Q & A with Felix Larkin, Irish newspaper historian

Historian Felix M. Larkin specializes in the study of Irish newspapers, including editorial cartoons. He is an expert on the Freeman’s Journal, the prominent Dublin newspaper published from 1763 to 1924. His work is widely published in books and journals. See Larkin’s website for more details of his biography and bibliography.

In 2008, Larkin helped found the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland (NPHFI), a “very cumbersome name – which, however, does have the merit of accurately describing what the focus of our activities is,” he said in a 2013 address. The organization’s mission, as stated on its homepage, is to facilitate contact between researchers and writers in the field of newspaper, periodical, journalism and printing history, and strengthen the links between teaching and research institutions, libraries, and other organizations concerned with media history.

I met Larkin earlier this month at NPHFI’s 2018 conference at the National University of Ireland/Galway. In the Q & A below, conducted via email shortly afterward, Larkin discusses the importance of studying history through newspapers; weighs the advantages and pitfalls of such research in the digital age; and cautions about “State-sponsored jamborees relating to supposedly iconic anniversaries,” such as the Irish War of Independence and Civil War over the next five years. MH

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You helped found the NPHFI in 2008. What are your surprises, insights, delights, or disappointments about its first decade? What would you like see happen with the Forum by 2028?

LARKIN: I have been genuinely surprised by the success of the NPHFI, as newspaper history is really a niche subject. We have had 11 successful annual conferences, and have inspired six essay collections and at least two more that are in preparation. In addition, we have put together and maintain the immensely useful on-line Irish Bibliography of Press History, which is a great resource for scholars.

The insight that I have gained from my experience with the NPHFI is the extent to which journalism history benefits from an inter-disciplinary approach – and I say this as someone who is trained as a historian and deeply respects the rigorous methodology of history. The delights are, of course, the very interesting people I have met through the NPHFI and the friendships that I have made.

My only real disappointment is that, notwithstanding the NPHFI’s 10 years of effort, mainstream history does not yet acknowledge the importance of newspapers in the social and political life of the last two centuries. Thus, for example, the new Cambridge History of Ireland doesn’t have a chapter, or even a dedicated subsection within a chapter, on newspapers. (Editor’s note: See Larkin’s 7 June 2018 piece in The Irish Catholic.)

As regards 2028, my main hope is that I will still be around to enjoy the proceedings of the NPHFI conferences! My hope more generally for the future of the NPHFI is that it will remain faithful to its focus on the print media – newspapers and periodicals – as distinct from broadcasting and the electronic media which receive quite enough attention in other forums. Ironically, as newspapers decline in popularity and influence, it is all the more necessary to have a place specifically dedicated to the study of their history – lest they fall off our radar completely.

Digital newspaper archives are more common today than in 2008, allowing more people to access the content. What tips or cautions would you offer about historical research of newspapers/periodicals? Any specific advice for those exploring Irish papers, especially regarding the run of War of Independence and Civil War centenaries over the next five years?

LARKIN: I have always believed that one of the reasons why so few people have worked on newspaper history is the sheer quantity of material to be waded through – whether you are using the print editions, microfilm or a digital archive. Obviously, being able to search a digital newspaper archive makes the task easier, but there is a danger that it makes researchers lazy in two respects: first, they may be inclined to disregard newspapers and periodicals that have not yet been digitized and so fail to take account of important strands of opinion; and secondly, they may be content simply to find what it is that they are looking for and so miss other items – shall we call them the “unknown unknowns” (quoting Donald Rumsfeld) – that may be equally or more important.

Using a digital archive also means that you miss out on a sense of what the paper looked like – its size and general appearance – and this is important for context, especially for specialist newspaper historians.

As regards newspapers in the period of the War of Independence and the Civil War, during such periods of great conflict there is a tendency for newspapers to become more partisan than in normal times – and there is a greater risk of censorship and intimidation – and so historians using newspapers as a source need to be even more conscious of bias in newspaper coverage than they would ordinarily be.

Are there any periods of history, or types of stories, or kinds of research, that you think are under-explored in the realm of Irish newspapers and periodicals?

LARKIN: Oh yes! There is relatively little work done on Irish newspapers before the 1840s. I accept that newspapers don’t reach the zenith of their power and influence until the second half of the 19th century, but there is a rich earlier history of the press to be explored – and we have not done that. For instance, only one early-period paper was offered in response to the Call for Papers for the most recent NPHFI annual conference – and we were very glad to have it.

A century from now, will there be a Digital Content History Forum of Ireland? Your thoughts about the shrinking contemporary newspaper industry, and whether today’s digital content will even be available for future research, given the rapid evolution of technology?

LARKIN: Well, I am a historian – not a fortune-teller. I find it difficult enough to deal with the past without worrying about the future. So I would be very reluctant to speculate about the future of newspapers as a print medium – or about what aspects of the media, print or otherwise, will interest historians in future years.

What does concern me, however, is the declining quality of journalism in the print media – e.g. the jettisoning of sub-editing and other “checking” functions in the interests of cutting expenditure – which means that newspapers are an increasingly less reliable source for future historians, as well as for their current readers. We seem to have come a long way from the Woodward & Bernstein standard of “the best obtainable version of the truth”.

As regards access to digital sources, I am old enough to remember accessing music on vinyl, then tape cassette, then CD and now via my computer – such rapid change, and nothing was compatible with the previous iteration of the technology. The same thing will inevitably happen with today’s digital portals. We can only hope that libraries will retain – and maintain in working order – obsolete equipment so that data can be recovered as technology progresses and made available in whatever new forms emerge. But I am not optimistic on that score.

Other thoughts or comments about NFPHI … or the upcoming centenary period?

LARKIN: There have been four chairpersons of the NPHFI to date, and each of us was a founding member. The term of office of our current chair, Regina Uí Chollatáin, ends next year – and we will have to find her successor from the ranks of those who have come on board in the years since our foundation. The baton is being passed to the next generation, and this will bring its challenges – but it is also healthy, an opportunity for renewal. We have a great crop of younger scholars who work with the NPHFI and I am satisfied that the NPHFI will be in good hands for many years to come.

On the upcoming centenary period, suffice it to say that I am not much in favor of commemorating or celebrating historical events. It is more important to try to understand the past in all its complexity. That’s the responsibility of the historian, and historians should be very uneasy when faced with State-sponsored jamborees relating to supposedly iconic anniversaries. Such jamborees rarely add anything to the sum of human knowledge.

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