Tag Archives: Freeman’s Journal

Feakle ambush & reprisals: Multiple views of an event

At midmorning Oct. 7, 1920, nearly two dozen Irish Republic Army gunmen hidden in houses fired on six Royal Irish Constabulary officers outside the Feakle, Co. Clare, post office. Two policemen were killed in the ambush; another badly wounded as he escaped with the other three officers after they exchanged fire with the snipers. 

What happened next was typical of the tit-for-tat of Ireland’s revolutionary period, as described by three people involved in the events:

  • “Everybody anticipated reprisals,” a local priest wrote a week later to an Irish newspaper. He described being “thrashed” by soldiers who also set fires “to illuminate the night’s proceedings.”1  
  • “The police and military come down the street banging and shooting and throwing hand grenades in all directions,” an American visitor to Feakle testified two months later at a Washington, D.C. hearing.2
  • “I asked for reinforcements … and wanted to teach the enemy a lesson that this form of activity could be costly,” the IRA leader who instigated the ambush recalled more than three decades later for an oral history project.3

The three witness perspectives, combined with the findings of a military inquiry, press reports, and related documents provide a multidimensional snapshot of the Feakle ambush and reprisals. These sources also illustrate the dangers of reconstructing such emblematic events. In a History Ireland piece about the Bureau of Military History (BMH) witness statements of the Irish revolutionary period, Fearghal McGarry warned: 

Such a source inevitably raises a host of problematic issues, both ideological and practical: these include the subjectivity of oral history, the role of the state in the creation of a project intended to record and shape historical memory, the selective nature of the testimony collected, the reliability of the witnesses’ memories, the influence of subsequent events and knowledge, and the potential for bias …Like any historical source …  they must be evaluated carefully. They record not the events of the revolution but the witnesses’ imperfect recollections of them  … Dates, numbers and other details are often inaccurate, and some claims seem less plausible than others. 

However imperfect the individual recollections, they collectively help to form a vivid mosaic of the Feakle ambush and reprisals. This event, in turn, is another piece of the larger mosaic of the Irish War of Independence.

Prelude 

Feakle, middle right, on modern map.

Feakle village and the same-named townland and Catholic parish is located 50 miles north of Limerick city and 20 miles east of Ennis in the northeast corner of Clare. The upland topography includes the southern declivities of the Slieve Baughta mountains. People there still talk about herbalist and healer “Biddy” Early, an independent woman accused of witchcraft in the mid-19th century.   

In 1917, the young Éamon de Valera, a participant in the year-earlier Easter Rising, challenged an older establishment candidate in an historic by-election for the East Clare constituency. Feakle parish priest Father Michael Hays declared de Valera’s Sinn Féin “a party of socialism and anarchy and bloodshed which struck at the roots of society.”4 The London government at Dublin Castle reported “disaffection lurked under the surface ready to break out on very small provocation” and “turmoil increased with the approach of election day, intimidation was freely practiced, and there was growing disregard for all law and order.”5 The maverick de Valera won by more than 2 to 1 margin, and two years later declared president of Sinn Féin’s breakaway Irish republic. 

Thomas “Tomo” Tuohy, IRA captain:

Tuohy was born Nov. 23, 1898, in Laccaroe townland, neighboring Feakle, the eldest of 10 children. He joined the nationalist Irish Volunteers in 1915 and rose to leadership by October 1920, according to his 1954 BMH statement.

Volunteers in Clare attacked the Feakle RIC barracks in June 1920, and three months later attempted to capture the Scarriff RIC Barracks, about six miles to the east. Such efforts were part of the IRA’s national strategy to drive the authorities from the countryside to boost its own operational base. Shortly after the Scarriff attack, Volunteers seized mail from the postman making a delivery to the Feakle RIC barracks. Postal and railroad hold ups also were typical IRA tactics at the time. To counter this, Feakle RIC began collecting their mail at the post office. 

“I decided to attack this party and gave instructions to the Volunteers living in the Feakle village to keep the patrol under close observation, particularly as to the time on which it left the barracks and the formation in which it moved,” Tuohy said.

On the morning of Oct. 7, as six RIC officers spaced apart in three pairs began the three quarter mile walk from their barracks to the post office, a scout notified Tuohy. He quickly positioned 20 Volunteers and told them to wait for his warning shot. One man, “contrary to orders,” fired directly at a constable who had given him “a bad beating” the previous evening, Tuohy said. The other five officers scrambled for cover as the remaining Volunteers opened fire.

Military inquiry:

Constable William Stanley and Sgt. Francis Doherty were killed in the ambush. Both men were 46; each with more than 20 years of RIC service. Doherty was a bachelor from Mohill, Co. Leitrim; Stanley a Co. Cork native with a wife and four children.6

Doherty and Stanly shown in register of cases for courts of inquiry in lieu of inquest, Easter Rising & Ireland Under Martial Law 1916-1921. The National Archives, Kew, WO 35/162.

