In November 1920 the offices of the Westmeath Independent were destroyed in an attack by the Crown forces. As we approach the centenary of that event, we devote this edition of the blog to the circumstances facing the media during the War of Independence. We will discuss the attack on the newspaper, which will be the focus of a special supplement to the Westmeath Independent in November 2020, during a later post.
The years 1919-1921 proved to be a dangerous time for Irish newspapers as, during the War of Independence, the press was controlled through means ranging from legislation to violent intimidation. During 1919, the British administration in Dublin Castle required newspapers to work under the press clauses of the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) – legislation that had been introduced during the First World War.
At the centre of this system was the Censor who acted as the filter through which newspaper reports flowed. It was his job to cleanse the news of material that Dublin Castle found objectionable, primarily items related to Irish republicanism. It was in this context that reports in Irish newspapers on the opening of Dáil Éireann in January 1919 were heavily censored.
The severe constraints imposed by DORA were resented by the press but editors had few options other than to work within its boundaries or face forcible closure. The Censor at least offered newspapers a measure of protection by preventing them from publishing items which contravened DORA. For this reason the press protested Dublin Castle’s decision to abolish the post of Censor in August 1919. Newspaper editors complained that removing the Censor, while keeping the censorship regulations intact, did nothing to restore press freedom. Not having a Censor to guide the press, they argued, made it inevitable that individual newspapers would publish material that the Castle would subsequently judge to have been unacceptable.
Within weeks, those predictions became reality when the Castle suppressed newspapers across Ireland for having published advertisements for the Dáil Éireann loan. Many regional newspapers, such as the Limerick Leader, were shut down, although the most widely publicised suppression was that of the Cork Examiner. On Wednesday, 17 September, soldiers entered the Examiner’s offices amid, what the paper’s editor, George Crosbie, later described, as ‘the pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war’. The soldiers dismantled the printing equipment, closing the paper for five days. However, those suppressions marked the zenith of the censorship regime that had existed under DORA. The suppressions were condemned internationally and the reaction encouraged the British government to end the policy by December 1919.
Officially, Irish newspapers were to remain free of suppression for the remainder of the conflict. Indeed, in 1921, the Attorney-General for Ireland, Denis Henry, told the House of Commons that no Irish newspapers had been suppressed since 1919. Henry’s statement was strictly true and yet utterly false. While there were no official suppressions between January 1920 and July 1921, there had been over 40 separate attempts by various sections of the Crown forces to disrupt the work of newspapers through extreme violence, the arrest and incarceration of editors, or the dismantling of printing equipment.
Among the upper levels of Dublin Castle, the British army, and the police, the majority of the Irish press was considered to be an active enemy of British rule in Ireland. Both the Freeman’s Journal and the Irish Independent, due to their national circulations, were seen as prime examples of that antagonistic press. The Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in Ireland, General Nevil Macready, was obsessed with the Freeman’s Journal and the paper’s reportage was closely monitored within Dublin Castle, with the result that its owners and editor were jailed in December 1920. Macready’s hostility to the Irish press was replicated elsewhere in the Crown forces. In August 1920, a Galway-based RIC Inspector claimed that it was the Irish Independent ‘…which creates, fosters and foments hatred of the English Government from day to day, from week to week, from year to year.’ That same month, an RIC report from Westmeath complained that it was futile to try and curtail the spread of republican literature since ‘the daily papers from Dublin were doing more to promote sedition than anything else’.
What was in those papers which so antagonised Dublin Castle and the Crown forces? The Freeman’s Journal and the Irish Independent, for example, opposed the IRA’s use of violence against the Crown forces. Nor did they demand an Irish Republic, instead calling for Dominion Home Rule. Yet, they denounced partition and were unremittingly critical of British rule in Ireland. The two papers, especially the Freeman’s Journal, also gave extensive coverage to the campaign of reprisals carried out by the police and military. That editorial policy, which should have been the entitlement of a free press, caused the Crown forces to make numerous raids on the Freeman’s offices, including the use of incendiary bombs on two occasions. Outside of Dublin, many papers took a similar editorial policy to the Freeman, leading to attacks by the Crown forces against the Galway Express, the Kerryman, Kerry News, the Leitrim Observer, the Newcastle West Weekly Observer, and the Westmeath Independent, among others.
Republicans also sought to silence sections of the press. The offices of the Irish Independent were attacked by the IRA in December 1919, as were those of the Cork Examiner in December 1920. In both cases the papers had criticised IRA violence. On each occasion printing equipment was damaged, although both papers were able to quickly resume publication. There were smaller raids against other newspapers but the number of IRA actions against the press during 1920 and 1921 was far lower than those undertaken by the Crown forces in the same period, and also far lower than anti-Treaty IRA attacks on newspapers during the subsequent Civil War.
By July 1921, the pen of the Censor had long been replaced by the sword of reprisals. The smoking ruins of newspaper offices such as those of the Westmeath Independent, so badly damaged that it remained closed from November 1920 until February 1922, were a ruthless warning to journalists that unfriendly eyes were watching each edition. In response, self-censorship became part of the daily routine for Irish journalists. The Irish Independent, to use one example, regularly stated that it had more knowledge of events than it could print without fear of retaliation. The campaign of censorship through violence partially succeeded but Irish journalists continued to report the news as best they could. In later posts, we will look more closely at the situation facing the press in Westmeath.
RIC Inspector General’s Reports; Cork Examiner, Freeman’s Journal, Irish Independent, Irish Times, Westmeath Examiner and Westmeath Independent; Ian Kenneally, The Paper Wall: newspapers and propaganda during the War of Independence (Collins Press, 2008); and Ian Kenneally, ‘Irish newspapers during the War of Independence’ in the Atlas of the Irish Revolution, edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil and Mike Murphy, with associate editor John Borgonovo (Cork University Press, 2017).
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 16/10/2020
This article was published on: 16th October, 2020
Filed under: Decade of Centenary