Censorship, propaganda and the Irish Labour Party

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2009), Volume 17

'The Voice of Labour', published 1922–7, tended to be dull and repetitious, frequently filling up column inches with articles about James Connolly. (Irish Labour History Museum & Archive)

‘The Voice of Labour’, published 1922–7, tended to be dull and repetitious, frequently filling up column inches with articles about James Connolly. (Irish Labour History Museum & Archive)

Traditionally, newspapers were owned by businessmen who were keen to protect their own interests. During the early years of independence the two daily nationals, the Irish Independent (which incorporated the Freeman’s Journal after 1924) and the Irish Times, in common with most regional newspapers, were profoundly middle-class and anti-republican. Fianna Fáil published the Nation weekly until sufficient finance had been raised to establish the Irish Press, the only Irish daily at the time without a pronounced Cumann na nGaedheal bias. Labour, on the other hand, was never able to muster anything like the resources that had been made available to de Valera and Fianna Fáil. But if a daily paper was far beyond its means, it endeavoured valiantly to publish its own newspapers and articulate the voice of Labour, which otherwise might not have been heard.
Between 1919 and 1949 the Irish Labour Party—sometimes alone, sometimes in conjunction with the Irish trade union movement—produced eight weekly papers lasting for anything from seven weeks to a decade. Historians will find little in the way of amusement or insight in these newspapers, and there is nothing to suggest that contemporary readers found them any more interesting. The men and women who put them together did the best they could, but they were hamstrung by two vital factors: a lack of finance, and the social and political climate in which they operated. Editors could manage with scarce resources but it was the fear of criticism in an increasingly conservative and religiously orthodox society that proved the greater stumbling block. Labour began to engage in self-censorship as regards the subjects it was prepared to tackle and the language it would use, and as a result its papers became toothless and unappealing.
‘Little Red Hen’ school of publishing
The editors of Labour’s various papers were, for the most part, necessarily proponents of the ‘Little Red Hen’ school of publishing. One recalled, ‘I used to write almost the whole of that newspaper myself, and then print it with my own hands. After that I’d take it round to the wholesalers myself, and to a good many retailers too. That was real work.’ Asked innocently whether anyone actually bought the paper, he replied: ‘Mostly myself; I used to save my tram fares and other odd coppers and go around buying odd copies of the paper to give it an air of popularity, and send the copies to friends in the country and abroad.’
Ronald Mortished—an Irish Trade Union Congress official whose duties included editing the Voice of Labour (1922–7) and later The Irishman (1927–30)—painted a very similar picture of his task, which involved filling seven to ten columns of copy a week, as well as ‘selecting and sub-editing “lifted matter” besides sub-editing (and occasionally re-writing and generally faking matter for the narrow measure union notes column)’. The paper was, he complained at the time, ‘a weekly nightmare to me, leaving me no time to myself on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights. (It also takes up practically the whole of Wednesday).’

Ronald Mortished, editor of the Voice of Labour and The Irishman, was ill-suited to publishing, producing papers that were po-faced and lacking in character or verve. He acknowledged that the papers would benefit from the injection of levity that a sports page or women’s column might add, but without the funds to pay contributors this was not to be. Unsurprisingly, they had little appeal to the average worker or trade unionist at whom they were aimed and, as one delegate to the Trade Union Congress explained, the presence of ‘too many highfaluting articles’ in The Irishman put most workers off buying it. Mortished conceded (in typically highfaluting style) that its contents were indeed ‘caviar to the masses’, adding that the paper’s position was ‘much like that of King George. It does not die but is hardly alive’, but his suggestions to the Labour leadership that the paper be published monthly rather than weekly fell on deaf ears. (Irish Labour History Museum & Archive)

