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Marie-Louise Legg, Newspapers and Nationalism: The Irish Provincial Press 1850-1892.

Marie-Louise Legg, Newspapers and Nationalism: The Irish Provincial Press 1850-1892 (Four Courts Press, 1999), 238 pp., $45 cloth; and Images, Icons and the Irish Nationalist Imagination, ed. Lawrence McBride (Four Courts Press, 1999), 188 pp., $55 cloth.

In 1855 the Librarian of Trinity College, Dublin, wrote to the Inland Revenue, requesting that all Irish provincial newspapers over two years of age be supplied to the Library for the varied purposes of future researchers in history or statistics. His timely recognition of the value of such material has not, however, been pursued in the work of contemporary academics: too often, suggests the author of Newspapers and Nationalism, Ireland's provincial press has been exploited as a source of "cheap copy" rather than explored as a rich cultural and political phenomenon. As a result, the stated intentions of this study are primarily restorative, seeking to re-establish not only the political landscape of the nineteenth-century provincial newspaper in Ireland but also the human profile provided by its nexus of proprietors, editors, distributors and readers. And while building on the groundwork laid down in this area by, among others, R.V. Comerford in his contribution to A New History of Ireland (1989) and Stephen Koss in the nineteenth-century volume of The Rise and Fall of the Political Press in Britain (1980), Matie-Louise Legg makes a decisive return to grassroots, the gappy archives of local statistical surveys, business transaction files and census reports, in order to piece together a highly convincing, highly informative account of Ireland's provincial press, from its most famous, longest-runner--the Belfast Newsletter, founded in 1737--to the many long-forgotten but well-intentioned publications that lasted little more than a matter of weeks.

The book succeeds partly on the strengths of this fundamental research, and partly because it balances a documentary impulse with a strong evolutionary narrative intrinsically linked to the political development of Irish nationhood and nationalism in the post-Famine decades. In the 1850s and particularly after the abolition of restrictive stamp duties in 1855, the provincial press took on a key role in formulating a regenerative self-image for the country, an image that, in its emphasis on technological advance, educational expansion, and the growing confidence of a bourgeoisie immersed in business, leisure, tourism, and travel, frequently tan counter to a Dublin-sponsored myth of depression and decline. Backed by an increase in literacy rates of some thirty-five percent over a fifty-year period, and by a parallel decrease in production costs, many provincial newspapers could even afford daily publication, enabling the itinerant Thomas Carlyle to send a daily paper to his brother as a sign of his safe arrival in each new destination of his Irish tour in 1849.

The turbulent events of 1848 were by no means forgotten, of course, and sections of the press also played an important part in channeling the frustrated energies of Young Ireland by perpetuating the Gaelic revivalist iconography initiated by The Nation, as Legg's detailed case-study of the Connaught Patriot illustrates. Clerical antipathy to the Patriot and the eventual arrest in 1865 of its founder, the would-be Fenian sympathizer Martin O'Brennan, provide a useful reminder of the wider narrative in which Irish newspapers were caught up, as both Church and State struggled to meet the fluctuating demands of civil order on one hand and press freedom on the other. While the Catholic hierarchy created trouble at home, legislation on press control and censorship raised questions relevant far beyond Ireland's shores, and the Irish situation frequently became a test-case for government policy within the pressurized contexts of Gladstonian liberalism, Balfourite coercion, or increasingly an American institutional paradigm that swamped European fears of the "journalistic terror" in the heady rhetoric of democratic idealism.

Legg's survey is a valiant attempt to uncover the much-emphasized links between what the Irish read and what the Irish did. Hence, her painstaking but rewarding forays into the local habitations of the provincial press--from the subscription lists of the mechanical institute reading rooms that flourished around the country to the newspaper order books of Wynne's newsagency in her "case-study" town of Castlebar, County Mayo. To an extent such inquiries, which provide some of the most interesting material in the book, must remain inconclusive, and certainly the author is cautious about any extraction of the general from the provincial particular. But they do illuminate the significance of an engaged, literate readership for the successful operations of the Land League in the 1880s--a dangerous manifestation of what the radical London editor W.T. Stead would term, in 1886, "Government by Journalism"--and also of course, for the dramatic if short-lived ascendancy of Irish Parliamentary Party leader Charles Stewart Parnell, an astute co-dependant of Ireland's liberal provincial press. The dynamic relationship between Parnell and the papers, both Irish and British, has been discussed in greater detail elsewhere, (see for example James Loughlin's study in Boyce and O'Day's Parnell in Perspective [1991]), but its terms are nonetheless effectively summarized here, and its inclusion provides a high-point in this intriguing history of Victorian Ireland's expanding network of press, parliament, and populace.

