Cork's papers during the War of Independence: From the front page to the front line

Niall Murray delves into a book that charts sabotages, shootings and shortages in the Cork papers doing the War of Independence 
Cork's papers during the War of Independence: From the front page to the front line

Linotype machines and printing presses at the offices of the Cork Examiner were wrecked by Republican forces during the Civil War in August 1922.

Anti-Treaty forces’ destruction of the Cork Examiner and Cork Constitution offices two days before doing the same to military buildings as they urgently evacuated the city in August 1922 underlines the strategic importance of controlling the press during a war.

Alan McCarthy makes this observation on the Irish Civil War near the end of his new book on journalism and its practitioners in Cork during a decade of revolution. The pen may be mightier than the sword, he says, but military forces will sometimes turn their weapons on the printing presses.

Newspapers and Journalism in Cork, 1910-1923 goes beyond the many instances of sabotage, censorship and enforced newspaper closures to detail other challenges that faced publishers, such as industrial unrest and wartime paper shortages.

McCarthy delves deep between the lines printed in more than a dozen titles in the rebel county before, during and after the War of Independence to explain the political affiliations of the owners, but also those too of their reporters, printers and even their newsboys. Although none lost their lives directly as a result of their work in the War of Independence, several of Cork’s newsmen – for it was an almost exclusively-male sector - were killed, abducted, arrested or otherwise targeted.

Tadhg Barry was probably the best-known Cork journalist to die violently in the period when he was shot dead in a British internment camp at Ballykinlar, Co Down in 1921. The socialist republican city alderman was a former reporter at William O’Brien MP’s Cork Free Press which folded in 1916. He also wrote the ‘Neath Shandon’s Steeple’ column for the competing newspapers in Skibbereen in west Cork, the Skibbereen Eagle and Southern Star.

The book also discusses the death of Cork Examiner proof-reader Stephen Dorman after a bomb attack by Crown Forces on Douglas Street as he walked home with a colleague from a night shift.

“He was the only newspaper employee I found who lost his life in Cork during the War of Independence. His job didn’t have anything to do with it, but it might have been connected to his IRA membership,” McCarthy suggests.

Editorial matters were probably a factor, however, in the January 1923 non-fatal shooting of Cork Examiner manager Denis McGrath. In the same month, the home of the paper’s editor George Crosbie was burned down in an apparent response to his publication’s support of the pro-Treaty Free State in the ongoing Civil War.

McCarthy also delves into anti-Treaty Civil War propaganda produced in the so-called ‘Munster Republic’ of the early months of the Civil War, such as Poblacht na h-Éireann. It was turned out on a makeshift press in cottages near the Mid-Cork source of the River Lee, under the direction of Erskine Childers before his execution by the Provisional Government in November 1922.

Although four years of research for a PhD at University College Cork went into the book, the 28-year-old author has yet to hold a copy. He patiently awaits the easing of restrictions on post to Australia, as he is currently living in Brisbane with his partner Sarah Ryan.

“There was a kind of historical symmetry to the day it hit the bookshelves at home,” he laughs.

“We were visiting the tiny town of Seventeen Seventy where a monument to Captain Cook first coming ashore in Australia was erected with the help of Queensland Governor, Sir Matthew Nathan. He features in the book for his earlier role as Britain’s Under-Secretary in Ireland during the 1916 Rising,” says McCarthy.

He unearthed pre-Rising letters to Nathan in which the Cork Constitution‘s ardent unionist owner Henry Lawrence Tivy argued that home rule “would do nothing to cure the evils of Ireland.” The Constitution remained unflinchingly unionist to the end, when the Tivy family stopped the presses for the last time in July 1922 rather than be subjected to anti-Treaty IRA editorial control.

McCarthy says the Skibbereen Eagle shows how some newspaper’s allegiances were never as black and white as their product. It shifted positions editorially, partially in line with local politics and public opinion, yet managed to stay in tune with its loyalist readership. But the impact of republican boycotting forced it to close in July 1922 and it was 1926 before the next edition appeared.

The Southern Star, by contrast, became known disparagingly as the ‘Sinn Féin Star’ after its 1917 takeover by prominent revolutionaries.

It was not, however, the first distinctly republican newspaper produced in Cork. The rare 1914 editorial harmony of the Examiner and Constitution in support of British army enlistment to fight the Kaiser forced local militants into the world of publishing.

Terence MacSwiney’s weekly Fianna Fáil shared its title with a name given to the Irish Volunteers, whose local membership he sought to bolster. This penny-sheet and local printer Patrick Corcoran’s Cork Celt circulated for barely two months before ceasing publication under threat of British military suppression for strongly anti-recruitment content.

Previous books have touched on both papers, but even McCarthy was surprised to learn of a revolutionary newspaper published in his native north Cork town of Charleville. He jokingly labels the Southern Democrat, which circulated for nearly two years from late 1917, as the ‘Red Flag of the Golden Vale’.

“Most of the historic newspaper archives are digitised and viewable online from home. But I had to go to the National Library of Ireland to read the Southern Democrat on microfilm,” he explains.

“It was a socialist republican paper that initially covered matters in north-west Cork and south Limerick, but there appears to be no local knowledge or memory of it, so I really enjoyed finding out and writing about that.” 

With his evidence of political messaging, military censorship and enforced editorial insertions, McCarthy suggests a cautious approach to the use of online newspaper archives by those compiling family or local histories. Distinguishing news from misinformation is clearly not a skill that first became necessary in the internet age.

  • Newspapers and Journalism in Cork, 1910-1923 by Alan McCarthy is published by Four Courts Press.

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