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Remembering the Anglo-Irish Propaganda War

in Current Issue/Views

by Kristína Šefčíková

The first quarter of the 20th century embodies one of the most turbulent times of the Irish existence. In a span of just a few years, Ireland experienced an uprising, a war, a split, a civil war, and a deepening secession from the British Empire. These events were accompanied by an unprecedented amount of sovereignty which eventually led to complete independence. However, a country of 3.2 million people was unlikely to achieve freedom through a military stand against the magnitude of the Empire alone. Ireland had to find a more effective and economic solution, and so it reached for an alternative instrument – propaganda.

In a democratic society, the state representatives gain power through mandates which they are entrusted with by the people and their votes. That is why public opinion matters in such a society. From the beginning of the 20th century, the art of propaganda became one of the most established means of influencing the public opinion (Ftorek, Manipulace 31). Garth S. Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell define propaganda as “the deliberate and systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behaviour to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist” (5).  In the civil liberal democratic practice, the term is usually perceived negatively, mainly because of the practices of the undemocratic political regimes of the 20th century, namely fascism, Nazism, and bureaucratic socialism of the Soviet type (Ftorek, Public Relations 45). People grew to associate propaganda with concepts such as mind control, manipulation, fraud, or lies. As can be seen, propaganda has become a prototype of a historically biased term. 

An important milestone in the history of propaganda was Edward Bernays’ book Propaganda from 1928 in which he deemed the term incorrect and coined the concept of public relations (37). It was his work that later inspired the “master of lies” Paul Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda and Hitler’s close associate. These days, a wide range of experts have accepted the terminological shift to public relations, but there can be observed a slowly establishing distinction between ethical PR and unethical propaganda (Ftorek, Manipulace 34). The truth be told, propaganda is a common practice even in democratic states, just as it was in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland [1].

Dublin’s General Post, where the Irish Republic was proclaimed by Patrick Pearse in 1916. Photo by Can Pac Swire, flickr.com, CC BY-NC 2.0.

Ireland’s great journey to independence, despite numerous past attempts, really started with the Easter Rising of 1916 – one of the most controversial events of the modern Irish history, according to many historians (McGarry 8). Britain’s engagement in the Great War became Ireland’s opportunity for action. Thus, a prominent Dubliner and poet Patrick Pearse led an uprising to the stairs of Dublin’s General Post, where he proclaimed a free republic, despite lacking the support of the Irish general public at the time. It was the harsh British reaction, which ensued in the form of highly medialized executions of the Irish leaders, that drew unprecedented attention and first and foremost, the sympathy of the Irish population by adding to the already long list of Irish martyrs for freedom. 

The period closely preceding the Rising was also a source of disputes among the public. Although there were apparent signs of unrest and mobilization in Dublin’s streets, the government remained outwardly indifferent. The Times, a devoted source of imperial propaganda at the time, ascribed the Irish “playacting” to the “impish tendencies of the Celtic character” and claimed that “Dublin is used to queer things”. The press propaganda aimed to create the impression that the British administration had things under control, while lowering the credibility of the whole Irish movement. However, when the rising brought a climax to the ongoing unrests, this strategy did not prove to be beneficial – among other reasons, since the British administration had to face many accusations of incompetence and apathy

Two main propaganda streams can be traced in the following British presentation of the uprising: firstly, it was the suppression of the nationalist character of the rising and elevating the role Germany played in the preparations [2]. Sometimes, it went as far as ascribing the uprising to Germany as an attempt to strike at two fronts: to make the British retain troops on the homeland. Secondly, the rising was more and more labelled as a conspiracy of Sinn Féin, a republican political party, at that time marginal and of little influence. Though some of its individual members participated in the uprising, the party as such did not belong to the circle of organisers. Nonetheless, the limelight the British press provided revived the party, drew attention, and brought new followers. Thanks to this slight paradox, Sinn Féin became the leading party of the future free Irish state. 

Young Éamon de Valera, M.P. for East Clare at the time this portrait was taken. Photo by National Library of Ireland on The Commons, flickr.com, No known copyright restrictions.

 

The natural escalation of violence between the Irish nationalists and the royal forces, which had been seething since the Easter Rising, came to be known as the Irish War of Independence, sometimes called the Anglo-Irish Propaganda War (Doherty 217). Furthermore, it did not take long for the war to turn into a guerrilla war. In 1920, Sinn Féin won majority in the Irish by-elections and took over a number of government functions, such as tax collection and law enforcement. To suppress this rebellion, the British government, under David Lloyd George, proposed autonomous governance in Northern and Southern Ireland and deployed new paramilitary units known as the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries, consisting largely of veterans of the First World War. Lloyd George also passed the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act, which gave the British police and the army exceptional powers. However, these steps led to a rapid escalation of the conflict as the new forces retaliated each of the Irish strikes on Irish civilians, for example by burning down big parts of the towns of Tuam and Balbriggan. 

