Tag Archives: Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland

Guest post: Journalists recall coverage challenges during Northern Ireland Troubles

Daniel Carey is a PhD student at Dublin City University. His thesis examines the working lives of former journalists and editors in Ireland. I’ve had the pleasure of reading his work and hearing Dan present some of his research at Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland conferences. He is based at University College Dublin, where he works as research project officer for community engagement at CUPHAT. Find him on Twitter @danielmcarey. … Journalists, historians, authors, researchers, and travelers to Ireland are always welcome to offer guest contributionsMH

***

On his first night working in Belfast in late 1969, Irish Times reporter Conor Brady met his colleague Henry Kelly, who wrote on the back of Brady’s hand: “S = P; F = C”. That important piece of shorthand stood for “Shankill [Road] equals Protestants, Falls [Road] equals Catholics”. Dublin-based reporters like Brady “hadn’t a clue” about the geographical specifics of Northern Ireland at that time, he acknowledged, and he laughed ruefully when reflecting on the “guidance” he received from Kelly.

Brady, who later became editor of the Irish Times, was one of  30 people I interviewed for my PhD thesis. Many of them covered the Northern Troubles, which proved a formative experience for generations of Irish journalists. Fifty years on from Bloody Sunday in Derry and Bloody Friday in Belfast, the success of Sinn Féin in the May 2022 Assembly elections brought Northern Ireland back into the international headlines. But the days when Belfast hotels such as the Europa were regularly filled with correspondents from The New York Times, Agence-France Presse, and various German newspapers are no more.

Lyra McKee was killed in Derry, this mural is in Belfast, her native city.

The murder in 2019 of Lyra McKee in Derry brought into sharp relief the dangers faced by reporters in Northern Ireland today. Journalists who covered the Troubles faced intimidation and threats to their personal safety. But at least in some cases, journalists may have been safer than ordinary civilians, in an era when many paramilitaries felt harming reporters would be counterproductive.

Michael Foley of the Irish Times remembers travelling in a car during the Troubles when he and a colleague were stopped at a barricade patrolled by individuals armed with Armalite rifles. Foley’s outraged companion yelled: “How dare you stop us! We’re journalists!” and showed his National Union of Journalists membership card. This prompted an apology from one of the armed men, who, Foley remembers, “didn’t want us to tell Danny Morrison, who was the Sinn Féin press officer at the time”.

Emily O’Reilly says she “actually never felt unsafe” while covering Northern Ireland for the Sunday Tribune. She “knew that journalists were generally safe in the North” and felt that women “got an extra layer of protection”. In 1984, a Democratic Unionist Party [DUP] politician named George Seawright told a meeting of the Belfast Education and Library Board that Catholics who objected to the playing of the British national anthem at mixed concerts for school children were “Fenian scum” who should be incinerated, along with their priests.

Showing what she called “the fearlessness of youth”, O’Reilly rang Seawright and asked for an interview. He readily agreed and invited her to his maisonette home on the Forthriver Road in Belfast. She wandered into what she called “a wonderful oasis of domesticity”, where Seawright was “the personification of charm” and “just lovely”. She remembers him seeing her off at the door by joking: “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if you got shot here?”

Emily O’Reilly

She arranged to meet Seawright again the following day, where they were joined by a man named John Bingham, a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force [UVF] who had been sentenced to 20 years in prison on “supergrass” evidence [from an informant in exchange for immunity] before his conviction was overturned. The trio did what she called “a tourist trip” around the Shankill Road area, with Bingham showing what she said was “an incredibly detailed knowledge” of where people had died violently. Both Bingham and Seawright were themselves subsequently shot dead.

Andy Pollak, son of a Czech Jewish father and a Protestant mother from Ballymena, County Antrim, edited Fortnight magazine in Belfast from 1981 to 1985. He “very rarely had any trouble” in Northern Ireland. But one exception came in the mid-1980s, when he was researching a book which he was co-writing with fellow journalist Ed Moloney on DUP leader Ian Paisley.

