Newspapers and the Dictionary of Irish Biography

Contributed by Felix M. Larkin

G.K. Chesterton once said that newspapers were ‘the largest work ever published anonymously since the great Christian cathedrals’.  This anonymity has huge implications for historians using newspapers as a source for their research.  Undoubtedly, newspapers are valuable sources of information.  However, there are obvious dangers in relying on any newspaper – or, indeed, periodical – without some background knowledge of the publication in question, in particular its political bias and the people who controlled it.  That is why research on the history of the press is so important – apart altogether from its inherent interest.  The new Dictionary of Irish Biography has made a significant contribution to lifting the veil of anonymity that has long shrouded the history of Irish newspapers.  Take, for example, the Freeman’s Journal – probably Dublin’s most distinguished newspaper, published continuously from 1763 to 1924.

The search mechanism on the Dictionary of Irish Biography website throws up 340 entries that contain a reference to the Freeman.  That’s over 3.75 per cent of the total.  Some are merely references to the newspaper in the bibliographical paragraph at the foot of the entries, and it seems to me that the option of excluding the bibliographies from a word-search would be a worthwhile modification to the website, enhancing the ease with which scholars can find entries relevant to their field of study. A word-search will, by default, list the required entries in alphabetical order – by surname of the subjects.  This is not particularly helpful if, for example, you are working on the Freeman as a source for, say, the 1850s, and wish to find out something about the proprietors and/or leading journalists in that decade.  However, help is at hand – for you can re-sort the list under a number of criteria.  The most useful is, I think, the date of death of the subjects.  This will bring together somewhere on the list most of the people that you seek – since it is likely that they were at the peak of their careers, or not long passed it, when they died.

Another criterion on offer is ‘relevance’.  This may seem at first glance the best way of arranging the search results, but I do not find it so.  The first page of 25 entries on the Freeman’s Journal listed by ‘relevance’ includes nobody of top-rank importance except Martin Fitzgerald, the Freeman’s last owner (1919-24).  Francis Higgins, the ‘Sham Squire’ (editor and later proprietor, 1784-1802), appears on the second page.  You have to scroll down to the fifth page to find Sir John Gray (proprietor, 1841-75) and Thomas Sexton (chairman, 1893-1912).  Arguably the pre-eminent figure in the history of the Freeman is Edmund Dwyer Gray, Sir John Gray’s son and successor (proprietor, 1875-88), and he does not emerge on the list sorted by ‘relevance’ until page 10 (out of a total of 14 pages).  I don’t know how ‘relevance’ has been established for the purpose of ordering the entries, but suffice it to say that it isn’t very effective for researching the Freeman’s Journal – the ‘death date’ criterion is a much handier search tool.

This, however, is a minor quibble – and the information to be found in the DIB about the Freeman at any point in its 161 years of publication is remarkably comprehensive.  In addition to those already mentioned, there are entries on the notable early-nineteenth-century proprietors, Philip Whitfield Harvey (proprietor, 1802-26) and his son-in-law and successor, Henry Grattan (son of the parliamentarian); on Henry Brooke, the first editor (1763-4); on the influential editors of the last 40 years of the newspaper’s existence: Edward Byrne (editor, 1884-91), William Brayden (editor, 1892-1916) and Patrick Hooper (editor, 1916-1924); and on a host of lesser figures associated with the Freeman.  I daresay that similar background information is available in the DIB for many of the other great Irish newspapers that historians constantly use as source material.  Use them at your peril if you don’t first check out their credentials in the DIB!

Felix M. Larkin is author of the book Terror and Discord: the Shemus Cartoons in the Freeman’s Journal, 1920-1924, published by A & A Farmar.

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2 Responses to “Newspapers and the Dictionary of Irish Biography”

  1. Frank Bouchier-Hayes Says:

    The Irish Times digital archive searchable via proquest historical newspapers has a very useful mechanism which allows you to search under obituaries. I decided to see what ‘Freeman’s Journal’ would yield as a search query and came up with 49 results. Also ‘death of a journalist’ provided me with an interesting array of figures with associations with other newspapers, several of whom had died tragically young. Perhaps the most remarkable story concerning newspapermen is that involving Healy (Irish Times editor) and his deputy and future editor Smyllie who narrowly escaped death on Bloody Sunday night 1920. A few years ago, I came across an account of the incident by Smyllie in his Irishman’s Diary column in November 1945 but I was delighted to discover recently that a more detailed version appears in an Irishman’s Diary dated July 16th 1937. Smyllie recalled that when the drunken auxiliaries had arrested them, they refused to accept Healy’s statement that he was the editor of the Irish Times and “seemed to think that we were on the staff of the Freeman’s Journal” that had published a “very advairse report” concerning a Scottish Auxiliary among them who had been thrown into the Liffey. Unsuprisingly, the Scotsman said “Shoot the b—–s, and have done with it”. Happily, they were rescued by the quick thinking actions of Sir Thomas and Lady Myles and the full story of their escape from death is well worth reading.

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