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Censorship and propaganda: what happened to Irish media during the War of Independence?
Author: Ian Kenneally, Historian and PhD Researcher
The War of Independence was a dangerous time for Irish newspapers.
The years 1919-1921 proved to be a dangerous time for Irish newspapers. During the War of Independence, the press was controlled through means ranging from legislation to violent intimidation. In 1919, the Irish Administration in Dublin Castle required newspapers to work under the press clauses of the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), legislation that had been introduced during the First World War.
At the centre of this system was the Censor who acted as the filter through which newspaper reports flowed. It was his job to cleanse the news of material that Dublin Castle found objectionable, primarily items related to Irish republicanism.
The severe constraints imposed by DORA were resented by the press but editors had few options other than to work within its boundaries. The Censor at least offered newspapers a measure of protection by preventing them from publishing items which contravened DORA.
For this reason, the press protested the Irish Administration's decision to abolish the post of Censor in August 1919. Newspaper editors complained that removing the Censor, while keeping the censorship regulations intact, did nothing to restore press freedom. Not having a Censor to guide the press, they argued, made it inevitable that individual newspapers would publish material unacceptable to Dublin Castle.
Within weeks, those predictions became reality when Dublin Castle ordered the suppression of newspapers across Ireland after they published advertisements for the Dáil Éireann loan fund. The most widely publicised suppression was that of the Cork Examiner.
On 17 September 1919, British soldiers entered the Examiner's offices amid what the paper's editor, George Crosbie, later described as 'the pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war'. The soldiers dismantled the printing equipment, closing the paper for five days.
However, those events marked the zenith of the censorship regime that had existed under DORA. The suppressions were condemned internationally, causing the British government to end the policy by December 1919.
Officially, Irish newspapers were to remain free of suppression for the remainder of the conflict. Indeed, in 1921, the Attorney-General for Ireland, Denis Henry, told the House of Commons that no Irish newspapers had been suppressed since 1919.
Henry's statement was strictly true and yet utterly false. While there were no official suppressions between January 1920 and July 1921, there were over forty separate attempts by various sections of the Crown forces to disrupt the work of newspapers through extreme violence, the arrest and incarceration of editors, or the dismantling of printing equipment.
The upper levels of the Administration in Dublin Castle, the British army, and the police all considered the majority of Irish newspapers to be active enemies of British rule in Ireland. Both the Freeman's Journal and the Irish Independent, due to their national circulations, were seen as prime examples of that antagonistic press.
The Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in Ireland, General Nevil Macready, was obsessed with the Freeman's Journal and the paper's reportage was closely monitored within Dublin Castle, with the result that its owners and editor were jailed in December 1920.
Macready's hostility towards Irish newspapers was replicated elsewhere in the Crown forces. In August 1920, a Galway-based RIC Inspector claimed that it was the Irish Independent 'which creates, fosters and foments hatred of the English Government from day to day, from week to week, from year to year'.
That same month, a RIC report from Westmeath complained that it was futile to try and curtail the spread of republican literature since 'the daily papers from Dublin were doing more to promote sedition than anything else'.
What was in those papers which so antagonised Dublin Castle and the Crown forces? The Freeman's Journal and the Irish Independent opposed the IRA's use of violence. Nor did they demand an Irish Republic, instead calling for Dominion Home Rule.
Yet they denounced partition and were unremittingly critical of British rule in Ireland. For example, during the republican hunger strikes of April 1920, both papers were supportive of the prisoners and they each described the British army as the 'army of occupation'.
The two papers, especially the Freeman's Journal, also gave extensive coverage to the campaign of reprisals carried out by the police and military. That editorial policy, which should have been the entitlement of a free press, caused the Crown forces to make numerous raids on the Freeman's offices, including the use of incendiary bombs on at least two occasions.
Elsewhere, many papers took a similar editorial policy to the Freeman, leading to attacks by the Crown forces against the Galway Express, the Kerryman, Kerry News, the Leitrim Observer, the Newcastle West Weekly Observer, and the Westmeath Independent, among many others.
