Guest Post: Irish Caricature and Editorial Cartoons by Barry Sheppard

My new article.

Ciara Meehan

I am delighted to feature a guest post on my blog from Barry Sheppard of Queen’s University, Belfast, who curated the 1920s Irish Political Cartoons exhibition. All images in this post have been reproduced with kind permission from Irish Newspaper Archives and the Irish Press. I’d also like to take this opportunity to congratulate Barry on his recent award of a Giving Northern Ireland research bursary.

~ Ciara

Irish Caricature and Editorial Cartoons

Contributed by Barry Sheppard (Queen’s University, Belfast)

While the noble art-form of caricature and of the editorial cartoon is one with a long and distinguished history, the study of early twentieth century visual imagery of Irish political newspaper cartoons and election posters has grown considerably in recent times. Recent books by James Curry on Ernest Kavanagh, Artist of the Revolution and Thomas Fitzpatrick and ‘The Leprechaun Monthly’ 1905 – 1915 (Curry and Ciaran Wallace) offer insight…

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The Irish Press Slum Crusade 1936

To those of you who follow this blog.  I have a new article out on the excellent Irish History site The Irish Story on the slum housing crusade of the Irish Press newspaper in 1936.

The Famine in Ulster

bshephistory's Blog

I originally wrote the piece below as a guest on the NUI Maynooth Irish History blog last year. Given that over the past weekend it has been announced that the annual Famine Commemoration will take place this September in Newry, it is an opportunity to challenge some misunderstandings which still exist about the period in the region. 

In their book, Contested Pasts Katherine Hodgkin and Susannah Radstone argue that contesting the past reveals certain presuppositions about the relationship between the past and the present which have both historical and political purchase. Of course, there are contested versions of the past on a global scale which continue to be debated without resolve. A recent example being the proclamation by Pope Francis on the centenary of the Armenian Genocide. Nevertheless, the ferocity of debates ebb and flow in many instances depending upon the political present.

To varying degrees the political present is coloured…

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Historical Political Cartoons

In recent times I’ve become interested in historical Irish political cartoons. I’ve recently exhibited some I have acquired in a festival in Belfast. I hope to take this collection to other venues around Ireland.

The link below is to a Facebook where I have uploaded some Irish political cartoons from the 1920s and 1930s. I would like to stress that I do not own the rights to them, and where possible I have given the source.

The Famine in Ulster

I originally wrote the piece below as a guest on the NUI Maynooth Irish History blog last year. Given that over the past weekend it has been announced that the annual Famine Commemoration will take place this September in Newry, it is an opportunity to challenge some misunderstandings which still exist about the period in the region. 

In their book, Contested Pasts Katherine Hodgkin and Susannah Radstone argue that contesting the past reveals certain presuppositions about the relationship between the past and the present which have both historical and political purchase. Of course, there are contested versions of the past on a global scale which continue to be debated without resolve. A recent example being the proclamation by Pope Francis on the centenary of the Armenian Genocide. Nevertheless, the ferocity of debates ebb and flow in many instances depending upon the political present.

To varying degrees the political present is coloured by anniversaries of the past.  While political eyes across the island of Ireland, and particularly the North are on the whole projecting a mature front in relation to the current crop of anniversaries known as the ‘Decade of Centenaries’ and how to commemorate them, the celebration of such events have not always been a smooth affair.

Of course many aspects of Irish history are still highly contested in that region, especially in the lead up to anniversaries. Normally focusing on battles, military outrages or conquests, they have the power to divide and inflame.  Yet, one period which doesn’t figure in this current Decade of Centenaries, but which still evokes much passion, is the Great Famine.  It must be said, impassions are not as inflamed as they once were.  This is a reflection of a maturity around the debates even from the last big anniversary in the mid to late 1990s, to the point that today when attempts are made to push the hard-line view of deliberate genocide they are, according to Padraig Reidy ‘given short shrift’.