A military inquiry at Dublin Castle issued this statement:7

The police party were walking in couples 10 yards apart towards the P.O. when fire was opened on them from the upper windows of the P.O., from the adjoining house, and from a farmyard on the opposite side of the road, thus placing them in the centre of a triangle of fire. … The Court found the two men were willfully murdered by rifles, revolvers and shotguns fired at close range by persons unknown, that a large number of men took part in the shooting, which was premeditated, and that deceased were robbed after death. … The third constable named Murphy was wounded by an expanding bullet. … The police had a dog with them, and when the sergeant [Doherty] fell it ran to him and stood by him on the road. In the next volley the dog fell wounded, three of his legs being broken.

Seán Moroney, Irish Volunteer:

Moroney was 23 at the time of the Feakle attack, a year older than Tuohy. Moroney’s 1956 BMH statement8 provides several examples of McGarry’s warning about such records:

  • Moroney said the RIC officers “travelled in pairs, with about 200 yards between each pair.” This is a big difference from the 10 yards of separation mentioned in the military inquiry. He probably said 20 yards, but the transcript typist added an extra “0” keystroke.
  • One of the Volunteers “accidentally discharged a shot” at the police, Moroney said, rather than taking revenge on the constable for an earlier beating, as suggested in Tuohy’s statement. Both could be true. Either way: “This, of course, alerted the patrol and spoiled our plan,” Moroney said.
  • Moroney said the IRA captured two carbines and about 150 rounds of ammunition. Tuohy claimed they collected 4 carbines, one .45 revolver, 300 rounds .303, and 24 rounds .45 ammunition, and 1 Mills bomb [a World War I era British hand grenade].
  • Tuohy is not mentioned in Moroney’s statement. Moroney is not among the 19 attackers listed by Tuohy. 

Freeman’s Journal headline over Oct. 15, 1920, story that introduced priest’s letter.

Rev. Patrick O’Reilly, Feakle priest:

“On Thursday last, October 7th, there occurred here the tragic event in which two policemen lost their lives,” the priest began his letter to the Freeman’s Journal, published eight days later.

“I was immediately called by a courageous girl to administer the last Sacraments to them. I went at once and did so. This was about 10:30 a.m. Irish time. The doctor arrived shortly after, but could then do nothing.”

Thomas Tuohy:

He said the IRA sustained no deaths or injuries. The rebel’s search for weapons and other victims of the ambush lasted about 20 minutes “when Fr. O’Reilly, C.C., Feakle, came on the scene to administer the last rites of the church to the police. He shouted to us from the road ‘The horsemen will be on top of you in a few minutes as a messenger had gone for them before I left the village.’ ” 

Patrick J. “PJ” Guilfoil, American tourist:

Guilfoil was born in Scarriff on May 29, 1880, emigrated to America in 1900, and naturalized as a U.S. citizen at Detroit in 1906. He married a Clare woman and they had two sons. Guilfoil was working as a Pittsburgh innkeeper in March 1920 when he applied for his family’s U.S. passports.9 They sailed to Ireland two months later to visit his wife’s sister in Feakle, where they remained through October.10 

Patrick J. Guilfoil, left, and his family in 1920 passport photos.

In Dec. 10, 1920, testimony to the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland, Guilfoil said that on the morning of Oct. 7 he learned that two policemen had been shot outside the post office a quarter mile away from where he was staying. He said that he already intended to walk to the post office to wire the Thomas Cook & Sons travel firm in Dublin about his family’s return to Pittsburgh. “Being an American citizen and having my passport there, and being of good courage, I went out there after this happened,” he said.

He found the two slain policemen attended by “a young priest, Father O’Reilly,” the town physician having already left the scene.  “I asked the priest if he did not run great danger of reprisals for remaining there. But he said, what could he do? He could not leave two dead bodies by the road, because there were pigs and dogs around there, and what could he do? I told him that if he felt that way about it, I would remain with him, which I did.”

He said the military arrived about 2 p.m. “They got the priest to provide a horse and cart to carry the remains into town.”

Father O’Reilly:

“From 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. I remained alone practically all the time to take care of the remains and I could find no means of having them removed. At 2:30 the military arrived and I was peremptorily ordered to commandeer a horse and cart to remove the bodies. I did so and returned no more. I had had quite enough.”

PJ Guilfoil:

He testified that once he returned to his sister-in-law’s cottage in the village, a military officer asked to see his American passport and recorded his name and number. “And he said he was going to put me on the black list.”

Guilfoil said that at 6:30 p.m. a District Inspector and six soldiers arrived at Father O’Reilly’s house and dragged the priest outside–three at the head, three at the feet. They accused him of murdering the two policemen. “I stood directly across the street taking it all in,” Guilfoil said.

One of the officers commanded, “ ‘Let him have it.’ ” and a soldier delivered “three horrible blows across the hips” of the priest with the butt of his rifle, an attempt to coerce a confession, Guilfoil testified. An officer told the priest to get up and get back into his house, but as the cleric complied with the order, the officer kicked him and “called him some terrible names.” 