Ronald Mortished, editor of the Voice of Labour and The Irishman, was ill-suited to publishing, producing papers that were po-faced and lacking in character or verve. He acknowledged that the papers would benefit from the injection of levity that a sports page or women’s column might add, but without the funds to pay contributors this was not to be. Unsurprisingly, they had little appeal to the average worker or trade unionist at whom they were aimed and, as one delegate to the Trade Union Congress explained, the presence of ‘too many highfaluting articles’ in The Irishman put most workers off buying it. Mortished conceded (in typically highfaluting style) that its contents were indeed ‘caviar to the masses’, adding that the paper’s position was ‘much like that of King George. It does not die but is hardly alive’, but his suggestions to the Labour leadership that the paper be published monthly rather than weekly fell on deaf ears. (Irish Labour History Museum & Archive)

In the end, Mortished escaped from his editorial duties in 1930 when he was appointed to a job in the International Labour Organisation in Geneva. His replacement was Cathal O’Shannon, who brought a much livelier style to the paper, but his tenure did not last long. Between the Voice of Labour and The Irishman, debts of £1,225 had been run up over three years; without finance to pay an editor, O’Shannon was let go and the paper was dissolved. A new weekly, The Watchword, once again under the editorship of a beleaguered Congress official, was established. It carried on in less than stellar fashion for two years before its final appearance in December 1932. It was nearly four years before its successor appeared.

Labour News
Labour News hit the streets for the first time in November 1936. A purely Labour Party paper (although it did receive substantial subventions from the trade union movement), it was very different from its predecessors. Lively and well laid out, it concentrated on contemporary politics and agit-prop rather than on rehashing the life and times of James Connolly or reproducing verbatim transcripts of Dáil debates. Its quality was the result of the decision to appoint a professional journalist, Christopher O’Sullivan, to write and edit the paper. Nevertheless, while he undoubtedly enhanced the readability of the paper (and did no harm to its circulation in the process), friction arose between himself and his employers, as his eye for a good story or headline and his lack of sensitivity about what might get the party into trouble saw his paper sail dangerously close to the edge on a regular basis.
Labour News began publication at a time when the party had veered rather sharply leftwards and was coming under attack from the Catholic Church, which suggested that Labour was on a slippery slope to communism. Labour had to walk a fine line between appearing radical and appearing dangerous. Any public mention of the Spanish Civil War was forbidden within the party and the same held for Labour News. This much its editor could manage. He was less able, however, to avoid other controversial issues closer to home. At a time when Labour was subjected to regular criticism from Catholic sources, Labour

Left: Labour News, first published in November 1936, was lively and well laid out, and concentrated on contemporary politics and agit-prop rather than rehashing the life and times of James Connolly or reproducing verbatim transcripts of Dáil debates. (UCD Archives)

Left: Labour News, first published in November 1936, was lively and well laid out, and concentrated on contemporary politics and agit-prop rather than rehashing the life and times of James Connolly or reproducing verbatim transcripts of Dáil debates. (UCD Archives)

News editorials were frequently belligerent towards the clergy, as was its reportage. Far from avoiding controversy, its editor displayed a propensity to throw fuel on the fire. Not satisfied with engaging in a week-by-week spat with the Limerick Leader, which accused Labour of communist leanings, the editor produced a poster proclaiming ‘CHURCH HAS NO SOLUTION FOR LABOUR’ to advertise a subsequent issue. A week later, Labour News ran an article reporting how Catholic clergy in Youghal had issued an edict that no women would be admitted to church if they were barelegged, Labour News arguing that they were only likely to be barelegged if they could not afford stockings (see above). The issue was not one of modesty but of low pay. The editor was warned to pay more heed to the party’s particular sensitivities after a number of such incidents, but he paid scant regard to these entreaties. By January 1938 it was clear that the paper could not continue unless there was a major injection of capital. A meeting of shareholders—individuals and trade union representatives—pledged £650 to ensure its future, but within two months the paper had folded. Naturally, the union representatives who had just poured in scarce funds were shocked at this turn of events, but they were even more taken aback when they eventually heard why. A short verse in the March 1938 issue, entitled ‘Poem by a Negro boy to God’, featured a child’s plaintive cry: ‘You must have a great laugh up there in your big sky, Lord!’ It was described privately by the Labour leader, William Norton, as ‘a piece of blasphemy’, and it was the last straw. After so many warnings, Norton and his fellow directors had had enough: the editor’s services were dispensed with immediately and publication suspended until a replacement could be found. Norton knew well that the suspension of the paper and his reason for so doing would be controversial but was prepared to brook no arguments. As he put it to one colleague, ‘certain individuals—who are non-Catholic—will probably disagree with our attitude but we cannot help that and must meet any criticism they make’. As a parting shot, the last edition of Labour News led with the story that there was to be a ‘theological censor for Dublin’.