“We wanted to find a place … away from the mainstream, where Paisley was talking to his own people, with no media,” Pollak explains. “He was doing a series of … rallies around the place, and he was in Pomeroy [in County Tyrone], and I went down. There was no other journalist there, and … he gave his rabble-rousing speech. And there were bandsmen, and one of them asked me … ‘Who are you?’ and I said ‘I’m from the Irish Times’ … which was a mistake. So anyway, they started to kind of duff me up and beat me up, you know, [they called me a] ‘fuckin’ Fenian’ and all this sort of stuff, and I was rescued by the RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary] … The RUC man said: ‘You’ve got a bit of blood on your collar, you could claim for that’ So I came … away eventually three hundred pounds richer … from that trip!”

Such episodes of intimidation were not confined to Northern Ireland. Husband and wife Michael O’Toole and Maureen Browne covered a lot of kidnapping stories for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, and, Browne recalls, “ran into trouble with the IRA” as a result. A petrol bomb thrown at Browne in the Dublin suburb of Portmarnock only narrowly missed its target. Threats against the couple’s children prompted O’Toole to see “the leaders of the organisation” and “the dogs of war were called off”.

The Troubles constitute a small but important slice of the material collected for the project. The thesis researches journalism as a career choice and investigates the relationship between Irish journalism and politics, religion and technology. Recordings of the 30 broad-ranging interviews will become part of the Media History Collection at Dublin City University, where they will be made available for public access and may form part of future exhibitions.

The Europa Belfast, a regular lodging place for correspondents during the Troubles, was considered “the most bombed hotel” in Europe. Despite 33 blasts, nobody was killed, according to the new book, ‘War Hotels’. 2019 photo by MH.

Our 10th blogiversary brings a new location & phase of work

I launched this blog on July 22, 2012, as a platform for “research and writing about Irish and Irish-American history and contemporary issues.” Since then I’ve published more than 900 posts on the site, contributed nearly three dozen stories to external publications, and presented seven in-person or virtual talks at museums and history conferences.

I have enjoyed connecting with readers and editors in Ireland and America. I am grateful for their assistance, feedback, corrections, and–in some cases–friendship. The blog has more than 100 email subscribers and averages about 1,500 page views per month. I appreciate the interest and support, especially from my guest post contributors and the librarians and archivists on both sides of the Atlantic who have provided in-person and remote assistance.

I debuted the blog from Tampa, Fla., moved to Washington, D.C., in January 2014, and now head to Boston as of Aug. 1. My wife, Angie Drobnic Holan, received a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University for the 2022-2023 academic year. I will enjoy access to the university’s libraries and other assets through spousal “affiliate” status. I’m going to devote the next year to what has become my main research interest: how American journalists reported the Irish revolutionary period, 1912-1923, both on the ground in Ireland and related events in America. See my American Reporting of Irish Independence series.

I except to publish fewer, but more detailed, history posts over the next 12 months. I will continue to report important contemporary developments in Ireland and Northern Ireland. I hope to return to the island for the first time since before the pandemic.

For now, thanks again for supporting the blog for 10 years.

Delivering my presentation on Ruth Russell in Revolutionary Ireland at the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland, Queens University, Belfast, November 2019.

Got a copy of this book for sale or loan?

UPDATE: It took two months, but I finally obtained a copy of the Doorley book through the inter-library loan service at Arlington County (Virginia) Public Library, a short walk from my apartment. St. Xavier University in Chicago is the lending institution. Thanks to both libraries. I have use of the book for a month, until Oct. 19. I’m still interested in buying a copy. MH

ORIGINAL POST:

It’s not only people quarantined by the COVID-19 pandemic, but also books.

I’ve been trying to obtain a copy of Irish-American diaspora nationalism: the Friends of Irish Freedom, 1916-35, by Michael Doorley. In a History Ireland article about the 1916-1921 revolutionary period, he wrote:

The development of the FOIF illustrates the impact of the changing character of the Irish immigrant group in America and the American political situation on Irish-American nationalism. Irish-Americans took pride in their American identity and their contribution to the American nation, and this sense of American identity also colored the Irish-American nationalism of the FOIF. Given the increasing tensions between Sinn Féin and the FOIF … [the November 1920] public rupture between both bodies was inevitable. 

