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Always on Sunday.

FILTH. DIRTY DECADENT immoral indecent British filth--divorce and adultery and contraception and crime, quite possibly of a sexual nature--hangs over this volume, just out of reach, its foul yet somehow tempting stench drifting near. Those filthy Saxon Sunday newspapers, it seems, cast a long shadow over the Irish Sundays whose history the book explores.

The Sunday Papers is a doggedly empirical book by a motley collection of admirable archive-hounds. Its authors and editors eschew any unifying narrative--with only the editors and Michael Foley, in his chapter on the Sunday Times in Ireland, attempting to tell stories that span more than a decade or two, or go beyond a single title. The editors are happy to make the big story of the book be the one about the authors' own collective reclamation of bits and pieces of neglected history, their entirely correct efforts to move study of the Sundays in from the margins of Irish newspaper historiography.

However, it's difficult, especially in the first half of a volume that covers a bit more than a century of history, to avoid the feeling that the real story here is about the papers that lie outside the scope of the studies, the British papers that sold and continue to sell in independent Ireland by the hundreds of thousands every Sabbath. And about one of the several that were banned: the now-defunct News of the World, by some measures the best-selling English-language newspaper anywhere ever, but legally blocked from the Irish Free State and the Republic through the middle decades of the twentieth century, when it was at the height of its popularity.

That particular ban wasn't enough for some people: In 1953 a newspaper distributor's van was held up by masked men as it left Dublin. The men told the driver that they "objected to the circulation of filthy newspapers and in particular to the [Sunday] People" (27), and they destroyed a number of copies of that British paper. Long before then, Irish Sunday newspapers were forced to portray themselves, more or less explicitly, as the entirely wholesome alternative to their British counterparts. The short-lived Sunday Freeman, for example, began its life in 1913 with a promise to be "fit for free circulation in an Irish home"; and lest there be any doubt about the object of the sneer, it declared that British newspaper owners' "anxiety to profit" by the public appetite for Sunday reading "seems to have left them little opportunity of discriminating between news that a self-respecting man or woman would care to read and that which, for decency's sake, should be suppressed" (42).

The Sunday Independent had launched a few years earlier with fanfare from its daily sister paper about the letters from readers that "lay stress on the flood of filthy literature with which certain of the imported papers teem week after week, and the necessity of counteracting this evil" (58). In September 1913 the Sunday Independent editorially hinted that the filthiest filth in the British Sundays might be their sympathy with Larkinism: "the incurable sentimentality which makes the Englishman glory in elaborating the dramatic nature of any struggle... is his practical sense that strikes and scenes in Ireland are exceedingly good copy when one is trying to capture a big Irish circulation." It denounced the British Sundays' "glorification of the romantic character of the strike-monger in prosy pictures and highly pictorial prose; and the exaggerating of the affair from the casting-out of an unwanted group of agitators to the dimensions of a full-blown labour crisis" (60). A full-blown labor crisis in Dublin in 1913? Perish the thought! It's those filthy British papers.

When the Sunday Press launched in 1949, it made do with repeated references to God and the Holy Trinity, and its commitment to "democratic government based on Christian principles over every inch of Irish soil" (80). When that paper published the first ever color image in an Irish newspaper in 1954, it was a photo of Pope Pius XII. However, such priorities did not stop the Sunday Press, as author Ray Burke points out, from covering Grace Kelly and Jackie Kennedy in ways that closely mirrored the cross-channel papers' treatment of the British royal family. (The Sunday Press JFK souvenir edition a month after the US president's assassination in 1963 appears to have been the best-selling edition of an Irish newspaper ever).

