A Class of News: an all-Ireland managerial class in Irish newspapers

A Class of News: an all-Ireland managerial class in Irish newspapers

PA/Reuters Headquarters London

85 Fleet Street, London, headquarters of the PA and Reuters news agencies and venue for the PA’s AGMs’. (Donald Read, The Power of News: The History of Reuters, 2nd edn. (Oxford: OUP, 1999), Plate 45.)

a post by James T. O’Donnell.

Historically mainstream Irish newspapers are often viewed in terms of their perceived political and confessional identities. These perceptions are not inaccurate and are justified by their published content. The commercial and structural organisations behind the headlines are less often considered. Through an examination of records from the Press Association’s (PA) Annual General Meetings (AGM) this short piece will reveal how the senior executives and owners of Irish newspapers had much in common with each other and, indeed, with their British counterparts. This, it will be argued, indicates the existence of a class identity that largely ignored national and political identities.

At the PA’s 1916 AGM, held shortly after the Easter Rising, the chair’s statement noted ‘considerable regret in the absence of our members from Dublin – from the Capital City of our Sister-Isle – more especially as we know the reason why they are not with us’.[1] The PA was a news agency established along cooperative lines in 1869 by the non-London-based newspapers of Britain and Ireland to gather and disseminate national and international news. Irish newspapers, along with their British counterparts, had been actively engaged in its formation and were regularly represented at general meetings. In 1916 George Crosbie of the nationalist Cork Examiner was a member of the board. The chair’s statement continued by noting that when ‘the history of Easter Week is recorded we shall realise more fully than we do to-day the circumstances with which they have had to contend, and the dangers through which they have passed’.[2] The Dublin newspapers were indeed disrupted by the events of Easter Week. No title managed to publish continuously throughout the week; the Irish Times’ storage depot was destroyed, the offices of the Irish Independent and those of the Dublin Daily Mail and Dublin Evening Express were seized by members of the Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army respectively, and the Freeman’s Journal’s premises were destroyed with the loss of its printing equipment and records.[3] In the aftermath of the Rising and following lobbying from the Irish newspapers’ managements the PA paid compensation to the Dublin newspapers of sixty percent for seventeen days of disruption to services. In addition it paid the same compensation for fourteen days for Cork and six days for Belfast and Derry, indicating a level of disruption to titles outside Dublin that has yet to be fully examined.[4]

At the PA’s AGM the following year Crosbie stepped down from the board. Having first been appointed in 1907 this was in line with the PA’s rules and not a product of any dissatisfaction with the news agency’s coverage of events in Ireland. At the same meeting Charles Henderson of the unionist Belfast Newsletter was appointed to the board. His nomination was proposed by W.T. Brewster of the nationalist Irish Independent. In a lengthy speech recommending Henderson’s candidacy Brewster described his activities in the Irish newspaper industry including his role in the formation of a representative commercial body in 1906, the Irish Newspaper Society, ‘which includes every daily and evening paper in Ireland, and most of the important weeklies’. He continued:

There is just one other thing I should like to mention. Mr. Henderson succeeds, in a kind of way Mr. George Crosbie […]. Mr. George Crosbie is one of the Proprietors of the Cork Examiner, a paper of strong Nationalist views, associated with the Parliamentary Party in almost perhaps an official character. Mr Henderson is the representative of a Belfast newspaper of at least as strong Unionist views, and it is only proper that I should acknowledge that it is the turn of the Unionist Press to represent us in this way. (Hear, hear). I accentuate that by pointing out that I, who propose his election, am the representative of a paper that might fairly be described as an uncompromising advocate of the claims for Home Rule, with full fiscal control, and for an undivided Ireland. For these I am quite sure Mr. Henderson has not the slightest sympathy. (Laughter.) But I have every confidence in Mr. Henderson as a thorough business man and a real good fellow, and I am quite sure he will give us splendid service. (Cheers.)[5]

