Select press coverage of summer 1920 Belfast riots

On July 21, 1920, unionist mobs in Belfast, many affiliated with Protestant Orange Order lodges, forced thousands of mostly Catholic, nationalist workers from their jobs, including the Harland and Wolff shipyards. Days of sectarian street fighting followed, leaving more than a dozen dead and hundreds injured. A second round of riots began Aug. 22 in what became a two-year stretch of unrest in the northern manufacturing hub. The events were simultaneously related to, but separate from, the revolution against British rule occurring on the rest of Ireland.

Belfast became a regular dateline in U.S. mainstream newspapers and Irish-American press coverage of the turmoil on the island. Wire services provided mostly straight accounts, such as this from the Associated Press: “Serious rioting broke out in Belfast tonight, during which there was considerable shooting and some incendariarism.”1

Big city dailies also sent their own correspondents, often more opinionated, and syndicated the reporting beyond their own pages. For example, The Gaelic American, a pro-independence weekly in New York City, republished a favorable dispatch from the American correspondent Arno Dosch-Fleurot shortly after his work appeared in The New York World:

The rioting began with the expulsion from Harland and Wolff Shipyards of all the Catholic workmen by the champions of ‘civil and religious liberty,’ and the British Government did nothing whatever to prevent it, or to punish the rioters after their bloody work was done. This is how ‘justice’ is administered in Ireland by the British Government. Practically all the magistrates are Orangemen and they do not even make a pretense of being impartial. The rioters are ‘loyalists’ and therefore protected and encourage; all Catholic workmen are classified as ‘disloyal’ and therefore it is all right to break their heads or to kill them if the Orange mob is in the mood for murder, and the work is done to the cry of ‘To hell with the pope’ and ‘Down with the Papishes.’ Yet these Orange fanatics have nothing to gain by their insane work. They are nearly all members of the same labor unions as the men they attack and when strikes come Protestants and Catholics act together against the same Plutocrats who are the oppressors of both.[“Belfast Orange Riots Fostered By England”, The Gaelic American, July 31, 1920.[/note]

By 1920, photography increasingly supplemented news coverage of events such as the Belfast riots. This is a cropped portion of a New York Times photo page; which contained two additional images of Belfast, and three unrelated photos.

U.S. papers also included reporting from the Irish and British press, and the perceived or actual bias of the cited newspapers could be used to either bolster or dismiss reporting of the events. For example, The Irish Press, a Philadelphia weekly with direct ties to the separatist parliament in Dublin, readily cited coverage from a half dozen English newspapers as proof the “Belfast Riots Were Instigated by British.2 The London Daily Telegraph, Morning Post, Times of London, Daily News, and Manchester Guardian all “admitted … the Belfast riots were organized at a meeting of Unionists and were begun by the Orange workers at the shipyards.”

In particular, the Press and the Washington, D.C.-based News Letter of the Friends of Irish Freedom3 quoted from July 23, 1920, coverage in the Westminster Gazette: “It is common knowledge in Belfast, and has frequently been admitted by individual Unionists, that plans were matured at least two months ago to drive all [nationalist] Home Rule workers in the shipyard out of their employment.”

The weekly Kentucky Irish American, without naming any publications, complained that accounts in many daily paper created “the impression that Sinn Féin is to blame” for the riots, but also noted “significant little paragraphs betray the real cause of the disorders” as Orangemen and the British government. “The Catholics of Belfast are simply defending themselves.”4 Likewise, the Gaelic American cited reporting from the Irish News, a nationalist paper in Belfast, about Catholics being “driven from their homes, the premises were taken possession of by Protestant families.”5

“As the conflict progressed, this meant that reporting of various incidents could be quite unbalanced,” Kieran Glennon, who wrote a centenary overview of the Belfast riots for The Irish Story, said in an email exchange. “Some of this imbalance may simply have reflected a degree of physical danger for reporters from one side’s papers trying to report on things that happened on the other side’s “turf.” As a crude example, if the Special Constabulary shot up a nationalist area, the Irish News would interview residents of the area, while the unionist papers might have to settle for simply carrying statements issued by the [police authorities, rather than going into the neighborhoods].

Photo in the Press and Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton, N.Y.), Aug. 13, 1920.

In Butte, Montana, a heavily Irish mining town 2,300 miles west of New York, the Daily Bulletin published an account from Belfast by the newly established Federated Press, a left-leaning, pro-labor wire service.6 It began:

Workers here are gradually realizing that the riots at shipyards on July 21, when the Protestants drove the Catholics from their jobs, were engendered by the employers for the purpose of keeping labor divided. Seventeen dead must be charged against those who reap the profits at the expense of the plain people.

The story concluded:

The Belfast newspapers, both Catholic and Protestant, have followed their usual tactics of publishing editorials which are counsels of perfection, and in the next column painting their opponents in a manner to further incite the mob.

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See my “American Reporting of Irish Independence” series for more centenary coverage. See Glennon’s book, From Pogrom To Civil War: Tom Glennon and the Belfast IRA.

  1. “Mobs Overrun Belfast Shooting And Burning”, AP in The New York Times, Aug. 27, 1920.
  2. “Belfast Riots Were Instigated by British”, The Irish Press, Aug. 14, 1920.
  3. Aug. 14, 1920.
  4. Defending Themselves“, Kentucky Irish American, Sept. 11, 1920.
  5. Carson’s Lambs Are Biting In Belfast”, The Gaelic American, Aug. 28, 1920.
  6. “Irish Religious Riots Are Agitated By Exploiters”, The Butte (Montana) Daily Bulletin, Aug. 25, 1920.