Top portion of the one-page Freeman’s Journal handbill of March 30, 1922. More text below.
Shortly past midnight March 30, 1922, dozens of Irish republicans opposed to the Anglo-Irish Treaty burst into the Freeman’s Journal newspaper offices in Dublin. They threatened the staff at gunpoint, smashed the presses with sledgehammers, and set fire to the building. Their attack was driven by the Freeman’s “accurate, but uncomplimentary information” about the inner workings of the republican movement, including a supposedly secret convention a few days earlier.
Producing the usual broadsheet later that day became impossible. But the Freeman’s staff published a one-page handbill, which was pasted to poles and walls across the city. It declared:
The Freeman’s Journal does not appear in its usual form this morning. BUT IT APPEARS. … And it will continue to say what it chooses. It will expose tyranny in whatever garb it shows itself. Whether the khaki of the British or the homespun on the mutineers (anti-treaty Irish republicans). … The paper that has fought for Irish liberty so long will not be silenced.
The Freeman’s support of the treaty, ratified in January, was generally regarded as “unduly partisan,” notes Dublin historian Felix M. Larkin, who has written extensively about the newspaper. “It included intemperate editorials, the suppression of anti-treaty manifestos and speeches, and a notably malevolent treatment of Erskine Childers,” an ally of republican leader Éamon de Valera. Childers would be executed by Irish Free State authorities later in 1922.
Simultaneously, “de Valera’s tone became if anything more bellicose,” with numerous “inflammatory utterances,” during the interregnum between the treaty vote and republican occupation of the Four Courts in April 1922, biographer David McCullagh has written. A few weeks before the attack on the Freeman’s Journal, de Valera told republican supporters at Killarney they would have “to march over the dead bodies of their own brothers” and “wade through Irish blood.”
The Freeman’s Journal was suppressed by the British military during the 1919-1921 war, and its editor and proprietors were imprisoned. It was among many Irish papers stopped from publishing–usually only for a few days–under the Defense of the Realm Act, which Irish republicans skillfully exploited in their domestic and international propaganda against British rule.
“Being a newspaper editor in Ireland is a ticklish job,” the New York Globe’s Harry F. Guest told American readers in his early 1920 reporting from the country. “If you publish something which offends Dublin Castle, the police or military raids your offices and carry away vital parts of the presses. If you criticize Sinn Féin too severely, your office is likely to be stormed and the presses smashed.”
The Freeman’s Journal produced another one-page handbill on March 31, then published a seven-page booklet on Gestetner machines from April 1-21. Republicans terrorized newsagents in counties Sligo and Mayo into refusing to sell the paper. They also intercepted mail trains and burned copies of the newspaper destined for other parts of the country.
U.S. press reactions
From front page of the New York Times, March 30, 1922.
Like most events in revolutionary Ireland, the attack on the Freeman’s Journal received considerable attention in the American press. U.S. big city dailies featured same-day news coverage, often starting from the front page, including the example at right in The New York Times.
Several papers also weighed in on their editorial pages, such as the Joseph Pulitzer-established Evening World in New York City:
Some American advocates of freedom for Ireland may not be convinced that the Free State Government under Collins and Griffith is the best possible. But after the disgraceful wrecking of the plant of the Freeman’s Journal in Dublin, can anyone doubt that the Irish Republican Army movement is wrong, dead wrong, unqualifiedly and absolutely wrong? … Raiding and smashing the Freeman’s Journal is a confession of moral bankruptcy by the de Valera forces. It is a confession that their case can not stand the light of day. It is a denial of the cause of freedom to which a free press is essential.
And this wasn’t the Evening World’s last word on the matter. After a letter to the editor writer suggested the Freeman’s “was always a British paper,” the New York daily snapped back in a second editorial that such a view “shows how a minority of the Irish have become so poisoned by hate that they no longer reason … they are not moved by desire for freedom for Ireland. Hate of England is the motive in their conduct. They are insane, driven mad by a mania.”
Irish American press reactions to the attack on the Freeman’s reflected the division in Ireland.
The anti-treaty Irish Press of Philadelphia published a front page news story and inside editorial about the attack. Like the Evening World’s letter writer, the opinion piece described the Freeman’s Dublin offices as “the nursery ground of the shoneen (an Irish person who imitates or aspires to the English upper class) and the place hunter.” The vandalism, the editorial said, “for a time at least removes one of the bulwarks of British rule in Ireland.”
The pro-treaty Gaelic American of New York used the Freeman’s misfortunes for another round of recriminations in the feud between its publisher, longtime Irish nationalist John Devoy, and de Valera, whom it described as “would-be dictator” and “Infallible Political Pope, whose every utterance (not simply those issued ex-Cathedra) must be above criticism.” The piece re-litigated a series of grievances against de Valera from his June 1919-December 1920 tour of America, including a break in at the Gaelic American’s offices.
Publishing again … briefly
The regular Freeman’s reappeared on April 22. The front page featured an advertisement for newspaper composing machines such as those “the sledgers” had smashed three weeks earlier. “This Journal is now Equipped with A Battery of 10 Intertypes,” it declared. Among the stories about how the paper had recovered from the attack was a roundup headlined, “What Americans Think.” It included the editorial from the Evening World as well as the Chicago Tribune.
“With hindsight, many anti-treatyites came to recognize that it had been a bad mistake to attempt to suppress the Freeman,” Larkin has written. “The effect of that and other similar occurrences was to associate the anti-treaty side with military dictatorship and censorship – to give the impression that, as the prominent republican Todd Andrews later wrote, people ‘were liable to be pushed around at the whim of young IRA commanders’.”
Alas, The Freeman’s Journal folded on Dec. 19, 1924, due to internal business troubles, ending a 161-year run. The assets and title were eventually bought by the Irish Independent. The pro-de Valera Irish Press of Philadelphia folded on May 6, 1922, after 50 months of weekly publication. De Valera started his own Dublin daily of the same title in 1931. The Gaelic American survived Devoy’s death in 1929. The New York weekly ceased publication in 1951.
See more stories in my American Reporting of Irish Independence series.