A Four Nations Approach to Everyday Newspaper Propaganda
This week, Barry Sheppard (Queen’s University Belfast) demonstrates the power of editorial cartoons in declaring Fianna Fáil’s political agenda both at home and abroad.
On the surface Saturday 5 September 1931 may not sound like a date of historical significance in British/Irish relations. However, this date was in fact the launch of the Fianna Fáil aligned Irish Press newspaper, and with its launch came a harder political line in relation to the post-Treaty relationship between Britain and the Irish Free State.
The newspaper was the brainchild of the most prominent ‘Anti-Treaty’ exponent, Eamon de Valera, as well as a host of other republicans who had played a significant part in not only the hostilities of the previous decade, but the hard-political line after the signing of the 1921 treaty. Together they would use the new publication to provide a much-needed voice for political viewpoints of de Valera’s Fianna Fáil party. From the outset through its features and editorials the paper ominously promised to do away with the old order and bring with it a new era of politics which would seek to rework the 1921 political settlement and alter the relationship between the fledgling Irish Free State and Westminster.
The party’s vision for a rural, self-sufficient Ireland of small holders was championed throughout the paper from the first edition. This stance was a manifestation of the idealised Ireland envisioned by so many of the generation brought up in the cultural revival of the turn of the century. It was also this vision of a nation of small-holders that would bring the new regime into conflict with Britain, a vision which Britain had arguably helped bring about via financial loans to tenant farmers under the land acts of the late 19th century.
Deputy leader of Fianna Fáil, Sean Lemass had famously described the party as ‘a slightly constitutional party’ in 1929, and with the help of the Irish Press the party set out its stall on how to dismantle those aspects of the Irish constitution with which it fundamentally disagreed. The Press played an important role in this aspect, and was credited as being a ‘fine propaganda tool’ for the party on the run-up to the all-important 1932 general election which swept Fianna Fáil into power.[i]
It was the paper’s role as party propaganda organ where it made a significant visual impact. For the first two years of the paper’s existence editorial cartoons were employed to emphasise various aspects of Fianna Fáil policy, a number of which dealt with the ensuing ‘Economic War’ with Britain. Interestingly, from a four nations’ point of view, some cartoons portrayed Fianna Fáil as not only the party of Irish-Ireland, but as champion of the rights of the ordinary man in Britain living under the boot of an uncaring and foolish British government.
One of the many sticking points of the 1921 Treaty, which Fianna Fáil could not stand over, was the reimbursement to Britain of land annuities from the aforementioned financial loans granted to Irish tenant farmers in the decades prior to independence. Fianna Fáil flatly refused to pay, resulting in the imposition of unilateral trade restrictions by both countries. Of course, this was to have a much more severe impact on the weaker of the two economies, the Irish Free State. Nevertheless, it was around this issue that the propaganda machine of the Irish Press went into creative overdrive, producing some of the most visually imaginative cartoons of the paper’s formative years.
Numerous cartoons featured Britain personified, John Bull, in a series of farcical situations, employing a series of backfiring tactics that were doing his beloved Britain more harm than good. On the occasions wherein the cartoons personalised the attacks on Britain, the target was without fail, J.H. Thomas, Secretary of State for the Colonies.
It is no surprise that a newspaper so closely aligned to a ruling Irish Free State and self-professed ‘Republican Party’ Government would take great delight in portraying the issues raised in the cartoons as good vs. evil or perhaps more accurately, David vs. Goliath, within a traditional anti-colonial narrative. What is profoundly more interesting is the paper’s portrayal of the British working class and the damage John Bull and J.H. Thomas were supposedly inflicting upon them in order to make an example of the Irish.
This portrayal is best illustrated in the October 28, 1932 edition of the Irish Press which shows a perplexed J.H. Thomas in his armchair figuring out his next move in the trade war with Ireland while the ghostly apparitions of numerous flat-capped gaunt figures of men partaking in the ‘Hunger March’ of that year, shuffling behind the Minister with heads bowed.
The use of the ordinary British man as a figure deserving of Irish sympathy poses a question about whether these images were merely for the paper’s increasing audience within Ireland, or also destined for the eyes of the Diaspora within Britain. Anecdotal evidence exists of Irish families sending over daily newspapers along with other mementos of home to exiled family members in Britain, finding a receptive audience among Irish circles in Britain’s industrial cities.
However, there is not enough evidence to suggest that the cartoons were destined for the Diaspora, leaving their inclusion solely as propaganda to help placate an Irish audience who were on the losing end of the standoff. Moreover, given that the paper’s editor at the time, Frank Gallagher has been equally lauded and reviled as a master of republican propaganda[ii], it indeed seems that the latter was the case.
[i]D Keogh, Twentieth Century Ireland: Revolution and State Building, (Dublin, 2005), p 60
[ii]G. Walker, ‘The Irish Dr Goebbels’: Frank Gallagher and Irish Republican Propaganda’ in Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Jan., 1992), pp. 149-165
*All images used with permission from Irish Newspaper Archives and the Irish Press.