Torch
After Labour News was wound up, Labour’s head office stayed well away from publishing for several years. When, however, the Dublin Constituencies Council began its own weekly paper, called Torch, it was given a sizeable subvention from the Labour leadership and the Irish Trade Union Congress. Unwilling to bite the hand that fed it, the subvention meant that, at a time when the trade union movement was riven by bitter internal battles over how it was organised, no mention of this ever appeared in Torch. The Dublin branches became very left-wing around this time. Popular discontent grew as a result of the privations of the Emergency, and Labour became more militant with the entry of a number of Trotskyists (mostly from Britain) and former members of the Communist Party of Ireland. The presence of the radical left was evident in the pages of Torch, but significantly, while the tone adopted by the paper was strongly socialist, it never strayed into the territory of anti-clericalism. Of course, the paper was also subject to the Emergency censorship, which meant that a lot of its propaganda work (such as campaigning about food shortages) was curtailed, as was anything explicitly about the war, such as the spiked article ‘Charlie Chaplin: friend of peace and the workers’. In 1944, however, the conflict within the trade union movement came to a head with the decision by the Labour Party’s largest union, the Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union, to disaffiliate, claiming that the party had become ‘infested with communists’. There were a handful of expulsions and, in order to silence the left, Labour’s leaders closed down Torch.

Torch—‘organ of Dublin Labour Party branches’—while strongly socialist in tone never strayed into the territory of anti-clericalism. (Irish Labour History Museum & Archive)

Torch—‘organ of Dublin Labour Party branches’—while strongly socialist in tone never strayed into the territory of anti-clericalism. (Irish Labour History Museum & Archive)

The Irish People
Its successor was the Irish People. It was kept under a much tighter rein than Torch and was quite moderate in tone in comparison. Its editors and contributors were on Labour’s intellectual left but their room to manoeuvre was dictated by finance: with a circulation barely into four figures and practically no advertising, the paper was utterly dependent on the leadership’s goodwill for its survival. Its first editorial, which stated that the country’s main threat came not from communism but from ‘the gross abuses of the individualistic capitalist system, which . . . are most stringently condemned in the Papal Encyclicals’, set the tone for future editions. The Irish People’s contributors were faced with the problem of what to put in the newspaper once it had avoided taboo areas, which were extensive. As Brian Inglis, an Irish Times journalist who wrote for the paper, recalled: ‘To keep on [the leadership’s] right side, it was not just a question of avoiding the kind of explicit socialism Connolly had promised . . . We also had to avoid writing about any subject in which criticism, even if justified, could be construed as criticism of the Church.’ This meant that the issues of housing and rising food prices dominated the paper. Naturally, this did not make for a happy readership. Activists complained of the paper’s ‘lack of vigour and militancy’ and its tendency to be much too academic. There was a belief in some quarters that the pre-eminence of intellectuals among the writers meant that the paper was insufficiently trade-union-conscious. The split and the continued ‘red scare’ meant that there was no way the Irish People’s editor could make it a genuinely representative organ of the party, reporting the often sharp discourse among activists. As the editor, Sheila Greene, explained to the author of a letter critical of the party’s leader:

‘I didn’t publish it for reasons which I’m sure you will appreciate. However much the Administrative Council or the party officers annoy us we can’t criticise them publicly. God knows I suffer the most intense irritation every day, but I wouldn’t dream of letting off steam in the paper. You see Irish People is read by all sorts of outsiders—enemies as well as friends and we can’t afford to give them extra ammunition.’

