In 1922, the Irish media overwhelmingly supported the Treaty. So how did the other side respond? Donal Ó Drisceoil explains.
The Irish newspaper war over the Treaty was grossly unbalanced: almost all of the mainstream Irish press, including all of the Southern national morning papers and their evening and weekly associated titles, was pro-Treaty, which gave a clear advantage to its proponents and led frustrated anti-Treatyites to resort to intimidation and 'sledge hammer censorship' in response.
This reflected poorly on the democratic claims and general reputation of republicans at a time when they were engaged in what was partly a struggle to win over public opinion, including that of the diaspora, especially Irish-America, and was also largely counter-productive.
It allowed their opponents to draw parallels with British attacks on and suppressions of Irish newspapers in the recent past; to characterise anti-Treatyites as lawless, thuggish and potentially dictatorial; and to cast themselves as a democratic bulwark against 'anarchy', representative of a majority and champions of the liberty of the press (which, conveniently, happened to be overwhelmingly pro-Treaty).
No daily paper opposed the Treaty and of the over 100 provincial/regional papers, only An Connachtach/ The Connachtman in Sligo, the Donegal Vindicator and the Waterford Standard took an explicitly oppositional position.
While proprietorial/editorial political preferences and a pragmatic desire in the newspaper industry for a maintenance of ‘normality’ (relatively free-flowing circulation and a restored advertising revenue stream) played their part in creating this consensus, there was also a more direct material dimension, as suggested by the anti-Treaty Donegal Vindicator when it pointed out that newspapers championing ‘the republic’ had been warned they would be deprived of the support of the ‘moneyed people’.
The anti-Treatyites were aware from the outset that they would need to create their own media outlets, and from 3 January 1922 the newly-formed Republican Publicity Department produced the weekly Poblacht na hÉireann (Republic of Ireland), which detailed the anti-Treaty position in a mainly level-headed and often quite sophisticated manner.
When some anti-Treatyites complained in March 1922 that the articles in the paper were ‘too heavy’, editor Erskine Childers explained that this was a ‘necessary evil’ as the paper was ‘primarily concerned with explaining an intricate political situation’. As the situation heated up and civil war loomed, the paper increasingly developed a sharper propagandist edge.
Childers had taken over the editorship from Liam Mellows in late February. Frank Gallagher, former editor of the Cork Free Press and later first editor of the Irish Press, was assistant editor to both and became editor from July 1922, following the outbreak of civil war. Its first issue on 3 January editorialised on ‘The Daily Press and the Treaty’, pointing out that as the mainstream papers had consistently opposed the separatist project and supported the British agenda, their support for the Treaty was unsurprising.
From April 1922 until the outbreak of civil war in June, the republicans also produced a Sunday paper, The Plain People/Na Daoine Macánta, which was more stridently propagandist and dripped with disdain for the ‘Slave State’ and its press cheerleaders. Their pro-Treaty equivalents were Arthur Griffith’s Free State, P.S. O’Hegarty’s The Separatist and Piarais Beaslaí’s An tÓglach.
The republican publicist Dorothy Macardle, in her later account of the Irish revolution, sums up the feelings of anti-Treatyites about the Irish media consensus at the time of the Treaty debates:
All warnings against the Treaty, all caution as to the dangers latent in it, all opposition to partition, even, seemed flung to the winds. Every effort of the Press was concentrated in stampeding the people into a panic-stricken terror of rejection, a blind clamour for surrender, for peace at any price.
The anti-Treaty IRA began to take action against its press ‘enemies’ even before the Dáil narrowly voted to accept the document on 7 January. On 4 January the Cork IRA kidnapped the Times (London) special correspondent A.B. Kay and forced him to publish a statement denying that he had interviewed members of the Cork IRA.
Following an editorial in the Freeman’s Journal of 5 January in which de Valera was accused of having ‘not the instinct of an Irishman in his blood’ and acting on the advice of Erskine Childers, ‘an Englishman who has achieved fame in the British Intelligence Service’, newsagents were warned not to stock the paper.
This vilification of Childers and, by extension, de Valera was a key element of the propaganda campaign waged by the Freeman’s Journal, epitomised by the notorious cartoon by ‘Shemus’, published on 10 February 1922, where de Valera is depicted as a mouthpiece of what Arthur Griffith called this ‘damned Englishman’, Childers. Historian of the paper Felix Larkin describes how its campaign in favour of the Treaty and against its opponents was regarded as ‘unduly partisan’, even by many on the pro-Treaty side.