Upon his nomination to the board being endorsed by the AGM Henderson stated in his acceptance speech that: ‘I am a member for both the Nationalist and Unionist Party in Ireland. I have had meetings in Dublin at which Nationalists and Unionist were present, and I think they were always very successful meetings’.[6]

The comparison here to James Larkin’s comment in relation to the 1913 Lockout in his presidential address to the Irish Trade Union Congress in 1914 is striking: ‘there was neither Unionist nor Nationalist among the employing class; and but two camps – employers and workers. We found no Redmondites, Carsonites or O’Brienites then. The enemy were all employers’.[7] William Martin Murphy, proprietor of the Irish Independent among other business interests, had played a key role in the Employers Federation when the decision was taken to lockout members of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union in 1913.[8]

The political and ideological differences between Irish newspapers are not just dismissed in the exchanges at the 1917 PA AGM; they are specifically referred to in order to highlight their irrelevance to the common commercial aims and concerns of the senior executives who are speaking. Further, it is clear that Brewster held Henderson in high personal regard not just for his commercial acumen but as ‘a real good fellow’, a sentiment that was reciprocated. (It is of course not unheard for people of opposing political views to enjoy cordial personal relationships.)

An interesting addendum to these events occurred 1935. At the AGM that year James Henderson of the Belfast Newsletter was elected to the PA’s board. His proposal was seconded by George Crosbie of the Cork Examiner. Though not as striking as the proposal by Brewster of Charles Henderson in 1917 the speech in support of Henderson’s nephew by Crosbie, whose father had served on the PA board 1907-17, did contain a taste of the 1917 vintage. Whilst recommending Henderson for his celerity and hard work Crosbie commented that: ‘Perhaps it may seem funny to you that I, as a Cork man should be supporting the election of a Belfast man, but that sort of thing does happen sometimes (laughter)’.[9] The high regard and cooperative business attitude of the previous generation of Irish newspapers owners seems to have survived the turmoil of the intervening years well enough to stretch across the border and generations of the two youthful polities.

What has briefly been highlighted here is the existence of attitudes within the managerial and executive ranks of Irish newspapers that paid little attention to the published political affiliation of their titles. Where these political differences were mentioned it was to minimise their significance and to highlight their shared commercial interests and personal relationships. This can be seen to confirm Larkin’s statement in 1914 to a significant extent. The actions and opinions that they demonstrated could be suggested to represent evidence of commercial class identity: ‘Historical capitalism […] is not a mode of production at all. It is a social formation’.[10] If the basis of class is a shared value system then the basic principles of a class identity among this group can be seen here, and one that operated outside the traditional analysis of national, political and confessional boundaries in Irish newspapers.


James O’Donnell teaches in History at NUI Galway and is secretary to the ICHLC. jamesthomasodonnell@gmail.com


[1] ‘Minutes of PA AGM, 1916’, Guildhall Library Manuscripts Collection, London (GL), MS 35365/9.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Mark O’Brien, The Irish Times: A History (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2008), p. 48; Hugh Oram, The Newspaper Book: A History of Newspapers in Ireland, 1649-1983 (Dublin: MO Books, 1983), pp. 127-9.

[4] ‘PA Committee of Management / Board of Directors Minute Book, November 1917’, GL MS 35358/19.

[5] ‘Report of PA AGM, 1917’, GL MS 35365/9.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Jim Larkin, ‘Each for All and All for Each’ in Donal Nevin (ed.) James Larkin: Lion of the Fold (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 2006), p. 268.

[8] Alvin Jackson, Ireland 1798-1998: War, Peace and Beyond, 2nd edn. (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), pp. 190-1.

[9] ‘Report of PA AGM, 1935’, GL MS 35365/13.

[10] Henk Overbeek, ‘Transnational class formation and concepts of control: towards a genealogy of the Amsterdam Project in international political economy’, Journal of International Relations and Development, Vol. 7 (2004), p.121.

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