When Seán O’Casey submitted an article that criticised the Roman Catholic archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Griffin, Greene wrote to him and explained that she could not print it as it stood. ‘Without putting a tooth in it’, she explained, ‘it would be harmful to the Labour Party . . . I think if you lived here you would understand what I mean.’ Greene asked O’Casey to resubmit the article without reference to the cardinal, but O’Casey was unsympathetic to her plight. ‘Goethe’s last words were, “More light. More light”,’ he wrote. ‘Mine will probably be “More courage. More courage”.’ His conclusion was damning: ‘I am not out to force the Labour Party of Ireland. Their ways rest with their own conscience. Please let me have the article back. No wonder Bill O’Brien has had his way.’

The Citizen

The Irish People lasted for four years, but after Labour entered the first interparty government in 1948 it was deemed to have served its purpose and it too was wound up. There was concern within the party at the lack of a paper, but the party leaders and the unions that would bankroll it decided that the next paper ought to be more ambitious. They believed (having learned from bitter experience) that the widest possible appeal must be made to readers: ‘the purely propagandist sheet is foredoomed to failure. In the Citizen it is hoped to get Labour policy across, whilst at the same time giving good value as a medium to all.’ First appearing as an eight-page broadsheet, Citizen tried to position itself as a populist newspaper with a great deal of sports coverage, radio schedules and reviews, a cartoon strip and a women’s page complete with knitting patterns and make-up tips. In fact, entertainment took up more column inches than the politics, and the Labour content was drastically scaled back after the first edition. This was not a problem in itself—after all, a spoonful of sugar could help the politics go down—but it was the nature of the political reportage that was questionable. For instance, the appearance on the front page of the fifth edition of a gushing tribute to the Fine Gael Taoiseach John A. Costello must have raised many readers’ eyebrows, even if subsequent profiles of Seán MacBride and James Dillon were less obsequious. Whatever about the populist aspirations of the paper, it looked as though any Labour journalist practised in the black arts of propaganda had been kept well away from the paper’s copy.

'The Irish People'—its first editorial, which stated that the country’s main threat came not from communism but from ‘the gross abuses of the individualistic capitalist system, which… are most stringently condemned in the Papal Encyclicals’, set the tone for future editions. (National Library of Ireland)

‘The Irish People’—its first editorial, which stated that the country’s main threat came not from communism but from ‘the gross abuses of the individualistic capitalist system, which… are most stringently condemned in the Papal Encyclicals’, set the tone for future editions. (National Library of Ireland)

The Citizen’s seventh issue featured a notice announcing the temporary suspension of publication owing to the illness of the editor. In fact, the paper had been running up heavy losses and there was no prospect of this turning around. Any chance of survival it ever had was killed off by the appearance of the Sunday Press in the same month that it hit the news-stands. The Sunday Press had a similar format but enjoyed far greater resources, better writers and more exciting content. ‘Scrupulously anodyne’, Citizen with its boring puff pieces on Fine Gael politicians could not hope to compete. An ambitious endeavour that ended with the party and unions facing a mountain of debt, Citizen was the last weekly paper put out by the party.
Ironically, by this time the Irish Times had become home to an increasing number of Labour sympathisers and members, while the Irish Press was coming under increasing scrutiny within Fianna Fáil for its Labour or Larkinite sympathies. Although many within the party felt that a Labour paper was a vital propaganda tool, it is questionable whether they had much influence. For the most part, they were so boring that they would only have succeeded in preaching to the converted; it is questionable whether they would have attracted any new adherents with their dull mix of union news and Connolly tracts. But it was vitally necessary that Labour was able to get its points across, and now that it had regular columnists such as Brian

Sheila Greene, editor of the Irish People.

Sheila Greene, editor of the Irish People.

Inglis, ‘Aknefton’, a weekly political column written by former Irish People editor Sheila Greene and Christy Ferguson of the Workers’ Union of Ireland, and Michael McInerney writing from D’Olier Street things were not so bad. When it comes to the Labour Party and publishing, it seems that they had most to gain from the maxim ‘If you can’t beat them, join them’. HI

Niamh Puirséil lectures in the School of History and Archives, University College Dublin.

Further reading:
D. Ó Drisceoil, Censorship in Ireland, 1939–1945: neutrality, politics and society (Cork, 1996).
N. Puirséil, The Irish Labour Party, 1922–1973 (Dublin, 2007).

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