‘Black-and Tan methods’
Cork republicans decided that if the mainstream press refused to publicise anti-Treaty arguments, they would have to be forced to do so. The day after the Dáil had voted for the Treaty, the Cork IRA compelled the Cork Examiner, the Redmondite daily that had been hailing the virtues of the Treaty for the previous month, to publish a republican proclamation against the settlement, which appeared on 9 January.
Michael Collins denounced his opponents’ ‘Black-and-Tan methods’ and argued that the intimidation of the Examiner was an illustration of the country’s drift towards anarchy and the urgent need for stable government.
Pro-Treaty Cork TD J.J. Walsh wrote an open letter to the press accusing the Cork IRA of assuming the role of ‘an armed political junta’. The Cork IRA destroyed the consignments of the Irish Independent and Freeman’s Journal that had published the letter.
On 9 January 1922 consignments of the Freeman's Journal were removed from the Dublin train in County Limerick and burned, and on 14 January the editor of Tipperary’s Nationalist (Clonmel) refused the demand of the local IRA O/C to publish the proclamation that had appeared in the Examiner. The editor of the Clonmel Chronicle received a similar order to publish the proclamation, and also refused. On 19 January the printing presses were badly damaged at the Nationalist and when the Chronicle protested, copies of that paper were seized.
Harassment and intimidation continued in various parts of the country over the following two months. From the second week of March republicans had placed an effective ban on the circulation of the Freeman's Journal and the Weekly Freeman in the south and south west, through the seizure and burning of all copies from the Dublin train, usually at the Limerick Junction node.
‘Sledge hammer censors’
This phase of what might be called irregular censorship (‘Irregular’ was the term soon to be coined by the Provisional Government/Free State authorities to describe the anti-Treaty IRA) peaked with the destruction of the printing machinery of the Freeman’s Journal in Dublin in the early hours of 30 March 1922 following its publication of a report on the IRA convention, which characterised the anti-Treaty side as aspirant military dictators.
The paper was out of circulation for three weeks, and the event garnered worldwide negative publicity for the anti-Treaty forces, who were characterised as 'morally bankrupt' ‘sledge hammer censors’, ‘tyrants’ and ‘would-be dictators’.
Undeterred, on 10 April the anti-Treaty IRA executive sent a message to the editors of the Dublin-published papers and correspondents of Irish, English and American papers based in the capital notifying them that ‘publication of any matters relative to the Irish Republican Army is prohibited unless passed by the Publicity Department, IRA.’
Similar orders were delivered in other parts of the country over the following weeks, and failure to comply led to attacks on newspaper offices and the seizure of papers. This was part of a general pattern whereby pro-Treaty meetings were broken up, and clashes between both sides intensified.
‘Irish Republic versus the Slave State’
Efforts to avert civil war, and to restore some unity at a military and political level, continued. A shaky IRA truce that failed to hold was being brokered and on 20 May Collins and de Valera agreed a pact arrangement for the forthcoming general election. The campaign against the Freeman’s Journal continued however, with seizures and burnings of the paper occurring in Dublin and across the country and newsagents warned not to stock it. The Irish Times described this as a ‘ban’ on the paper, which effectively it was.
The seizure and burning of newspapers continued into the following month, as the twenty-six counties prepared to go to the polls on 16 June. This so-called ‘pact election’ was controversial. Collins and de Valera had agreed on pro- and anti-Treaty Sinn Féin candidates standing as a panel with a view to forming a coalition government, thus avoiding the election being interpreted as an effective referendum on the Treaty.
The anti-Treaty side accused Collins, with justification, of breaking the pact and the Provisional Government took the election result – which saw a large majority of pro-Treaty candidates elected - as a legitimisation of its authority and, by extension, a mandate to prosecute civil war. The Plain People argued unconvincingly that anti-Treaty voters’ adherence to the pact arrangement ensured the pro-Treaty majority:
‘On the straight issue of the Irish Republic versus the Slave State . . . the result would have been otherwise.’
Once war broke out on 28 June, the press was subjected to censorship control by both the Provisional Government and by the anti-Treatyites in the areas that remained under their control. This is the subject of a later article.
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 and Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo. Its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.