The Midland Tribune was 140 years old in September 2021. By Michael Byrne

The Midland Tribune and King’s County Vindicator was first published at Birr on 15th September, 1881. The aim of its promoters, three Birr Catholic priests of the Killaloe diocese,  was to provide a ‘thoroughly independent organ of popular opinion in a district hitherto without the semblance of national journalism’.  In politics it declared itself as a supporter of Home Rule.  Its tone would be Catholic while at the same time endeavouring to promote ‘the union of Irishmen of every class and creed.’  On the land question the Tribune adopted the programme of the Land League and on education the views of the Catholic hierarchy

Seamus Dooley, Geoff Oakley, the late Dorothy Oakely and an NUJ function in Tullamore in recent years. Geoff was editor of the Tullamore Tribune from 1978 to 1994. Seamus was a well-known reporter with the newspaper.

The Tribunewas founded in what is generally considered the most exciting decade of the nineteenth century.  The 1880s saw the development of the most powerful democratic movement in Irish history, based at first on the struggle of tenant farmers to wrest the land they tilled from the landlords and later the right of Ireland to manage her own affairs.  These twin aims, Home Rule and a solution to the land question were welded together into a popular mass movement led by Parnell, Davitt, and O’Brien. But, in the 1880s the masses came on the political stage as leading players rather than as extras. 

It was natural that in such a turbulent and exciting period newspapers should spring up to represent and mould popular public opinion.  Many of today’s provincial newspapers were established in the 1880s and 1890s including the Leinster Leader, (1880)Westmeath Examiner (1882)Nationalist and Leinster Times (1883) the Drogheda Independent, (1883) the Limerick Leader (1889) and the Kilkenny People (1892). These new nationalist newspapers were often established in opposition to conservative unionist papers and in the years after the founding of the Free State (1922) frequently became the owners of their once powerful adversaries.   The Tribune’slong-established rival theKing’s County Chronicle also published at Birr, was eventually acquired by Mr J.I. Fanning of the Tribune in 1948.

The history of the Tribune was published as a special supplement in 1981. A new edition was issued on 15 June 2017 to mark the publication of the first Compact edition of both local newspapers.

The Land League agitation had shown the need for a national press that would faithfully record the views of its members and at the same time promote its aims. Prior to the 1880s many of the newspapers were downright conservative or too moderate in tone to give a full airing to the advanced views of nationalists.  Of the sixteen dailies published in Ireland in 1883 nine were pro-nationalist, the rest being conservative. Only sixteen of the publications

(mostly weeklies) were nationalist, the rest being conservative, liberal conservative, liberal or independent. The most powerful daily paper at the time, the Freeman’s Journal was too moderate in stance for Parnell who established the weekly United Ireland in August 1881 under the editorship of William O’Brien. It concerned itself with the land problems and the Land League. Its strident tones quickly gained for it a circulation of 70,000 to 100,000 and probably a readership of about 500,000.

John Powell in Birr with the Tribune from 1881 until his death in 1901. He died in the service of journalism at the early age of 45. He had been vice chair of the county council from 1899.

The success of United Ireland and the provincial Leinster Leader started a year earlier no doubt spurred on the promoters of the Tribune, Birr’s three Catholic curates Rev. Robert Little, Rev. Denis Sheehan and Reverend Patrick Brennan.   The three priests were probably encouraged, albeit privately, by their parish priest Dean Bugler who was parish priest in Birr for some 23 years from 1870 until his death in 1893.  It appears that the financing of a provincial paper in the 1880s required a minimum investment of between £1,000 and £2,000. When the Leinster Leader was established as a limited liability company in August 1880 it had a subscribed capital of £1,500.  The initial investment in the Tribune was in excess of £1,000 of which £600 was borrowed by its clerical proprietors in the National Bank in Ennis (also part of Killaloe diocese) and about £500 raised in the form of £10 shares.

The 40 to 50 subscribers were all from Birr with the exception of William Kilroe of Clonmacnois and William Adams of Tullamore. The subscribers were represented by James Dooley a poor law guardian of the Birr Union, and president of the Birr Land League and Edward Treacy a Birr town commissioner and business man.  The £10 shares did not give proprietorial rights and were generally repaid in the form of free newspapers and advertising space.  With the threat of libel actions always hanging over newspaper proprietors and editors few were keen to make themselves legally responsible for possible damages claims.

