George Bernard Shaw.
By Peter McDermott
“A grave injury has been done to Ireland’s reputation in the field of folk music.”
So began a book review in the Nov. 19, 1927, issue of the Irish Statesman. It was penned by Dónal O’Sullivan, clerk of the Senate and former secretary of the Irish Folk Song Society.
Historian Ian d’Alton says that reviews in the Irish Statesman, and the controversy they generated, tended to be “robust.”
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Two former associates of Michael Collins, for example – Piaras Béaslaí and P.S. O’Hegarty – had clashed bitterly in the letters pages over the latter’s review of the former’s biography of the leader.
But O’Sullivan accused husband-and-wife author team, the Clandillons, of “slovenliness,” “ignorance” and much more.
George O’Brien, lawyer, economist and a director of the Irish Statesman, got an “unpleasant shock” when he opened his copy of the paper on Friday morning. He and others wondered how the review had gotten past its editor, George William Russell, also known by his famous penname, Æ, and they supposed that assistant editor J.W. Good, a professional newspaperman, somehow hadn’t read it.
The subsequent libel action would be a factor in taking down, in early 1930, the Irish Statesman, a paper with many Irish-American supporters, most interestingly Joseph S. Cullinan, a Texas oil magnate with his own specific agenda.
D’Alton’s piece is one of a fascinating series of 14 essays that comprise “Periodicals and Journalism in 20th Century Ireland,” edited by Mark O’Brien and Felix M. Larkin (and published by Four Courts Press). Among the early-20th century themes considered are: Arthur Griffith’s editorships, James Connolly’s the Worker, the suffragettes’ the Irish Citizen and the Irish-language paper An Claidheamh Soluis.
In March 1922, just a few weeks after the Dáil had ratified the Treaty and Ireland had started its slide into Civil War, the influential humor magazine Dublin Opinion began its 46-year run. The Bell’s tenure was shorter, 1940 through 1954; but, even if it’s usually remembered as a literary magazine, it “represented a dramatic intervention in the journalism of mid-20th century Ireland,” argues Mark O’Brien.
The book takes the story up to Hot Press, which has always been much more than a music paper.
Back in 1919, the Irish Statesman was founded by the “centrists” of the Dublin elite that had to some extent been marginalized by events. Moderate nationalists and moderate or former unionists, they had tried to find a settlement in 1917-18 that would avoid partition.
The group’s best-known personality was the former Unionist MP and founder of the Irish agricultural cooperative movement Sir Horace Plunkett. Now, he was the driving force behind the Irish Statesman.
Its advertisements suggested a readership of some means concentrated in Dublin. They were for motor cars, golf equipment, bookstores, McDowell’s jewelry, a course for improving brain power, Bernardo’s furs, Lipson’s tea, the Abbey Theatre, a spa and hydro in Cork, house furnishing, filing systems, heating stoves and margarine.
It lasted just the 12 months through June 1920, before being launched again in 1923. One of its writers, looking back at that first period, said that it had provided a “platform for constructive political thought in Ireland, and in maintaining a link between Irish opinion and the political forces in England – Labour, independent Liberalism and the Young Tories – which were sympathetic to Ireland.”
There’s a chapter here, too, on the Irish Bulletin, the independence movement’s very successful effort during this era to influence the world’s media. Its first editor was Desmond FitzGerald, father of a future taoiseach, and when he was arrested, his friend Erksine Childers, whose son was Irish president decades later, took over.
By the time of the Irish Statesman’s relaunch, Childers was dead, shot by the government of which FitzGerald was a member.
For its second act, the Irish Statesman had a literary star as editor in Russell –painter, poet, nationalist, pacifist and a strong supporter of Plunkett’s agricultural cooperative movement. Indeed, he was the long-time editor of the movement’s journal, the Irish Homestead, which would be incorporated into the Irish Statesman.
And it had an American backer with very deep pockets. Joseph Stephen Cullinan was born near Sharon, Pa., on Dec. 31, 1860, to immigrant parents from County Clare – John Cullinan and the former Mary Considine. He began his business career in Pennsylvania before moving to Texas. Described as an “active and aggressive personality,” he soon became one of the most dynamic figures in that state’s growing oil industry. He was the founder of the Texas Company, which was rebranded in 1959, two decades after his death, as Texaco.
Many of the Irish Americans who backed the paper did so for sentimental reasons, but, says d’Alton, Cullinan had a “harder economic subtext.”
The historian writes: “There was money to be made, in this new, young, old country. Shaping and manipulating public opinion (especially that of the elite) was part of this.”
After a couple of visits to the land of his parents, Cullinan said that the Free State’s “seemed destined …to be one of the most stable governments of Europe, if not the world.”
Helped by his new connections there, he set up the Galena Signal Oil Company (of Ireland) Limited, which marketed and distributed oil. In time, it became the familiar brand of Texaco.
Others’ motivations were more altruistic. “With independence, the prospect of a blank canvass upon which a new Ireland might be sketched energized Plunkett,” says d’Alton.
W.B. Yeats hoped the Irish Statesman would be the ideal Irish journal, “able and willing to submit our life to a constant, precise, unexaggerated, passionate criticism.”
In similar terms, his fellow senator, Plunkett, said: “Those at home should neither be dictated to nor advised, but that our people, newly charged with the responsibility of self-government, should be given the best opportunity for free and frank discussion of the political and social problems now clamant for solution. This could best be done by the establishment of a weekly organ – informative, independent, non-partisan – with a wide appeal to Irishmen and friends of Ireland the world over.”
The Americans and the Irish were agreed upon the embrace of constitutionalism and the rejection of violence.
“A principal focus for Plunkett was the betterment of Anglo-American relations, and he saw in the Irish-American support for the Statesman and what it represented a way in which triangulation could be made more harmonious,” says d’Alton.
Although backed by the Texas oilman, there were shareholders on the left, most notably George Bernard Shaw and the Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union.
It had plenty of enemies. Militant religious orthodoxy in the form of the Catholic Bulletin, for instance, variously described it as “pagan,” “unIrish” and “anti-Irish,” while Republicans called it the “Free Statesman” for its pro-government stance.
Some had doubts at the time about whether the Irish intelligentsia was a big enough demographic to attract advertisers. D’Alton wonders if Shaw was correct in his view that Russell didn’t have the technique to make a success of such a paper.
The editor, however, retained the confidence of Cullinan, who helped organize a U.S. fundraising speaking tour in 1928. But because of the Wall Street Crash the following year, the money pledged never arrived.
Cullinan, who personally took a big hit in the crash, castigated, in d’Alton’s words, “what he saw as an Irish trait of expecting charity and that the giver should be grateful for the privilege.”
The Irish Statesman was mourned after its closure. Katharine Tynan wrote it was “never feeble. It struck many a stout blow; but it was incredibly tolerant.”
She added it was the “cradle of young poets and writers in Ireland. One feels very sorry for them, dispossessed like birds when a tree is cut down.”
When Russell died in 1935, the Irish Times said that as editor he’d “stood for intellectual liberty at a time when almost everybody was clamoring for some restrictions everywhere.”