For the record, my main interest in this book is to learn more background and context about the News Letter published from 1919 to 1922 by the FOIF-affiliated Irish National Bureau.

This book is shelved at three university libraries and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., within an hour of my apartment. Under normal circumstances, I would visit the stacks and read the book in the library. But the libraries are closed due to the pandemic.

My local Arlington County (Virginia) Public Library, a 5-minute walk from home, provides inter-library loans from a nationwide network. That service also is discontinued.

I can’t find Doorley’s book for sale online. Publisher Four Courts Press no longer has any copies in stock. I emailed the publisher about obtaining a .pdf copy of the 2005 title, but FCP replied this option is not available more than five years after publication. Amazon and other online book sellers do not list copies for sale.

I emailed Doorley, who I met last November at the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland conference in Belfast. He generously offered to make available a copy … but we discovered An Post is not delivering parcels to America, only letters, due to the pandemic. 

What to do? Patience will prevail, I suppose; the libraries or inter-library loan service will reopen eventually. That could take some time, however, given America’s poor handling of the pandemic. 

I hope that publishing this piece and posting it on social media will help. Does anyone have a copy of Doorley’s book for sale or loan?

On our eighth blogiversary & first pandemic

The blog is eight years old and has published just under 800 posts. Thank you email subscribers, social media followers, and readers who find their way to the site via search engines. Thanks also to my guest contributors.

We’ve had seven consecutive months of record site traffic and July is on pace as well. Some of the activity since March no doubt has been driven by COVID-19 quarantine on both sides of the Atlantic. I’m happy if I’ve helped readers pass some of their time inside; I know researching and writing the posts is helpful to me.

All-time most popular post: Yeats, Kennedy, ‘Vietnam’ and ‘The Second Coming’

Prior to the pandemic, the past year was especially gratifying to me for two reasons:

First, last August I celebrated my 60th birthday with my wife during a two-week trip to Ireland and Northern Ireland. Angie is the blog’s biggest supporter and a great quarantine mate. I love her.

Second, I presented my research on “Ruth Russell in Revolutionary Ireland” at the American Journalism Historians Association’s annual conference in Dallas; the Newspaper & Periodical History Forum of Ireland conference in Belfast; and the Irish Railroad Workers Museum in Baltimore. Find the Russell monograph at my “American Reporting of Irish Independence” series landing page, which features more than 60 posts about the period, plus a list of source material.

As for the island of Ireland, I can’t wait to go back. The last birthday and the pandemic have created a growing realization of how limited and precious is our time here. Enjoy each day. Stay safe.

From a birthday walk in Innisheer, August 2019.

Ruth Russell in revolutionary Ireland talk coming March 7

Thank you Irish Railroad Workers Museum. Angie & I enjoyed giving the presentation. Thanks to all who attended and asked great questions. MH

***

I am presenting “What’s the matter with Ireland?” at 11 a.m. Saturday, March 7, at the Irish Railroad Workers Museum in Baltimore. The free talk is based on my research and writing about journalist Ruth Russell, who reported from revolutionary Ireland in 1919, then became active in the Irish cause in America.

Please register in advance. The museum is located at 918 Lemon St., a group of five alley houses where many Irish immigrants lived from the mid-19th century. It is near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

Ruth Russell in 1919

Russell worked for the Chicago Daily News, then a leading U.S. provider of foreign news. Her reporting from Ireland was syndicated across America, including the Baltimore Sun. What’s the matter with Ireland? was the title of her 1920 book based on that reporting.

I presented my research at 2019 annual conferences of the American Journalism Historians Association and the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland. Here is my five-part monograph:

My wife Angie Drobnic Holan, PolitiFact.com editor-in-chief, will join me to read selections of Russell’s work. We also will recreate portions of Russell’s December 1920 testimony before the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland.

