The real origins of the Irish Independent

Published in Issue 4 (July/August 2019), News, Volume 27

By Felix M. Larkin

Above: Charles Stewart Parnell—rarely acknowledged as the founder of the Irish Independent.

In connection with the recent purchase of Independent News & Media (INM) by Mediahuis, the chairman of INM, Mr Murdoch MacLennan, was quoted as saying that the Independent had ‘a proud and illustrious history stretching back to the start of the twentieth century’. In fact, the origin of the newspaper lies in the bitter newspaper war in Dublin unleashed by the Parnell split of 1890–1.

The divisions in the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) precipitated by the split were replicated in the newspaper market. The Freeman’s Journal had been the leading nationalist daily newspaper in Dublin since the mid-nineteenth century, and it was the semi-official organ of the IPP from about 1880 onwards. Its relationship with Parnell had been difficult initially, but Parnell brought it to heel by launching a weekly newspaper, called United Ireland, in 1881. The threat that United Ireland might be turned into a daily publication to rival the Freeman copper-fastened the latter’s loyalty to Parnell. That loyalty persisted for some months after the split, despite the fact that the majority of the party’s MPs had taken the anti-Parnell side and public opinion, at least outside Dublin, was overwhelmingly against Parnell.

To counter the Freeman’s influence, the anti-Parnellites started their own daily paper, the National Press. This was established mainly through the efforts of T.M. Healy, the leading anti-Parnell MP. William Martin Murphy was its principal financial backer. Murphy was a close associate of Healy’s, a fellow Corkman and one of the so-called ‘Bantry band’ of MPs who had roots in County Cork or were otherwise linked to Healy. The Freeman responded to this unwelcome competition by switching to the anti-Parnell side, and soon the two papers merged under the Freeman’s more venerable title.

After the Freeman switched sides, Parnell found himself without the support of a daily newspaper. Few politicians of his era had a greater appreciation of the power of the press—and so, in the months before his death, he spent much time and effort in arranging for the establishment of another newspaper. This would eventually become the Irish Independent. Originally known as the Irish Daily Independent, it first appeared on 18 December 1891, two months after Parnell’s death. It survived as the organ of the Parnellite wing of the IPP until the party’s reunification under John Redmond in 1900, when it was purchased by William Martin Murphy.

For the next five years the Independent was run as the personal mouthpiece of T.M. Healy. It incurred heavy financial losses, and Murphy soon tired of running the newspaper as, to quote himself, ‘a side show to politics’. He decided to revamp it as a halfpenny newspaper and to conduct its operations on strictly business lines. In effect, Murphy copied in Ireland what Lord Northcliffe had done in London in 1896 when he launched the Daily Mail, the first mass-circulation newspaper in these islands.

The new Independent, selling for a halfpenny, cost half the price of its competitors and had a more popular, less partisan style. The first edition appeared on 2 January 1905. It was an immediate success. Annual profits amounted to £15,000 by 1915, with circulation rising from an initial 25,000 to 100,000. Profits and circulation continued to grow thereafter, boosted by the closure of the Independent’s main rival, the Freeman’s Journal, in 1924 and checked only by the establishment of the Irish Press in 1931.

The Independent rarely acknowledges Parnell as its founder but instead locates its origin in the changes effected by Murphy in 1905. This is reflected in the INM chairman’s statement in relation to the Mediahuis purchase. Presumably the reason for the Independent’s persistent misrepresentation of its history is its pro-clerical editorial policy under Murphy and, afterwards, under his son and grandson, before it was acquired by Tony O’Reilly in 1973. Its Parnellite origins at the time of the split did not sit comfortably with its later clericalist tradition. Moreover, the Murphy family may have wished to emphasise the achievement of William Martin Murphy—a man who, for other reasons, does not get a favourable verdict from history.

Felix M. Larkin is a co-founder and former chairman of the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland.

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