Northern Whig and Belfast Newsletter on #Soloheadbeg and the First Dáil: #Dail100

Given that the two centenaries were being commemorated over the past week or so, I’ve reproduced text from two contemporary articles commentating on them from a unionist perspective. One is from the Northern Whig, the other from the Belfast Newsletter. Both are worth a read for the startling use of language about martyrs at Soloheadbeg and for the Newsletter’s belittling of the use of the Irish language and the nature of propaganda in 1919.

The first account was published in the Northern Whig on 23rd January 1919 with the headlines, LAWLESSNESS IN IRELAND, SINN FEIN AND BELFAST GAOL and THE TIPPERARY MURDERS. In light of the recent debate over how to commemorate the various centenaries, the Northern Whig articles opening sentence provides an interesting angle on two points, Firstly, the two fatalities at Soloheadbeg are described as “…martyrs to the British cause in Ireland” (quoting a Morning Post article itself entitled ‘The Irish Martyrs’), using language which more typically gets associated with Irish republicanism. This may point towards one avenue worth exploring during the ongoing centenaries – the extent to which language has shifted (or not) over the intervening period of time.

A second point that jumps out from the same article is the extent to which Soloheadbeg was seen in an ongoing continuum of conflict between Irish republicanism and the British authorities in Ireland. Rather than some form of departure into a War of Independence*, instead the Northern Whig states that “We do not know what the total death-toll since the beginning of the war may be, but it is tragically heavy. [my emphasis]”. The reasoning behind the Northern Whig stating that there had been a ‘beginning of the war’ isn’t further explained in the article, but it offers an interesting counterpoint to invoking Soloheadbeg and the first meeting of the First Dáil as the chronological starting point of the War of Independence. Did unionism have a perception that war had already begun?

*I get irrationally irritated by the use of the term ‘Tan War‘.

Northern Whig, 23rd January 1919

The ‘Morning Post’ in a leader under the heading ‘The Irish Martyrs’ says: The two constables who have been murdered near Tipperary are among the many martyrs to the British cause in Ireland. We do not know what the total death-toll since the beginning of the war may be, but it is tragically heavy. Irish policemen and English soldiers have been shot in the open street or in the dark from behind hedges. And in most cases the murderers have got away without punishment In some cases of which we have heard no action could be taken because there was no hope of justice. The whole countryside was in a conspiracy to defeat the law. Not only so, but the police themselves, and the military also do their duty in the knowledge that they are not only liable to be murdered by the rebels but to be deserted by the authorities. They have the additional bitterness of hearing the mocking laughter of our enemies.

A few weeks ago the prisoners took possession of one of the wings of Belfast Prison and wholly wrecked it. The Government treated with them, and put them in the other wing with all the honours of war. They have now wrecked the other wing. Such as been the state of Ireland under Mr. Shortt. We hope it will be better under Mr. Ian Macpherson, and we are glad to see that he has had the courage to impose martial-law on Tipperary, and to put the Belfast prisoners in irons. These two actions suggest manhood. But Mr. Macpherson will fail unless he is supported by the Imperial Government, and it will fail unless it gives up the policy of conciliating our enemies at the expense of our friends. There is only one way that is successful in Ireland. It is the way of strength and justice and no concessions to the law-breaker.

The second (longer) article was published in the Belfast Newsletter on 22nd January 1919 under the title “OURSELVES ALONE” IN FACT, Inaugural Proceedings, DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE. While obviously downplaying the significance of the inaugural meeting of the First Dáil and entirely condescending in tone, there is at least a refreshingly professional concern with details of terminology (indeed the article was a lead into a much longer piece detailing what was discussed etc). At times the language is almost wistful, noting that the one thousand tickets to attend the inaugural meeting were “, but printed in Gaelic characters…” (see image at the bottom of this screen). There is particular derision for the aspirational use of the Irish language in phrases that could have easily featured in the same papers news coverage of the last few years claiming that “…not more than fifteen or so of the members of the “Constituent Assembly” at present at liberty could keep pace with a discussion in Gaelic” and equating the use of the Irish language to a step back in time of nineteen centuries akin to the abolition of ‘modern civilisation’.

