International journalists faced two challenges in late June 1922 as Irish Free State forces began to oust anti-government rebels from the Four Courts in Dublin. First, the reporters had to reach the military engagement along the River Liffey. Then they had to find a way to send their observations to their newspaper offices.
This story dated June 28, 1922, published the following day. Story continued beyond clipped portion.
IRA “irregulars” had occupied the government buildings since April. As Free State troops moved to retake the property, the rebels severed the telegraph “submarine cable” between Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire) and Anglesey, Wales. A second cable at Belfast remained untouched, but communications within Ireland were cloudy. As New York Times special correspondent Frederic B. Harvey reported:
“While Dublin is thus in a ferment a veil of silence has closed down on the rest of the country, for use of the telephone except for official purposes is forbidden and the telegraph is subject to censorship. There is no communication at all with Ulster (Belfast), and there is that uncertainty of feeling with regard to the rest of the county which this silence always induces.”
This was no coincidence. In the post-Great War era, “armies realized that information sent ever more speedily over the telegraph wire meant that vital knowledge was disseminated much faster,” Maurice Walsh noted in The News From Ireland, his survey of foreign correspondents covering the Irish revolution. “Increasingly they kept the correspondent away from the front line, making him dependent on the military for information, and insisting his copy be check before it was transmitted.
Harvey and reporter L.J. Randall flew to Dublin as the battle at the Four Courts began the morning of June 28. First World War aviator and test pilot Hubert Stanford Broad flew the De Haviland aircraft from the London aerodrome at Hendon, about eight miles northwest of Westminster. The trio likely squeezed into a bi-winged, open cockpit DH.4, which had been flown as bombers in the war and now were being retrofitted to carry mail and commercial passengers.
“Bad weather during the early part of the journey and a constant strong headwind made flying difficult, but we reached Dublin in four hours,” Randall reported. (Today the flight takes about 75 minutes … inside a closed cabin.) “Before landing we flew over the city and were able to observe the extent of the battle.”
In his separate dispatch, Harvey reported being detailed by British military authorities at Collingstown aerodrome a few miles north of Dublin, site of the modern Dublin Airport. He did not mention Randall in his story, as Randall referenced Harvey. Harvey claimed he was held until the following afternoon, June 29, when he was “told I was free to proceed wherever I wished.”
Story dated June 29, 1922, published the next day. Story continued beyond clipped portion.
While most coverage of the Four Courts battle focused on key participants, such as rebel leader Rory O’Connor, and maneuvers related to the fighting, the reporting occasionally referenced people and scenes away from the main action. Harvey’s dispatch included these descriptions of Dublin:
“The streets through which I passed where practically free of all wheeled traffic, but numbers of pedestrians were about, and I even saw women wheeling out their babies … Ambulances are busy and all over the city the hospitals are filling. Business is at a standstill, all shops being closed, but on the outskirts of the city bread carts are delivering as usual. … Inner Dublin, in short, is not a place to linger in unless your business there is urgently necessary. … Beyond roughly a mile circle drawn with the Four Courts for centre, the risks are so lessened as to be practically negligible. … A touch of irony is supplied by the fact that Trinity College, in spite of the racket outside and the circumstances that the fate of the nation is in the melting pot, is holding examinations for degrees within the gray old pile of College Green.”
Such copy is an example of reporters “accreting details when they didn’t have a clue” about what was going on with the main story, to paraphrase a review of historian Deborah Cohen’s Last Call at the Hotel Imperial, a new portrait of American foreign correspondents between the two world wars. It was a period when “plucky stringers could elbow their way into almost any beat.”
Harvey and Randall were both English correspondents. Once they collected their observations, they still needed to file their dispatches to London before the copy could make its way across the Atlantic to American papers. Here, the two reporters diverged not only in when and how they transmitted the content, but also a key detail of their Dublin arrival.
Again, Randall’s dispatch named Harvey. He reported that at Collingswood, the Irish airfield, “we learned that the commanders of the Free State troops had received wireless news of our impending arrival and through the medium of the British Headquarters had issued orders that we were to be detained. At one time it seemed we should be unable to leave the aerodrome, but through the good offices of one of the chief officials of the Free State, to whom Harvey was well know, permission was given for me to return to England with news which he had been able to gather.” (My emphasis.)
Randell reported Broad flew him from Dublin to Shotwick R.A.F. Aerodrome, about 15 miles south of Liverpool, just inside the Wales border. They took off from Ireland at 8:45 p.m. June 28, the same day as their arrival, and covered the shorter distance over the Irish Sea in 70 minutes. Randall filed his story to the London Daily Chronicle, probably via telegraph at the air force base. The Chronicle made the content available to the New York Times, which published it on the front page June 29.
It appears Harvey and Randall both reported from Dublin during the afternoon and early evening of June 28. While Randall was able to leave Ireland, Harvey was detained overnight, then made a second tour of the city on June 29. To file his story bearing the latter date, Harvey boarded the mail boat Hibernia, used its wireless at sea, then finished the job by telephone at Holyhead. His “reporter’s dash” was highlighted in the headline, editor’s note, and an ALL CAPS dateline of a “special cable” on the front page of the Times’s June 30 issue.
Smoke from a massive explosion at the Four Courts, Dublin, June 1922.
Harvey returned to Dublin and filed a July 2 story, published in the Times the next day. He reported having to dodge sniper fire with another colleague named Powell. He added: “When one uses the word quiet in regard to this city it is purely a relative term … No trams were running. Still, at noon numbers of girls and even elderly women could be seen mingling with the sparse traffic on their way to and from mass, prayer books in hand …”
The battle at the Four Courts drew international media attention. Extolling airplane reporting and extraordinary measures to file stories was part of the period’s competitive newspaper market. At the time, photography was still being introduced to regular coverage and radio was in its infancy. A century later, the Russian war on Ukraine is reported in words and moving images disseminated in real time via international television feeds, websites, and social media.
“We trust our correspondents on the ground first and foremost,” the New York Times explained of its coverage early in the current conflict. “In situations where they cannot be physically present, we work to obtain reliable, first-hand information about events, interviewing witnesses throughout the region. We strive to see through the fog of propaganda and misinformation that emanates from governments on both sides of the conflict.”
And so it was at the 1922 start of the Irish Civil War.