As fierce opposition in the highest political quarters to remembering the Famine era has gradually subsided, it is replaced with a misunderstanding of the period, resulting in a sense of distance from the events by some.  Of course, this sense of distance has a historical as well as cultural grounding as the following account from the Belfast Newsletter (23 Feb 1849) indicates.            

“The spectacle of a bankrupt union, with a horde of starving paupers, and a   ruined peasantry on the brink of pauperism, has not yet been seen in Ulster, and why? Because her people are frugal and industrious, and her landlords         improving and conscientious.  Is it fair, then, to saddle a province like this with         the charge of the pauperism which is desolating the South and West – pauperism    induced by the absence, on the part of both people and proprietors, of every   quality which has made Ulster wealthy and prosperous?  The very supposition is   monstrous.  It is, in effect, the very surest plan for dragging down this province       to the level of Connaught and Munster”.

This kind of self-congratulatory sentiment was synonymous with industrialised Ulster in relation to the Great Famine, and has fed into the historical understanding of the period of today.  Granted, the region was more heavily industrialised than the rest.  As a centre of industry it boasted considerable wealth in comparison with the two provinces mentioned in the above quote.  However, as Gerard MacAtasney has shown in his 1997 study on one of the region’s linen industry heartlands, County Armagh, industrious Ulster was not immune from the ravages of famine, no matter what the projected image was.

This is corroborated by local Armagh historian Francis X. McCorry who argued that the north Armagh region which was the focus of his study ‘provided a picture of hardship and desolation which even yet few have acknowledged could have pertained to any district in the north of Ireland’.[1]  Indeed, McCorry has discovered that there were approximately 2,500 famine victims buried in unmarked graves in the field behind Lurgan Hospital, the site of the old Lurgan workhouse in the north Armagh town.  The worst period of time being from October 1847 to November 1848 when 1,119 people of all denominations perished through hunger and disease.

Perhaps one of the more interesting statistics in MacAtasney’s study of Lurgan workhouse is that in 1847 more Protestants than Catholics died.  This is important given that for decades, especially in parts of Ulster, the famine has been viewed as a ‘Catholic catastrophe’.

Several years ago Christine Kinealy, in her book This Great Calamity argued that much work needed to be done in relation to the impact of the famine on Protestant communities in the north east.  While some work has indeed been done, more is needed, and not just among the Protestant communities of the region.  There is a lack of understanding among Catholic communities in the same area.  This is perhaps due in part to the popularity of famine studies being off the agenda in favour of current and approaching milestone anniversaries.  This is evident by what local experts view as the lack of awareness of the mass famine grave in north Armagh among the majority of the population in the area.

The vast majority of famine historiography has rightly dealt with the provinces most affected, Connacht and Munster.  However, this has led to a popular perception of famine victims and survivors being viewed as those almost Yeatsian characters of the Celtic Twilight, to the detriment of those who died in more supposedly affluent areas [2]

Of course the time for mass public commemoration of the Great Famine has gone, for the foreseeable future at least.  Besides, the public can only be expected to be exposed to one set of public commemorations at a time.  This certainly was the case when this piece originally appeared. An important milestone in history, the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War slipped under the radar due to the effort being put in to remember ‘The War To End All Wars’, WWI.

Regardless of the fashion, famine historiography should not take a backseat because it doesn’t fit neatly into the current spotlight.  It certainly shouldn’t prevent continued academic research, and it certainly shouldn’t inhibit local engagement in Ulster on a period which is still in many cases, overlooked and misunderstood.  The announcement by Heather Humphries TD on 10 April 2015 that the annual Famine Commemoration moves to Northern Ireland for the first time surely gives a platform for better understanding of those tragic few years which have shaped so much since.

[1] F.X. McCorry, The Montiaghs of North Armagh in ‘Seanchas Ardmhacha: Journal of the Armagh Diocesan Historical Society’, Vol. 18, No.2 (2001), pp. 125-163

[2] R. Kee, The Green Flag Vol2: The Bold Fenian Men (London, 1981), p. 131.

In defence of ‘Hungry’….