In her conclusion to Newspapers and Nationalism Legg suggests that the book represents only a preliminary analysis of this subject, and reinforces the point by providing a 45-page appendix of provincial newspapers in the period. If the provincial press was hitherto an under-tapped resource, its relevance to Irish Studies would seem to be increasing, judging by the contributions to Images, Icons and the Irish Nationalist Imagination. This collection of essays on the popular and particularly the visual representation of Irish political life from the 1860s to Independence, also takes the press as a mainstay, but offers content analysis rather than Legg's publication context, aligning newspaper illustration with a range of popular cultural paraphernalia, from theatrical productions and commemorative parades to book design, civic sculpture, and tourist photography. The vibrant Irish popular culture which these forms represented must be accounted for, insists editor Lawrence McBride in his introductory essay, if the country's developing political sensibility is to be fully understood. The ensuing essays are each, respectively, a means of fine-tuning a historiography traditionally dominated by the written text, and the insights they provide are certainly refreshing, sometimes startling.

Overall the book is weighted by a similar pull towards the Land League era, the still unquiet decades of the 1880s and 1890s continuing to dominate the imagination of the Irish historian. The richness of the pictorial material here is of course hardly surprising given the high drama of agrarian politics and more, the attractiveness and viability of Parnell as a subject. Cartoonist Tom Merry's brilliant and scathing representation of Parnell as the (suitably bearded) cornered rat, for example, published in the St Stephen's Review in 1888, and reprinted here in Gerard Moran's study of the pictorial imagery of the Land War, stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from the numerous flattering images of the ennobled hero as Ireland's helmsman which formed part of what McBride, in his own essay, describes as the Parnell "mystique." But if sources were rich, they might also be ambiguous. Working within the same historical parameters, Joel Hollander explores the iconic depiction of the Irish female, suggesting (in a welcome expansion to L.P. Curtis' landmark 1971 study, Apes and Angels) that the conventional "Erin" figure, typically understood to indicate the victimization of the country, was in fact multi-faceted and open to a wide interpretative range, a point that reinforces the sophistication and complexity of popular representations--and their audience--in the period.

Other essays highlight what cultural theory terms the "excess" frequently present within the iconography or illustrative matter of popular culture, or in other words, the overspill of meaning which can take the visual text far beyond the limits of what the verbal text intended. Eileen Reilly's survey of Irish fiction between 1880 and 1914, for example, reveals that in typical cover illustrations, the symbolic use of shamrocks, harps, wolfhounds and round towers was by no means confined to novels of nationalist sentiment, but frequently spread to the dustjackets of fiction with loyalist or unionist themes, as commercial interests outweighed ideological expectations. Similarly, Spurgeon Thompson's fascinating account of Irish tourist photography in the early twentieth century, explored chiefly through the work of J.M. Synge and William Bulfin, exposes the vulnerability but also, crucially, the frequent resistance of Irish landscape and population to the authority of stereotype. What the contributors share, in this respect, is a sustained awareness of the power resident in popular cultural representation. And their sensitivity to the ongoing political or ideological warfare in which imagery and iconography were implicated--evidenced forcefully here by Ben Novick's account of Irish nationalist responses to the British "atrocity" propaganda of the First World War--is what gives the collection its thematic coherence and critical edge.

A key difference between these two books, interestingly, lies in their respective approaches to methodology. For Legg, a refusal to labor in theoretical reflection is an entirely appropriate means of clearing the decks for the sheer bulk of documentary material that her study must manage. By contrast, Images, Icons and the Irish Nationalist Imagination pursues a more fashionable self-consciousness with regard to its own critical practices, and in doing so, addresses persistent questions about the nature of Irish historical study. In his concluding essay, "Images, Icons, and the Practice of Irish History," Sean Farrell Moran cites the reluctance of historians generally to abandon what are, in effect, nineteenth-century historiographic traditions, emphasizing both their clinging attachment to Hayden White's "realistic narrative" and their fetishization of documentary evidence. That Irish historians have similarly proved resistant to contemporary philosophy and its scepticism of the written text adds to their already uneasy relationship with the image or icon, a source of what Moran describes as the "non-rational baggage that historians prefer to avoid." The criticism is perhaps a little unfair--one thinks of work done by Luke Gibbons in Ireland or Raphael Samuel and Jay Winter in Britain--but it provides, obviously, a springboard for what Moran insists upon and what the previous contributors have made evident: the necessity of confronting a visual archive in any academic encounter with the development of modern Irish nationalism. As such, this collection and Newspapers and Nationalism--both published by the now thriving stable of Four Courts Press--relate to a wider agenda for the development of a theoretically-engaged, interdisciplinary Irish Studies, within which cultural and historical resources are dramatically expanded and renegotiated. In conjunction, they signal towards a welcome methodological pluralism in Irish historical scholarship, while at the same time maintaining high standards of research, presentation, and critical responsibility.

Eve Patten

Trinity College, University of Dublin
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Title Annotation:Images, Icons and the Irish Nationalist Imagination
Author:Patten, Eve
Publication:Nineteenth-Century Prose
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2001
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