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1 September 2014 Edition

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Parnell press and Frank Aiken


United Ireland served as a continual goad to the British administration in Ireland. It was able to say things that Parnell could not and yet, due to his identification with the paper, it was almost as if he had said them

Mr Parnell’s Rottweiler: Censorship and the United Ireland Newspaper, 1881-1891. By Myles Dungan. Irish Academic Press

IT IS SOMETHING of a truism to state that behind every successful politician or political party stands a newspaper.

In the modern world it could be updated to encompass broadcast media or online dissemination via social media campaigns. In 1880, however, the newspaper ruled supreme. Literacy rates had soared in the previous 30 years from 45% to nearly 80%. The population had become somewhat radicalised post-Famine by the years of agrarian agitation and the Fenian and Land League campaigns.

Charles Stewart Parnell, on assuming the mantle of leadership of the Irish nationalists, realised that he did not have such a press behind him. Although there was a plethora of broadly nationalist publications in existence, they did not owe any allegiance to Parnell. In fact, the two leading publications – The Nation and The Freeman’s Journal – were owned by fellow Nationalist MPs and as such would be seen as supporting Parnell’s direct rivals in the internecine nationalist power struggles. Parnell decided to establish his own newspaper and so United Ireland was set up in 1881 to champion both Land League activities and the Parnell faction of parliamentary nationalism

Under the editorial stewardship of William Smith O’Brien, the United Ireland became, in his own words, “a weekly insurrection in print” and a “monster meeting which cannot be dispersed with buckshot”. The paper was hugely successful, achieving sales of 100,000 within four years. The normal assumption is that each newspaper is read by five people but the introduction of public reading rooms throughout the country would have multiplied this figure by a considerable number.

United Ireland served as a continual goad to the British administration in Ireland. It was able to say things that Parnell could not and yet, due to his identification with the paper, it was almost as if he had said them. In fact, the paper’s radicalism was far more extreme than anything Parnell would have been comfortable with.

This is a remarkably well-researched book by Dr Myles Dungan, probably best known for his RTÉ radio broadcasting and The History Show. It is superbly written, oozing erudition and incidental nuggets of throwaway knowledge on every page. What could well have been a rather boring reiteration of the United Ireland’s back catalogue is instead a fascinating and enjoyable read.

Frank Aiken: Nationalist and Internationalist. Edited by Bryce Evans and Stephen Kelly. Irish Academic Press

FRANK AIKEN is a major figure in 20th century Irish politics. He was a South Armagh man who led the IRA’s Northern Command during the Tan War and went on to become Chief of Staff at the end of the Civil War; the man who gave the order to dump arms in 1923; the architect of Ireland’s policy of neutrality in the United Nations, and the first signatory of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Arms Treaty in Moscow in 1968.

A complex man with a complex history and yet no book had been written about him until now.

This work is a collection of essays by various experts in different aspects of Frank Aiken’s life and provides an insight into the multi-faceted and often contradictory aspects of the man.

The book, as the sub-title suggests, is divided broadly into two main areas of his activities, nationalist and internationalist. The editors have each written an introduction to the area of their speciality. The introduction to the nationalist section reveals an interesting bias when a successful attack, at the height of the Tan War, on a military train carrying a cavalry regiment is described as an “outrage” rather than an “ambush”. The essays themselves appear to be far more objective in their analysis.

Frank Aiken was a stalwart supporter and admirer of De Valera, and a bulwark of Fianna Fáil for over 40 years. During this period, he garnered many opponents from across the political spectrum as well as within his own party. One colleague, Gerald Boland, described him as “a condescending menace who wanted as usual to be the big noise but was really only a selfish showman”. The Fine Gael assessment of him was of being “inept, vain and stupid”. These statements belie the complex nature of the man by reducing him to one-dimensional caricatures.

He was undoubtedly a social conservative who denied that the Catholic Church had any undue influence within the Irish state. He was a staunch believer in state censorship on both moral and political grounds. Yet, at the same time, he was an economic radical who believed that “banks should not exist to amass profits but should . . . manage credit and issue money for the benefit of ordinary people”.

As well as spearheading Ireland’s stand on neutrality at  the UN, he was a tireless champion on the right to independence of small nations in a post-colonial world. In particular, he was a committed advocate of Palestinian rights.

This is an interesting volume providing an informed analysis of this flawed and complicated character.


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