Father O’Reilly:

“An officer, a district inspector, and eight or ten soldiers knocked at 5:30 p.m. I opened the door and was ordered out. I was told I was to be ‘thrashed soundly,’ and there and then the soldiers caught hold of me by the hands and feet, knocked me down, and dragged me to the wall in front of the house, and proceeded to thrash me with a stock of a rifle. The officer struck me very violently with a stick when I protested. The District Inspector then interceded, be it said to his credit, and thereby saved me from further ill-treatment.

“I was ordered in, while being told I would be shot. I closed the door and thanked God I had come off so well.”

PJ Guilfoil:

“I went across the street and knocked at the door of the priest’s house, and he let me into the house, and I said, ‘My God, are you able to stand up?’

“And he said, ‘I got some awful wallops and am suffering some great pain, but what am I going to do?’

“And I said, ‘I don’t suppose your feet can carry you very far, but as far as they can carry you, I would advise you to get out of the town. There are going to be reprisals tonight.’

“He said, ‘Well, if there are reprisals, there will be people dying and they will need a priest.’” 

Father O’Reilly:

“The kind neighbors rushed in at the back to see if I was hurt. They were terrified and expected my death at each moment. They besought me most earnestly to leave the house for the night. I refused to leave until I would see things out, and I consoled them to the best of my ability. They left.”

PJ Guilfoil:

Guilfoil said he met Dr. O’Hallaron, the village physician, on the street as he returned from treating the wounded officer at the RIC barracks. “The conditions up there are terrible. They are all wild drunk,” the doctor said.

Reprisals on the village, which Guilfoil estimated at about 300 people, began soon after. He testified that he moved his family to an upstairs room and told them to lie on the floor next to the walls. “I do not need to tell you how nervous those children were,” he said. “They were shaking so that I got to shaking myself.”

The police and military set fire to the thatched roof of the Considine house, about 50 yards away, he continued. Then they torched the cottage where the Guilfoils were staying, which was partitioned and also occupied by members of the O’Brien family. 

“We have no time to fool around here,” Guilfoil said he yelled to his wife and sons as the flames surrounded the windows. “Take what you have and get out of here. I prefer to be shot than to be burned to death.”

Thomas Tuohy:

The IRA summoned “over 40 men” to defend Feakle and “teach the enemy a lesson,” Tuohy said. As the group got within a quarter mile of the village at about about 8 p.m., “flames were seen rising from three houses – Considines, O’Brien’s and Fr. O’Reilly’s. Realising that we had been forestalled it was agreed right away to send back the reinforcements.”

The rebels abandoned the village and withdrew to the hills for the next three days.

Father O’Reilly:

“I lay in the centre of the kitchen floor, and I anticipated death at any moment. I made many an Act of Contrition, said the Rosary a few times … A bomb came through the parlour window, exploded with a deafening sound, and drove broken glass in all directions.It sprinkled the oil from the table lamp all over the room, and it is a miracle no fire resulted.”

The priest said he escaped about 3:30 a.m. to a house in the country, where he found other refugees from the town. He remained there the next evening, which was fortunate “as the [village] house was again bombed and densely riddled with bullets. The door was driven in and all my belongings piled on the village street and burned.”

PJ Guilfoil:

Some neighbors helped put out the fire at the O’Brien house as the police and military withdrew to their barracks, Guilfoil testified.

“At six o’clock in the morning I got hold of a car to convey my baggage and the children out of town, and about ten o’clock I left myself” to “a place in the country” where his wife’s family lived.

The police and troops returned in the daylight. They asked the woman who rented the house to Father O’Reilly whether any of the furniture inside belonged to her. When she said no, they pulled it into the street and set it on fire.

“And they said they were only sorry that they did not have that bloody bastard, as they called the priest, to put him on top of it,” Guilfoil testified.

A local history book published 70 years later claims the police dressed an effigy in the priest’s clothes and tied it to a chair, which was burned with the other furniture. The officers danced and sang, “The rebel padre is roasting.”11  

Press Reports:

Irish and British newspapers coverage of Feakle tended to emphasize the slain officers or the reprisals, depending on when the reports were published and the target readership. The military inquiry statement was published in papers on both sides of the Irish Sea.

Several Irish dailies carried a Press Association, Dublin, account, which corrected an Ennis correspondent’s early reporting that the Feakle RIC barracks had been attacked.12 The reprisals got more attention after the Freeman’s Journal published Father O’Reilly’s letter eight days later.

In London, The Times, an establishment paper, attributed its next day story to Dublin Castle, with nothing said about reprisals.13 A week later, The Guardian’s Dublin correspondent noted the burning of houses at the “little out-of-the-way village” of Feakle in a roundup of other reprisals in Ireland.14

The Weekly Summary, an RIC newspaper launched two months earlier to bolster force morale, published an editorial that said:

Reprisals are wrong. They are bad for the discipline of the force. They are bad for Ireland, especially if the wholly innocent suffer. Reprisals are wrong but reprisals do not happen only by accident. They are the result of the brutal, cowardly murder of police officers by assassins, who take shelter behind the screen of terrorism and intimidation they have created. Police murder produces reprisals. Stop murdering policemen.15 

This Associated Press dispatch appeared in an Oct. 24, 1920 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The Oct. 23 dateline says the officers were killed “yesterday.”

