Tag Archives: New York Times

The U.S. press on Sinn Féin election wins, 1918 and 2020

Ireland’s Feb. 8 national election has produced the unexpected result of Sinn Féin out-polling two mainstream center-right parties. As CNN reports:

The votes are still being counted but this left-wing, Irish nationalist party has pulled off a major political upset, breaking a century of dominance by establishment heavyweight parties (Fine Gael and Fianna Fail) and changing the political landscape of Ireland likely forever.

Dublin historian John Dorney, chief editor of The Irish Story, wrote on Twitter that some people (including Gerry Adams) are drawing comparisons to Sinn Féin‘s historic 1918 election shocker, when it swept aside the previously dominant Irish Parliamentary Party. By coincidence, both votes were held on Saturdays. Dorney cautioned, “It’s not really a good comparison.”

For perspective, Dorney reposted his centenary story about the 1918 election. “From this election comes the roots of the modern Irish state, but also of modern Irish Republicanism and its claim for a mandate for the full independence of all Ireland.”

Here are my own 100th anniversary posts about:

Here is more 2020 American press coverage of the latest Sinn Féin win:

From The New York Times:

Sinn Féin, a leftist party long ostracized from Irish politics over its ties to sectarian violence, won the popular vote and seized its largest-ever share of parliamentary seats in the country’s national elections … . The vote loosened a 90-year stranglehold on power by two center-right parties in Ireland and put Sinn Féin on the doorstep of joining a coalition government, a remarkable rebuke to a political establishment that tried to paint it as aberrant and unelectable throughout the campaign.

From National Public Radio:

Despite the peace [in the North], bad memories linger on both sides of the border, and Sinn Féin continues to carry the baggage of its historical association with the IRA. … Hence the reluctance of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail leaders to even work with the party … But among voters, it appears that baggage has become lighter with time.

From The Washington Post:

Sinn Féin is rooted in the cause of Irish unity. … With the armed conflict in Northern Ireland largely over, it’s grown into a broadly center left party, contesting elections north and south of the border on a platform of tackling austerity and taxing the wealthy.

From NBC News:

Those who lived through “the Troubles” … will never forgive Sinn Féin for their historic link with the IRA, while the younger generation simply don’t have the same associations. The question now is whether Sinn Féin will turn out to be the party the older generation is so afraid of, or the party into which young people have put all their hopes.

From Bloomberg:

Irish stocks dropped as investors digested Sinn Féin’s potential influence on policy. … Betting odds suggest a coalition between Fianna Fail, Sinn Féin and the Green Party remains the most likely outcome.

W.B. Yeats arrives in New York, January 1920

Irish poet William Butler Yeats sailed into New York City on Jan. 24, 1920, for what was his fourth of five lifetime visits to America. The other tours were in 1903/4, 1911, 1914, and 1932/33. Cumulatively, he spent more than a year in the United States.

“Spurred no doubt by the strength of patriotic sentiment he encountered among Irish Americans, he made some of his most overtly nationalistic pronouncements while he was in America,” according to the Embassy of Ireland, USA. “By the time Yeats returned to the United States in 1920 everything in Ireland had, as he put it in Easter 1916  ‘changed utterly’ and the country was in the throes of a war of independence. The Easter Rising had revived Yeats’s interest in Irish affairs and encouraged him to move back to Ireland from London where he had lived for most of the previous three decades.” 

Clipping from the Daily News (New York, N.Y.), Jan. 27, 1920, page 10.

Yeats’ 1920 U.S. tour began a year after the first Dáil Éireann was established in Dublin, seven months after stowaway Éamon de Valera arrived in New York; and a week after the Irish bond drive was launched in America. It was Yeats first American visit with his wife, Georgie Hyde-Lees, whom he’d married in 1917.

He “looked every bit the idealist and dreamer he is said to be, with his unruly hair pushed back from his well-shaped brow and a flowing tie setting off the English tweed suit he wore,” The New York Times reported.1 The newspaper quoted him:

Ireland is now a country of oppression. While there is much talk of freedom, there is little to be had. Because of the great political battles now being waged one must guard his speech and even the mail is not allowed to pass untouched. It is quite [clear] something must be done in Ireland. A settlement will be difficult because of many factors, but a settlement there must be.

Of course, at the present time the Sinn Feiners are in the majority, and will remain so until something is offered, but the Dominion Government, which wants the largest possible measure of home rule, is also very powerful. I do not think that Ulster should be coerced any more than the remainder of the country. There should be some way to permit both to work out their destiny.

Personally, I am an Irish Nationalist, and believe that the present unrest will settle as soon as there is some form of self-government.

See more of my series: American Reporting of Irish Independence.

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.

U.S. media plays sectarian card in N.I. election coverage

News of Sinn Féin‘s big gains in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections is reaching American media outlets, and with it the usual sectarian shorthand that has virtually disappeared from Irish and British coverage.

While Jewish-Muslim tension remains fundamental to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Catholic-Protestant animosity has a shrinking role in today’s Northern Ireland political narrative. But the storyline remains catnip to many U.S. news outlets.