There is a certain longevity to its criticism’s of Sinn Féin, both in its stereotypes and the way that it is delivered. Citing a letter written by a Catholic cleric and published in a ‘nationalist’ paper, it identifies the categories ‘Sinn Féiners’ fall in to: (1) Spies and agents of Dublin Castle; (2) Those who have got money from America, some of which have become, suddenly rich; (3) Vain wind-bags; most impudent liars and slanderers. Who go starring it and gasconading through the country; (4) Young fools, who imagine that if they are able to make the goose-step they are able to fight an army corps; (5) Popularity hunters; (6) Those who have some spleen towards, or some hatchet to grind with the Irish Party, or some of its members; (7) The milk-and-water, who are afraid, and follow the crowd; plus an un-numbered eighth group described as “a section of the labourers who are told, and believe, that if they vote for Sinn Feiners they shall get a slice of their neighbours’ property.”

Given that this is referring to those members of Sinn Féin at the time of the inaugural meeting of the First Dáil the persistence of the same broad caricatures in contemporary coverage of Sinn Féin and other non-establishment political movements is surely notable. Similarly, the delivery method here is a good example of an information policy (i.e. propaganda) device, whereby a story is second-handed (in this case, re-published from a ‘nationalist’ paper) and authored by someone that it is believed the target audience will be more receptive to, in this instance a Catholic priest. What sits behind all of this, though, is an understanding of how such propaganda needs to be delivered. This involves managing relationships and developing spokespeople to act as the source of the appropriately phrased language and information dismissing and placing a negative interpretation on the motivations of all those involved in the First Dáil. It also means ensuring that this is sufficiently masked that it stands up to some level of scrutiny. Thus, rather than the Belfast Newsletter, a Dublin Castle source, a figure in the colonial administration or a unionist offering this categorisation of those involved in the First Dáil, instead it sources it to a Catholic priest in a nationalist paper.

Here is that Belfast Newsletter article. As it runs into almost a full page on the inaugural meeting of the First Dáil, I have only reproduced the introductory sections to give the flavour.

Belfast Newsletter, 22nd January 1919

Dublin did not take itself too seriously yesterday, despite the fact that the centre of Sinn Fein gravity, if one may be permitted to use the expression, had shifted from a wing of Belfast Prison to the Round Room of the Mansion House in the Southern city. The Sinn Fein members of Parliament and other leaders who have been placed out of harm’s way by a thoughtful Government have had their little fling, and are, apparently, none the worse for it. Yesterday was dedicated to the holding of a remarkable demonstration by that members of the party who are yet at liberty, and who, having been elected members of the House of Commons in the Imperial Parliament, prefer to establish a little House of Commons of their own. Sinn Fein has done Dublin but little good in the pat, as witness the Sackville Street of today; but Dublin, nevertheless, has taken Sinn Fein to its bosom, and has returned members of the Republican party for all but one of its borough constituencies. Having succeeded in turning the tables on the official Nationalist party, and completely reversing their respective positions numerically. Sinn Fein, with a total representation of 73 members, of whom 37 were not available for active operations at the moment – being either in jail or exiled in America —proceeded to take stock of the situation, and without any undue delay the thirty-odd members who were free to do so set about paving the way for the holding of “Dail Eireann” or “Irish Parliament,” or “Irish Republican Congress,” or “Constituent Assembly.” The Mansion House wan placed at their disposal by the Lord Mayor of Dublin—who it will be remembered assisted in bringing about an armistice recently between the prison authorities and the refractory Sinn Feiners in Belfast Jail – and they decided to hold the first meeting of the Dail yesterday afternoon in the Round Room at half-past three o’clock.


As a move calculated to embarrass the British authorities just now, when the Peace Conference is holding its opening sitting, the Dail Eireann was assured of wholehearted sympathy and support from Sinn Fein Dublin right from the start. The city may have had its fill of the Republican party at the time of the Easter Rebellion of 1916 but the public memory is proverbially short, and the sufferings of that period have drifted into the background, and indeed, have been thrust out of light by this present excitement. The spirit of adventure was abroad in the city yesterday, and the populace was quite ready to drink a drop of the Sinn Fein potion once again. It was felt there was a chance that the authorities might deem it incumbent upon themselves to intervene, and from, the moment it was learned that a conference of the Irish Executive had been held in Dublin Castle on Saturday afternoon curiosity was rife as to the attitude of the real Irish Government towards the bogus “Irish Parliament” all sorts of rumours were in circulation but it was generally believed that no drastic step would be taken at the present juncture, so long as the proceedings are not of a turbulent character. This impression was strengthened by the announcement yesterday morning that the Order in Council prohibiting the holding of meetings, assemblies, or processions unless duly authorised in writing, which had been suspended during the elections, was finally revoked, and, as events proved, it was quite correct.