Republicans likewise sought to silence sections of the press. The offices of the Irish Independent were attacked by the IRA in December 1919, as were those of the Cork Examiner in December 1920. On each occasion printing equipment was damaged, although both papers were able to quickly resume publication.
There were smaller raids against other newspapers but the number of IRA actions against the press during 1920 and 1921 was far lower than the number undertaken by the Crown forces in the same period.
The sword of reprisals
By July 1921, the pen of the Censor had long been replaced by the sword of reprisals. The smoking ruins of newspaper offices such as those of the Westmeath Independent, so badly damaged that it remained closed from November 1920 until February 1922, were a ruthless warning to journalists that unfriendly eyes were watching each edition.
In response, self-censorship became part of the daily routine for Irish journalists. The Irish Independent, to use one example, regularly stated that it had more knowledge of events than it could print without fear of retaliation. So, the campaign of censorship through violence partially succeeded, although Irish journalists continued to report the news as best they could.
The Irish Bulletin
Apart from censorship, journalists also encountered the publicity and propaganda efforts of the opposing forces. For instance, in November 1919 Dáil Éireann began publishing a daily newspaper named the Irish Bulletin.
Desmond Fitzgerald, the head of the Dáil's Department of Propaganda (later renamed the Department of Publicity), was the driving force behind this new paper, deeming it necessary to take full advantage of the increasing international interest in Ireland.
Fitzgerald edited the paper until his arrest in February 1921, after which he was replaced by Erskine Childers. Although the Bulletin was an official publication of Dáil Éireann, it was not intended for popular consumption in Ireland but was aimed primarily at an international audience.
The paper, produced on a tiny budget, was sent to journalists and public figures around the world. By using the Bulletin as a source, these journalists and public figures gave the paper a range and influence that extended far beyond its limited circulation.
In this war of words, the resources available to Dáil Éireann were only a fraction of those available to Dublin Castle. In July 1920, the Castle opened the Public Information Department, with the aim of controlling the flow of news in, and from, Ireland.
Enter "The Black and Tan Publicity Man"
The new department was managed by an experienced English journalist named Basil Clarke, who would later become a pioneer in the British public relations industry. In a memo to his new colleagues, Clarke advocated a system called 'propaganda by news', arguing that: 'It is upon news that press opinion is formed'.
Dublin Castle, he advised, should provide journalists with official reports and statements that were compatible with 'verisimilitude' – that is to say that they should give the appearance of truth. To underline his point, Clarke warned:
As soon as propaganda becomes evident or its existence is suspected, it is bad propaganda … The service must look true and it must look complete and candid.
To this end, Clarke advised that Castle press statements should occasionally include facts that were unfavourable to the Crown forces. By giving the appearance of candour and accuracy, journalists would be won over – or so Clarke believed.
However, the press was generally suspicious of Dublin Castle's new initiative. An array of English newspapers, including London's The Times and the Manchester Guardian, criticised the work of the department, while Dublin-based journalists referred to Clarke as the 'Black and Tan Publicity Man'.
Not only did Clarke encounter resistance from journalists but his work was undermined by a series of misjudged propaganda schemes conducted by a section of the RIC. These schemes, many of which involved the actual creation of fake news, included a report on the so-called 'Battle of Tralee' in which the Crown forces had, apparently, fought off an IRA ambush.
The Irish Independent uncovered the truth within hours of the report's appearance: the so-called battle had actually been a photo shoot staged in Dalkey. In 1921, some of the figures behind those fake stories produced a counterfeit version of the Irish Bulletin.
This scheme, quickly exposed by the Dáil's Department of Publicity, caused a sensation and was widely denounced by Irish and British newspapers.
Ultimately, we can see that the combination of legislation, intimidation and propaganda had a profound impact on the Irish media during these years. In some cases, newspapers were completely shut down, meaning that many voices were abruptly silenced and potentially vital sources for the period were lost.
We can also see how propaganda was used as a means to influence or distort the news. During conflicts, controlling the flow and content of information becomes a primary goal for combatants. Ireland during the War of Independence was not an exception to this rule.