The Irish Railroad Workers Museum and Shrine at 918 Lemon St. in Baltimore.

Ruth Russell in Revolutionary Ireland: Afterward

Chicago journalist Ruth Russell reported from revolutionary Ireland in 1919, followed by a year of activism for its independence. The post concludes a five-part series: 1) Beginnings 2) Correspondent 3) Activist 4) Witness © 2019

***

Russell slipped from public attention soon after her December 1920 testimony before the American Commission on Condition in Ireland. She began working as a Chicago public high school English teacher and student newspaper adviser.1 She traveled back to Ireland and other parts of Europe a few times with her younger sister, Cecilia, also a teacher.2

Ruth Russell in 1932 Calumet High School, Chicago, yearbook photo, about age 43.

Eleven years after What’s the matter with Ireland?, Ruth published Lake Front, her novel of Chicago’s first 100 years told through three generations of the O’Mara family. The book nods to 19th century Irish nationalism through a character called “the Fenian,” an immigrant veteran of the 1848 Young Irelander Rebellion. “Irishmen must no longer be subject but free, and they must have the chance to be free in their own republic,” he says. “I will hold that every Irishman’s first duty is to Ireland.”3

In a review, the Chicago Tribune’s Fanny Butcher identified Russell as “a native Chicagoan, daughter of the late Martin J. Russell,” then dead for 31 years. The reviewer named three newspapers he was associated with in the 19th century, but nothing of his daughter’s work at the Daily News, or her earlier Ireland book.4

Robert Morss Lovett also praised Lake Front. An associate editor of The New Republic and an English professor at the University of Chicago, Russell’s alma mater, he also was a former member of the Commission on Conditions in Ireland. Lovett wrote, “in Lake Front, an outstanding piece of writing, Miss Russell has made excellent use of her great opportunity and a stout bid toward its fulfillment.”5

In an interview with the hometown Hyde Park Herald, Russell described Lake Front as “the book I have always wanted to write.”6 She dedicated the novel to Cecilia, “whose faith and love created this book.”7 Ruth was a “guest of honor” at the Friends of American Writers meeting in the Wedgwood room of Chicago’s Marshall Field’s department store.8 The 1932 yearbook at Calumet High School, where she taught, also noted her novel.9 

Russell continued teaching another 20 years. She took a few sabbaticals to continue her education at the University of Chicago, including an English course on narration. In January 1954, she “resigned” from the public school system shortly before her 65th birthday, though nothing in the file suggests this was other than a routine retirement.10 Soon after, she moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas, to join Cecilia, then a romance language teacher at the University of Arkansas.

The two unmarried sisters attended book groups and university functions together, according to newspaper social columns. Cecilia died in 1959 and was buried at the St. Joseph Catholic Church cemetery in Fayetteville. Two years later, Ruth filed her will at the Washington County, Arkansas, courthouse, which provided a $10,000 endowment upon her own death for a university scholarship in her sister’s name.11 The Cecilia Russell Memorial Scholarship to this day provides study abroad funding for students focused on French.

Ruth remained in Fayetteville until August 1963, when she entered the Rosary Hill Convalescent Home, 16 miles southwest of the Hyde Park neighborhood of her youth. She died there Nov. 28, 1963, age 74, of heart disease.12 Headlines about the assassination and burial of John F. Kennedy, America’s first Irish-American and Catholic president, dominated the last week of her life. Irish President Éamon de Valera, then 81, returned to America for Kennedy’s funeral, 44 years after being interviewed by Russell in Ireland and providing the letter for What’s the matter with Ireland?

In a short news obituary, the Daily News described Russell as a “onetime reporter” for the paper and noted her teaching career. It mentioned Lake Front, her novel, and suggested she wrote “a number of books on Ireland.”13 I have not found any other references or evidence that Russell wrote about Ireland after her 1920 book.

Russell’s body was returned to Fayetteville, and buried Dec. 2, 1963, next to her sister, according to the wishes of her will.14 On the headstone, below the centered Russell surname, the bottom left corner was engraved with Cecilia’s first name and dates. The bottom right corner of the headstone, where Ruth’s name and dates would be similarly etched, remained smooth until 2020.15

The Russell grave in Fayetteville, Arkansas, 2019.

