Tag Archives: Mark O’Brien

Guest post: ‘Periodicals & Journalism in Twentieth-Century Ireland’

Dublin historian Felix M. Larkin wrote this piece. He is a co-founder of the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland (NPHFI) and has previously contributed to this site, including Kennedy and Parnell, lost leaders. Mark O’Brien is a former NPHFI chairman and co-editor of Politics, Culture, and The Irish American Press 1784-1963. Larkin’s November 2021 virtual presentation about their book to the European Society of Periodical Research is posted below. … Journalists, historians, authors, researchers, and travelers to Ireland are always welcome to offer guest contributions. MH


Mark O’Brien and I have edited two volumes of essays on the theme of periodicals and journalism in twentieth century Ireland. The first appeared in 2014; the second in December 2021.[1]Mark O’Brien & Felix M. Larkin, Periodicals and journalism in twentieth-century Ireland: writing against the grain (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2014); Mark O’Brien & Felix M. Larkin, … Continue reading Both seek to address a particular gap in the field of press history in Ireland – namely, the links between Irish periodicals of the twentieth century and current affairs journalism. The scholarly work that has previously been done on Irish periodicals has tended to concentrate on the journal as literary miscellany rather than as a vehicle for news and commentary.

Vol 1.

Roy Jenkins, then British home secretary, observed in 1975 that “choice is as essential to a free press as the prestige of journalists and the protection of resounding constitutional declarations”.[2]Roy Jenkins, Government, broadcasting and the press: the Granada Guildhall lecture, 1975 (London: Hart-Davis, McGibbon, 1975), p.18. In other words, there is no genuine freedom of expression in the public sphere unless a wide variety of outlets is available to accommodate those with something to say. In twentieth century Ireland, many of the national and provincial newspapers were effectively organs of or associated with political parties or other dominant interest groups. There was, accordingly, little space for diversity of opinion. Whereas newspapers must appeal to a wide readership, periodicals – with a smaller cost base – can afford to reflect specialist or minority interests. Thus, the importance of Irish periodicals of the twentieth century is that, for however small an audience, many projected an alternative view of the world to the narrow one that was propagated by the Irish establishment in its various incarnations, both before and after independence. By providing an outlet for those writing against the grain of Irish society, they made freedom of expression a reality in Ireland.

Moreover, in the last 40 or so years of the twentieth century there began to appear a new breed of periodical that concentrated on the seamier side of politics, promoted investigative journalism and exposed the often opaque goings-on within the world of Irish business. This was a more aggressive form of writing against the grain than had been the norm in the first half of the century.

The voices finding expression in Irish periodicals are not, however, only dissenting voices. There are certainly organs of dissent among the periodicals featured in the two volumes that Mark and I have edited; but, more typically, Irish periodicals have catered for specific communities within Irish society that might not otherwise have a voice in the media – in other words, marginalized communities. In our two volumes are heard the voices of women, the young, the gay community, religious interests, the labor and republican movements and the Irish-Ireland lobby promoting revival of the Irish language.

By virtue of their influence on the ideas of an intellectual elite who were the makers of public opinion in Ireland – in politics, the public service, the universities and elsewhere – many of the periodicals featured in our two volumes helped shape the final phase of the struggle for independence in Ireland in the early years of the twentieth century and then, post-independence, the thinking that ultimately led to the emergence of a more open Irish society from the late-1960s onwards.

Of course, periodicals in Ireland in the twentieth century were never anything other than doubtful ventures in business terms. In our second volume, there is a chapter on the business of publishing periodicals in Ireland in the period 1930-55 – and it was often a messy business.[3]Sonya Perkins, “Friendship of the intelligent few and hostility of the unimaginative many: the business of publishing periodicals in Dublin, 1930-55”, in O’Brien & Larkin, Periodicals and … Continue reading Many periodicals had, however, a faithful readership that sustained them for quite long runs of publication, and the influence they had via that readership was entirely disproportionate to their circulation levels and profits, if any. They were the fulcrum on which the intellectual foundations of Irish society moved – slowly, but irrevocably.

Split between our two volumes is a total of 29 chapters – most of them studies of individual periodicals; but some survey a number of periodicals with a common purpose and/or the same target audience; two refer to notable series of articles that appeared in influential periodicals in the 1940s and 1950s; and one (as already noted) discusses the business aspects of publishing periodicals in Ireland in the mid-twentieth century.

Vol. 2.

