Tag Archives: Michael Wolff

Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited: Unnamed sources

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

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“When he wants to throw out some offensive innuendo on the Irish Party, or the Irish people, or the Irish Priests–anything Irish so it be on the National side–he nearly always introduces some unnamed and, as I believe, unnameable individual to to the work for him.”
–Father Patrick White commenting on William Henry Hurlbert

In a fortuitous coincidence, my launch of this project coincided with the January 2018 release of Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.

Micheal Wolff

Wolff’s book about the American presidential administration and Hurlbert’s 1888 publication about Irish political agitation share one significant characteristic: frequent use of unnamed sources.

As we’ve discovered in this blog serial, Hurlbert was very transparent about his sympathies for Irish landlords and the unionists supporters of London’s ruling conservative Tory government. He openly disdained Irish nationalists and the island’s urban and rural poor.

In his attacks on the latter, Hurlbert often relies on unnamed sources to make his point, as Father Patrick White noted in his rebuttal pamphlet to the American’s book, Hurlbert unmasked : an exposure of the thumping English lies of William Henry Hurlbert in his ‘Ireland Under Coercion.’ [The text doesn’t show a year published. It appears to have been released in 1890 or 1891.]

Father White was Catholic parish priest in Miltown Malbay, about 20 miles west of Ennis, County Clare. In his book, Hurlbert accused the priest of organizing boycott activities, which Father White strongly rebutted in his pamphlet. I’ll return to this matter in a future post.

In a section of Hurlbert unmasked headlined “Mr. Hurlbert’s Anonymous Informants,”  Father White savaged the American author’s use of unnamed sources, which included a …

  • Catholic from the south of Ireland
  • sarcastic Nationalist acquaintance of mine
  • jarvey with a knowing look
  • shrewd Galway man
  • resident of the county who gave me his views on the Plan of Campaign
  • magistrate familiar with Gweedore

“I will not here mince words,” Father White wrote. “Such tactics as these are cowardly and contemptible … [Hurlbert] finds vent by this devise for a stream of contempt and scorn poured out on the Irish representatives, which must have been pleasant reading, indeed, for all Unionists.”

William Henry Hurlbert

Or, as the New York Sun noted in its 1891 review of Hurlbert umasked, “the third person singular indefinite is a difficult witness to rebut.”

Father White heaps more scorn on Hurlbert for cloaking some of the people he encountered late in his travels with a series of  “* * * *” in place of their name or identifying characteristics. The priest calls the device “a sensational novelty” and “a fit crowning to the work.”

In a footnote, Hurlbert explained:

After this chapter had actually gone to press, I received a letter from the friend who had put me into communication … [with these people] begging me to strike out all direct indications of their whereabouts, on the ground that these might lead to grave annoyance and trouble for these poor men from the local tyrants. … What can be said for the freedom of a country in which a man of character and position [his “friend”] honestly believes it to be ‘dangerous’ for poor men to say things recorded in the text of this chapter about their own feelings, wishes, opinions, and interests?

The explanation bolsters Hurlbert’s contention that the worst coercion in Ireland came from shadowy and violent agrarian activists, not the police and government officials who enforced the laws of London. Ireland Under Coercion does identify people in this latter group, which is why the book remains relevant for historical study.

Which brings us back to 2018, and the furor that Fire and Fury has created over reporting with unnamed sources, whether in daily online journalism or modern book publishing. I give the last word to my wife, Angie Drobnic Holan, editor of PolitiFact, from her 9 January review of Wolff’s book:

The lack of sourcing is a problem because it means evidence is given a back seat to narrative oomph. It encourages people to suspend their critical thinking skills and follow their emotions into a pleasing narrative. That narrative might be true or it might not be, and it’s almost impossible to independently evaluate.

NOTES: Bulleted “sources” from pages 54, 71, 88, 125, 152 and 179, respectively; footnote from page 361, of Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American. … Father White’s comments on pages 24, 25 and 28 of Hurlbert unmasked : an exposure of the thumping English lies of William Henry Hurlbert in his ‘Ireland Under Coercion.’ Special thanks to Hesburgh Libraries at the University of Notre Dame. … New York Sun, 31 January 1891, page 7.

NEXT: Kilkenny visits

Copyright 2018 by Mark Holan