The first Associated Press report published in American newspapers said Stanley was killed and Doherty only wounded. An updated version saying both officers were killed “yesterday” continued to be published through late October.16

In November, the pro-Irish Gaelic American, a New York weekly, over two issues republished the Limerick Echo’s report about Father O’Reilly’s letter to the Freeman’s Journal.17 The News Letter of the Friends of Irish Freedom, Washington, D.C., included Father O’Reilly in a roundup of attacks on other priests and looting of Catholic churches. “The latest phase of the ruthless campaign against the Irish nation seems to have taken the form of ‘reprisals’ for the crime of being Irish and Catholic,” the weekly newsletter said.18

A constable’s life, 1920:

An RIC Division before the force was disbanded in 1922. Note the dog at front right. Image from Royal Irish Constabulary.com.

A day before the Feakle ambush, the Royal Irish Constabulary Office at Dublin Castle announced a pay bonus for “permanent members” of the force, veterans such as Constable Stanley and Sgt. Doherty.19 The money was intended to boost morale in the difficult circumstances of “the life of the average constable,” as described a year later by a Dublin Castle intelligence officer:

He lived in a fortified barrack, probably overcrowded owing to the concentration of the Force, and certainly never designed to resist determined assault with modern weapons. He was surrounded by a populace which, if not definitely hostile, was at all events so intimidated that the members of the civil population hardly dare be seen speaking with him. Lurking throughout the countryside were members of the Republican Army, who, instigated by their leaders, regarded him not as an enemy to be faced in the open, but to be prosecuted by every means from petty annoyance to treacherous murder. His life was spent in constant apprehension of danger. His barrack might be attacked at any hour of the day or night, but usually the latter, by overwhelming numbers of callus ruffians, who would use every weapon of brutality against him. If he would go out of the barracks, he was compelled to do so as one of a party operating in practically an enemy’s country. He could never predict the moment when a hail of bullets would burst upon him from a carefully prepared ambush, his assailants being the apparently harmless citizens who surrounded him every day.20

Stanley and Doherty’s deaths raised to 120 the toll of RIC fatalities in Ireland since Jan. 1, 1919. Another 72 officers were killed by the end of 1920.21 Stanley’s widow received “special advances” to survivors of RIC murdered on duty at least through 1922, when the force was disbanded.22

Thomas Tuohy:

“After the Feakle ambush the local parish priest, Father Hayes [Father O’Reilly’s superior, who spoke against Éamon de Valera during the 1917 election.23 ], a violent imperialist who regularly entertained members of the enemy forces, strongly denounced the IRA from the pulpit. He referred to us as a murder gang, and declared that any information which he could get would be readily passed on to the British authorities and that he would not desist until the last of the murderers was swung by the neck. This denunciation led to unpleasant consequences and for some time services at which he officiated were boycotted by most of the congregation.”

Remember that Tuohy said Father O’Reilly had warned the IRA ambushers that military “horsemen will be on top of you in a few minutes.” Tuohy also said that Father O’Reilly administered Confession and Holy Communion to about nine IRA men in December 1920. If true, the local priests were certainly at odds, and the police and soldiers seem correct in their suspicions of Father O’Reilly.

A few days after receiving the sacraments from Father O’Reilly, Tuohy was arrested by the RIC and accused of having seditious documents. He was sentenced to two years hard labor, but released from Limerick County Jail 11 months later.

Father O’Reilly

Given Tuohy’s statements, the conclusion of the priest’s letter to the Freeman’s Journal is ambiguous:

“My last sermon in the parish prior to the occasion had been solely a counsel of moderation.  … I have appealed for nothing but peace and unity amongst all Irishmen. … I most heartily forgive all who attacked me, and also those who were the deliberate and malicious cause of it. … I stand for peace, peace with honor, and though my life may now be in danger I will never be a traitor to the flag of my country. God save Ireland.”

Father O’Reilly and Father Hayes were each soon relocated from the Feakle parish.24

PJ Guilfoil:

The Guilfoil family traveled from the Clare countryside to Cork city, about 100 miles south, where they waited a week for the ship back to America. PJ and his young sons witnessed another scene of revolutionary Ireland, which concluded his commission testimony at the Lafayette Hotel, a few blocks from the U.S. capitol.  

Guilfoil testified at the Lafayette Hotel in Washington D.C. shown here between 1910 and 1926. Library of Congress.