The Russell headstone in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

FINAL THOUGHTS

This monograph is the first attempt to detail Ruth Russell’s life. Her Irish reporting and activism have received limited attention from historians, though not in as much detail as this series.16 I believe more material about Russell’s life remains to be discovered. Since I began publishing this series, one historian has made me aware that the Kathleen O’Brennan papers in Ireland contain a hotel receipt showing that Russell and activist Helen Merriam Golden shared a Washington, D.C. hotel room during the April 1920 women’s protest. The 1919 American consulate in Ireland records are another source of potential material.

After a year of research, however, I wanted to post this series in the heart of the centenary of Russell’s 1919-1920 Irish activity. I hope the open, easily accessible format will prompt more research suggestions or sources. I will update the material as appropriate as I continue to work toward a print monograph. I invite readers to submit comments, including criticism.

Beyond What’s the matter with Ireland? and her December 1920 testimony to the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland, I have not located any diaries, letters, or interviews with Russell that illuminate her private thoughts about the 1919 reporting trip to Ireland or journalism in general. “I was sent as a correspondent to Ireland and wrote a book about it,” she told the Hyde Park Herald in a 1931 interview about her novel. The story says Russell “gave up newspaper work” and began teaching in 1921.17

I wonder if her decision to leave newspapers was driven by the limited opportunities available to women at the time, or by harassment from male colleagues or reporting subjects? Was she professionally blacklisted for her short burst of pro-Irish activism, or privately steered away from revolutionary politics and social activism under the threat of scandal or the risk of losing a middle-class inheritance? Or was Russell simply needed at home to care for her widowed mother, whom she lived with for nearly 20 years after her Ireland trip, never marrying?

Describing Russell as a pioneering woman journalist is probably an overstatement. Her undercover reporting from Chicago’s factory floors and Dublin slums appeared more than 30 years after Elizabeth Cochran (Nellie Bly), Nora Marks, and other “stunt girl” reporters began writing first-person accounts about oppressive conditions in workplaces, hospitals, and public institutions. Margaret Sullivan’s book about Ireland’s social, economic, and political troubles under British rule was published in 1881, nearly 40 years before Russell’s trip. As Russell’s book circulated in 1920, Ireland’s revolutionary women published their views in nationalist newspapers, pamphlets, and books on both sides of the Atlantic.

Women reporters like Russell “have been hiding in plain sight” for over a century, Alice Fahs has observed: “They achieved a measure of fame in their own day; enlivened the pages of metropolitan mass-circulation papers that sometimes reached hundreds of thousands of readers; innovated across a variety of new genres, developed styles of newspaper writing that in some cases remains startlingly fresh today; and created a rich set of public conversations within the public spaces of the newspaper.”18

Maurice Walsh has noted: “The evident reluctance in Irish historiography to take an interest in the work of journalists is puzzling …  When media scholars do get around to writing history they are curiously neglectful of individual journalists.”19

This is changing. Groups such as the American Journalism Historians Association and the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland encourage research and widen interest in journalists like Russell. I have benefited from and contributed to that work as a non-academic member of both groups.

Making my presentation about Russell at the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland’s 2019 conference, Queens University Belfast.

Expanding digitization also increases access to the work of early journalists. Many of Russell’s 1919 dispatches are available through online newspaper databases, though not the Daily News. Digital editions of What’s the matter with Ireland?, now out of copyright, are easy to find online.

The Irish republican website An Sionnach Fionn posted the book in 2017. It described Russell’s work as “notable for its intimate and sympathetic style, with no sign of the phonetic ‘stage Irish’ accents and racist caricatures which were so beloved by the press in Britain.”20

Indeed, Russell’s reporting from the early months of the Irish revolution, especially her focus on women and workers, helped counter prevailing British and American press narratives of a contented Irish peasantry. Her vivid, 400- to 600-word dispatches would be at home on today’s digital news platforms. These vignettes about ordinary Irish lives caught in the crossfire of the revolution’s social and economic strife are valuable, underutilized snapshots of the period.

