Tag Archives: Hugh Martin

A Journey In Ireland, 1921, Revisited: Mysterious Mr. X.

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.[1]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.[2]“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.[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, … 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.

Tough-looking customer

Ewart writes:

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.[4]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.[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 … Continue reading

Cork-Bandon railway terminus, Cork city, 1920. (Cork City Library)

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.

Other journalists

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.[6]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.”[7]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.[8]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.[9]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.[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.

Delayed publication

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.

Dublin Castle

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.[11]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.”[12]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.
6 Journey, p.ix.
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.

Remembering journalist killed on Bloody Sunday, 1920

Irish journalist Austin F. Cowley was shot dead by a military sentry on the evening of Nov. 21, 1920, at Navan, Co. Meath, hours after the “Bloody Sunday” killings in Dublin. The victim was deaf and did not hear three orders to halt from the sentry put “on the alert and on edge” by the earlier events.1

Cowley is the only journalist among 270 Irish citizens killed by British forces from Jan. 1, 1920 to Feb. 28, 1921, as listed in “The Struggles of the Irish People”, a plea for help presented by Dail Eireann to the U.S. Congress.2 Journalists in Ireland were certainly targets of intimidation and violence during the War of Independence period, 1919 to 1921, whether from British military and police authorities, or the IRA; but no others appear to have been killed.

Cowley was a “well-known sporting journalist … [whose] special forte was hunting and cricket.”3 His profession was noted on both the 1901 and 1911 census household returns. Those records also show he was slightly older than the 62-67 year range given in 1920 news reports and military records. A bachelor, he was “a splendid musician” and “popular with all classes, including the military.”4 [I have not been able to find a photo of Cowley.]

The Workhouse site on 1912 map.

The victim was the son of John Cowley, master of the Union Workhouse and Infirmary at Navan, where he continued to live after his father’s death in 1911. The South Wales Borderers stationed there in November 1920. As Ultan Courtney writes:

Earlier that day the Guard Commander had warned the sentry to keep an eye on the gate in consequence of a report of trouble in Dublin. This involved the shooting of 13 British Intelligence agents and the reprisal killings of 16 civilians at Croke Park and three IRA prisoners in Dublin Castle. The sentry would have been both on the alert and on edge as military patrols and checkpoints were set up in Navan and Dunshaughlin. … A Sergeant Major of the SWBs gave evidence that the sentry was perfectly calm and did not seem to have lost his head.5

Official notation of Austin Francis Cowley’s Nov. 21, 1920, shooting death for “failing to halt.” Courts of Inquiry In Lieu of Inquest, Register of Cases. Army of Ireland Records, Easter Rising & Ireland Under Martial Law 1916-1921. WO 35/162. The National Archives, Kew.

Cowley’s death was reported in dozens of U.S. newspapers, including the Boston Globe, New York Herald, Chicago Tribune, and San Francisco Chronicle. The brief accounts emphasized both his deafness and his role as a journalist. There might have been heightened sensitivity about his profession from a police threat to kill Hugh Martin of the Daily News, London, a few weeks earlier in Tralee, Co. Kerry. The episode drew international press attention, such as this Nov. 6, 1920, special cable:

Despite all efforts that have been made in and out of Parliament to create the impression that there has been a marked improvement in condition in Ireland … the majority of the newspapers insist that the situation there was never worse. … The threat against the life of Hugh Martin, English newspaper correspondent, who has been writing highly critical articles regarding the actions of the Black and Tans, has kept attention focused on Ireland that might otherwise have dwindled after [Terence] MacSwiney’s death. Now comes a striking editorial article in the New Statesman appealing to the American press to send over an army of its most trusted correspondents large enough to cover every county in Ireland.6

Parliament debated the press’s role in Ireland a few days after Cowley’s death and the more notorious events of “Bloody Sunday.” Liberal Party leader and former Prime Minister H.H. Asquith and others praised Martin and the international press for its reporting from the troubled island. Chief Secretary for Ireland Hamar Greenwood sought to undermine Martin’s reporting, but also insisted “he or any other pressman will be welcome to Ireland.”7

Headline from Nov. 22, 1920.

The digital Newseum’s Journalists Memorial pays tribute to 2,344 reporters, photographers, and broadcasters from around the world who have died while reporting the news. Lyra McKee’s 2019 death in Derry is the most recent of 11 Irish journalists in the searchable database.

The accidental nature of Cowley’s death and the fact that he was not actively reporting on the war probably excludes him from this listing. I have inquired about adding his name and details. The physical museum closed Dec. 31, 2019, and it is unclear whether emails are being answered.