Christopher Doughan is the author of The Voice of the Provinces, one of the first books examining the history of Ireland’s regional newspapers. Ireland’s regional and provincial newspapers have played a largely unrecognised role in Irish history: this book charts their experiences in the dramatic and sometimes violent years leading up to independence. In this blog post Doughan reflects on the origins of his research into the histories of local Irish presses.
As a masters student at Maynooth University some years ago I completed a mini-thesis on the newspaper coverage of the Irish War of Independence. In simplest terms, I examined and analysed how a number of specific engagements during the course of the conflict were reported in the major Irish national papers and some of the main British broadsheets. One such engagement was the killing of two officers of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) at Soloheadbeg, County Tipperary in January 1919 which is generally regarded as the start of the Irish War of Independence. In my brief description of the incident I quoted from one of the local newspapers, the Nenagh Guardian. On this point I was pulled up by my supervisor who said I needed to indicate whether the paper was nationalist or unionist or possibly even a Sinn Féin paper. At the time I simply did not know nor where I could check for such political sympathies so I removed the quote and amended that particular paragraph as necessary. I later discovered that the Nenagh Guardian had remained a solidly unionist paper since its foundation in 1838 until its acquisition by Irish nationalist interests in 1916.
My supervisor’s gentle reprimand came back to me several times during the course of my research for my doctoral thesis, on which this book is based. One of the elements of my research was to refer to as many historical works as possible of the 1914-21 period in Ireland and investigate their utilisation of Irish provincial/regional newspapers as source material. The more I carried out this particular strand of research the more I became just a little irritated. I discovered that many historians were happy to cite provincial newspapers quite regularly but usually made minimal reference to any political sympathies. Admittedly, some historians, such as Patrick Maume and Michael Wheatley, delved considerably deeper into the personalities behind such papers and their political leanings. The majority, however, appeared to dispense with such a consideration. Even a historian as renowned as J.J. Lee, as I mention in the book, appeared a little guilty of such an omission. In his ground-breaking work of twentieth century Irish history, Ireland 1912-1985: politics and society, Lee discusses the reaction of eleven provincial newspapers to the Easter Rising of 1916 but makes scant reference to their political sympathies. Would my former thesis supervisor have pulled up J.J. Lee on such a point I wondered?
On a more serious note, there was, I discovered, only one published text that specifically examined any period in the history of the Irish provincial/regional press. Marie-Louise Legg’s Newspapers and nationalism: the Irish provincial press, 1850-1892 scrutinises this particular sector of the Irish print media from just after the Irish famine of the 1840s until the end of the Parnell era in the early 1890s. Consequently, there was no historical examination or analysis of how Ireland’s provincial papers responded to such seminal events as the outbreak of World War I, the Easter Rising of 1916, the rise of the Sinn Féin party, the Irish War of Independence, and the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. Such a gap existed even though so many historians were happy to cite such publications in their studies of this critical period of modern Irish history. Nonetheless, I did not want my own work to be only a formulaic depiction of how certain papers responded to these and other events. While such an approach might be justified from a historiographical perspective, I believed something more substantial was required. Consequently, I felt there was a necessity to investigate the people behind these newspapers whose coverage of this period I was scrutinising and analysing.
This introduced me to a cast of characters that certainly merited such historical examination. These included the abrasive and confrontational E.T. Keane of the Kilkenny People; the sardonic and litigious Jasper Tully of the Roscommon Herald; the vitriolic and dictatorial tendencies of William Copeland Trimble of the Impartial Reporter of Enniskillen; the Doris brothers who founded the Mayo News and whose support for differing forms of Irish nationalism led to a life-long rift between the two. The sheer longevity of so many provincial newspaper owners and editors was also a revelation. J.P. Hayden became editor-proprietor of the Westmeath Examiner in 1882 and remained in the position for 72 years; Patrick Dunne purchased the Leitrim Observer in the first decade of the twentieth century and served as editor-proprietor until 1968; Joseph Connellan occupied the editorial chair of Newry’s Frontier Sentinel for close on 60 years; W.Y. Crichton was proprietor of the Down Recorder for 63 years while H.L. Glasgow edited the Mid-Ulster Mail, based in Cookstown, County Tyrone, for 58 years.
This sample cast of characters, allied to the risks of censorship and suppression their respective publications had to face made for an absorbing print media environment. The arrest and imprisonment of many owners and editors plus attacks on several newspaper premises only increases the need for an in-depth study of this constituent part of Ireland’s print media. It was my aim that this book should fulfil such a need and also provide a fresh dimension to this otherwise well-documented period of Irish history. Hopefully it may also help to ensure that students citing Irish provincial papers can avoid any well-meaning reprimand from their thesis supervisors.
For more information on The Voice of the Provinces, please visit our website.