Once again I dust down the blog, and blow away the virtual cobwebs.  I feel I really should be using this blog more often than I do, even if it is just to air my views (to the very limited audience that would find them of interest) rather than keeping it for the research-based articles I inflict upon this corner of cyberspace.  This time I’m taking to the keys in defence of something which hasn’t even been made yet, Channel 4’s proposed Famine ‘comedy’ Hungry.

As I type, I’m wondering if it is a bit absurd to be defending something which no one has yet seen, besides the writer, and then it is only within his own head.  The answer is of course no.  Not when there has been such outrage against it already.  It bears repeating that this television series has yet to be made.  The outrage is solely based upon what has been read, or read into, on social media, ambiguous press snippets, and Irish Central.  If so much outrage has been voiced without even a camera being turned on, then it is only right that there should be someone to defend that which has yet to see the light of day.

The outrage is because someone dared to have an idea, an idea which tackles one of Ireland’s darkest chapters in it’s modern history.  The Great Famine of the 1840’s. No doubt it is an emotive topic.  However, in my admittedly limited experience (having studied it at undergraduate level under a world-renowned Famine historian) the people who tend to be outraged the most at it, are the people who have approached it from an unhistorical, or nationalist viewpoint.  Viewed in simplistic ‘us and them’ terms, it can be highly emotive and presented in clear-cut terms.  Speaking about the Highland Clearances in Scotland, Professor  Ewen Cameron of Edinburgh University has described that episode as “one of the most evocative and symbolic but least understood episodes in Scottish History”.  In many respects, the Highland Clearances are Scotland’s ‘Famine’, and as with Scotland, Ireland’s famine is emotive, yet in many instances misunderstood or misrepresented.

Predictably enough, the first shouts of anger came from several directions.  The ever-reliable barometer of public opinion, the on-line petition, politicians eager to reaffirm their nationalist credentials (even if the national question at hand is over 150 years old), and historians who are perhaps still peddling a point of view they made in their most recent book.  Tim Pat Coogan was one of the earliest and most recognisable voices to come out against this proposed sitcom.  Having recently published The Famine Plot, ‘Ireland’s greatest historian‘ (an embarrassing title, given that I personally know quite a number of historians more deserving of that, not that they’d accept it) has called the project ‘unsavoury’, stating:

my initial reaction is one of dismay. Would they make a comedy series about the holocaust? It really does defeat your powers of comprehension. You really would have to be talking about making jokes about Belsen and Auschwitz and the gas chambers to make it an equivocal thing in our lifetime.”

It is worth noting that among the vast majority of historians both inside and outside of the academy, Coogan’s appraisal of deliberate genocide has been dismissed.  Yes, the British establishment of the period were inept and clueless about many aspects of the Ireland they ruled over.  The laissez-faire economics of the time were derided as unsuitable to Ireland, and as we know had disastrous consequences. However, to lay the charge of deliberate genocide and compare to what was most definitely the deliberate genocide of millions of Jews in WWII is disingenuous to say the least.

In 1847 the Irish Confederation published a booklet entitled Irish Political Economy.  Edited by John Mitchel, he starkly contrasted ‘Irish’ political economy with what he witheringly called ‘English’ or ‘Famine’ political economy.  It was well received, with many authors in agreement with Mitchel’s views. In general, the objections were not to political economy as such but to a ‘political economy which preached laissez-faire, the absolute nature of property (especially in land), and the sanctity of contract. There was a general opinion that these principles were suitable to an advanced industrial society such as England but not to an economically and socially backward agricultural one like Ireland’. (T.A. Boyland & T.P. Foley: Political Economy and Colonial Ireland, pp 7-8.)