The lives of these forgotten people are worth weaving into the tapestry of historical consideration, as well as Russell’s encounters with Ireland’s mainstream political and social figures, especially at the centenary of the revolution. This mostly forgotten woman journalist is also worthy of rediscovery and reconsideration.

Ruth M. Russell’s enlarged signature from a 1961 document establishing a scholarship in her sister’s name.

Back to Ireland for history conference talk

I am returning to Ireland–my tenth visit since 2000, my fifth since 2016–to make a presentation at the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland’s annual conference at Queens University Belfast. I am speaking about pioneering woman journalist Ruth Russell, who in 1919 reported on the early months of the Irish revolution for the Chicago Daily News. Watch for updates and tweets from @markaholan.

 

Irish Bibliography of Press History now updated

The Irish Bibliography of Press History (IBPH) has been updated for the first time in over a year. This searchable, open access resource of secondary literature on the history of print media in Ireland is an initiative of the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland (NPHFI). (Disclosure: I am a member.)

“The number of new entries in this update indicates the encouragingly healthy state of research being carried out in the history of Irish print media and the IBPH now contains nearly 1,200 individual entries,” IBPH Editor James T. O’Donnell wrote. The latest entries are indicative of the database:

  • Christopher Doughan, The voice of the provinces: the regional press in revolutionary Ireland, 1914-1921 (Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2019)
  • Davide Mazzi, Views of Place, Views of Irishness: Representing the Gaeltacht in the Irish Press, 1895-1905 (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2019)
  • Louise Ryan, Winning the Vote for Women: The Irish Citizen newspaper and the suffrage movement in Ireland (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2018). (See my coverage of her presentation at last year’s NPHFI conference.)
  • Joe Breen and Mark O’Brien (eds.), The Sunday Papers: a history of Ireland’s weekly press (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2018)
  • Ian Kenneally and James T. O’Donnell (eds.), The Irish regional press, 1892-2018: revival, revolution and republic (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2018)

As relates to the study of the Irish in America and the Irish-American press, the IBPH includes, among many other entries:

  • Christoper Dowd, “The weird tales, spicy detectives, and startling stories of Irish-America: Irish characters in American pulp magazines” , Irish Studies Review, Special Issue: Texts and Textures of Irish America, Vol. 23, No. 2 (2015), pp. 176-183
  • James M. Farrell, “Reporting the Irish Famine in America: Images of ‘Suffering Ireland’ in the American press, 1845-1848” , in Ciaran Reilly (ed.) The famine Irish: emigration and the great hunger, (Dublin: History Press Ireland, 2016)
  • Alan O’Day, “Media and power: Charles Stewart Parnell’s 1880 mission to North America”, in Hiram Morgan (ed.) Information Media and Power Throughout the Ages, (Dublin: UCD Press, 2001)
  • Bernadette Whelan, “American propaganda and Ireland during world war one: the work of the Committee on Public Information” , in American propaganda and Ireland during world war one: the work of the Committee on Public Information.

“Though the IBPH continues to grow, and hopefully be useful, I am sure there is still much out there that is missing and more coming down the line, so, as always, if you aware of any forthcoming or previously published works that should be included in the IBPH and aren’t I would be most grateful for your suggestions,” O’Donnell wrote. The website linked in the first paragraph above contains a “suggestion sheet” and contact details.

For example, the IBPH does not including the 1888 book Ireland Under Coercion: Diary of an American, by New York editor William Henry Hurlbert. I have recommended it for inclusion in the next update of the database. Here is my 2018 blog serial about Hurlbert’s reporting: Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited and related piece for The Irish Story website, “1888: An American Journalist In Ireland Meets Michael Davitt & Arthur Balfour”.

Map of Ireland showing Hurlbert’s 1888 travels.

