There is an increasing appreciation of the records of the local press: the Midland Tribune, Leinster Express, Tullamore and King’s County Independent and King’s County Chronicle, without which our knowledge of the county of Offaly since 1831 would be so much the poorer. The press was the only source of news for the public in the pre-‘wireless’ days up to the 1920s and 1930s. This week we mark the burning of the Athlone Printing Works and with it the machinery of the Offaly Independent and Westmeath Independent in early November 1920 and look at the evolution of its editorial viewpoint from pro-war to pro- Sinn Féin and the Irish Republic.
Access to the old files has never been easier with Irish Newspaper Archive having much of the stock from 1920. Keep up to date by going online to Irish Newspaper Archive and also British Newspaper Archive.
In line with its expansionist policy the Westmeath Independent (founded in 1846) launched an offshoot the Tullamore and King’s County Independent in 1894. This survived as the Offaly Independent until 1968, when it again amalgamated to become the Westmeath Offaly Independent but is now again the Offaly Independent. However, unlike the Leinster Reporter (published in Tullamore) but only the Chronicle under another name, the new Offaly Independent did have Offaly news special to it and not found in its sister paper the Westmeath Independent.
The Westmeath Independent was founded by James Martin of Athlone in 1846. It was later sold to the Chapman family who continued as owners until 1960. Under the Chapmans it became a successful newspaper with an extensive printing business giving employment to 70 to 100 people. The printing works in Athlone where both the Westmeath Independent and Offaly Independent have always been printed was destroyed by the Black and Tans in November 1920. Publication of the newspapers recommenced in February 1922.
The Westmeath Independent and its sister paper, the Offaly Independent were sold by the Chapman family in 1960. Its new owner was John McManus , a Dublin printer, whose father had been a compositor at the Athlone Printing Works. The circulation at that time was about 8,000 to 9,000 with the firm carrying a considerable number of employees. Subsequently, the Nally family, owners of the Westmeath Examiner, acquired the Westmeath Independent and the Offaly Independent, and sold all three to the Scottish newspaper group, Dunfermline Press (through its Irish based Celtic News Group) for an estimated €20 million in May 2004. This left only the Offaly Topic as a family owned independent newspaper in Offaly. It is based in Mullingar. Meanwhile the Offaly Independent was issued from the late 1960s as the Westmeath-Offaly Independent. This was not a good idea and in 1978 J.I. Fanning of the Midland Tribune saw the gap in the marked and started the Tullamore Tribune. The Offaly Independent is now delivered as a free newspaper.
From support for the war to republican Sinn Féin and back to pro-Treatyite
The Westmeath Independent and its satellite founded in 1894, the Tullamore and King’s County Independent (the Offaly Independent from June 1920), were pro-Parnellite newspapers. The Independent was suppressed in April 1918 for a short time for its strident support of Sinn Féin, but was able to report the Conscription Crisis. In 1918 it had over 100 employees and its printing works was said to be the largest in Ireland with machinery worth over £30,000. Subject to suppression and censorship from time to time it was to know much worse in 1920 when, after an unsuccessful attempt two weeks earlier, the printing works was destroyed by the Black and Tans in November 1920. Kenneally states that the burning was only one example of a widespread campaign of military and police intimidation against the Irish press.
Publication of the newspapers recommenced in February 1922. Unfortunately, the burning took its toll and Thomas Chapman, died just two months later in April 1922. His editor, Michael McDermott Hayes, went to Belfast after the burning to work with the Irish News and did not come back to Athlone. Perhaps his political views were too strong for Chapman in the changed Ireland of 1922 with more to come that year. McDermott Hayes died in 1924. As was so often the case notwithstanding the strongly nationalist views of Thomas Chapman he had two sons in the army during the war. Both appeared to have married daughters of Dr T.W. Rice from Portarlington and it was Ivan Chapman who succeeded his father in the business.
The Tullamore and King’s County Independent, in the years from 1900 to 1915, was about supporting the leader, John Redmond, and the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP). It agreed with Redmond that the right course was adopted in regard to Ireland and the war.
The Independent at the end of 1915 was expecting to see decisive blows delivered in 1916 which will ‘proclaim the peace of Europe, the victory of our armies, and the shattering for all time of the enemy forces’ that have hung over us for a generation. ‘We are looking forward to victory and our own place in the sun’.
The 1916 Rebellion took everybody by surprise, including the local press. The Independent was first off the mark with an editorial on 29 April (the Saturday of the same week) emphasising that ‘Ireland was in need of courage and common sense – Courage to face the situation that has arisen through the action of a ‘section of irresponsibles’. . . Had we Home Rule in action in Ireland this would not have arisen.