The father and his two boys, ages eight and six, watched the funeral procession of Irish Republican Army volunteer Michael Fitzgerald, who died a few days earlier on hunger strike in jail. As the line of mourners passed the Windsor Hotel, troops plucked the mourning wreaths and Irish tricolor flags from the hearse with their bayonett tips and flicked them to the curb, Guilfoil testified.

“Anything more horrible I never want to see than an armored military body following a coffin,” Guilfoil said. “They followed that coffin with rifles and machine guns all the way out to the cemetery. … I took the boys and got away from there, for I thought there might be trouble.”

Guilfoil’s testimony was exactly what the pro-Ireland commission had sought to publicize in its effort to turn U.S. opinion against Britain. The blue-ribbon panel of two U.S. senators and six other military, religious, and civic leaders held six public hearings from November 1920 through January 1921. It was not an official U.S. government enterprise. Years later, Irish politician Patrick McCartan wrote of the hearings that “only the rustle of the reporters writing broke the silence in which America strained to hear the story of British savagery withstood and defeated by the indomitable courage of the citizens of the Irish Republic.”25

Guilfoil, 1920

Guilfoil—5-foot, 8-inches, with a ruddy complexion and blue eyes under receding brown hair—seemed like an enthusiastic witness.26 “Yes, O, yes,” he answered when asked whether most Irish civilians supported the IRA. He displayed a bullet he said had pierced the cottage before his family fled from the fire. He shuffled a sheaf of “literature” and newspaper clippings about events in Ireland.

These papers may have included Father O’Reilly’s letter to the Freeman’s Journal, published in the nationally-circulated paper five days before Guilfoil sailed back to America, or the Gaelic American’s two-part reporting of it a few weeks after he returned to Pittsburgh. Father O’Reilly’s letter said he “remained alone practically all the time” outside the post office with the bodies of the two policemen. Guilfoil testified he spent over two hours with the priest at the scene. Father O’Reilly might have wanted to protect the American visitor, emphasize his own ordeal, or both. Guilfoil might have inflated his experience based on such published accounts, but it is also possible that he offered the truest version of the events. 

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Dec. 11, 1920.

How Guilfoil came to be called before the hearing was not explained during his testimony, in the commission’s report, or newspaper coverage. Alexander P. Moore, editor of the Pittsburgh Leader, was a member of the nationwide steering committee that organized and funded the commission, but his paper did not report on Guilfoil’s testimony. The city’s other dailies headlined the appearance: “Pittsburgh Witness In Irish Probe P.J. Guilfoil Tells of Raid by Military on County Clare Town’ and “Local Man Tells of Burning of Town in County Clare.”27 Guilfoil’s testimony was noted in other U.S. newspaper coverage, but it was overshadowed by the same-day appearances of three former RIC men who quit the force in protest of British “misrule” in Irland, and the sister of an Irish republican politician who had died on hunger strike.

Guilfoil died in 1946 at age 66.28 The obituaries do not mention his 1920 commission testimony, or suggest that he ever returned to Ireland.

An American reporter in 1920 Ireland: Newspapers

Harry F. Guest

American journalist Harry F. Guest of the New York Globe spent January and February 1920 reporting from revolutionary Ireland. Upon his return to America, he wrote two dozen stories based on his interviews and observations, which were syndicated to U.S. and Canadian newspapers through May 1920. See earlier posts in this series and other stories about American reporting of Irish independence at the linked project landing page. Reader input is welcomed, including photos or links to relevant source material. For this post only, I’ve linked the headline to a .pdf copy of the story for newspaper historians.  MH

***

British Suspension of Irish Newspapers Raised Great Storm of Protest1

Guest, a veteran New York City reporter and editor, devoted this story to the antagonism between foreign and domestic newspapers and the British administration in Ireland at Dublin Castle. He wrote:

Being a newspaper editor in Ireland is a ticklish job. 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.

As a newspaper man, I have great respect for the Irish newspapers. When one which has been suppressed receives permission to resume publication, it is the custom to come out in the next issue with a blast against the government which makes the previous ‘libel’ read like a hymn of praise.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jan. 20, 1920

Guest again referenced the Defense of the Realm Act, or “Dora,” which he noted was used to exert “strict censorship not only over dispatches sent from Ireland, but foreign news sent to Ireland as well.” This may be why Guest waited until he returned to America before writing his series about Ireland, just as United Press correspondent Ralph F. Couch had done in early 1919 after his scoop interview with prison escapee Éamon de Valera.

Guest reported the mid-January 1920, Dublin post office seizures of the New York American, Irish World, and Gaelic American,2 with “thousands of copies … carried off to Dublin Castle” because they contained articles about the Irish bond drive in America. “This was not the first seizure of its kind in Ireland and it probably will not be the last,” he wrote.