Boyland and Foley also point out that in the early part of the 20th century prominent Nationalist and Historian Alice Stopford Greene declared that ‘Englishmen could not understand Irish  conditions. The political economy they advocated for their own
country had no relation to Ireland’. (A.S.Greene, Irish Nationality, p. 229.) It appears that the ‘genocide’ narrative is a relatively new one. If it had been a long-held notion, surely some of this would have surfaced in the work of a prominent nationalist such as Alice Stopford Greene. (It is worth noting that the IRB newspaper Irish Freedom subscribed to the ‘genocide’ narrative.  Nevertheless, as Greene’s views show above, this was not necessarily a uniform view among advanced nationalists of the day.  Certainly today it isn’t the prevailing view among historians.)


In the same article which Mr Coogan had voiced his concerns, one of the North’s MLA’s Phil Flanagan has derided the use of the famine as a “vehicle for comedy”.  This is, of course Mr Flanagan’s right to object.  However, to the best of my knowledge none of Northern Ireland’s prominent politicians of any side or description has spoken out against that region’s long running ‘comedy’ show Give My Head Peace which lampoons many aspects of the Northern conflict which claimed the lives of approximately 3,600 people over thirty recent turbulent years.  If there has been no outcry against this, then why the outcry of people who died in a less non-violent (and no less tragic) way 160 years ago?

I am not here to make light of this dark period, or to underestimate the suffering caused to the people at that time.  There are plenty of accounts to be had of undue suffering by malnutrition and hunger, as well as the actions of unscrupulous landlords, agents, and Gombeen men.  However, it is people such as the uncaring landlords which are ripe for ridicule.  A satirical take on uncaring landlords, laissez-faire economics, and the famed ‘1 percent‘ has almost as much resonance today as it would have in the mid-late 1840s.

One of the problems with certain views of the Famine is the absence of historical agency of the victims.  The picture we have is of passive, pathetic victims.  Indeed, the only time when we see the Irish achieve historical agency in relation to Britain is with the many instances of armed insurrection over the centuries.  Outside of these instances of political violence, there is very little mention of historical agency.  Surely the ability to direct their lives to some degree of normality, despite the horrendous conditions of the time did not desert ‘the Famine Irish’.

A similar fate once befell one of popular history’s most recognisable victims, the slaves and ex-slaves in American Slavery historiography.  This concept changed with African-American historian W.E.B. Du Bois who popularised the notion that the slaves were historical agents, playing a pivotal role in their own destiny. (J.C. Rodrigue ‘Black Agency After Slavery, in T.J. Brown eds Reconstructions: New Perspectives on the Post Bellum United States, p. 2) It would be, and is indeed a great disservice to continue to portray Famine victims as passive, pathetic and unable to attain any level of historical agency.   If, as one suspects, that the focus of the proposed programme will be on the victims, it will be giving the subjects the agency which has deserted them in nationalist popular history.  Although it isn’t historically accurate to put words in the mouths of historical characters, even un-named characters, there is little problem or outcry when it is packaged as a serious play, say by play-writes like Tom Murphy or Jaki McCarrick.

Of course there are sensitivity concerns, it would be churlish to dismiss them as out of hand.  Many people feel that the spectre of the ‘stage Irishman’ stereotype has been (rightly) relegated to the dustbin of history, and are perhaps fearful of a return.  I can understand this, having lived in England at a time when it was still a popular stereotype. Channel 4 of recent years has become somewhat of a P.T. Barnum of voyeuristic television, and the writer’s suggestion that it will be comparable to Shameless is concerning to many.  Nevertheless, the outcry against an idea still in an embryonic stage has been fuelled by a misunderstanding and misrepresentation of a tragic period of our history.  In the end, whether the show is a success or not will come down to the skill involved in the writing.  Only then should it be judged, not by premature on-line hysteria.

Last Resort 2014? Political Cartoonery

Most people tend not to subscribe to the idea of history repeating.  There are too many factors which are a one off to contribute to the same event or set of circumstances happening exactly over again.  It simply doesn’t happen.  While this is the case, there are similarities in different events which can’t be ignored.  There are signposts in all walks of life which can be looked on as eerily similar.  Today I am asking if a political cartoon which is over eighty years old can point out contemporary similarities? Over the last number of months my interests have been focused upon Irish political cartoons of a bygone age.  Political cartoons have long been a clever way of depicting what is often heard ‘off the record’ and a way of getting around what would often be deemed defamatory in the printed word about a political opponent, exaggerating physical characteristics or mannerisms, or even the company they keep.  By portraying a political opponent in such a way cartoons are deemed as satirical.  That is not to say that depictions have not ended up in legal arguments, or worse.  Nevertheless, they have been utilised to great effect for a long time.

