In this edition, we continue our series of guests posts. Dr John Gibney discusses how the Westmeath Independent reported on global events during a time of change and disruption.
Many historians now examine the Irish revolution in the light of the upheavals that came in the aftermath of the First World War. But how were these upheavals presented to contemporaries? To get a sense of how news of the wider world was relayed in the Westmeath of 1920, this blog post will offer a brief overview of how one of the main regional papers in the county reported on international affairs. The paper in question was first published in 1848 and is still published today: the Westmeath Independent.
The Independent was produced and printed in Athlone, being published every Saturday. It traditionally had a wide circulation throughout the midlands, and under the editorship of Michael McDermott-Hayes was strongly sympathetic to ‘advanced’ nationalism during the revolutionary years (it was briefly suppressed by the authorities in April 1918). It regularly devoted attention to international events, usually in a way that chimed with Irish affairs and the paper’s own sympathies.
The local press certainly offered a window to the world for contemporaries, but the traditional patterns of emigration, Catholic missions overseas, and military service (especially with two major garrison towns in the county) ensured that the inhabitants of Westmeath – like those of virtually every other county – would already have had a strong awareness of the world beyond Ireland’s shores. International links were a fact of Irish life, then as now, a fact that could be seen in all sections of the paper, even in the Independent’s advertisements. One such advertisement, for Levers soap, assured readers that ‘vast tracts of land on the West Coast of Africa and in the far-away lands of the Pacific have been scientifically cultivated and developed’, the better to ensure that demand for their product would be met (24 January 1920).
The big international themes that the Independent took note of in 1920 were the contours of British politics, independence movements within the British Empire, and the disposition of the new postwar order, especially towards small nations. The relevance of these themes to Ireland in 1920 should be obvious, and the Independent’s coverage tended to be concerned with how events overseas, whether in America or Australia, had a bearing on Ireland. Sometimes events could be seen through the lens of more local concerns. When the paper carried a report of a speech in New York protesting about how Daniel Mannix, the Irish-born archbishop of Melbourne, had been prevented from visiting Ireland, would it have been reported had it been made by someone other than ‘Westmeath’s sterling representative’, Laurence Ginnell (11 September 1920)?
International events, as reported, were often bent to Irish concerns in the pages of the Westmeath Independent. This was evident throughout January 1920, when the paper carried a series of weekly reports on Egypt, where demands for Egyptian independence were being stymied by British imperial interests, as revealed in discussions between Lord Milner, the colonial secretary, and the Grand Mufti (‘the Religious leader of the Egyptian nation’). There was a parallel to be drawn, for ‘The Grand Mufti in stating the case for the Egyptian nation has stated also with startling clearness the case of the Irish people’ (24 January 1920).
The turmoil of the postwar world framed what was seen to be of importance to the Independent’s readers. Take, for example, the potential of the putative League of Nations to foster international peace, which was supposedly being undermined by the baser motives of Britain, France and Italy ‘to divide the spoils’ (17 January 1920). On that basis, the paper approved of the US decision not to participate in ‘the English fashioned and English framed abortion called a League of Nations’, which was rejected ‘because it gave England the opportunity to keep her heel on the neck of Ireland…Incidentally, of course, as well, on the necks of Egypt and India and Dutch Africa, and wherever else England had plundered’ (24 January 1920).
British perfidy and the brutal reality of imperial rule were regular themes (the Amritsar massacre in India during 1919 was a common point of reference), as was a surprising degree of skepticism towards the League of Nations, a skepticism that was influenced by US attitudes to the embryonic league. This belief may have been underlined by the fact that the Irish independence movement pinned its hopes on the sympathy and support of major constituencies abroad, most especially in the US where Irish-American leaders had supported the campaign of the Republican Party against joining the League of Nations.
Another major US-based story was Éamon de Valera’s American fundraising and publicity tour, which was reported on throughout the year; his presence in Chicago at the 1920 Republican Convention was noted, as were attempts to have ‘recognition of the elected government in Ireland’ incorporated into the Republican platform for the impending presidential election (12 June 1920). However, when the Independent reported on a presentation made to Rev Francis J. O’Donoghue – recently returned home to Athlone after a ministry in New York – as a reward for his efforts on behalf of ‘the Irish campaign for National Independence’, Fr. O’Donoghue left readers in no doubt that ‘Irishmen have nothing to hope for from the presidential election’, whatever the outcome (28 August 1920).
A very different internationalism was on display in a report of a meeting of the National Union of Railwaymen in Athlone. It was addressed by British union leaders, who emphasized common struggles for better pay and working conditions. But this meeting was taking place during the 1920 munitions strike, when Irish railway workers were refusing to facilitate the transport of British forces around the country. The chairman, William Kelleher, noted the recent refusal of London dockers to load the freighter Jolly George with munitions intended for use against the Red Army in Russia, asking ‘If the executive in England takes up the cause of the Russian worker, why can they not take up the cause of the Irish workers? (applause)’ (5 June 1920).
A crucial thread that ran through much of this diverse coverage was that events overseas were being reported and interpreted in the light of their relevance to Ireland amidst its own revolution, and not just for their own sake. In that sense, the Independent, while taking its own editorial line, surely knew what was likely to be of interest to its readers. In the postwar world, ‘neither America nor her Allies in the Continent can fathom the action of England in reproducing in Ireland every infamy on a grosser scale which England alleged against Germany as a cause and justification for turning Europe into a shambles and keeping it so for years’ (16 October 1920). It was precisely such actions as were alluded to here that brought the publication of the Westmeath Independent to an unseemly halt on 3 November 1920, when the Athlone Print Works was burnt down by British forces due to the paper’s ongoing coverage of the British campaign in Ireland. It would not appear again until February 1922.
Westmeath Independent; Ian Kenneally, ‘Irish newspapers during the War of Independence’, in John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil, Mike Murphy (eds), John Borgonovo (associate ed.), Atlas of the Irish Revolution (Cork, 2017), pp 385-89. Back issues of the Westmeath Independent can be viewed online at the Irish Newspaper Archive, accessible via Westmeath Public Libraries: http://www.westmeathcoco.ie/en/ourservices/library/libraryonline/digitalnewspapers/
John Gibney is Assistant Editor with the Royal Irish Academy’s Documents on Irish Foreign Policy (DIFP) series, which publishes archival material relating to Ireland’s foreign relations since 1919. The documents published in the DIFP series for the years 1919-1948 are freely accessible at www.difp.ie.
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 27/10/2020
This article was published on: 27th October, 2020
Filed under: Decade of Centenary