 

Back to Ireland as blog reaches seventh anniversary

This month marks the blog’s seventh anniversary, which is a good opportunity to thank readers for their interest in my work. I am grateful to my email subscribers; people who have written to me about the content; and those who help share it on social media. I’m also grateful to the archivists, librarians, and historians who have guided me along the way.

Please explore the site, including this year’s centennial project on American reporting of Irish independence in 1919; and earlier work such as Nora’s Sorrow and Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited, which each deal with the Land War period of the 1880s.

Other highlights include my St. Patrick Churches feature; Links and Places to Visit pages; and monthly and annual roundups.

My wife, Angie Drobnic Holan, has lovingly contributed to this effort as editor and webmaster. She and I will be traveling in Ireland and Northern Ireland over the next two weeks, and we will post words and images about the island’s natural beauty and contemporary culture.

Further ahead, I’ve been asked to present my Irish-related research at the American Journalism Historians Association‘s annual conference in Dallas; and the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland annual conference in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Details coming this fall.

For now, thanks again for supporting the blog, and watch for our posts from Ireland. MH

Angie and I at the Marian Year, 1954, shrine in Lahardan townland, County Kerry, in 2012. My grandfather was a born near this hillside holy well in 1894.

On new Oscar Wilde biography and old newspapers

Dublin-born writer Oscar Wilde in 1882 made a yearlong, coast-to-coast lecture tour of America. It’s the focus of a new book, Making Oscar Wilde, by Michèle Mendelssohn. In the Jan. 25 issue of America magazine, reviewer Jeffrey Myers says the author:

developed a new approach to biographical research. Vast online archives and databases provided a digital treasure trove of local newspapers in the obscure towns where Wilde had lectured that was unavailable to previous life-writers. Her innovative approach and exploration of unsuspected territory has yielded rich results, illuminating new aspects of Wilde’s life and afterlife.

Wilde, in 1882, the year of his U.S. tour.

Digitized database and online newspaper archives are fairly recent conveniences, to be sure. But the material was always there for earlier biographers; it just required more time, travel, and tribulation to dig from bound, clipped, or microfilmed editions of the old papers.

As a journalist, I once did this sort of thing all the time in what where called “morgues,” usually a musty back corner of the newsroom. It’s important to know the past, the back story, whether writing about today’s news developments or yesterday’s events.

The work can be tedious. In his Jan. 28 essay for The New Yorker, L.B.J. biographer Robert A. Caro recalls the advice he received from one of his early newspaper editors about doing investigative research; in Caro’s case, a cache of government records. “Turn every page,” the editor said. “Never assume anything. Turn every goddamn page.”

Digital searching quickly and seductively whisks you to what the Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software finds. But it may bypass misspellings; pages that are smudged and damaged; or relevant stories that don’t contain your search term(s).

Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland co-founder Felix Larkin addressed other concerns in our November 2018 interview:

Obviously, being able to search a digital newspaper archive makes the task easier, but there is a danger that it makes researchers lazy in two respects: first, they may be inclined to disregard newspapers and periodicals that have not yet been digitized and so fail to take account of important strands of opinion; and secondly, they may be content simply to find what it is that they are looking for and so miss other items – shall we call them the “unknown unknowns” (quoting Donald Rumsfeld) – that may be equally or more important.

I’ve been scrolling through microfilm of 1919 Chicago newspapers for a project I’ll unveil later this year. Seeing the surrounding headlines puts the Irish stories in wider context. And there are delightful distractions, such as following the game-by-game performance of Chicago baseball star Shoeless Joe Jackson in the months before that year’s controversial World Series.

I have benefited from digital access to old newspapers since 2008, when I found the 1941 account of my Kerry-born grandfather’s death in Pittsburgh. It prompted me to write his biography. I am currently reading digitized 1919 editions of The Irish Press, Philadelphia; Kentucky Irish American, Louisville; and similar ethnic papers to explore U.S. reporting of Ireland’s revolutionary period.

But I still love viewing original records inside archives and libraries. The undigitized material forces me to turn every goddamn page; every … faded … page.

Irish-American files in the Thomas J. Shahan Papers at The American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.