Here’s the top of The New York Times‘ Assembly election coverage, which appeared at the bottom of page 10 of the 5 March print issue:

Sinn Féin, the main Catholic nationalist party in Northern Ireland, won its greatest number of legislative seats ever after a snap election this weekend, creating a virtual tie with its Protestant rivals and throwing nearly two decades of peaceful power sharing into turmoil.

This is an improvement over the 16 January Times’ story reporting the pending election:

Voters in Northern Ireland will go to the polls on March 2 in a snap election that was forced by the main Catholic party, Sinn Féin, after the collapse of a regional government in which Catholics and Protestants shared power.

The newer story introduces the concept of a nationalist party — instead of simply Catholic –in the first sentence. In the January story, the word nationalist isn’t used at all. The fourth paragraph does explain: “Sinn Féin wants Northern Ireland to stay in the European Union and eventually reunite with Ireland.” The word unionism is introduced in the same graph. Both stories were written by Sinead O’Shea.

The Washington Post published an Associated Press story on its website, though none has appeared in print as of 5 March. Here’s the lede:

Northern Ireland’s snap election has left the rival extremes of politics virtually neck and neck for the first time — and facing a bruising battle to put their Catholic-Protestant government back together again in an increasingly polarized landscape. The big winner from Saturday’s final results to fill the Northern Ireland Assembly is the Irish nationalist party that triggered the vote, Sinn Féin.

“Unionist” doesn’t appear until the fifth paragraph, in the formal name Democratic Unionist Party, then a graph later as lowercase “unionists committed to keeping Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom.”

The descriptions could benefit from modifiers such as “predominantly Catholic nationalists” or “historically Protestant unionists,” leaving room for those who do not fit the easy stereotype. We are a long way from the days of “Home Rule is Rome Rule.” Northern Ireland is increasingly diverse in its religious (or non-religious), racial and political make up. Winners of 13 of 90 seats in this election are from parties or independents that eschew traditional Catholic or Protestant affiliation. Their 14.4 percent share is up from 12.9 percent in the May 2016 election.

Think it’s impossible for U.S. media to avoid this sectarian shorthand? NPR’s coverage, by Colin Dwyer, shows how the basic political divide can be explained without using religious identifiers.

When the dust finally settled Saturday on Northern Ireland’s snap assembly election, it became clear a new political reality now awaits voters there. After an exceedingly strong showing by Sinn Féin, Northern Ireland’s government is split all but down the middle between Irish nationalists and their pro-British counterparts.

The story does not use the words Catholic or Protestant.  Only an online photo caption describes “the Catholic Falls Road” in Belfast. The word nationalist appears three times in this story, lowercase unionist four times, plus an additional reference to the Democratic Unionists.

The opening of The Irish Timeselection wrap-up is representative of how Northern politics is reported on the island of Ireland, and in Britain. Note the use of the word republican instead of nationalist:

Sinn Féin has emerged as the biggest winner in the North’s Assembly election after the party came to within one seat of matching the Democratic Unionist return of 28 seats. In a dramatic shake-up, unionists lost their long-enduring and highly symbolic overall majority in Stormont as the republican party came very close to securing more first preference votes than the DUP.

Peace walls, right, gated roads , center, and boarded windows are reminders of the lingering Catholic-Protestant divide in Belfast. Mark Holan photo, July 2016.

I’m not saying sectarian labels are never used in Irish and British media coverage, but they are becoming as sparse as people in Northern Ireland church pews. I wonder if these newsrooms have made conscious decisions to keep religious affiliation out of their political coverage.

To be sure, the “peace walls” separating Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods in Belfast are a stark reminder that sectarianism still exists in Northern Ireland. And the U.S. media coverage does include the important contemporary context of Brexit and the Northern Ireland renewable energy scandal.

Alan Bairner wrote a chapter about international and local media coverage of the Troubles in the 1996 book, Northern Ireland Politics, edited by Arthur Aughey and Duncan Morrow. Remember, this was more than 20 years ago, and two years before the Good Friday Agreement.

Certainly the people of Northern Ireland could have no grounds for complaint about the levels of interest shown by the international media, although they were frequently uneasy about the quality of the analysis which resulted from that media interest. … There is little evidence, for example, that British or, indeed, international coverage of the Troubles had a significant impact on the views of people in Northern Ireland itself. Most Northern Irish people formulate political views on the basis of numerous factors and their reaction to media output, regardless of its aim, is more or less predetermined.

And the local press coverage?

It would be preposterous to suggest that the owners and editors of Northern Ireland’s local newspapers are responsible for the divisions in their society. It is undeniable, however, that their papers, through the choice of stories which are published and even the use of language to tell these stories, give voice to the rival perspectives of the two communities and, as a consequence, give added strength to these perspectives in the eyes of those who hold them. Therefore, local papers as well as the [Protestant] News Letter and the [Catholic] Irish News have helped to reproduce sectarian attitudes and in so doing they have become complicit in the maintenance of the politics of division.

(I added the paragraph beginning “Such descriptions … ” and made other minor revisions from the original post. MH)