Even the effort by the Irish Times in the late 1950s and early 1960s to run a popular Sunday tabloid, the Sunday Review, launched with a Catholic editor and a promise of "decent standards" (106). Joe Breen's perceptive chapter on that effort points out that at the time the experiment was abandoned after six years, the Sunday Review had (at 190,000) five times the circulation of the daily Irish Times. He doesn't, however, pause to consider the underlying reason why this rather large circulation nonetheless constituted a commercial failure--i.e., because Sunday Review readers weren't as attractive to advertisers as Irish Times readers--and indeed a certain indifference to questions of class in the Sunday newspaper audience permeates this volume. Given that the peculiar British Sunday paper--of which the Irish variant may be regarded as a sort of dialectical offshoot--came of age in the mid-1800s in a melting pot of radical class politics and non-newspaper forms of working-class reading material (ballads, chapbooks, broadsheets, almanacs), this volume's inattention to class is disappointing.

It's not much better on questions of gender. It's understandable that after all the self-righteousness about the non-filthiness of the Irish Sundays that permeated the first half-century of the State, the arrival of the fundamentally filthy and genuinely Irish Sunday World tabloid in 1973 would be treated as something of a cause for celebration. In The Sunday Papers, the party goes a little too far: authors Siun Ni Dhuinn & Regina Ui Chollatain relegate the matter of that paper's dreadful sexism to the end of their chapter. There the reader is invited, arguably, to weigh the sexism (presented as something of an elite concern) against the preceding enthusiastic litany of that paper's achievements and "success across all social classes" (129). As the ultimate contrast to the titles that came before it, we are invited to chortle with satisfaction at what I hope (but am not convinced) is the non-apocryphal story of how the Sunday World at its launch engineered a denunciation by the Bishop of Cork, prompted by a phony letter from a sham mammy, in order to boost circulation.

There's a story that floats around the journalism business that suggests weekend newspapers have a fair chance of surviving the digital revolution, or at least a fairer one than their daily counterparts. For example, the Irish Times--having never again published a Sunday since the end of the Review fifty-six years ago--has put a lot of eggs in its Saturday basket, with some success. However, as a general rule, the non-newsiness of the British or Irish Sunday has scarcely exempted it from the collapses in circulation that characterize the industry more broadly. So while most people choose not to buy a daily newspaper, presumably because they can get more immediate news online, they also choose not to buy a Sunday, because they can get more of whatever-it-is online too.

Whatever is it? Many fine Sundays made their names on making the news, i.e. finding and telling stories that were neglected elsewhere: the Sunday Tribune, especially in its Vincent Browne days, was such a paper, and is well remembered in this volume by Pat Brennan and Brian Trench. But at their best, the Sundays were repositories of worldviews, a place where the large and small stories of the week were honed into coherence in a way a daily paper couldn't, or wouldn't always, do. In The Sunday Papers, Felix Larkin rather scolds the Sunday Freeman of 1913-16 for a worldview that accommodated a (sanitized) residue of eighteenth and nineteenth century physical-force nationalism while advancing strictly Redmondite constitutional politics. Larkin evidently prefers the latter to the former, but surely it would be more interesting to explore what made such apparent contradictions uncontradictory in that moment.

In that light, Kevin Rafter's cautious appreciation of the Aengus Fanning and Anne Harris era at the Sunday Independent captures something of that paper's coherence and energy, even as it sniped viciously at republicans and nationalists through the early years of the Northern peace process. The most surprising historical irony in this volume is the discovery, in Mark O'Brien's fine chapter, that it was not always thus: unlike the daily Irish Independent, famously hot for the blood of James Connolly and other 1916 leaders, the early Sunday Independent was remarkable for its republican sympathies--during the War of Independence, its editor, P.J. Lynch, was arrested at the paper's offices and dragged off for ten months' internment in the Curragh.

On such quietly told but tasty little tidbits, this book grows into a feast fit for any Sunday.

--Technological University Dublin


Joe Breen and Mark O'Brien, Editors.

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Title Annotation:The Sunday Papers: A History of Ireland's Weekly Press
Author:Browne, Harry
Publication:Irish Literary Supplement
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2019
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