A nursery of editors: the Cork Free Press, 1910–16

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2007), Volume 15

William O’Brien.

William O’Brien.

William O’Brien (1852–1928), from Mallow, was one of Parnell’s chief lieutenants in the 1880s. Originally a journalist with the Freeman’s Journal, O’Brien was recruited to run Parnell’s weekly United Ireland. This was the model for his own later journalistic enterprises, and his embodiment of a type of journalism that focused on the newspaper as political mouthpiece rather than commercial enterprise. O’Brien served as MP for various Cork constituencies between 1882 and 1918 (with a brief incursion into South Tyrone in 1885–6). His parliamentary career was interrupted by a politically motivated bankruptcy in the mid-1890s and by several abrupt retirements owing to bouts of ill health brought on by overwork. For a time in the late 1880s his defiances and imprisonments during the Plan of Campaign made him the hero of nationalist Ireland; the split (in which he opposed Parnell) and the ways in which his recklessness brought ruin on many tenants who had lost their holdings during the agitation meant that he never quite recovered his former stature. His prestige revived in 1898–1900, when he founded the United Irish League to argue for land division in Connacht and to serve as a vehicle for the reunion of the Irish Parliamentary Party, but his career after 1903 was spent as the leader of splinter groups (notably the All-for-Ireland League, founded in 1910) that advocated the gradual attainment of Home Rule through cooperation with moderate unionists to secure a limited measure of devolution. While this has been praised by many commentators as a serious attempt to address Ireland’s sectarian divide, O’Brien’s conciliatory principles were ill-served by his erratic leadership and vituperative language. Many nationalists of the younger generation (including Patrick Pearse and D. P. Moran) wrote sadly of the contrast between their childhood vision of O’Brien as a chivalric hero and the ugly squabbles of his later years. He retired from politics at the 1918 general election and spent the remainder of his life in retirement in Mallow. (An elderly, broken-down Irish emigrant in Brian Moore’s novel The luck of Ginger Coffey is called William O’Brien Davis, his name a commentary on the broken dreams of the 1880s from the disillusioned standpoint of the 1950s.)

Sophie Raffalovich (1860–1960)

The O’Brien archive owes its location and present form to Sophie Raffalovich (1860–1960), who married O’Brien in 1890. Her father was a wealthy Jewish banker and merchant from Odessa, who moved his family to France in the early 1860s to escape persecution; her mother (who was a good deal younger than her husband) kept a salon, acted as patroness of the arts and sciences (she had a platonic relationship with the scientist Claude Bernard) and was strongly linked to the republican opposition to Napoleon III. It was this political radicalism (and a strain of Cobdenite anti-landlordism) that drew mother and daughter to take up the Irish cause in the late 1880s; they corresponded with O’Brien about translating his novel When we were boys into French, he visited them in Paris, and a courtship developed in which Sophie took the initiative. She converted to Catholicism on marriage, as several maternal relatives had already done.

‘Father Gilligan & the evicted Flanigan family—Vandeleur estate’ (Kilrush, Co. Clare)—caught up in the Plan of Campaign, 1887. O’Brien’s defiances and imprisonments during the campaign made him the hero of nationalist Ireland. (National Library of Ireland)

‘Father Gilligan & the evicted Flanigan family—Vandeleur estate’ (Kilrush, Co. Clare)—caught up in the Plan of Campaign, 1887. O’Brien’s defiances and imprisonments during the campaign made him the hero of nationalist Ireland. (National Library of Ireland)

Sophie’s financial and emotional support sustained O’Brien in his later political enterprises; she took her general political direction from him while making him eat regularly and keeping his clothes in good condition. She did not follow his direction in everything; he supported women’s suffrage while she was bitterly against it and refused to vote after it was granted. O’Brien, who lost his siblings and widowed mother to tuberculosis in the early 1880s, had previously lived out of two suitcases in a hotel room. Sophie preserved and filed his correspondence and made fair copies of his notoriously illegible letters. She was a significant writer in her own right; Under Croagh Patrick (1904) gives a striking picture of the poverty and remoteness of west Mayo in the 1890s, though some of her essays on their poorer neighbours in Mallow, Around Broom Lane (1931), were resented locally as patronising.
Most of the Raffalovich fortune, invested in Germany and Tsarist Russia, was lost during the First World War. After her husband’s death in February 1928, Sophie flung herself into safeguarding his reputation by getting some of his works reprinted and preparing manuscript commentaries on his letters to her for the benefit of future biographers. In 1933 she returned to France to live with friends. Before leaving Ireland, she deposited her husband’s papers at University College Cork and the National Library of Ireland. During the German occupation of France she lived semi-clandestinely (two relatives were deported to the death camps), and her last years were spent as a poverty-stricken invalid in the French village of Neuilly St Front, occasionally corresponding with admirers of her husband and cared for by two friends whom she regarded as adopted daughters.
National Library of Ireland MS 8507 consists of a dozen ‘Memoirs’ of different individuals written by Sophie O’Brien for the benefit of her husband’s official biographer, Michael MacDonagh, whose book was half-completed when William O’Brien died in February 1928. They appear to have been sent as commentaries accompanying bundles of letters from individual correspondents. Several of these were drawn on for her essay collection My Irish friends (1937), but the manuscripts often contain material omitted from the printed version (such as a critical account of the political and social influence of John Dillon’s wife and a description of the death of Michael Davitt’s eldest daughter through deliberate neglect by a demented Parnellite servant).