Both volumes are rich collections, and the range and variety of the periodicals that our contributors have written about is impressive. But what, if anything, did the periodicals in question have in common? The most common feature is the omnipresence within each of them of a dominant personality, or two – as editor and/or proprietor. This omnipresence of a dominant personality is the generally recognized paradigm for journals, both in Ireland and elsewhere. Thus, Malcolm Ballin – in his study of Irish Periodical Culture, 1937-1972 – observes that “a periodical is produced by a guiding intelligence, seeking to project an identity”.[4]Malcolm Ballin, Irish periodical culture, 1957–1972: genre in Ireland, Wales and Scotland (New York, 2008), p 2.

Another common feature is that the periodicals were, and are, largely metropolitan phenomena. Even where the periodical was one that championed the ideal of Irish-Ireland and a return to the lost paradise of an imagined Irish past in a rural idyll, its message was addressed principally to urban readers – mainly Dublin-based ones. The contents of the periodicals are, by and large, indicative of a middle-class urban elite engaging in public discourse with itself.

Finally, these periodicals had in common a certain style, which derived perhaps from a sense of their own necessity: without them, who or what would facilitate critical thought – or, indeed, any thought – in the Ireland in which they strove, and may still strive, to exist? They were not always stylish in their physical appearance, but there was a quality in the writing that conveyed a confidence that the work they were undertaking was important. It should therefore be done well, and it usually was.


1 Mark O’Brien & Felix M. Larkin, Periodicals and journalism in twentieth-century Ireland: writing against the grain (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2014); Mark O’Brien & Felix M. Larkin, Periodicals and journalism in twentieth-century Ireland 2: a variety of voices (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2021).
2 Roy Jenkins, Government, broadcasting and the press: the Granada Guildhall lecture, 1975 (London: Hart-Davis, McGibbon, 1975), p.18.
3 Sonya Perkins, “Friendship of the intelligent few and hostility of the unimaginative many: the business of publishing periodicals in Dublin, 1930-55”, in O’Brien & Larkin, Periodicals and journalism 2, pp. 60-81.
4 Malcolm Ballin, Irish periodical culture, 1957–1972: genre in Ireland, Wales and Scotland (New York, 2008), p 2.

Ten books for year-end gift giving, or your ‘shelf’

Most of the 10 books described below the photo focus on 19th and early 20th century Irish history. A few were published before this year. One is a first-ever English translation of a German work from 1913; another is an on-demand reissue of a 1922 title. Two books on Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania history are only tangentially about the Irish. Four of the authors are personal acquaintances, marked by *. I hope my readers will support their work. Titles are listed alphabetically and linked to where the books can be ordered online. That convenience notwithstanding, please support small history presses and independent booksellers whenever possible. Enjoy. MH

There’s a mistake in the order of this stack to make you look closer at the list below.

A Journey in Ireland, 1921, Wilfrid Ewart. The author, journalist, and retired British military officer traveled around Ireland for several weeks in spring 1921, shortly before the truce. Unfortunately, his book of experiences wasn’t published until spring 1922, after the treaty and the country’s lurch into civil war. That doesn’t matter as much today. This is a good travel read about Ireland at war, with plenty of passages beyond Dublin and Belfast. I wrote a 10-part blog serial revisiting the people and events Ewart encountered 100 years earlier.

America and The Making of an Independent Ireland, Francis M. Carroll. The book consolidates Carroll’s long career of scholarship on this topic. It “argues that the existence of the state of Ireland is owed to considerable effort and intervention by Irish Americans and the American public at large.” Beginning with the 1916 Rising, the final chapter pushes the story into the early phases of U.S.-Irish relations after partition and the civil war. It compliments Bernadette Whelan’s United States Foreign Policy and Ireland: From Empire to Independence, 1913-29, and Michael Doorley’s Irish-American Diaspora Nationalism: The Friends of Irish Freedom, 1916-1935.

Ireland [1913], Richard Arnold Bermann. Translated from German and edited by Leesa Wheatley and Florian Krobb. The book is a snapshot of Ireland at the start of its revolutionary period and a year before the Great War. In their Introduction, Wheatley and Krobb also note Bermann’s “umbrage … at traces of mass tourism prone to erode the serenity of the autochthonous culture where it might still survive, and the blatant exploitation of visitors by entrepreneurial yet intrusive individuals who offer their services as guides or coach drivers.” See my post, Welcoming American tourists to Ireland, 1913-2021.