It should be remembered that Britain was not the first or only democracy to censor or suppress the press. In America, the Committee of Public Information (CPI), created in April 1917 by President Woodrow Wilson, “became the U.S. ministry for propaganda,” and an “unofficial censor” of the domestic and foreign press. Journalist George Creel and the secretaries of State, Navy, and War ran the CPI, which worked with the U.S. Postal Service to block distribution of the New York-based Gaelic American and Irish World, and the Dublin-based Freeman’s Journal.3

Historian Ian Kenneally has explained the main political motivation for press censorship in Ireland was to keep the views and activities of the separatist Sinn Féin from Irish newspaper readers. He continued:

The situation worsened in September 1919 when the authorities in Dublin Castle abolished the post of censor. The decision was greeted by cynicism from the Irish press with newspaper editors deriding the fact that the censor may have gone but the restrictive regulations remained in place. A wave of newspaper suppressions swept the country. This was because the Irish press now had no censor to guide them as to what would be deemed unacceptable by Dublin Castle.4

Dublin Castle, the seat of the British administration in Ireland. Late 19th or early 20th century image. National Library of Ireland image.

By the time Guest arrived in Ireland in early 1920, more than two dozen Irish newspapers had been suppressed or had their foreign circulation banned for “a few days [or] longer periods,” he reported. The digital Irish Newspaper Archives contains 50 titles that published during 1920. An estimated 332 newspapers circulated in Ireland during the period 1900 to 1922, excluding British or American titles.5

Guest listed these papers as being suppressed:

Mayo News * Clare Champion * Newcastle-West Weekly Observer * Kings County Independent * Belfast Evening Telegraph * Dublin Evening Herald * Meath Chronicle * Galway Express * Ballina Herald * Killkenny People * Irish Republic * Southern Star (County Cork)

Freeman’s Journal nameplate

Most of Guest’s story detailed the December 1919 suppression of the Freeman’s Journal, which extended into January 1920. The action “aroused a storm of protest against the methods of Dublin Castle, in which even the press of England joined … The circumstances attending the suppression of the newspaper and the subsequent negotiations over its resumption of publication constitute a chapter of English history in Ireland that reflects little credit on the present administration.”

As mentioned at the top, Guest’s full story can seen by clicking the linked headline. The Freeman’s Jan. 28, 1920, editorial cartoon about the suppression, referenced by Guest, can be viewed here via the National Library of Ireland’s (NLI) Shemus Cartoon Collection. More on the history of the Freeman’s Journal is available in this October 2019 guest post by Irish historian Felix Larkin, who also wrote the linked NLI collection description.

NEXT: English Interests Hamper Industrial Development in Ireland, U.S. Writer Finds

Guest post: The slow death of the Freeman’s Journal

Historian Felix M. Larkin specializes in the study of Irish newspapers, especially the Freeman’s Journal, the prominent Dublin daily published from 1763 to 1924. (See his website and our 2017 Q&A.) In October 1919, Irish writer Seumas MacManus noted the Freeman’s troubles in a U.S. newspaper column, excerpted in my Oct. 13 post. I asked Felix to write this guest post after he rightly corrected one of my notes at this centenary of a key moment in the Freeman’s history. MH

***

On Oct. 27, 1919, Dublin’s Freeman’s Journal newspaper was sold to a prominent local businessman, Martin Fitzgerald, and a former English journalist now living in Ireland, Robert Hamilton Edwards. The Freeman had been associated with the Irish home rule movement for the previous four decades– back to Charles Stewart Parnell’s time – and its sale represented the final step in the fall of that movement, which began with the 1916 Rising and culminated in the victory of Sinn Féin in the 1918 general election.1

Founded in 1763, the Freeman had become an important newspaper under the ownership of the Gray family from 1841 to 1892. Though more moderately nationalist in editorial policy than Parnell, it had eventually accepted his leadership and had remained loyal to him at the outset of the Parnell ‘split’ in 1890.2 However, when the anti-Parnellites launched their own daily newspaper, the National Press, in March 1891 and the Freeman began to lose circulation and revenue as a result, it switched sides. The Freeman and the National Press later merged in March 1892. There followed a long and bitter struggle for control of the paper between rival anti-Parnell factions led by Tim Healy and John Dillon, both MPs; this struggle was ultimately resolved in the latter’s favor in 1896.

Thomas Sexton, another prominent anti-Parnell MP, became chairman of the Freeman company in 1893. He remained chairman until 1912. The period of Sexton’s chairmanship was one of relentless decline in the Freeman’s fortunes. The National Press had inflicted grave damage on it, and it continued to face strong competition from the Irish Daily Independent – established as a pro-Parnell organ when the Freeman changed sides in the ‘split’, but purchased by William Martin Murphy in 1900 after the ‘split’ was healed. The Freeman thus lacked funds for investment and was unable to respond to the greatly increased demand for newspapers nationally at this time.

