Published in Features, Issue 4 (July/August 2023), Volume 31

By Michael de Nie

The Irish Land War (1879–82) was an economic, political and social conflict contested on multiple fronts. One of these fronts was the popular press, as newspapers and periodicals on both sides of the Irish Sea offered contrasting and often starkly conflicting narratives about the condition of Ireland and how it might best be improved. Most British newspapers tended to portray Ireland as an ungovernable land rife with disorder, disloyalty and violence. These themes were repeated and amplified in the London comic press, which offered in these years some of the most striking images of simianised and monstrous Irishmen of the entire Victorian era. Across the Irish Sea, Pat, the leading Dublin comic weekly, offered a very different vision of the causes and course of the Land War. Pat’s graphic and textual comic commentary on British misgovernment, biased reporting in the British press and Irish dignity offered its readers a counter-narrative to British representations of contemporary events. Pat used its jokes, puns and cartoons to contest or flip the dominant British press narrative of this period, providing images of a misunderstood, neglected and repressed land that was continually misrepresented or unjustly vilified in the pages of British newspapers.


Pat and its Irish predecessors have received far less attention than Punch and other contemporary British comic papers but, like its peers, Pat offers important insight into the political conventional wisdom of its era. Although it was often (but not always) ‘only joking’, the power and influence of Pat and the other comic weeklies in this regard were perhaps unique. Simply put, jokes and cartoons require both immediate recognition and shared sentiment in order to be funny. Utilising a collection of instantly recognisable images, symbols and tropes, the comic press was pitched to an audience with a deeply ingrained daily newspaper-reading habit and largely reflected and confirmed what they had already read elsewhere. In the case of Pat, the most important of these papers were the Freeman’s Journal and the Weekly Freeman, with whom it shared its principal cartoonist, John Fergus O’Hea.

The jokes and cartoons in Pat only worked because of this wider knowledge, this sense of familiarity and shared culture. If the readers of Pat were not aware of the latest news about the Land Bill or the latest calumny about Ireland in The Times, the countless puns, poems and one-liners touching on these topics would have made little sense. The currency of this humour is why it is so useful to historians and also why much of it is unfunny to us today. The satirical press, then, might be considered a deeply influential news aggregator, a producer of synthesised knowledge that both reflected and moulded Victorian social and political opinion. No other periodicals could so effectively crystallise the conventional wisdom, representing and shaping the public mood with a short joke or a single image.

In many ways Pat was typical of contemporary comic weeklies. Each eight-page issue offered a mix of cartoons of different sizes, short comic essays, one-liners and regular columns containing both comic and serious commentary. Pat made its début in late December 1879 at 3d., the same price as Punch, but later (23 April 1881) reduced its price to 1d. It differed from most of its British peers in two important ways. First, the large cartoons were lithographs rather than woodcuts, which permitted somewhat freer designs and the use of colour. Second, Pat typically offered two big cuts commenting on the pressing political issues of the week, the first on the cover and the second in the middle of the paper. Some issues of Pat even had a third full-page cartoon on the back, but these were not usually political in nature.

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From its first issue Pat understood the Land War in the context of the long-running exploitation and neglect of Ireland by the British government and the landlord class. The paper regularly published cartoons and commentary on Irish economic underdevelopment, which it blamed on unfair competition, high taxes and excessive demands on the tenants by landlords and bankers. For example, in ‘The English Dives and the Irish Lazarus’ (12 June 1880) John Bull dines heartily on a meal composed of ‘Irish Taxes’, ‘Irish Absentee Rents’ and ‘Irish Trade’, while Pat begs for scraps at the tableside. Only by establishing peasant proprietorship and developing Irish manufactures, the paper consistently suggested, could this long-running injustice be corrected.

Perhaps the most interesting and consistent theme in Pat’s commentary on the Land War was misrepresentations of Ireland in the British dailies and comic papers. It seems clear that Pat’s readers were well aware of the tone and content of British newspaper commentary on the Land War and, like the paper, regarded it as unfair, inaccurate and destructive. In response, Pat offered a counter-narrative, an alternative vision of the condition of Ireland and its future. Pat’s riposte to contemporary British reporting consisted in the first instance of a repudiation of how the British press depicted Ireland in this period. In the second it offered an alternative vision of Ireland, not so much as it stood at present but as it might be if peasant proprietorship was established and native manufactures were protected and developed.

Pat’s rejection of British interpretations of the Land War was built on two closely related ideas: first, that the British press purposefully and unfairly maligned Ireland and the Irish people; second, that British papers and their conservative peers in Ireland routinely invented or exaggerated violent outrages. In one of its earliest numbers Pat offered a cartoon titled ‘Reciprocity’ (7 February 1880) in which two ‘ruffians’ appear. If one of these was regularly presented by the British as the typical Irishman, it asked, ‘why should we not select the other as the typical Englishman?’ A few weeks later Pat imagined a British apology in ‘Figure Amende Honorable [But when will it be made]’ (13 March 1880), in which John Bull doffs his hat and says ‘Pat my boy, I humbly beg your pardon for having maligned you in past years. When I look to the continent and see what Nihilism, Communism, Socialism, and Brigandage are doing, I find you’re a good sort after all.’ Unfortunately, no amends were forthcoming, and the British press continued its campaign of slander. For example, ‘Setting Down in Malice’ (22 January 1881) depicts an artist sent over by the ‘Illustrated London Smudge to furnish truthful sketches of Irish character’, his handsome Irish model and the Celtic Caliban he produces.

