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.
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?