The Irish Bulletin
Claire Guerin 19 May 2020
Dáil Éireann's official gazette helped to break the "paper wall" which divided Ireland from the outside world.
In 1906 Arthur Griffith, founder of the Sinn Féin party and the paper of the same name, wrote that Ireland was surrounded by a "wall of paper" of Britain's creation. His metaphor was one which was remembered in years to come when British censorship and black propaganda was wielded to prevent Irish self-determination. After 1916 Rising, a political and military resurgance resulted in Sinn Féin winning an overall majority in the 1918 British general election and establishing an independent republic and parliament. Shortly before the start of the civil war in June 1922, Aodh de Blacam wrote that "every national movement in our days has neglected propaganda in the North – it was always easier and pleasanter to go where speakers were sure of a big cheer and no heckling. But English propaganda never ceased for a day in the North… there was a “Paper Wall” round Ulster nine times as high and strong as the Paper Wall which was, and indeed still is, round Ireland.”
The Department of Propaganda
The Sinn Féin press bureau was established in April 1918 under the leadership of Robert Brennan. The bureau provided Sinn Féin news to provincial Irish newspapers, gathered data for public statements and gathered material for foreign correspondents in Ireland and for the attempt to have Ireland represented at the Paris Peace Conference. Its overriding objective, as time went on, was to prepare for the upcoming election. Defence of the Realm regulations outlawed any separatist arguments in print or in public, and in May 1918, 150 members of Sinn Féin, including Griffith and new leader Éamon de Valera, were imprisoned on what are generally regarded as specious grounds, preventing them from campaigning in the upcoming election. This tactic was counterproductive, and Sinn Féin's mandate for a separate Irish Republic won them an overall majority in Ireland. In January 1919, a Republic was declared and a separate parliament, Dáil Éireann, was established, with most of its elected representatives "faoi ghlas na Gallaibh" ("imprisoned by the foreigner"). Unionists did not attend, and in 1920, the British Government set up a partition state called Northern Ireland, established on a sectarian basis. Countess Markievicz was the first woman to be elected to Westminster, but chose to take her seat in Dáil Éireann.
Shortly thereafter, the Dáil's Department of Propaganda was formed, and gradually superceded the Sinn Féin department. Its first director was Laurence Ginnell, T.D. until his arrest in May 1919. He was succeeded by Desmond Fitzgerald. The department began publishing the Irish Bulletin, a fortnightly sheet giving details of British ‘acts of aggression’. In November, this was upgraded to a regular journal which also contained political content and aimed to contradict British accounts of the war.
The Irish Bulletin was edited by Desmond Fitzgerald, who was succeeded on his capture in February 1921 by Erskine Childers. Both were assisted by Frank Gallagher, with help from Robert Brennan, while Kathleen McKenna and Anna Fitzsimons (who later wrote under the name Anna Kelly) were instrumental in the production and printing of the paper. The Bulletin chiefly targeted opinion abroad and was translated into the local language by Irish representatives in Spain (Máire Ní Bhrian), France (Leopold Kearney, succeeding George Gavan Duffy and Seán T. Ó Ceallaigh), Argentina (Eamon Bulfin and P.J. Little, editor of the influential republican paper New Ireland) and Germany (Nancy Wyse Power). The Bulletin produced statistics and facts which contradicted those given to journalists by Dublin Castle publicists. Under British censorship , these facts could not be published in Irish newspapers, and therefore were of great interest to the British media. Dublin Castle propaganda was overseen by Sir Basil Clarke, who is seen in some quarters as the father of British P.R. His principal tactic was to present 'verisimilitude'.
Laurence Ginnell, lawyer, land activist and first Director of the Department of Propaganda; Maud Gonne MacBride (r.), taking part in relief efforts during the Irish civil war. National Library of Ireland on The Commons / Public domain
The propaganda apparatus of the IRA had consisted of the journal An tÓglach, but this was geared towards its own members. Its editor, Piaras Béaslaí, supplied the Irish Bulletin with the requisite information about its engagements with British forces. Another key member of the propaganda department was Maud Gonne MacBride, a founder of Inghnidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland) and a backer of Griffith's first paper, the United Irishman. During the War of Independence she founded the Irish White Cross, which publicised the activities of the British forces in Ireland as well as collecting money for civilians affected by the war. Gonne MacBride also kept records of the activities of the Black and Tans for the use of the Irish Bulletin. These records were later destroyed by Free State troops. Having run a monthly periodical in France called l’Irlande Libre, she had “considerable experience” in publicity, and many foreign journalists who visited Ireland for news would visit her at home.