In contrast, Murphy transformed the Independent into a modern, mass-circulation organ. It soaked up the increased demand for newspapers and became the market leader. The Freeman began as a result to incur trading losses, and no dividends were paid by the company after 1908. The home rule leaders eventually acted to save it and forced Sexton’s resignation in 1912. It was subsequently run by a group of party stalwarts and subsidized from party sources, and its parlous condition was exacerbated by the destruction of its premises during the 1916 Rising. After the Rising, money was raised from home rule supporters in Britain and in the United States, as well as in Ireland, in a desperate effort to keep it afloat.3

Following the 1918 general election, the company – without the financial support of the now defunct home rule party –collapsed and went into liquidation.4 It was then purchased by Fitzgerald and Edwards as a commercial venture. Fitzgerald – a wholesale wine and spirit merchant – had been a home ruler and the Freeman’s new management soon committed itself to a policy of advocating dominion status for Ireland.

Martin FItzgerald

It was an inauspicious time to attempt to revive an ailing Irish newspaper of moderate nationalist sympathies. The difficulties that the new owners encountered were extraordinary. The Freeman was suppressed by the British military authorities for seven weeks from December 1919 to January 1920; Fitzgerald, Edwards and the editor, Patrick Hooper, were imprisoned in Mountjoy Jail for a month at Christmas 1920 following publication by the Freeman of a story about army brutality; and after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, which was strongly supported by the Freeman, its printing presses were smashed in March 1922 by a raiding party of 200 anti-Treatyites.

Fitzgerald played a role in the process leading up to the 1921 Treaty. Once the Government decided to explore settlement possibilities, he was able to use his standing as a newspaper proprietor to act as an intermediary between Sinn Féin and Dublin Castle.5 He was in regular contact both with Michael Collins and with Alfred Cope, Assistant Under-Secretary at the Castle. Cope, adopting the nom de guerre ‘Mr. Clements’, frequently visited Fitzgerald’s home. Their relationship took on a further dimension when, during the Treaty negotiations, Cope sought to influence the shapers of public opinion in Ireland to support the emerging settlement. Through Fitzgerald, Cope gained a measure of control over the contents of the Freeman’s Journal at that time.

The Freeman’s campaign in favor of the Treaty was generally regarded, even by many on the pro-Treaty side, as unduly partisan. However, the new administration in Dublin came increasingly to rely upon it for propaganda. In recognition of this, Fitzgerald was nominated to the first Senate of the Irish Free State in 1922. He served in that forum until his death in 1927. By then, the Freeman had succumbed to its many tribulations. The main factor in its eventual demise was that the partnership of Fitzgerald and Edwards had ended in grief when the latter tried unsuccessfully to corner the market in newsprint and then absconded, leaving debts which the enfeebled Freeman could not meet. The last issue appeared on Dec. 19, 1924.6 The Freeman’s assets, including the title, were later bought by the Independent. It was a sad end for a distinguished newspaper.

***

For more on the Freeman’s Journal, see Larkin’s Aug. 21, 2012 guest blog for the National Library of Ireland, and May/June 2006 piece in History Ireland.

T. Roosevelt’s letters to the Davitts, and more, now online

In February 1904, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt thanked Irish activist Michael Davitt for the gift of “two blackthorns, which, at the beginning of a Presidential year, I shall accept as good omens.”1 Nine months later, Roosevelt won re-election.

Halfway through that second term, the American president wrote to Davitt’s American-born wife, the former Mary Yore of St. Joseph, Michigan, to express condolences about his death two days earlier in Dublin.  

Theodore Roosevelt

“It was my good fortune to number among my friends your late husband, Mr. Michael Davitt,” Roosevelt wrote.2 “I valued his, and I beg that you will accept my most sincere sympathy in your great bereavement.”

Both letters are part of the massive Theodore Roosevelt Collection, released online 17 October by the Library of Congress. The digital collection contains about 276,000 documents, including letters, speeches, executive orders, scrapbooks, diaries, White House reception records and press releases of his administration, as well as family records, and about 461,000 images.

Michael Davitt

Roosevelt’s 1904 thank you note to Davitt is mentioned in Laurence Marley’s 2007 biography of the County Mayo native.3 The author cites the Papers of Michael Davitt Collection at Trinity College Dublin, which is not fully digitized. Marley also noted Roosevelt’s 1906 letter Davitt’s widow.4 His source for this is an 8 June Reuter’s dispatch from Boston published in the Freemans Journal.

A day earlier, The New York Times reported that Roosevelt declined an invitation by the United Irish League to attend a memorial service for Davitt in Boston.5 The Times reprinted a 4 June letter from Roosevelt that said, “Mr. Davitt was a personal friend of mine, and I sincerely regret his loss. I have written to Mrs. Davitt to express my sympathy.”

These examples illustrate how the digitized Roosevelt papers, part of the ever-expanding universe of similar online collections, is widening historical research opportunities. I’m fortunate to have done in-person research at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and at Trinity College Dublin, where I reviewed a one-year portion of the Davitt collection for my Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited series. (See posts 15 & 16.) But not everyone has the chance to make such onsite visits.

The Roosevelt collection contains other Ireland-related letters and documents. These include correspondence from:

  • Irish Folk Song Society, 1910
  • Irish Gaelic League, 1913
  • Irish National Foresters, 1910
  • Irish Protestant Benevolent Society, 1911
  • Irish Unionist Alliance, 1918
  • United Irish-American Society, 1911

I’m sure there is much, much more. I still getting familiar with the collection, as you should, too.