As the number of executions and arrests grew so did sympathy with the young rebels. By 6 May the Independent was singing from the same hymn sheet as the Midland Tribune in calling for mercy. It was accepted that it was the ‘duty of Ireland to plead for mercy’, because it was no rebellion, but an ‘Epidemic of Madness’. It was an exhibition of ‘mad fanaticism: ‘the poor dreamers who, deluded by German intrigue, have been guilty of the maddest attempt at revolution every essayed in any country in the world’ and ‘the country remains loyal to the constitutional movement.’. The terrible crime was perpetrated when ‘our whole energies – the entire manhood and resources – were needed in the life and death struggle against Germany’. But within another week (13 May), at the time of the Asquith visit, the city was said to be (quoting Dillon in the House of Commons) ‘reeking with blood and the country boiling with indignation’, and of public opinion it said ‘An extraordinary revulsion of feeling in Ireland has taken place. The whole country condemned the rising in Dublin – the anarchy, the Larkinism and the dreamers’ madness . . . but now the acts of the Executive have glorified it.’
The move to Sinn Féin
The editorial view in the Independent changed considerably in the months of May to August 1916. However, it was not until the South Longford election in May of 1917 that it and the Tribune adopted the view that the IPP was entirely finished. The Independent, in particular, continued to support the war aims of the Allies whereas the Tribune, from the beginning, had refused to see it as a battle for the benefit of small nations.
The Independent’s main proprietor, Thomas Chapman, a Protestant nationalist and Westmeath county councillor, ‘lost all faith in sham parliamentarianism and identified himself with the Sinn Fein movement’. No longer was it Asquith ‘the one man in England in whom the Irish people can place confidence’ (13 May) now it was ‘Asquith the shifty’ (5 August), ‘the second Pitt’ (29 July) and that the IPP had been beguiled by his apparent sincerity.
Perhaps one of the more interesting editorials was that on ‘Westmeath Independent and Press Censorship’ issued on 10 June 1916. This gave an account of how the military authorities in Athlone took exception to the content and tone of the newspaper from the time of the Rising and called in the editor, McDermott Hayes, and the proprietor, Chapman, to a meeting in the Athlone military barracks. Subsequently Chapman had an interview with Sir John Maxwell at which the publicity given to the Bishop of Limerick’s letter was discussed. Chapman said it was desirable that the Athlone prisoners be released and that it ‘would do more to allay the irritating nervous excitement now undoubtedly prevailing about the midlands’. For the Independent it was not just the executions, but also that so many had been jailed without trial. Holding untried suspects for eight months was a travesty of justice.
In March 1917, on the occasion of the first anniversary of the Rising, the Independent was unequivocal: ‘The men who rose in rebellion were regarded at the time as foolish and misguided. Today they are revered as heroes and patriots’. The reason was because of the methods employed by the government, the introduction of martial law and internment without trial. This first anniversary appears to mark the first occasion when the editorial in the Independent was also reproduced in Irish. In late April 1917 Thomas Chapman, the main proprietor, of both the Westmeath Independent and the King’s County Independent, together with Athlone-based Franciscan, Fr Fidelis, were presented with special gifts on behalf of the Irish Volunteers in Athlone in remembrance of the support of Fr Fidelis for the prisoners and the newspaper in securing the release of internees. Fr Fidelis had laboured for the poor and visited the Volunteers in detention. Soon after this event Thomas Chapman was installed as chairman of the Athlone branch of Sinn Féin while the radical Hurley was appointed deputy chairman. The editor, McDermott Hayes, sat on the committee.
South Longford and East Clare
When the by-election in South Longford in May 1917 was won by Sinn Féin’s Joe McGuinness the Independent editor, McDermott Hayes, who knew this whole area as his newspaper circulated widely there, was able to write that South Longford sounded the ‘death knell of inaction’:
The lesson was that Ireland must be given the unfettered management of her national affairs. The East Clare by-election in July 1917 marked a decisive turning point and was considered by ‘long odds to be the most important political decision given in our generation’.
By the opening of 1918 the Independent could write of the sham constitutional movement that was bleeding the country. ‘The Irish Party’s subservience to English influence carried its nemesis.’ Just two years labour by Sinn Féin has stopped the atrophy and we are now living in a very different times. In January 1919, and following on the general election, the Independent was welcoming the decision of the people to opt for an Irish republic and not self-determination within the British Empire. In January 1920 the editorial was about Ireland passing through the darkest hour of slavery before the dawn of freedom.
Damaged by destruction and becomes pro-Treatyite
The Offaly Independent in the 1920s supported the Treaty and peace. In 1926 it urged Fianna Fáil to go into the Dáil, as otherwise all their fine words would leave the country cold. Reviving its old association with the First World War the Independent was able to write of the 1926 Armistice Day when the war memorial was unveiled in Tullamore that:
The sacrifice made in blood was on an heroic scale. . . Whether the ideals that won their support was vindicated or betrayed has nothing to do with the observances that will take place next week … All honour to their memory. The nation as a whole mourns their loss and shares the glory they brought her name . . The observance must be free from all flag-waving and jingoism. We want no repetition of the disgraceful scenes in Dublin last year. President Cosgrove set an example in London a few days ago. Honouring the dead should never lead to antagonisms among the living. If it does it becomes a mockery and were better abandoned.
Somebody wrote when circumstances change we should change with them. Certainly the Offaly Independent followed that line but to its cost in November 1920.