Erskine Childers and Desmond Fitzgerald. Each spent time as Minister for Publicity and editor of The Irish Bulletin.
Perhaps the greatest asset to the Bulletin was Erskine Childers. His philosophy had developed steadily from being a propagandist for Empire - via his spy thriller Riddle of the Sands - to advocating for dominion home rule for Ireland In 1911, and finally to support for an Irish Republic. In 1919 he told Robert Brennan that “I have decided that Sinn Féin is the right policy for Ireland. I have come over to give a hand any way I can help. You may not believe it, but the English people do not realise what is going on here.” In 1919, using his contacts in Paris, he assisted the Irish diplomatic mission in that city. His writings about life in Ireland under the Defence of the Realm Act and the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act were intended to show the reality of military rule in Ireland, “a military terror; machine guns, tanks, bombing aeroplanes; soldiers ignorant of law dispensing justice by Court-martial; a rigid censorship… police spies and informers.” Arthur Griffith viewed Childers as particularly useful in his role as a propagandist, as “he has the ear of a big section of the English people.” In 1920 he wrote articles in English newspapers attacking the propaganda of Dublin Castle and then began to write for Dáil Éireann’s organ the Irish Bulletin. In February 1921 he was appointed Minister for Publicity, Dáil Éireann's president Éamon de Valera having decided to change the name of the department owing to the term "propaganda" coming into disrepute.
Desmond Fitzgerald headed the ministry once again when Childers was appointed as Secretary to the Irish treaty delegation. The treaty, which codified the partition of Ireland, was rejected by a substantial section of republican opinion but narrowly passed by Dáil Éireann. The Provisional Government publicity department, headed by Desmond Fitzgerald, carried on a campaign of pro-treaty propaganda while simultaneously running The Irish Bulletin, which insisted that allegations that a civil war was imminent were false. (UCDA, Desmond Fitzgerald Papers, P80/273 (13)) Opponents of the treaty were urged by Liam Mellows to form a newspaper along the lines of the Irish Bulletin. Mellows was later executed having been subjected to a campaign in the mainstream press led by Fitzgerald. Despite - or perhaps because of - the fact that de Valera viewed Poblacht na hÉireann under the stewardship of Childers as a gold standard for journalistic standards, the latter was marked out for an extensive series of attacks by Free State politicians and newspapers and consequently executed on 24 November 1922.
Minor edits were made to this article on 09 July 2021.
For more on Dáil Éireann’s Publicity Department, see Mitchell, A., 1995. Revolutionary government in Ireland: Dáil Éireann, 1919-22. Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, pp. 99-119; Kenneally, I., 2008. The paper wall: newspapers and propaganda in Ireland 1919-1921. Collins Press, Cork; Murphy, B. 2006. The Origins and Organisation of British Propaganda in Ireland, 1920. Aubane Historical Society and Spinwatch (no place); Inoue, Keiko. 1995. Sinn Féin and Dáil Propaganda, 1919-1921. PhD Thesis. University College Dublin.
Boyce, D.G., 1972. Englishmen and Irish troubles: British public opinion and the making of Irish policy, 1918-22. Cape, London
Brennan, Robert, 1950. Allegiance. Browne and Nolan, Dublin. p. 326.
Dáil Éireann Department of Publicity: History and Progress (August 1921), National Archives of Ireland NAI DE 4/4/2. Available online: https://www.difp.ie/docs/1921/Publicity-Department-His-tory/102.html
De Blacam, Aodh. 'Ulster is Ours Part II'. Poblacht na hÉireann. 22 June 1922.
Gonne MacBride, Maud. Bureau of Military History WS 317.
Murphy, B., 2007. ‘Erskine Childers: The Evolution of an Enemy of Empire – II’. In Flannery, E., Mitchell, A,. Enemies of Empire: New Perspectives on Imperialism, Literature And Histography. Four Courts Press, Dublin.
Steele, K.M., 2007. Women, Press, and Politics During the Irish Revival. Syracuse University Press.