The late James I Fanning was owner and editor of the Tribune from c. 1945 up to about 1990. He was the quintessential newspaper proprietor of yesteryear. Truly we shall not look on his like again.

Four Clare Men

In the early years the three clergymen wrote occasionally for the paper as did also Dean Bugler, but from the beginning John (Jack) Powell of Ennis was appointed manager and he in turn selected the Tribune’sfirst editor, John St.George Joyce. Powell had knowledge of both the printing and literary sides of newspaper production and had formerly worked on the Clare Examiner.   He later emigrated to America but returned to Ireland at the age of 25 and took up the job of manager of the Tribune at its premises in Cumberland Street, (now Emmet Street) Birr.

Powell spent 20 years with the Tribune until his death in 1901 at the early age of 45.  Powell was at the time of his death vice-chairman of King’s County Council.  Several spells in gaol had, no doubt, seriously damaged his health, just as it had killed John Mandeville (after a spell in Tullamore gaol) some thirteen years earlier.  During that time the Tribune had passed the critical stage, when its chances of survival seemed slim and now had a circulation of over 5,000. The fortunes of the paper improved rapidly after Powell became its owner in 1888.In his efforts to make a success of the paper he was assisted by his brother Daniel who came to Birr with him, or arrived shortly afterwards. John Powell married Margaret O’Connor of Firmly County Cork, and by her had ten children while Daniel had at least three children by his marriage to Ellen Bergin of Crinkill, Birr. On John Powell’s death the newspaper passed to his wife Margaret who died in 1931.  Mrs Powell gave the paper to one of her daughters Anne Josephine (Birdie) Powell, who married Dr J.J. Fanning of Roscrea in 1902. Doctor Fanning died in 1908, but left two sons one of whom, J.I. Fanning,became the full owner of the Tribune on the death of his mother in 1955.Thus,the Tribune had been a family-owned paper since 1888 and managed by the Powell Fanning family since 1881.

Liam Arundel,(extreme left) CEO of Offaly VEC at the launch of the Tullamore Tribune in 1978. From l to r:  Liam Arundel,  Dan Hogan, Sean Ryan and Eamonn Dowling

The Tullamore Tribune, as a sister newspaper to the Midland Tribune commenced publication in 1978 and went tabloid in 2017. From being highly prized companies in the early 2000s the fortunes of the local press have tumbled with the rise of digital media. The local newspaper is important and covers much more than digital media. It is important to local communities that it continue to survive and prosper.

Staff and editor at the Midland Tribune about 1970. Extreme left Buddy Burke and extreme right JIF. Please name all the others and send to info@offalyhistory.com

Where can I view the old files from 1881

You can see the old files at the six Offaly libraries and at Offaly History Centre. In addition, they can be viewed in your own home from 1881 to 1919 on British Newspaper Archive. It’s a pay site but a short period can be best if you pack in the work quickly. What survives?

Midland Tribune

15 September 1881 –

British Library 15, 22 September 1881; 3 August 1882–December 1925; January 1927–

NLI: May 1920–

Microfilm

15, 22 September 1881; August 1882–1952.  British Library film.

Copies at National NLI, Offaly County Library.

1953–70, 1871–1985; 1993–2019.

Online at British Newspaper Archive, 1881–1912.

Offaly County Library and Offaly History Centre provide digitised access from 1881.

Tullamore Tribune,

Birr May 1978 – A variant of Midland Tribune, NLI May 1978. Microfilm 1987–1991 BL film. Offaly County Library and Offaly History Centre provide digitised access from 1978.

More about the Tribune history

Consult the Offaly Heritage Journal from 2003-. There are at least three articles on the provincial press in the midlands. See www.offalyhistory.com and www.irishhistoryonline. The Tribune has published two supplements: the first in 1981 and the second on the compact edition in 2017.

Some hard copies of the Tribune are available since 1900. Early issues are in Offaly Archives and material post 2000 is in Offaly History Centre. Offaly History continue to bind the hard copy each year and have done so since the 1970s. These are more museum/archival items now and it is much easier to handle the digital copies and to search them. Even the bound copies are easy to damage.

Coming blogs:

Clonmacnoise supports Parnell

100 years of electricity in Tullamore

Maria Bury and the design of Charleville Castle