Civil unrest, war, reprisals and a claim for independence catapulted Ireland on to the front pages of newspapers all around the world during the revolutionary period.
For the first time since the Great Famine, large numbers of foreign journalists descended on Ireland. Eager to see what was happening in a corner of one of the world’s largest democracies, they visited towns and cities all around the island.
Soon, the words Sinn Féin and the names of Ireland’s revolutionary leaders would be splashed across headlines.
Photographs of men like Eamon de Valera and Arthur Griffith appeared alongside newspaper articles which spoke of a people terrorised by war.
One of those who made their way to Ireland at this time was a young journalist named Joseph Kessel. He would go on to become a celebrated journalist and prize-winning novelist in his adopted home of France (Luis Buñuel’s 1967 film Belle de Jour was based on one of his books).
Kessel travelled to Dublin, Cork and Belfast in September 1920. He met with many important figures on both sides, including Sinn Féin leaders such as Erskine Childers and Constance Markievicz, as well as the commander of British troops in Ireland, General Sir Nevil
He saw at first-hand how the people and the land were marked by the conflict.
In Dublin, Kessel saw groups of office workers and waiters leaving their places of employment to attend special masses that were being offered for Cork’s lord mayor, Terence MacSwiney, who was on hunger strike in Brixton Prison.
Meanwhile in Cork, which he called “the city that waits and prays”, Kessel witnessed deeply moving scenes that left a lasting impression on him.
He described seeing crowds of people making their way from the city, the suburbs and the surrounding hills at 8pm each evening to Cork City Goal to pray for the 11 prisoners who were on hunger strike inside.
A Franciscan friar recited prayers for the men inside and the large crowd that had gathered on the bridge in front of the prison entrance responded in unison.
Hymns were sung after the prayers and so touched was the young journalist by these poignant scenes that when he reflected on them in later years, he said “I felt Irish at the time”.
Among the other overseas publications sympathising with the Irish was Il Popolo d’Italia. In August 1920, it carried a piece headlined ‘Mac Swiney agonizza... Viva la republicca Irlandese!’. The article was signed by the newspaper’s editor, Benito Mussolini.
Throughout the revolutionary period, newspaper cartoonists were busy providing their readers with a visual commentary that was equally as strong, if not more stringent than the many column inches of textual reporting.
Editorial cartoons analysing what was happening in Ireland appeared in many European and American newspapers.
In Britain, David Low’s satiric cartoons in the liberal London evening newspaper, The Star, provided readers with a wry look at events in Ireland.
Amongst other issues, Low questioned the liberty of the press to report what was happening in the face of State repression.
Several French newspapers also contained cartoons inspired by Irish topics. The left-leaning daily newspaper, L’Œuvre, carried some 27 cartoons between July 1920 and October 1922 analysing events such as the MacSwiney hunger strike and the burning of Cork.
These otherwise simple little panels of black ink would have supplemented the articles that appeared alongside them and given readers insight into what was really happening on the ground.
Another important aspect of the visual commentary was the appearance of Irish news stories on the cover of several European illustrated news magazines.
These colourful hand drawings of Irish towns and villages, reduced to burned out buildings and desolate cityscapes must surely have hit a raw nerve in Europe where the memories of the First World War and its destructive power were still fresh in the public imagination.
The front pages of these French and Italian illustrated periodicals also carried representations of assassinations and IRA attacks on Crown forces.
This would also have resonated with many in Europe who were caught up in similar incidents during the war. Interest in Irish affairs continued up until the Dáil debates on the Anglo Irish Treaty, which took place began on 14 December 1921.
One observer described seeing “a battalion of Pressmen — and Presswomen… crowded like sardines. They represented newspapers in every civilised portion of this globe. Through them news of the meeting was flashed to the ends of the earth”.
It would not be too far-fetched to say that the multi-faceted international press coverage of Ireland at such a crucial time was an important factor in the resolution of the Irish Question.
At a time, when newspapers and periodicals were the only source of information for the vast majority of the people, the British government was forced to act in the face of such negative news coverage.
The power of the journalist’s pen and the artist’s brush caused people to question just what was happening in Ireland and ask if there was a better solution.
Caravaggio's part in the Irish revolution
After the final surrender of the rebel forces in Dublin on April 29, 1916, prisoners were held overnight in the Rotunda Gardens. Rebel leader Tom Clarke (59) was humiliated by officer-in-charge, Captain Percival Lea-Wilson, a former RIC man who had joined the British army and returned wounded from the western front. Clarke was reportedly stripped in front of the other prisoners — including Michael Collins and Liam Tobin — and the nurses at the Rotunda hospital windows.
Tobin also recalled Lea-Wilson refusing to allow him (Tobin) stand up when he was suffering badly from cramps, and he vowed that “I would deal with him at some time in the future”. Many accounts suggest Collins also vowed revenge on Lea-Wilson for the humiliation of Clarke. Tobin went on to become a key member of Collins’s ‘Squad’, while Lea-Wilson, having rejoined the RIC, received a posting as District Inspector in North Wexford.
On June 15,1920, he was shot dead by an IRA party led by Tobin as he returned home with his daily newspaper in Gorey.
Lea-Wilson’s Irish wife Marie, who went on to become a renowned paediatrician, was afterwards comforted and befriended by the Jesuit priest Thomas Finlay. In gratitude, she gave Finlay a painting she had purchased in Edinburgh in the 1920s, which was erroneously attributed to Gerard Van Honthorst and titled The Betrayal of Christ.
The painting hung in the dining room in the Jesuit House of Writers at Lower Leeson Street, Dublin until a conservator at the National Gallery was asked in 1990 to assess it for restoration. It was then discovered that the painting was in fact a ‘lost’ masterpiece by Italian Baroque master Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ. It was given to the Irish state on indefinite loan by the Jesuits, and has been on display in National Gallery since 1993.