Irish political cartoons in the twentieth century have often illustrated the brutality of political upheaval and violence in early twentieth century Ireland.  In recent times this medium has been revisited by contemporary historians, being received with interest by the wider public.  Felix Larkin’s work on the ‘Shemus’ cartoons (1920-1924) provide a great insight into political life of the two recently emerged Irish states on the island, while James Curry’s work on the cartoonist Ernest Kavanagh provides the reader with a window onto the illustrated history of the Dublin Lockout period and an exaggerated portrayal of the villain of the piece William Martin Murphy.

The cartoon I have chosen below is one of a number I have been working with of late, and is one of a collection of prints I am hoping to exhibit in the coming months.  It comes from a later time than the two examples given above, the early 1930s.  This was a time of change.  One political regime was on the verge of replacing another, hopefully bringing a period of consolidation and relative normality, politically speaking.  This was after a period of attempted revolution, bloodshed, and infighting.  Taking a noticeably Fianna Fáil political stand, it seeks to lampoon what it sees as a highly unpopular political party (Cumann na nGaeldheal), which had been in charge of the country for a decade, portraying it as being on it’s last legs.  Surrounded on a mock death-bed by a selection of the party’s interested groups, they try to seek a remedy which will revive the corpse-like figure which they surround.   This particular cartoon appeared in the Fianna Fáil-aligned Irish Press on the 24 November 1931, eighty three years ago today.

Last Resort 1931
(With Thanks to Irish Newspaper Archives and Irish Press)

It was not long after losing this (1932), and a subsequent snap election only a year later that Cumann na nGaedheal were no more.  It is seen, popularly at least that Fine Gael are the direct heirs to the party which had ruled over a significant period of transition in Ireland’s modern history.  This view has been challenged somewhat by historian Ciara Meehan (Fine Gael’s Uncomfortable History: The Legacy of Cumann na nGaedheal).  While not denying any link, Meehan suggests that the popular view of direct political lineage from Cumann na nGaedheal to Fine Gael was not as smooth as is commonly suggested, with a number of other significant factors needing examined before the full political make-up of Fine Gael is truly recognised.  Nevertheless, it is noted that some within Fine Gael over the years have acknowledged their political heritage stemming from Cumann na nGaedheal.

As this is picture appears on an anniversary of sorts, and as Fine Gael are popularly viewed as the direct successors to the long-defunct Cumann na nGaedheal, for me at least it begs the question: Who would be the groups interested in reviving the fortunes of Fine Gael after what has been a turbulent number of weeks (mostly centred around water charges) for the larger member of the coalition which has been in power over the last number of years in Ireland.  In the original cartoon by Victor Brown, the concerned parties represented those who had a stake in pre-independent Ireland, and who now wanted the status quo to remain, with the ‘slightly constitutional party’ (a term which has been popularly misinterpreted) of Fianna Fáil on the rise to challenge the status quo.

This is certainly not an exercise in political predictions.  However, there are parallels to be drawn.  At this point in the political cycle the ruling party is in an unpopular position, with the Journal claiming on Saturday 22 November that support for Fine Gael ‘dropping like a stone’. In late November 1931 Cumann na nGaedheal were in a similarly unpopular position.  Of course it remains to be seen if Fine Gael suffer the same fate as their predecessor.  There are other parallels with different political parties on the rise, attempting to capitalise on Fine Gael’s current unpopularity.  Also, on the other side, there are people who want the status quo to remain.  In Brown’s original drawing he makes no mistake on who he sees as the dependants.  This time, who are the vested interests in maintaining the status quo, for the time being at least?

Last Resort 2014.png