The Shemus Cartoons

Contributed by Felix M. Larkin

The latest National Library of Ireland exhibition focuses on the Shemus Cartoons. The exhibition runs from 9 December 2009 until end February 2010.

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.

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7 Responses to “The Shemus Cartoons”

  1. Patrick Maume Says:

    Two obvious parallels (though both are more in the illustrative category) would be Gordon Brewster’s cartoons in the WEEKLY INDEPENDENT (which published such cartoons from 1905 until World War II’s paper restrictions) and Tom Lalor’s cartoons in D.P. Moran’s weekly LEADER from c.1911-23 (accompanied by rhymed commentaries from A.M.W. – John Swift).
    J.R. Crookes’ cartoons in the Unionist WARDER AND WEEKLY EVENING MAIL of the 1880s and early 1890s (which illustrated stage-Irish commentaries on political and social events) might also make an interesting comparison.
    In none of these cases, however, do we have the original artwork to any great extent (though I think the NLI has some Crookes sketches and at least one Lalor drawing).

  2. Carol Maddock Says:

    You may be pleased to hear that the NLI’s Dept. of Prints & Drawings has a beautiful collection of original Gordon Brewster cartoons that have been impeccably conserved, and are available to view by appointment. Phone Honora Faul, Curator on +353 1 603 0225 or email:

    There are over 400 cartoons, all on the NLI’s online catalogue:

  3. Frank Says:

    Perhaps a day long history seminar on political cartoons might be worth considering in light of the vast array of interesting material available. Mac’s cartoons in the Irish Independent from 1924 and 1926 are also overlooked sources for historians. Mac, whose real name was Isa Macnie, was a distinguished member of the Dublin United Arts Club. She published a book of cartoons, The Celebrity Zoo, in 1925 in which she drew various political and literary figures in animal form. A favourite cartoon of mine from the Irish Independent is one which features Ernest Blythe, in his unpopular role as Minister for Finance in May 1924, gazing out over a long line of protesting children bearing such placards as “mister blith dont tacks our CHOX”, “DOWN WITH THE TIRAND”. and “NO BUGIT”.

  4. Patrick Hawe Says:

    I would like to draw attention to the work of a number of artists of relevance – to that of Thomas Fitzpatrick (1860-1912) particularly from 1905 in his publication The Lepracaun, the work of brothers George (1869-1955) and particularly, Jack Morrow (1872-1926) whose cartoons appeared in New Ireland from about 1915 through to its suppression and to the work of Ernest Kavanagh (1884-1916) whose life ended on the steps of Liberty Hall in 1916.
    Another lesser known artist, Listowel born V.L. O’Connor (1888-1978) whose A book of caricatures was published by the Dundalgan Press in 1916. The press would in 1919 publish Grace Gifford Plunkett’s fine cartoons To hold as t’were.

    Patrick Hawe

  5. paddybrown Says:

    An interesting discussion that I’m glad I happened upon. I’m the main editor of the Irish Comics Wiki, which attempts to cover all aspects of cartooning in and from Ireland. I’ve already got something at least on Thomas Fitzpatrick, Gordon Brewster, Isa MacNie, Grace Gifford and the Morrow brothers, among many others, but more knowledge is always welcome. Perhaps some of you would like to contribute?

  6. paddybrown Says:

    Lots of Patrick’s on this thread. Patrick Maume, I’d like to say thanks for your article “Repealing the Repealer” from History Ireland, which was one of the references I consulted when writing my History of Irish Comics before the 20th century. If you have the time, I’d appreciate any comments you might have on it.

  7. The “Shemus” cartoons – war propaganda? « Scríbhneoir páirt-aimseartha Says:

    […] See also […]

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