The Irish Famine, modernity and the development of the Press

Michael Foley
Dublin Institute of Technology

This paper will examine period of the Great Irish Famine, the years 1845 to 1852, and suggest it was a watershed, separating an 18th century Ireland from modernity. As well as the Famine, the period also, coincidently, marked a period of great change for the press in Ireland, changes in the taxation regime, in technology and in the idea of a free press. But if a newspaper editor or journalist in the early 1840s envisaged a stately progress towards the press becoming a fourth estate, the Famine changed all that. Journalists who had become increasingly aware of themselves as a separate group of workers or even professionals with particular rights and ideological commitment to a free press would now find there was going to be nothing leisurely about the changes they were facing. Journalists and editors, faced with the disaster of the famine years were forced to find new ways of reporting that would define how the press worked for the next fifty years. As Terry Eagleton describes it, the acceleration was “surreal”. He argues that

Part of the horror of the famine is its atavistic nature – the mind –shaking fact that an event with all the pre-modern character of a medieval pestilence happened in Ireland with frightening recentness. (Eagleton, Heathcliff and the Great Hunger, 1995, 14)

This, of course, also influences the press as well as every other aspect of Irish life.

The famine is the great breaking point in Irish history. When the famine ends the radically changed society is actually one beneficial to the development of the press. The population might continue to decline in the post-famine period but growing urbanisation facilitated the development and distribution of the press, leading to an increase in the number of titles. The growth in the number of English speakers also helped a press that had developed mainly in the English language.

Journalists struggled to find ways of covering the disaster of the Famine. Colonial conditions and the state of Irish capitalism delayed many of the economic developments within the press that took place in Britain, but the Famine did speed up the entry of the press into modernity, and offered a training ground for a generation of journalists in the use of the human interest story, the development of news values, as well as a sense of outrage that led many to combine journalism with politics.

Newspapers and Periodicals in Britain and Ireland from 1800 to 1900