United Ireland celebrates O’Brien’s marriage to Sophie Raffalovich in 1890.

United Ireland celebrates O’Brien’s marriage to Sophie Raffalovich in 1890.


Cork Free Press

MS 8507(7), ‘Our last editors of the Cork Free Press’—with a covering letter dated 11 November 1928, which explains that it was written to clarify some references in the letters of Lord Dunraven and Moreton Frewen to her husband—sheds some interesting light on figures known in other historical contexts.
The Cork Free Press was founded early in 1910 as a daily evening newspaper in succession to a campaign sheet, the Cork Accent. The first editor was John Herlihy, who had previously edited the post-1904 incarnation of O’Brien’s Dublin-based weekly, the Irish People (which closed in 1909). Several of Herlihy’s letters to O’Brien about that journal and contemporary political events, including an account of Anna Parnell’s furious response to O’Brien’s treatment of the Ladies’ Land League in his Recollections (1905), are in the UCC section of the O’Brien Papers. Soon after the appearance of the Cork Free Press, however, Herlihy fell out with O’Brien. The editor had decided that it would be a good idea to equip the paper with newly developed monotype technology rather than linotype machines. (Linotype sets a whole line of metal type for printing; monotype sets it word by word. Herlihy may have been influenced by the fact that O’Brien’s ally, Lord Dunraven, was a prominent shareholder in the Monotype Company.) Unfortunately, monotype is better suited for book production than for the high-volume and time-constrained business of newspaper publishing, because it allows much greater scope for error as well as for corrections. The Cork Free Press became notorious for misprints, and Herlihy was fired. He sued unsuccessfully for unfair dismissal, and subsequently went bankrupt; he remained active in London journalism, however, and in the mid-1930s edited the Irish Press for a year.
Herlihy’s successor was Hugh Art O’Grady, eldest son of the antiquarian Standish James O’Grady. This aspect of Hugh Art’s career has hitherto escaped the notice of O’Grady scholars, who know him only for the biography of his father, published in 1928 as a professor of English literature in Johannesburg. When researching the Irish Weekly Independent some time ago I came across an obituary of Hugh Art O’Grady that mentioned his editorship of the Cork Free Press; unfortunately, when preparing a subsequent article on Standish James O’Grady I misread my notes and ascribed the editorship to Guillamore O’Grady (a cousin whose obituary appeared around the same time). Sophie O’Brien recalls Hugh Art O’Grady as a cultured young Trinity graduate who was genuinely sympathetic to the All-for-Ireland League (his testimony about Redmondite misconduct during O’Brien’s unsuccessful candidacy for East Cork in the December 1910 general election played a significant role in unseating the successful candidate on petition) but lacked knowledge of the wider context of contemporary Irish politics and was not a particularly good writer.
At the outbreak of the First World War O’Grady was carried away by martial enthusiasm; his editorials on the subject grew so frequent and fervent that even William O’Brien was embarrassed. Eventually (early in 1915) O’Grady announced that he could remain with the paper no longer as he wished to enlist. After being turned down three times because of ill health (he had only one good eye, though Sophie states that he was nonetheless a good shot), O’Grady was accepted but was dismayed to discover that his superiors intended to make him a cook. O’Brien got his political associate Moreton Frewen to intercede with Lord Derby (director of recruiting) on O’Grady’s behalf, and

Frank Gallagher, the best-known figure to edit the Cork Free Press, subsequently founding editor of the Irish Press and director of publicity for de Valera. (Ann Gallagher)

Frank Gallagher, the best-known figure to edit the Cork Free Press, subsequently founding editor of the Irish Press and director of publicity for de Valera. (Ann Gallagher)

