Contributed by Felix M. Larkin
In December 2006 the National Library of Ireland acquired an archive of about 280 items by Ernest Forbes, mostly original drawings of his Shemus cartoons. Forbes (1879–1962) was an Englishman who had come to Ireland in 1920 to join the Freeman’s Journal staff. He was later a well-known landscape artist and portrait painter in London and in his native Yorkshire. He used a number of pseudonyms in his long career, and the pseudonym ‘Shemus’ was exclusive to the Freeman’s Journal.
There was, of course, a rich heritage of newspaper cartoons in Ireland. The wonderfully vivid and colourful cartoons published in the late nineteenth century by the Freeman’s Journal and other organs of nationalist opinion were immensely popular and are still often reproduced. Not actually part of the newspaper, these cartoons were distributed gratis as ‘supplements’. They were introduced by the Weekly Freeman in the 1870s, and copied by others – notably United Ireland, the weekly newspaper founded by Parnell in 1881 and edited by William O’Brien. There was no equivalent in the British press. They were very different from the Shemus cartoons – less humorous and more propagandistic, sometimes little more than visual representations of news stories. They had been discontinued for some time before Forbes came to Ireland to work for the Freeman, and it is unlikely that he was aware of them.
Three hundred Shemus cartoons in total appeared in the Freeman’s Journal in the final years of the newspaper between 1920 and 1924,. They are remarkably hard-hitting comments on the events of this bitterly contested period, and they reflect the Freeman’s editorial stance. Up to the truce of July 1921, which led on to the Anglo-Irish Treaty in the following December, the main thrust of the cartoons was to react to the increasingly brutal nature of British rule in Ireland. Thereafter, they targeted principally the new government of Northern Ireland and the anti-Treaty elements in the new Irish Free State.
The National Library’s archive has the originals of over three-quarters of the Shemus cartoons published by the Freeman, together with about 30 more that appear never to have been published. Three of the Shemus cartoons are in watercolour; the rest are pen-and-ink drawings in black and white, with often a little shading in blue crayon. The archive includes, in addition, approximately 25 lithographic prints and magazine clippings of Shemus cartoons, some 24 original caricature portraits of notable persons also signed Shemus and a similar number of original drawings of other cartoons by Forbes which he signed as ‘Cormac’. The latter are in a very different style, and are usually concerned with sporting events such as horse-racing at Dublin or British venues.
Forbes retained an essentially British mindset throughout his sojourn in Ireland. He was at his best when treating of his Irish subject matter from the perspective of British politics and focusing on British politicians. His work for the Freeman during the War of Independence mirrored the British liberal critique of British policy in Ireland, a critique based principally on what British journalists were reporting from Ireland. When the British presence in Ireland wound down in 1922 and Forbes was deprived of a British context for his work, his cartoons became much less subtle and insightful – and eventually he produced fewer of them. However, his work continued to appear in the Freeman until it ceased publication in December 1924.
The cartoon attached is one of the three Shemus cartoons in the National Library’s archive to have been finished in watercolour. It dates from November 1920, a particularly vicious time in the War of Independence. Lloyd George and Sir Hamar Greenwood, the chief secretary for Ireland, are portrayed as children clutching Sir Edward Carson’s apron strings. The implication is that, with Lloyd George dependent on the support of the Conservative Party to continue in office, Carson can dictate British policy in Ireland. In the caption, Greenwood says ‘Don’t let go, Davy’ and Lloyd George replies ‘If I did I’d be lost, wouldn’t I, Hamar?’
Felix M. Larkin is author of the new book Terror and Discord: the Shemus Cartoons in the Freeman’s Journal, 1920-1924, published by A & A Farmar.