A Century of Northern Life: The Irish News and 100 Years of Ulster History 1890s-1990s, Eamon Phoenix (ed.), (Ulster Historical Foundation, £10 .95). A History of The Belfast Telegraph, Malcolm Brodie, (Blackstaff Press, £14.99).

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (Summer 1996), Reviews, Volume 4

Both these books were commissioned and, like the newspapers they serve to commemorate, they are different in orientation. The one dedicated to The Irish News is a collection of twenty-six articles by academics, journalists and writers to honour its centenary in 1991, to pay tribute to the skill, courage and objectivity of its journalists during troubled times, and to contribute to a greater understanding of the past. The one celebrating one hundred and twenty-five years of The Belfast Telegraph from its foundation in 1871 is a straight-forward narrative, by its former sports editor. In this format it surely lacks the critical apparatus to probe a newspaper which displayed a historic reluctance to report everyday events pertaining to the nationalist community both north and south of the border. With respect to the founding of newspapers, one work highlights the importance of international affairs while the other underlines the significance of Irish politics as The Belfast Telegraph sprang to life with the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War and The Irish News emerged from the Parnell divorce scandal.
Both studies are impressive as it is not easy to harness twenty-six minds to a given task and style, or, indeed, to apply oneself to the formidable undertaking of writing a history of a newspaper from its foundation. Both contain humorous extracts and both are successful, but both also fall short of the detailed studies which might have been possible with extra labour. Significantly enough, footnotes are only given in two of the chapters in Phoenix’s collection, while Brodie’s contains none, an approach which smacks of excessive methodological casualness and hardly facilitates further research on newspaper coverage. Both publications could have dedicated more space to northern responses to the second Anglo-Boer war, for instance, or to the actual rivalry between newspapers in the one location which sometimes proves so interesting. To suggest that further research is desirable, and even necessary, however, is not to imply that the quality of the writing is poor as both works can be read with ease and do provide value for money.
For anyone specifically interested in The Irish News it is regrettable that all hands were not applied to the daunting task of slowly ploughing through miles upon miles of newsprint in order to record in detail the exact responses of this newspaper to given events. A valuable opportunity was missed. A detailed history of a newspaper might not satisfy all tastes, but it would surely prove more fascinating than a history of Northern Ireland and satisfy more than basic questions about newspaper contents and personalities. This collection of essays does not present the nineteenth and twentieth century through the eyes of this newspaper as might have been expected, although it does compensate with articles on the land question, industrialisation, legal reform, education, the labour movement, the civil rights campaign, the Irish language, fashion, and sport. While most chapters in A Century of Northern Life could just as easily have been included in any second-level textbook on Northern Ireland, those written by Eamon Phoenix, James Kelly and Peter Collins prove especially interesting in being particularly relevant to the history of Irish newspapers. Kelly sketches what it was like to work for The Irish News during the late 1920s and Collins touches upon this newspaper’s perception of labour politics, while Phoenix traces its history and leading personalities in little over thirty pages.
The Irish News served to voice the ideals of constitutional Irish nationalism, to promote reconciliation, to advocate constructive dialogue, and to denounce violence and injustice. It owed its foundation in April 1891 to clerical opposition to Parnell during the divorce crisis and, more specifically, to the dismissal of P.J. Kelly as editor of The Belfast Morning News by Dwyer Gray. The Irish News was founded with the backing of a Roman Catholic bishop, and in it Kelly continued his editorial labours against Parnell. The fledgling Irish News proved so successful that it acquired its rival in August 1892 (costing Gray some £20,000) and later The Ulster Examiner. Divisions soon emerged with a power struggle within the company between the Healyite bishop of Down and Connor and Joe Devlin, a former employee. Devlin emerged victorious in 1905, and paved the way for the appointment of a Corkman as editor from 1906 to 1928. Like his close friend William O’Brien, Tim McCarthy had served his apprenticeship with the nationalist Cork Herald during the Land War. In respect to partition, the Great War issue, and the emergence of Sinn Féin, he proved a popular editor in following a line not dissimilar from The Cork Examiner. This Devlinite organ castigated extremists from both political camps and opposed partition, but eventually recognised the Northern Ireland parliament and accepted without rancour that Ulster nationalists had to rely upon themselves. It was prosecuted under the Special Powers Act after condemning a move by Stormont to authorise 10,000 Orangemen as ‘guard of honour’ to safeguard the Prince of Wales during his visit in 1932, before coming to preoccupy itself with the more mundane financial aspects of newspaper production and submitting to censorship during World War II when it distinguished itself by placing hard news on the front page. Several high explosive shells severely damaged its works in April 1941, and it was printed for some six weeks by The Belfast Telegraph which also published The Belfast Newsletter and The Northern Whig.
The Belfast Evening Telegraph was founded in August 1871 and survived competition from The Evening Press and The Ulster Echo which foundered with shortages of paper during World War I. Working conditions were not ideal as some employees worked a total of sixty-six hours a week in producing numerous editions and maintaining a reputation for instant news. Apparently labour relations were good. The concern prospered as suggested by the introduction of a rotary printing machine in 1879, the launching of The Ballymena Weekly Telegraph in 1881 and The Belfast Weekly Telegraph in 1883, and a move to a new purpose-built premises with stereotype plate-making units in 1886. This undertaking was so proud of its technological edge on competitors, and so determined to expand its output through keeping abreast of technological change, that its bankers had to inform it that no new machinery could be purchased without prior consultation in 1893, only a year before it introduced Linotype machines! The degree to which the company went in order to satisfy its customers was reflected in the production of Ireland’s Saturday Night, a special newspaper printed on pink paper and dedicated solely to sport, after complaints were received that too much coverage was given to sports results in ordinary editions in 1894. The company continued to outclass its opposition with the speedy application of electricity, photography, and telegraphy, and the production of a daily newspaper in 1904 which maintained standards second to none in Ireland, even if it did ignore the suffragette movement and provoked one lady to assault its editor!
As well as being a monument to the survival of this newspaper, Brodie’s book is clearly a labour of love by someone who spent half a century working in the company and contains some excellent illustrations. A photograph of barefooted newsboys roots the reader to the distant past, while another of a newspaper boy in mid-leap captures the exuberance of youth. Both publishers are to be congratulated on their excellent productions.

Charles J. O’Sullivan


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