Novelist and journalist Wilfrid Ewart traveled through Ireland from mid-April to early May 1921. His dispatches for London newspapers were later collected and revised in the book, ‘A Journey in Ireland, 1921.’ Previous installments of this centenary series are collected at American Reporting of Irish Independence.
Journalists faced danger and intimidation in Ireland throughout the revolutionary period. Examples include:
- In March 1919, Ruth Russell of the Chicago Daily News wrote of being secreted to an interview with Irish leader Eamon de Valera, then on the run after escaping from an English prison.Russell, What’s the matter with Ireland?, p. 58, p.105.
- In early 1920, Harry F. Guest of the New York Globe reported on growing violence by government authorities and Sinn Féin rebels, including suppression of the Irish press and seizure of American newspapers.“British Suspension of Irish Newspapers Raised Great Storm of Protest”, New York Globe, March 24, 1920.
- By late 1920, embattled police pointed guns and threatened the life of Hugh Martin of the Daily News, London. His reporting of episodes in Dublin and Kerry aroused international condemnation and sparked parliamentary debate about the safety of journalists in Ireland, as detailed by Walsh.Daily News, Oct. 25, 1920, Nov. 3, 1920, and Nov. 4, 1920; Martin, Hugh, Ireland In Insurrection: An Englishman’s Record of Fact, Daniel O’Connor, London, 1921, pp. 133-134, 142-144. Walsh, News, … Continue reading
In spring 1921, Ewart dodged peril first at the hands of the police and British military, then from a gang of young Irish republicans, as detailed in my earlier “Twice detained” post. Released unharmed in both instances, he faced recurring intimidation from “Mr. X.”, a mystery man first encountered in Cork.
Mr. X. was a tall man of fine physique, dressed in a grey tweed suit, and he always wore a black tie with a rather flash-looking pearl pin. On the street he wore a “billycock”; he never carried a stick, umbrella, or gloves. He had a hard, bony face, a short bristly mustache, and a devil-may-care expression which boded ill for anyone who should cross him. Altogether a tough-looking customer.
He appeared to have plenty of money too, and nothing to do all day but chaff the waiters, drink whiskies-and-sodas and stand at the door of the hotel with his hands in his pockets. Once or twice I met him in the street, standing out- side some tea-shop or lounging along the pavement treating the world to a defiant sneer. If by chance one fell into conversation with the hall-porter of the hotel or any of its residents, this individual appeared from nowhere; you would suddenly find him lighting a cigar at your elbow or looking out of the window within hearing distance, or he would frankly seat himself opposite and order a drink.
We had a conversation about nothing. We regarded one another with hostility. I never discovered anything about X. except that he had served in the South African War and had held a commission during the European War. To the end of my journey — and we were often to meet — X. remained a mystery.Journey, pp. 26-27.
The shadowy figure reappears at the Charleville Junction rail station on the border of Cork and Limerick counties, in Limerick city, and in Belfast. He was probably a Special Branch agent assigned to keep an eye on Ewart. The government probably wanted to avoid more negative attention like that generated by Martin. The book version of his newspaper reporting published just before Ewart arrived in Ireland.Reviews of Martin’s Ireland in Insurrection began to appear in February 1921. Coincidentally, Martin refers to a Mr. X., “an American journalist of high standing,” clearly a … Continue reading
Mr. X. may have been the hidden hand that waved approval for Ewart’s release from police authorities in Mallow. He does not seem to have been near the author’s encounter with five republican youths on the road to Tullamore. Had that episode turned violent against Ewart, a former British military officer, it surely would have been exploited for propaganda.
In Journey, Ewart complains how “propaganda and partisanship persistently vied” for attention in Ireland, and “newspapers contradict each other” in their coverage of the war.Journey, p.ix. In addition to his encounters with Mr. X., the author also crosses paths with other journalists during his travels.
He stops in a Dublin newspaper office to ask about a curfew pass and interviews “a Cork newspaperman” who defends the Government of Ireland Act, 1920. One journalist in Limerick discusses “the temperamental difference between Englishman and Irishman”, another reporter in the city tells Ewart it “was a bad day for Ireland when the shooting began.”Journey, pp. 8, 76, 118, 135, respectively. Ewart interviews Irish nationalists George Russell, editor of the Irish Homestead, and former United Ireland editor William O’Brien, but does not mention if they discussed journalism.
