Politics, religion and the press: Irish journalism in mid-Victorian England

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2009), Reviews, Volume 17

1Politics, religion and the press: Irish journalism in mid-Victorian England
Anthony McNicholas
(Peter Lang AG, €68.40)
ISBN 9783039106998This study focuses on newspapers produced predominantly by Irish people, and predominantly for Irish people, in 1860s London. It thus explores largely virgin territory. Little systematic research has been done on the history of Irish journalism in Ireland itself: scholars such as Mark O’Brien and Patrick Maume are beginning to remedy this. Irish journalism outside Ireland has been even more neglected. While Úna Ní Bhroiméil and others are currently exploring the newspapers of the Irish diaspora in the United States, as McNicholas notes, only one or two brief sketches of the Irish press in Britain have been published. This fine study provides the beginnings of a valuable corrective.
McNicholas brings to his subject the expertise and interests of a specialist in media history, and analyses in a systematic fashion the nature, obsessions and limitations of Irish newspapers in mid-Victorian England. This is no easy task. One of the reasons why so little has previously been written on the topic is the astonishingly fragmentary nature of the evidence. Press history always involves a struggle to understand a particularly fluid industry: its enterprises constantly adapting, going under and re-emerging in new guises; its workers drifting in and out of the business, remaining more or less anonymous; its products always ephemeral. In the case of mid-Victorian London-Irish journalism, these problems were exacerbated to an extraordinary degree by particularly precarious finances, limited circulations, and the disapproval of both the state and the Catholic Church. McNicholas considers three newspapers: the Universal News, which remained in existence for most of the decade and which forms the core of the study; the Irish Liberator, which lasted for ten months; and the Irish News, which was only issued four times. Those financing, editing and writing for these papers did not always want to make it easy for the authorities to identify them. They also lacked the wealth or influence that would have resulted in their manuscripts being preserved for posterity. The archives of such short-lived newspaper companies proved similarly transient. Even the published copies of the papers themselves did not always find their way into the preservation collections of libraries. To overcome this problem, McNicholas has adopted a forensic approach and combed through the archives in order to isolate the primary material that sustains his analysis. Apart from those files of newspapers that have been kept at the British Library, the National Library of Ireland and elsewhere, McNicholas relies largely on the sparse testimony provided by the memoirs of contemporaries, the occasional reference in manuscript collections, and the reports and records of those organs of the state that monitored Irish newspapers and political activists. The author also provides plenty of contextualisation, seeking to squeeze every last drop of meaning out of the available evidence.
McNicholas presents Irish journalism in mid-Victorian London as avowedly Catholic and yet constantly constrained by the need to remain within the bounds of what the Church deemed acceptable. The Catholic Church in England was an English church, even if the readers of the Universal News and its companion publications were Irish. Fenianism was not to be tolerated, and McNicholas argues that the Church acted to impose what was effectively a form of censorship on Irish journalism. A publication that espoused obnoxious principles could be condemned in public and excluded from the news-stands set up to catch the custom of Mass-goers. The author concludes that while papers such as the Universal News did facilitate nationalist political organisation and helped sustain a sense of diasporic identity, Church control nevertheless limited the ability of journalists to provide a ‘public sphere’ for the Irish in England.
If this study does not provide a complete picture of Irish journalism in mid-Victorian London, and sometimes provides more context than new evidence, this is in large part due to the fragmentary nature of the primary material on which it is based. Those who answer the author’s call to study Irish journalism as ‘a truly globalised phenomenon’ (p. 349) are likely to encounter similar problems. Hopefully, they will deal with them as well as McNicholas has dealt with them here.

Simon J. Potter lectures in history at NUI, Galway.

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