This post is part of my American Reporting of Irish Independence series. I am developing this content and new research into a book. MH
American journalist Hayden Talbot returned to Ireland a decade after he published a newspaper serial and instant biography of Michael Collins. Talbot had conducted several interviews with the Irish leader shortly before he was killed in an August 1922 ambush. In a 1932 magazine piece, the journalist recalled working in Ireland on the eve of civil war:
The Dublin of 1922 was not a salubrious place for alien journalists. The fact that there were 112 of us ‘covering’ the first meeting of the Dail helped, however. Only one pressman, in fact, suffered. He was kidnapped and held prisoner for several days. But we were all suspect. Dublin was substantially an armed camp. You were either for ‘Mick’ Collins or for de Valera. The fact that we alien reporters—for the most part—didn’t know a thing about either man (and cared less) was incomprehensible to the man in the street in Dublin.Hayden Talbot, “Dublin Isn’t Troublin”, Answers ; London Vol. 88, Iss. 25, (May 7, 1932): 12
There are several aspects of Talbot’s comments, and others in the piece, that are ripe for exploration. For this post, I want to focus on the kidnapped pressman. His name was A. B. Kay, a correspondent for the Times of London. His Jan. 5, 1922, abduction came as Dáil Éireann reacted to criticism from the Dublin-based Freeman’s Journal, which grew into a larger debate about press freedom in Ireland. Days later the Dáil narrowly approved the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which prompted the resignation of President Éamon de Valera.
Because of those subsequent events, Kay’s kidnapping and quick release were soon forgotten. But it was front-page news for a day in large U.S. dailies such as the New York Times and Chicago Tribune, which published reports from their representatives among the 112 Dublin correspondents. Smaller papers across the country relied on an Associated Press dispatch, which reported Kay was getting a bite to eat with other newsmen in a Dublin grocery when he was abducted at gunpoint. He had recently reported that some members of the republican army were turning in favor of ratifying the treaty. This led to threats of being “put in a vault with corpses and a candle.””London Times Man Kidnapped By Sinn Fein”, Medford (Oregon) Mail Tribune, Jan. 5, 1922, and other papers.
Dozens of the foreign correspondents in Dublin met to formulate a protest against the kidnapping, including a boycott of further coverage of the Dáil’s treaty debates. “The American and Irish correspondents joined the English newspaper men in signing the protest,” AP reported.Ibid. Given the magnitude of the treaty vote and de Valera’s resignation, the proposed boycott never would have withstood the pressure to report.
And the kidnapping became secondary as anti-treaty members of the Dáil vented about unfavorable coverage in the Freeman’s Journal. In an editorial headlined “Vanity of Vanities,” the paper blasted de Valera for his “criminal attempt to divide the nation in the crisis of its fate,” among other criticisms.”Vanity of Vanities”, Freeman’s Journal, Jan. 5, 1922. Mary MacSwiney wanted the Freeman’s reporter barred from the chamber. Sean Milroy argued against evictions of the press–or even representatives of Dublin Castle: “I think we are not afraid to hear the worst or the best that they can say.”
- The full debate can be read from where the assembly resumes at 8.35 p.m.
Only a few days earlier, the anti-treatyites had launched the first issue of Poblacht na h-Éireann (The Republic of Ireland) newspaper in response to the overwhelmingly pro-treaty views of Ireland’s urban and provincial press, not just the Freeman’s Journal. In March, so-called “irregular” republican forces threatened the Freeman’s staff at gunpoint, smashed the presses with sledgehammers, and set fire to the building.
As University College Cork’s Donal Ó Drisceoil has noted:
This reflected poorly on the democratic claims and general reputation of republicans at a time when they were engaged in what was partly a struggle to win over public opinion, including that of the diaspora, especially Irish-America, and was also largely counter-productive. It allowed their opponents to draw parallels with British attacks on and suppressions of Irish newspapers in the recent past; to characterize anti-Treatyites as lawless, thuggish and potentially dictatorial; and to cast themselves as a democratic bulwark against ‘anarchy’, representative of a majority and champions of the liberty of the press (which, conveniently, happened to be overwhelmingly pro-Treaty).Press, Propaganda and the Treaty split“, RTÉ’s Atlas of the Irish Revolution, June 15, 2022.
|↑1||Hayden Talbot, “Dublin Isn’t Troublin”, Answers ; London Vol. 88, Iss. 25, (May 7, 1932): 12|
|↑2||”London Times Man Kidnapped By Sinn Fein”, Medford (Oregon) Mail Tribune, Jan. 5, 1922, and other papers.|
|↑4||”Vanity of Vanities”, Freeman’s Journal, Jan. 5, 1922.|
|↑5||Press, Propaganda and the Treaty split“, RTÉ’s Atlas of the Irish Revolution, June 15, 2022.|
|↑6||”Writer Describes Irish Kidnapping”, The Washington Herald (Washington, D.C.), Jan. 7, 1922.|
|↑7||Ó Drisceoil, “Press, propaganda…”|