This is a work-in-progress blog serial about aspects of the 1888 book Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American, by journalist William Henry Hurlbert. Previous posts and other background material are available at the project landing page. #IUCRevisited
“It was difficult to recognize the [eviction] events yesterday witnessed by us at Glenbehy [Glenbeigh] in the accounts which we read of them to-day when we got the newspapers.”
–William Henry Hurlbert
Few newspaper readers pay as close attention to press coverage as reporters who cover the same topics and events for competing publications. Hurlbert, the veteran New York City journalist, was no exception.
As detailed in my previous post, Hurlbert witnessed the 22 February 1888, eviction of tenant farmer James Griffin in Glenbeigh, County Kerry, which he described as being “as dull as a parish meeting.” The American reporter, whose coverage revealed his own conservative, pro-landlord bias, was wary of Irish nationalist propaganda. “I shall be curious to see whether the story of this affair can possible be worked up into a thrilling narrative,” he wrote.
In the 23 February 1888, entry of Ireland Under Coercion, Hurlbert does not name the newspaper coverage of the Griffin eviction he found “difficult to recognize.” He suggested that because “these accounts are obviously intended to be read, not in Ireland, where nobody seems to take the least interest in Irish affairs beyond their own bailiwick, but in England and America, it is only natural, I suppose, that they should be coloured to suit the taste of the market for which they are destined.”
There is a grain of truth here. News of Irish tenant evictions and the Home Rule struggle certainly attracted the attention of politicians and large immigrant communities across the Atlantic Ocean and the Irish Sea.
But Irish newspaper readership was growing in the 1880s. As noted by Marie-Louise Legg and other historians, Ireland’s literacy rate increased as its population declined since the mid-century Famine. About 31 new papers, a 25 percent increase, began circulating during the period. “An important feature of the 1880s was not just the increase in numbers of provincial newspapers, but the increase in the number of newspapers which claimed to have nationalist politics,” Legg observed.
The Irish press “performed a central and essential role in the spread of the Land League,” Legg wrote. Agrarian activism “flourished on a network of communications dependent on the press, and newspaper proprietors and editors were major Land League politicians.”
James Daly of the Connaught Telegraph helped to organize the League’s first meeting in County Mayo in 1879. In Kerry, brothers Edward and Timothy Harrington, owners of the Kerry Sentinel, were both Irish nationalist MPs. North Meath MP Pierce O’Mahony generated considerable attention about mass evictions at Glenbeigh in 1887 with his newspaper article “The Truth About Glenbeigh” (where at least one reporter was assaulted as the authorities removed tenants.)
Hurlbert probably read the 23 February 1888, issue of The Irish Examiner, published in nearby Cork. Under the headline “An Extraordinary Display of Force,” Griffin was said to have “naturally anticipated a little extra persecution on the part of the landlord,” and the tenant took the eviction “calmly and even cheerfully.” Where Hurlbert concluded that Griffin was “very well off” for not paying rent, the Examiner described his farm as “good land, as land goes in Glenbeigh,” where “the chief crop seems to be rock.”
Published beneath the page 3 news story was a letter from Father Thomas Quilter, the Glenbeigh parish priest who calmed neighboring tenants during the Griffin eviction. Quilter wrote the episode was another example of “the hydra of landlordism.” In a nod to one of Aesop’s Fables, Quilter also wrote the eviction “was a fiasco, the mountain in labor with the tiny product.”
The Freeman’s Journal, a national paper, recalled the 1887 Glenbeigh evictions in its next-day, page 5 story about Griffin. It suggested that his removal was “the first shot in a new [eviction] campaign.”
Two days later, the weekly Kerry Sentinel said the booing, horn-blowing neighbors who watched the eviction from the hillside, which Hurlbert described, “had by their presence shown their sympathy for Mr. Griffin, and that was all that was required of them, and their was no use in their coming into unnecessary collision with the police.”
All three of these pro-tenant papers confirmed that Griffin was an active leader in National League agitation, who in fact owed quite a lot of back rent. They also portrayed the 50 or so police and military on hand to carry out the eviction as brusque and heavy-handed.
On 27 February 1888, The Times of London, hardly sympathetic to tenant activism, noted Griffin’s eviction near the end of a page 7 roundup of Irish news. The story made the point the same Hurlbert did in his book: while Griffin refused to pay rent on the farm he occupied illegally since his first eviction in 1883, the landlord Rowland Winn remained liable for all the property taxes.
Griffin’s eviction does not appear to have been reported in the American press, according to my search of three newspaper databases containing hundreds of titles. Plenty of other cases during this period, including the 1887 Glenbeigh evictions, were covered in detail.
NOTES: From page 215 of Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American. … Pages 119-120, 125, and 135 (reporter assaulted at Glenbeigh) of Newspaper and Nationalism: The Irish Provincial Press, 1850 – 1892, by Marie-Louise Legg, Four Courts Press, 1999. .. Newspapers accessed via Irish Newspaper Archive and Newspapers.com.
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Copyright 2018 by Mark Holan