the young man was assigned to combat duty in what Sophie O’Brien describes as a marshy area in the east with much sickness and little fighting (perhaps Salonika?). O’Brien later wrote a letter of recommendation for O’Grady at the request of a brother (presumably Standish Conn O’Grady, who distinguished himself in the Royal Flying Corps) who hoped to get him an officer’s commission. O’Brien was subsequently sorry to hear that Hugh Art refused to use the letter ‘out of a chivalrous feeling for his old chief’. Sophie states that until his own death her husband retained warm memories of O’Grady as ‘a gallant fellow’ and would have liked to hear from him again.
O’Grady’s successor was the best-known figure to edit the Cork Free Press: Frank Gallagher, subsequently founding editor of the Irish Press and director of publicity for de Valera. Sophie O’Brien recalls him as coming straight to the paper from the Christian Brothers’ school on a modest salary, and catching her husband’s attention by the vivid style in which he reported a fire. When several London correspondents proved incapable, O’Brien thought of Gallagher; Sophie remembered the young man as shy and unsure of his abilities, and recalled that she had urged him to take the chance. In assessing Sophie O’Brien’s view of Frank Gallagher certain points about her political sympathies need to be borne in mind. William O’Brien looked on the 1916 rebels as resembling the Fenian acquaintances of his youth (he thought of Michael Collins as resembling his elder brother, James Nagle O’Brien, who had been a leading Mallow Fenian and died young of tuberculosis) and saw their movement as provoked by the failings of the mainstream Irish Parliamentary Party. Sophie, on the other hand, was preoccupied throughout the First World War by the plight of France (her mother insisted on remaining in Paris for most of the war despite its proximity to the front) and disliked the 1916 rebels for playing into the hands of Germany. William saw de Valera as an admirable though sometimes impracticable idealist, and at the end of his life outspokenly supported Fianna Fáil on the partition issue. Sophie regarded de Valera as a self-righteous egoist and thought that he showed insufficient gratitude for her husband’s support. (Her opinion of de Valera did not improve in later life; he blocked attempts to raise a public subscription for her in wartime Ireland, declaring that the government would look after her, and then sent her a once-off payment of £100, which she considered grossly inadequate.) According to Sophie, Gallagher’s London letters were the talk of Cork—‘very brilliant, very witty, delightful reading, but never had lying been carried to such a fine art’. William O’Brien was somewhat perturbed at this; she herself had thought that it did not greatly matter as the lying mostly consisted of fantasies about interviews in clubland and contacts with ministers.
On O’Grady’s departure, with the paper short of accomplished writers, the O’Briens turned to Gallagher. Unfortunately, he displayed little understanding of the rationale of O’Brienism—‘He was a town’s boy. The agrarian question bored him to death.’ When given An olive branch in Ireland and its history (1910), O’Brien’s self-justifying memoir of Irish politics from the outbreak of the Parnell split to the foundation of the All-for-Ireland League, Gallagher could barely get through the first hundred pages. Rising losses and paper shortages forced the Cork Free Press to become a weekly in mid-1915.
After the Easter Rising, Sophie told MacDonagh, Gallagher showed himself to be ‘a very incompetent and faithless editor’ who turned the paper into a Sinn Féin organ, despite their protests that it existed to spread All-for-Ireland principles. (Gallagher’s own recollections, Four glorious years, state that he told O’Brien that the staff would walk out unless the paper adopted a pro-Sinn Féin editorial line.) She even claims that he refused to insert a letter sent by Sinn Féin prisoners dissociating themselves from denunciations of O’Brien’s candidate during the West Cork by-election of November 1916, where the defeat of the O’Brienite candidate on a split vote marked the final collapse of the All-for-Ireland League.

Eamon de Valera—Sophie regarded him as a self-righteous egoist and thought he showed insufficient gratitude for her husband’s support. (George Morrison)

Eamon de Valera—Sophie regarded him as a self-righteous egoist and thought he showed insufficient gratitude for her husband’s support. (George Morrison)

After the by-election, O’Brien closed the Cork Free Press. Gallagher’s letter thanking him for the generous severance terms given to the staff is in UCC (‘my husband was so kind and forgiving’, Sophie recalled) and they remained in touch for some time afterwards. Gallagher later spoke to Lady Gregory about how Redmondite MPs had taunted O’Brien with his wife’s Jewish birth, and Four glorious years presents O’Brien as selfless and dedicated though ultimately obsolete.
Sophie’s 1928 view of Gallagher was less irenic. She thought that the extracts from Gallagher’s Days of fear (describing his hunger strike during the Civil War), which appeared in ‘some of the S.I. [Southern Irish? Sunday Independent?] papers’, were ‘poor stuff’ though the material might read better in book form. She states that her husband used to read Gallagher’s articles in the (anti-Treaty) Irish-American newspaper the Irish World and thought that he had grown very dull; she describes an obituary of O’Brien that Gallagher wrote for a republican paper as ‘a hideous perversion of facts’.
To sum up, this document sheds new light on the early career of Frank Gallagher and serves as a corrective to analyses that overstate his ideological affinity with the O’Briens. It may also serve as a warning for future scholars attempting to use the Cork Free Press ‘London Letter’ as a historical source!

Patrick Maume is a researcher with the Dictionary of Irish Biography who has published on Edwardian Ireland.

Further reading:

‘David Hogan’ [Frank Gallagher], The four glorious years (Dublin, 1953).

P. Maume, The long gestation: Irish nationalist political life 1891–1918 (Dublin, 1999).

W. O’Brien (ed. S. O’Brien), Golden memories: the love letters and prison letters of William O’Brien (Dublin, 1929).

G. Walker, ‘The Irish Dr Goebbels: Frank Gallagher and Irish republican propaganda’, Journal of Contemporary History 27 (1992).

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