History, Irish Studies, Political History

Miserable Conflict and Confusion: The Irish Question and the British National Press, 1916-22

Erin Kate Scheopner introduces her new book ‘Miserable Conflict and Confusion’, offering an in-depth analysis of British national press coverage of the ‘Irish question’ throughout 1916-22.

The political question known as the ‘Irish question’ was one of the greatest unresolved issues in British politics from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth. The events of the 1916–22 period spurred many changes to conceptions and understandings of this question as political leaders in Britain and Ireland worked towards a resolution. But what interest did the Irish question spark beyond political circles? How did the press and public engage with that process of resolution?

My new book, Miserable Conflict and Confusion: The Irish Question and the British National Press, 1916-22 critically analyses how the Irish question was assessed in Britain via a case study of eleven newspapers considered part of the British national press (recognised primarily as papers based in London but reaching circulation across Britain). The book works to bridge the fields of History and Media Studies by treating the British national press as the primary source and focus of evidence and analysis. In five chronological chapters, it traces the evolution of British press coverage of Ireland throughout 1916–22 by exploring how the press came to report on Ireland from the aftermath of the Easter Rising to the ratification of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The intent here is to move beyond previous considerations of British press interest in Ireland to offer broader contextualisation and critical analysis of reporting during a formative period of growth for the national press.

What emerges from this research is an appreciation for the consistency of British national press coverage of Ireland. While there were some changes in editorial conceptions of who was responsible for the Irish question’s resolution in response to British government policy and the events in Ireland, for a majority of the national press, coverage of the Irish question centred on how to effectively satisfy the divergences in Irish political opinion. This coverage unfolded via critical editorial responses, special series, investigative reporting, press leaks, and connections with public opinion, all of which contributed to the British national press helping to shape the course of events that eventually led to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921.

While all varieties of press coverage are useful and offer different insights for scholars, the artistic independence inherent in creating political cartoons is an especially unique opportunity for study. In Britain, cartoons had proven to be popular content for the press and helped to shape perceptions. During the 1860–90 period, an image of Irish ‘savagery’ was cultivated in the minds of the British reading public thanks in part to disparaging cartoons.[1] Thus, when studied in tandem with other press coverage, cartoons from the 1916-22 period provide a useful tool of observation and comment that both solidified and challenged the public and political opinion of the Irish question in Britain.

The cover image for Miserable Conflict is one such example. Appearing in a June 1920 edition of the Daily Express ­– owned by British MP Lord Beaverbrook – ‘The Holiday Season Begins’ cartoon offered the Express reading public with a commentary on the volatile situation in Ireland. The image depicts a nervous-looking and heavily armored person and dog standing in front of a ‘Come to Ireland and See for Yourself ’ poster featuring an individual with simian features holding a club. Next to the person and dog is also a collection of Irish guides written by ‘A Nationalist’, ‘Sinn Fein’, and ‘An Ulsterman’.

Although it is difficult to know the intention or reception of this, or any, cartoon, this work adopted historic depictions and categorisations of Irish violence and savagery in the press that the British reading public was familiar with. Clear in its stark commentary on the political situation in Ireland, this cartoon did not endorse visiting the island. It instead observed the persistent violence that was consistently covered in the press and identified the main subsets of Irish political opinion. In a positive read, this cartoon could be considered as a warning against avoiding addressing the situation in Ireland and missing an opportunity to achieve a settlement. Alternatively, it could also be read as a pessimistic commentary on how peace was not achievable. Either way, the Ireland in this cartoon was no place to holiday; it was a conflicted and dangerous place. What that danger meant for Britain and reflection on the historical context of the Irish question is crucial for understanding the complexities of press and political opinion during the period covered in this book, 1916–22.

By delving into press coverage and scrutinizing the artistic choices made in cartoons we can gauge the ways in which understandings of the term ‘Irish question’ shifted depending on what was happening in Ireland and can acquire insight into the relationship between the press and politics in Britain. This includes tracing the connections of the British national press with artists. This allows the opportunity to uncover some of the individual voices involved in the debate to fill in some of the details missing in a history that is too often separated and polarized. What this research confirms is that those in the British national press were not neutral bystanders in the Irish question debate but were active participants and helped to shape and influence the course of events that led to the signing and ratification of the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

For more information on ‘Miserable Conflict and Confusion’ by Erin Kate Scheopner visit our website.

[1] For more see Michael de Nie, The Eternal Paddy: Irish Identity and the British Press, 1798–1882 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004).


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