.
Some local newspapers in anti-Treaty controlled areas gradually went out of business – some temporarily, like the Tipperaryman, others permanently, like the Cork County Eagle (Skibbereen) – due to the disruption of supplies and communications, or refusal to submit to anti-Treaty IRA censorship. Those that continued to publish were censored by the anti-Treatyites and compelled to carry republican war news and general propaganda supplied by the republican publicity department.
In classic war-propagandist style, anti-Treaty propaganda emphasised or exaggerated republican victories; challenged Free State military claims and highlighted the enemy’s atrocious behaviour; tried to boost republican morale in the face of Free State military supremacy and advance; mourned and praised fallen republican leaders; characterised the Treatyite regime as the product of a coup d’état; and repeatedly stressed the apostasy, Britishness and venality of the ‘Anglo-Free State’ ‘regime’ or ‘junta’. This material also appeared in the republican news-sheets Poblacht na hEireann War News, the Fenian and Republican War Bulletin.
In the first days of the Civil War a team of republican censors, including the future writer Frank O’Connor, moved into the Cork city-centre offices of the Cork Examiner, Evening Echo and Weekly Examiner and the unionist daily, the Cork Constitution. Republican propaganda and opinion pieces, as well as news, were integrated into the papers’ general content.
The previous week the Limerick Leader, Limerick Echo, Munster News, and Limerick Chronicle had ceased publication rather than submit to republican censorship, something Michael Collins, Commander-in-Chief of the National Army, believed the Cork papers should also have done.
The importance to the anti-Treatyites of having the republican message wrapped in a conventional, mainstream newspaper is illustrated by the following request from an IRA volunteer in Dublin to IRA Chief of Staff Liam Lynch on 10 July: ‘Cork Examiner ought to be forwarded for sale if possible and arrangements made to have them sold here.’ On 13 July Lynch wrote to his assistant Ernie O’Malley:
‘Propaganda is playing hell in Dublin and district . . . we are doing our utmost to get Examiner paper up along East and if possible to Dublin. Even one copy which will be sent daily should be copied for use in Dublin.’
Pro-Treaty censorship and propaganda
All newspapers publishing in the areas where the Provisional Government/National Army’s writ ran were subjected to a military censorship headed by the TD and former editor of the IRA paper, An tÓglach, Piaras Beaslaí.
Despite being woefully under-funded and poorly resourced, Beaslaí somehow managed to run an effective censorship operation that complemented the propaganda efforts of Desmond Fitzgerald’s Publicity Department. The latter emphasised ‘the campaign of wanton destruction pursued by the Irregulars’ and encouraged the press to publish articles on the campaign against the railways, the destruction of roads and bridges, and attacks on private and commercial property.
As well as conventional censorship rules relating to sensitive military information, Beaslaí’s instructions to the press centred on nomenclature related to the legitimacy of both sides: anti-Treaty forces were always ‘Irregulars’ or ‘armed men’ and were never to be given ‘proper’ military designations or be referred to as ‘Republicans’; the pro-Treaty forces were to be called the ‘Irish Army’, ‘National Army’, National Forces’ or simply ‘troops’, while the Provisional Government was the ‘Irish Government’ or simply ‘the Government’.
Following an initial period when the Dublin daily press, especially, the Irish Independent, failed to fully tow the Provisional Government line, an acceptable level of control was established. Press telegrams were censored at the Central Telegraph Office, a ‘field censor’ operated with the National Army, and a censorship of films and photographs was operated from the Fleet Street offices of the Freeman’s Journal in London.
All British papers and periodicals were examined and permits for circulation were issued or withheld depending on whether or not they were deemed to be complying with censorship demands. Following the initial blocking of all English publications in early July, the Censor was flooded with messages from cross-channel papers assuring him, for example, that only passed matter would be used or that the next edition would include no Irish news. A number of issues of the Daily Herald, which featured bulletins from the republicans in Cork, were stopped until the paper gave a guarantee that it would desist.
Two other English dailies, the Daily Telegraph and Morning Post, refused to accept the Censor's conditions and were frequently banned. A number of weeklies were also loath to subject themselves to Irish censorship, despite pleas to them from their Irish distributor, Eason’s, that all they needed to do was avoid 'anything which would discredit the Provisional Government or exalt the actions of Republicans, or which represents the Provisional Government as acting in the interests of Great Britain or at the suggesting of Great Britain.’
The bête noir of the Free Staters
Republicans lost their remaining mainstream newspaper mouthpieces in August 1922 when Cork fell to the National Army. The departing anti-Treaty IRA destroyed the plant and machinery of both the Examiner and the Constitution as part of an orgy of destruction and sabotage across the city. This put paid to any chance of a return by the Constitution, and saw the Cork Examiner off the streets for three days and the Echo and Weekly Examiner for two weeks.
The anti-Treaty propaganda supremo, and bête noir of the Free Staters, Erskine Childers headed west with the retreating republican forces following the taking of Cork city.
He produced Poblacht na hEireann Southern Edition from 14 August until 25 October 1922, initially from Ballymakeera in west Cork, close to the Kerry border, and subsequently on the move in that district. (Childers was arrested in Dublin and executed in November 1922).
There was also a Scottish edition produced from 26 August until 13 January 1923, while the regular Poblacht na hEireann – War News continued to appear until March 1923. The Fenian also pushed the republican line, as did a number of other news-sheets, pamphlets and handbills, but in general the republican propaganda operation lacked co-ordination and impact.
Having prorogued the parliament elected on 16 June throughout July and August, the government authorities finally decided to convene it on 9 September, in a sure signal of their belief that the war was won. The previous day Beaslaí informed the Dublin editors that the censorship was being minimised to the ‘extremest levels compatible with public safety’; a month later his office was wound up and for a few weeks, on the basis of IRA threats, the Dublin papers stopped using pro-Treaty terminology and began to publish republican notices, until they were threatened with closure by the Provisional Government.
The Army Publicity Department maintained light-touch regulation on the press over the last months of the war, in conjunction with former Minister for Publicity, and now Minister for External Affairs, Desmond Fitzgerald.
In a final assault on republican propaganda, newsagents’ shops with anti-Treaty sympathies across Dublin were raided on 27 February 1923 and copies of Poblacht na hEireann War News and other republican literature seized. The following week the machinery and plant used to produce Poblacht na hEireann was seized and the staff arrested. The final ‘issue’ appeared on 16 March 1923: a sad, single typed page headed ‘We are before the public once more’, it symbolised the doomed republican position.
This article is part of the Civil War project coordinated by UCC and based on The Atlas of the Irish Revolution edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil, Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo. Its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.