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Pat also continuously ridiculed the British papers for breathless and panicked reporting of plots, attacks and outrages that simply did not exist. Indeed, the paper’s first number offered a cartoon depicting a scene ‘believed by almost every Englishman to take place in Ireland every day and twice on Sundays’, in which two Irish sportsmen discuss shooting an agent and a ‘covey of landlords’ (27 December 1879). At times Pat ascribed these misunderstandings to purposeful misrepresentation or ‘fake news’. For example, the cover of the 5 February 1881 issue featured a scene of ‘A Real Irish Outrage’ (5 February 1881) in which a ‘crime and outrage factory’ was hard at work producing ‘outrages for the London press’, using their ‘Lie-ograph’ and other tools. A few weeks later it tweaked the British papers again with the comic poem ‘The Reign of Terror’. The narrator, who has read of the disturbed state of Ireland in the British papers, travels to Ireland ‘the reign of terror to see. But go where I would, it fled my sight—Alas! For unhappy me!’

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As Pat saw it, one of the results of this false reporting was a tendency to panic and overreact to perceived threats, of which the paper also made light. In the 3 January 1880 issue the paper offered a multi-panel cartoon on an infant arrested for muttering sedition in his sleep, while the cover image for several issues in the following months lampooned a landlord (Turner Out esq.) for mistaking snowdrifts outside his gate for Whiteboys (29 January 1880) and showed a fishmonger nearly hauled in for yelling ‘fresh pike’ (12 March 1880). Another depicted several English people fleeing in terror from a suspected infernal device that upon inspection turned out to be a picnic hamper (2 April 1880). There were many other examples, including several paired comic letters, the first from an Irishman whose ordinary actions (lighting a match, hunting) were misconstrued, and the second a breathless report of some foul scheme that nearly succeeded. In ‘The Modern Tam O’Shanter’ (1 July 1882) Pat portrayed the end result of this hysteria and deliberate misrepresentation, as John Bull, haunted by various fake scares and misrepresentations, rides the British lion away to the madhouse.

As Pat saw it, there were genuine outrages committed in Ireland, but these were the outrages of eviction, coercion and repression at the hands of the landlords and British forces. For example, the cover image of the 25 June 1881 issue, ‘A Real Outrage’, shows a crowned landlord and his agent running from the cabin of Tim Houlahan after leaving a stick of ‘eviction dynamite’. The text of the cartoon notes: ‘The other night some dissolute ruffians placed an Infernal Machine outside the cabin of Tim Houlihan, which exploded, blowing Tim and his family—into the wide, wide world!’ More darkly, in ‘The Real Lady-Killer’ (16 April 1881) a policeman stands over the body of a dead woman ‘to see if it was his sweetheart or his sister that he had brought down’.

Despite its frequent criticism of unfair or false reporting by the British press, Pat still expressed hope that the British people could be made to see the facts in Ireland. In ‘Truth Must Prevail’ (25 June 1881), she (Truth) pushes aside falsehood and hate (holding British newspapers) to show John Bull that he has been an ass to believe them. More hopefully, in ‘Over the Guarding Wall’ (9 July 1881) Erin persuades John Bull to look past ‘press misrepresentations’ and ‘stupid statesmanship’ and, when he does, he is surprised to find that she ‘is such a nice young person’. The text ends with the note: ‘A hint to Englishmen. Why not take advantage of the cheap Summer Excursions, and come over to Ireland and see for yourselves?’

While it welcomed any British recognition of Ireland’s needs and subsequent changes in Irish policy, the paper also suggested a more direct and reliable path to improving the condition of Ireland: self-reliance. Throughout the Land War Pat championed the development of Irish manufactures and commerce in cartoons, jokes and serious commentary. For example, in ‘Hold Your Own’ (January 1882) Pat congratulates the three southern provinces for the fine wares they are preparing to display at the August 1882 Irish Industrial Exhibition. A few months later the newspaper offered a cartoon on the forthcoming exhibition (‘A Golden Opportunity’, 1 April 1882) and closed the issue with ‘Taking a Rise Out of Them’ (1 April 1882), in which the ascending sun of Irish manufactures is the only ‘rising’ to be found by a soldier and policeman. This hope and promise of a new Irish dawn could not have contrasted more with the general image of Ireland in the British press, whose opinion of the sister island was seemingly at an absolute low point in the spring of 1882.


While many of Pat’s cartoons and jokes during the Land War echoed the standard nationalist position on issues such as the Land Bill, coercion and emigration, its sustained focus on British misunderstandings of Ireland and its hope that the government and people across the Irish Sea could be led to reason and empathy did set it somewhat apart from its peers. In contrast to the acerbic cartoons in the advanced nationalist Weekly News or United Ireland, or even many of those appearing in the moderate nationalist Weekly Freeman, Pat’s comic commentary was somewhat gentler, although still sharp at times, reflecting (or projecting) the sensibilities of its target readers, the middle classes of Dublin. Examining Pat’s brand of respectable nationalist discourse helps us to better understand the breadth of the conversation taking place between Irish periodicals and communities in Ireland, Britain and the United States throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Pat’s somewhat unique emphasis on misreporting in the British press demonstrates that the themes and motifs emerging or solidified in the Land War and carried on into the next century did not develop just in response to British policy or events in the Irish countryside. They were also a rejoinder of sorts to the dominant narrative of Ireland appearing in the pages of the British mainstream and comic press—self-confident assertions that the island and its people were not as they were portrayed in Punch.

Michael de Nie is Professor of British and Irish History at the University of West Georgia.

Further reading
M. de Nie, The eternal Paddy: Irish identity and the British press, 1798–1882 (Madison, 2004).
A. Kane, Constructing Irish national identity: discourse and ritual during the Land War, 1879–1882 (Basingstoke, 2011).
E. Tilley, ‘Irish political cartoons and the New Journalism’, in K. Steele & M. de Nie (eds), Ireland and the New Journalism (New York, 2014).


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