Living With History: Occasional Writings, Felix M. Larkin*. A former Irish civil servant, Larkin is one of the 2008 founders of the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland. He has devoted special attention to the late Freeman’s Journal and is a regular contributor to the book review pages of The Irish Catholic and letters to the editor section of The Irish Times, plus more than two dozen academic works. His collection of nearly 100 pieces, ranging from 500 to 5,000 words; sectioned under nine themes, including one on American people and events; are all written for general audiences, Larkin says; and can be read sequentially, or dipped into, set aside, and returned to later with ease. I am honored that Larkin included my 2018 Q & A interview with him.

On the Edge: Ireland’s Offshore Islands, Diarmaid Ferriter. My wife and I have hiked and biked two of the three Aran Islands and look forward to a future visit to Inis Meáin. Until then, Ferriter’s “comprehensive study of Ireland’s offshore islands purposely eschews” the “reverent, patronizing and romantic tone” of earlier “cultural archivists and spiritual dreamers … seeking to understand – or even momentarily become part of – a mystical ancient Celtic society,” The Irish Independent wrote in its 2018 review. “Ferriter avoids single definitions, broad brushstrokes and hyperbole. Primarily because he is a historian who always favors fact, sources and evidence, over subjective opinion; and the great array of archival material he brings to the surface here is a good testament to his dedicated approach to research.”

Politics, Culture, and The Irish American Press 1784-1963, Edited by Debra Reddin van Tuyll, Mark O’Brien, and Marcel Broersma. This collection of 15 pieces “tell a number of important stories and provides invaluable insights about journalism, about Ireland, about America, and about the ethnicity of the Irish in America,” Irish Ambassador to the United States Dan Mulhall writes in the Forward. It is divided into three sections: the 1700s, the 1800s, and the 1900s. The book covers subjects you’d expect to find: Gillian O’Brien on Margaret Sullivan and Michael Doorley on the Gaelic American; and more obscure stories, such as Colum Kenny on Michael Davitt’s work for William Randolph Hearst, and Mark O’Brien on American influences at the Irish Press–Dev’s Dublin daily, 1931-1955, not his supporters’ earlier Philadelphia weekly, 1918-1922. A welcome addition to any journalism collection.

The Catholic Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania: Its Origins, Establishment, Decline, and Resurrection, John C. Bates*. Cork-born Michael O’Connor in 1843 became the first bishop of the new see at Pittsburgh. He built churches, schools, hospitals, and other institutions (He founded the Pittsburgh Catholic newspaper.) as waves of Irish Famine immigrants and poor Catholics from Eastern Europe populated the workforce of America’s most industrialized city. The Catholic Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania was created 100 years later to share the church’s history in the region and preserve its records and artifacts. Bates’ detailed reference book documents both efforts, a “history within a history.” I’ve found this book useful in my own research, including this post: Don’t drink: Father Mathew’s temperance tour in Pittsburgh.

The Fall of the Fitzmaurices, Kay Caball*. A professional genealogist and author of the definitive Finding Your Ancestors in Kerry. (She has helped me find relations and other Kerry characters.), Fall tells of the demise of the Fitzmaurice family, who had been powerful Lords of Kerry since 1235. “What could have happened to this Kerry dynasty after almost 500 years of acquisition and expansion, which was then so reduced in such a short space of time?” Caball asked in a late 2020 guest post that previews her book. “We would have to say improvidence, extravagance, careless management, and improvidence.”

The Irish Assassins, Julie Kavanaugh. This new treatment of the 1882 Phoenix Park murders and their aftermath is the most commercially popular title on this list. The Irish Times said, “Kavanagh’s is a sweeping and compelling narrative of a story that more than bears retelling. What she has sought to do, which has not been done before, is to try to connect in time the political and social lives of what is an extended and diverse cast of characters in Britain and Ireland.” Author John Banville’s New York Times review described the book as “an adroit unpicking of the intricacies of the history, and her book is at once admirable for its scholarship and immensely enjoyable in its raciness.”

The Mount Washington Transit Tunnel Disaster, Mary Jane Kuffner Hirt*. On Christmas Eve, 1917, my Kerry-born grandfather was working as a motorman for a Pittsburgh streetcar company. That day, a car in the fleet lost power as it entered the decline of a tunnel. The crash at the other end resulted in a dozen deaths and scores of injuries, still the city’s worst transit disaster. My grandfather was not involved in the episode, but he would have felt the aftershocks of the streetcar company’s bankruptcy in this dark period of the city’s history, eight months after the United States entered World War I and weeks before the outbreak of the 1918 influenza pandemic. Kuffner Hirt’s research is meticulous. My full review in Western Pennsylvania History Magazine.