The Irish Catholic Press in Britain and the “Troubles of Journalism”, 1884-1934

Joan Allen
Newcastle University/NPHFI

It is sufficiently obvious, that, with regard to political subjects and public men, the liberty of the press may be abused in two ways. The one is when good public measures and good public men are blamed; – the other is when bad public measure, and bad public men, are praised. Of these two, we should consider the last as being infinitely worst… it is the screen by which, more effectually than by anything else, power is concealed…
(James Mill, 1811)

The contested space around freedom of expression in the first half of the nineteenth century, in terms espoused by Mill and his contemporaries, was moderated to a large extent by the imposition of the ‘taxes on knowledge’. From the mid-1850s, however, the removal of heavy duties precipitated the rapid expansion of the popular press, and other means were sought to contain the vaulting confidence of newspaper editors and proprietors who cast themselves as arbiters of public probity. Managing the consequential risk to capital and circulation rates constituted a singular challenge to proprietors of the Irish and British press in the modern period, and yet this does not seem to have driven journalism into the safer waters of anodyne commentary and reportage. The editorial remained a prized platform within the public sphere which, according to W.T. Stead, carried the same moral responsibility as the pulpit in a chapel or church, to dispense critical and authoritative judgements. Then, as now, the influence of the press was regularly policed by threatened or actual legal action.

This paper sets out to explore the strategies adopted by newspaper proprietors in order to manage risk to capital and readership levels through a particularly interesting case study, that of Charles Diamond’s Irish Catholic press empire which he launched in 1884 and included the Catholic Herald which still survives. Diamond’s ambitious business model of publishing his several populist titles in syndicated form ensured that his Irish nationalist views achieved an extraordinarily extensive geographical reach, not least among his predominantly working class readership. By the time of his death, he had up to forty-three syndicated periodicals in print. In many ways, Diamond epitomised the cautious protectionism of the age in setting up a series of press associations and Limited Liability companies, investing in cost effective technologies and in diversifying into other business interests. But this measured approach contrasts sharply with his argumentative and hectoring editorial style. Inevitably, perhaps, given the highly charged and contentious nature of Irish nationalist politics and Diamond’s combative approach to the reform agenda, he embroiled himself in countless controversial libel suits, most notably that brought by Art Ó Briain in 1922 and the expensive lawsuit which saw Hannah Sheehy Skeffington secure major damages in 1934. This study will consider the extent to which Diamond’s contradictory management style enabled or diminished his particular brand of didactic journalism.

Newspapers and Periodicals in Britain and Ireland from 1800 to 1900