The author alludes to “a special correspondent of one of the great London newspapers,” without naming the individual or the publication, in regard to reporting about the two murdered mayors of Limerick. He cites the Illustrated Sunday Herald and the Morning Post.Ibid, pp. 153, 101, 230.
Ewart reproduces the multi-headlined street placard of an unnamed Cork newspaper. Newsboys on Grafton Street shout about “Another Dublin Bombing”; in Belfast, they hawk the “early sixth” edition of the Freeman’s Journal.Ibid, pp. 51, 3, 232.
Ewart’s accounts of his April-May 1921 travels in Ireland appeared in the Times and Sunday Times, London, and Westminster Gazette nearly a year before his book published in 1922. In the front matter, he thanks Freeman’s editor Patrick Joseph Hooper for his assistance in preparing the book. Hooper had been the paper’s assistant correspondent in London from 1897 to 1912, then chief correspondent from 1912 to 1916, making him a natural contact for British journalists in Ireland.Journey, Preface, p. x. Hooper referenced by title, not by name. “Hooper, Patrick Joseph” by Felix M Larkin in Dictionary of Irish Biography, and my correspondence with Larkin.
In a March 23, 1922, “Note” for the front matter of Journey, Ewart blames the book’s delay on the protracted negotiations between the British government and Irish separatists that began in July 1921. [Earlier, according to his own reporting.] He says it was “inadvisable in the public interest” to publish sooner. This is dubious. Biographer Stephen Graham wrote that Journey was delayed to avoid conflicts with Ewart’s debut novel, The Way of Revelation.
I wonder if there is another possibility:
- Did Dublin Castle or London, still smarting from bad experiences with Martin and other reporters beyond the government’s control, exert pressure on Ewart or his publisher for the delay?
- Had Mr. X. obtained some compromising detail about Ewart’s travels in Ireland, perhaps threatening the author’s military pension, in order to enforce the delay or alter the content?
- Did Ewart know or learn the identity of his stalker before he published Journey, contradicting his declaration that no incident of any interest or significance was “suppressed” from his book?
Of course, Mr. X. may have been a fiction, a literary feint to create narrative tension and personify “the somber realities of Ireland, 1921,” which Ewart writes late in the book “could not be ignored, even in Belfast.” There, as in other parts of the country, armored lorries and tenders and vansful of soldiers careened about the streets, so familiar “that one hardly noticed them.” Spies and suspicion of spies seemed to be everywhere. Tensions grew between unionists and republicans, Protestants and Catholics. It is in Belfast that Ewart encounters Mr. X’s “defiant sneer at the world” for the last time.Journey, p. 251.
The identity of Mr. X is unknown and probably unknowable. Ewart was accidental killed on Dec. 31,1922, age 30. Graham’s 1924 biography does not offer any clues about Ewart being followed in Ireland; he simply describes his friend as “an intrepid foreign correspondent or war correspondent in embryo … [who] showed great personal courage.”Grahan, Stephen, Life and Last Words of Wilfrid Ewart, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, London, 1924, p. 159.
NEXT: Ewart reviewed
|↑1||Russell, What’s the matter with Ireland?, p. 58, p.105.|
|↑2||“British Suspension of Irish Newspapers Raised Great Storm of Protest”, New York Globe, March 24, 1920.|
|↑3||Daily News, Oct. 25, 1920, Nov. 3, 1920, and Nov. 4, 1920; Martin, Hugh, Ireland In Insurrection: An Englishman’s Record of Fact, Daniel O’Connor, London, 1921, pp. 133-134, 142-144. Walsh, News, pp. 74-75, 87-92.|
|↑4||Journey, pp. 26-27.|
|↑5||Reviews of Martin’s Ireland in Insurrection began to appear in February 1921. Coincidentally, Martin refers to a Mr. X., “an American journalist of high standing,” clearly a different person. Insurrection, p. 138.|
|↑7||Journey, pp. 8, 76, 118, 135, respectively.|
|↑8||Ibid, pp. 153, 101, 230.|
|↑9||Ibid, pp. 51, 3, 232.|
|↑10||Journey, Preface, p. x. Hooper referenced by title, not by name. “Hooper, Patrick Joseph” by Felix M Larkin in Dictionary of Irish Biography, and my correspondence with Larkin.|
|↑11||Journey, p. 251.|
|↑12||Grahan, Stephen, Life and Last Words of Wilfrid Ewart, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, London, 1924, p. 159.|