On Monday the finishing touches were put to the arrangements for the Dail. It was announced that the members would style themselves not “M.P.’s,” but “F.D.E.’s —that being the official contraction for “Feisiri Dail Eireann.” It was also notified that the inaugural meeting would be open to the public and one thousand tickets, orange-coloured, but printed in Gaelic characters, were issued in the course of Monday morning to the crowd of callers at the Harcourt Street Headquarters. Each of the ‘F.D.E.’s’ was supplied with a generous quantity of blue tickets for distribution among his personal relatives and friends, who were expected to occupy a large part of the available accommodation.


It may be of interest to note what the constituents of this “Constituent Assembly ” are, and what they represent — that is, in the light of their friends the Nationalists, as set forth by a “well-known P.P.” (of Killenaule) in a letter to a Nationalist organ recently. ” Who are the Sinn Feiners” he asks. And answers his question by stating: “They consist of different bodies.” He goes on to expose the nature of these bodies, section by section, in the following order:—

(1) Spies and agents of Dublin Castle.

(2) Those who have got money from America, some of which have become, suddenly rich.

(3) Vain wind-bags; most impudent liars and slanderers. Who go starring it and gasconading through the country,

(4) Young fools, who imagine that if they are able to make the goose-step they are able to fight an army corps,

(5) Popularity hunters.

(6) Those who have some spleen towards, or some hatchet to grind with the Irish Party, or some of its members.

(7) The milk-and-water, who are afraid, and follow the crowd.

As an afterthought he adds “a section of the labourers who are told, and believe, that if they vote for Sinn Feiners they shall get a slice of their neighbours’ property.” And he remarks in a sudden outburst of candour—” Sinn Fein is damnable tomfoolery.” Betide this the statement by a Roman Catholic Canon of Bessbrook, also written in the thick of the election campaign, that Sinn Fein is “unholy ” sounds quite mild.


About thirty ” F.D.E.’s” expected to be present at the opening meeting of the Dail Eireann, and in order that the waiting world might be kept fully apprised of their doings special co-respondents from French, American, Dutch, Belgian, Spanish, South African, Australian, and Canadian newspapers, as well as a host of journalists and Press photographers from all parts of the United Kingdom assembled in the city in the course of the week end , and, having taken up strategic positions, awaited developments. One little matter troubled them—the decision of the Sinn Fein representatives, unanimously arrived at in the course of one of the preliminary meetings, “that no version of the business dealt with by the Parliament should be supplied to the newspapers except in the Irish language.” The visitors’ own experience led them to think that “the Irish language” is very much the same as that which is ordinarily in use across the Channel, and the study of the mentality of the poetic authors of this resolution leaves them limp. They point out that the Sinn Fein members, or rather the “F.D.E.’s” in their avowed policy of separation from the British Empire, are endeavouring to negotiate the longest of long jumps forward, whilst at the same moment in their official mode of expression they are back-stepping nineteen centuries. The Gaelic language may be all very well in its proper place, say the correspondents—they are mostly unable to express a considered opinion in the matter but life is too short for any daily newspaper to print it in any considerable; quantity and live. If the Sinn Fein leaders must needs ape the Gaul, why not go the whole hog, and abolish modern civilisation altogether? Rumour has it, however, that people other than the newspaper co-respondents are exercised in their; minds over the matter— that not more than fifteen or so of the members of the “Constituent Assembly” at present at liberty could keep pace with a discussion in Gaelic. This notwithstanding, it was decided that the proceedings at yesterday’s meeting should be conducted in the Gaelic language entirely, only translations of important documents which had already been read in Gaelic being given in the English tongue—and byway of being altogether impartial, the French tongue too. Those members who were not proficient in the ancient language were restricted to formally seconding or supporting the propositions laid before the meeting.

One of the ‘one thousand tickets, orange-coloured, but printed in Gaelic characters’ to attend the inaugural meeting of the first Dáil.


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