Davitt’s grave, Straide, County Mayo, February 2018.

Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited: Irish press

This blog serial explored 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.)

An evicted family in Glenbeigh, probably 1887.

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 same point 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.

NEXT: Cork tourism

Copyright 2018 by Mark Holan

Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited: Dublin arrival

This blog serial explored the 1888 book Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American, by journalist William Henry Hurlbert. Previous posts and background material are available at the project landing page. #IUCRevisited )

***

“I had expected to come upon unusual things and people in Ireland … ”
–William Henry Hurlbert

Hurlbert arrived in Ireland on 30 January 1888, having departed from London the previous evening. He had been to Rome earlier, which is important for reasons that will become clear later in the book.

“We made a quick quit passage to Kingstown,” (Dún Laoghaire since 1920), across the Irish Sea from Holyhead, Wales, arriving in the morning. “A step from the boat at Kingstown puts you into the train for Dublin,” about nine miles to the north.

Kingstown in the 1890s, a few years after Hurlbert’s arrival.

Hurlbert was accompanied by Lord Ernest Hamilton, elected three years earlier as M.P. for North Tyrone. A dockside news vendor who recognized the Conservative member of parliament “promptly recommended us to buy the Irish Times and the Express,” then “smiled approval when I asked for the Freeman’s Journal also,” the American wrote. The first two papers were unionist; the third moderately nationalist.

Hurlbert’s attention was drawn to the Freeman‘s report about the previous evening’s nationalist demonstration in Rathkeale, County Limerick, about 20 miles southwest of Limerick city. Thousands of men from counties Limerick, Kerry and Clare attended the rally, which featured a speech by agrarian activist Michael Davitt. To Hurlbert, it was “chiefly remarkable for a sensible protest against the ridiculous and rantipole abuse lavished upon Mr. [Authur] Balfour by the nationalist orators and newspapers.”

Balfour

In March 1887, just 10 months earlier, Balfour had been appointed Chief Secretary of Ireland by his uncle, Lord Salisbury, then the British Prime Minister. Balfour quickly introduced, and Parliament approved, a tough new law to crack down on resurgent agrarian violence and political protests in Ireland. In September 1887, three people were killed at Mitchelstown, County Cork, when officers of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) fired into a crowd of demonstrators. Thereafter, the Chief Secretary was nicknamed “bloody Balfour.”

According to the Freeman‘s page 6 story, Davitt said that Balfour:

“…is not a man who cares very much about the names he is called, and calling names, let me add, is not a very scientific method of fighting Mr. Balfour’s policy. Calling him ‘bloody Balfour’ may be a truthful description … but its constant use in newspapers and on platforms is becoming what the Americans term a ‘stale chestnut.’ … What we have got to recognize is the policy of this man, and what we have got to do is, to beat that policy by cool, calculating resistance.”

Davitt

Hurlbert says that “Davitt has the stuff in him of a serious revolutionary leader … bent on bringing about a thorough Democratic revolution in Ireland. I believe him to be too able a man to imagine … this can be done without the consent of Democratic England [and he knows] that to abuse an executive officer for determination and vigour is the surest way to make him popular.”

In fact, Davitt also criticized Balfour during the Rathkeale speech. Davitt noted that at the current pace of arrests under the 1887 law, it would take the chief secretary more than 500 years to imprison all supporters of Irish nationalism and tenant rights:

“If we judge of what he can do to save the life of Irish landlordism by all he has performed up to the present, we need have very little apprehension about the final result. … He will discover, if he has not done so already, that imprisonment will not beget loyalty, nor plank beds gratitude to the power he represents. It is with a nation, as with an individual, a tussle with persecution brings out great qualities of endurance, the courage of conviction, and a faith which scorns to abdicate to brute force.”

From the Dublin rail station, Hurlbert and Hamilton rode an “outside car,” a two-seat, two-wheeled, horse-pulled carriage also known as a jaunting car, to the Maples Hotel on Kildare Street, “a large, old-fashioned but clear and comfortable house.” (It was mentioned by James Joyce in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1916; then torn down after World War II to make way for the Department of Industry and Commerce building.) Hurlbert also writes of the nearby Leinster Hall theater, “the fashionable and hospitable Kildare Street Club,” a hideaway of Dublin’s Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy, and the Shelburne Hotel, “known to all Americans” and “furbished up since I last saw it.”

NEXT: Meeting Balfour

NOTES: This post is based on pages 35 to 41 of Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an AmericanAccess to the Freeman’s Journal via Irish Newspaper Archive. Most hyperlinks on people’s names or places are to Wikipedia for consistency and ease of production. Dublin locations mentioned in the last paragraph are hyperlinked to images in the National Library of Ireland.

The time element of the arrival from Holyhead was revised from the original post.

Copyright 2018 by Mark Holan