Quite naturally, the propaganda landscape was also transforming alongside the changes the war was bringing. In the general election of 1918, Sinn Féin, led by Éamon de Valera, who remained a prominent Irish statesman until the 1960s and eventually held the functions of the Taoiseach [3] and later the president, won 73 of the 105 Irish seats. Yet, instead of accepting them, the party founded Dáil Éireann, the Irish National Assembly, which took over the function of a parliament. From this moment on, Ireland had its own administration and official, coordinated propaganda bodies were created under its auspices. The Department of Publicity, with its origins in the Sinn Féin organisation, became the chief propaganda agency. Although Sinn Féin had its own Department of Propaganda, which played a crucial role in the 1918 electoral campaign and continued its activities even after the Dáil came into being, the new Department of Publicity took over the area of foreign propaganda. 

One of the Department’s most significant successes was the Irish Bulletin, a publication created to provide the foreign press with accurate information about Ireland, which would be otherwise supplied by representatives in London, themselves dependent on British sources. The Bulletin  became known as a source of accurate news with a very straightforward manner of presenting information, without a specific rhetoric. Its biggest propaganda value rested in its weekly summaries of British atrocities committed during the guerrilla war or targeting Irish civilians. The significance the Irish Bulletin gained was also reflected by the fact that the British tried to disseminate their own fake version of it, which was quickly revealed, however. The Bulletin ended up being cited by several English newspapers and even by MPs in the House Commons in opposition to the British rule in Ireland. By using the Bulletin as their source, journalists and public figures expanded its influence and the reach far beyond the limited circulation it would have had on its own.

British counterpropaganda fought hard against the new Irish parliament under Sinn Féin and kept making attempts to discredit the party and its members by pointing out their lack of experience in state leadership. For example, The Times claimed that British officials still had to help with maintaining safety and order in Irish cities. The British media also tried to downplay the landslide victory of Sinn Féin in the 1918 general election, which shows that the British authorities were aware of the threat and the influence the Sinn Féin embodied. Furthermore, the newspapers tried to associate Sinn Féin with radical ideologies and anarchist organisations (Gantt 188) as well as immediately labelled every citizen opposed to the authorities ‘a Sinn Féinist’ (Wilson 87). Creating links between presumed terrorist organisations and the state leadership may have damaged the picture of Ireland overseas, but equally tarnished Britain, because of the constant emphasis of their ongoing role in the administration of Ireland. 

Nevertheless, the policy of the British government eventually started to meet with resistance even among their own people. Especially, Black and Tans running loose in Ireland were not in the good books of the British public or press. As stated in The Times in 1920: “ . . . we cannot assent to a system which transfers the gravest responsibilities of the Executive to irresponsible subordinates and, in fact, makes the lower ranks of the new constabulary at once judges and executioners”. The article also adds that some parts of the British Labour, the coalminers on strike in particular, were starting to feel a strong sympathy with Irish grievances and very strong antipathy to methods of reprisal. The British grass-roots were finding similarities between their problems and those of the Irish, which posed a considerable threat to the support and trust in the British government.

Following the escalation of the guerrilla war and a rising number of murdered officials, the British rhetoric profoundly changed. The official reports from Parliament meetings were suddenly filled with the desire for a peaceful solution acceptable to both sides. They even admitted to the wrongs the British have committed in Ireland in the past, such as excessive taxing, neglect, and other injustices. In return, Britain was amenable to offering generous provision, fiscal autonomy, and the willingness to trust a reunited Ireland. There was a palpable change to a humbler approach and openness to concessions on the British side. On the other hand, this step could also be interpreted as an attempt to present Britain in a better light – as a generous, just arbiter, in contrast to a violent Ireland. The remark about a reunited Ireland also implies certain conditions for the British forthcoming approach.

Yet, the new rhetoric of the British government agitated its own citizens. In The Times, several articles called out the leadership for cowardice and attempts to get rid of the responsibility for Ireland as soon as possible. The government even faced accusations of threatening the sole existence of the Empire: “Kill a few policemen, insult his Majesty’s uniform, supersede the King’s authority, and we will grant you Dominion Home Rule with safeguards.  Kill a few more policemen, commit a little more high treason and we shall, no doubt, drop the safeguards, and you shall be a Republic”. Even such an outspoken critique came from the MPs Salisbury and Plunkett. As can be understood from the aforementioned, the gap between Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom was growing and on top of that, the “Irish question” managed to cause a major split in British political leadership itself. 

In the end, Sinn Féin saw that the Irish resistance could not bear the continuing violence for much longer and halfway through 1921, its leaders showed an openness to negotiate. More so, as the British offer of peace did not include unconditional surrender and actually implied a prospect of a satisfactory political settlement. Based on the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, six north-eastern counties formed Northern Ireland with its own government and parliament for local administration; other affairs remained under the competence of the British government. The result of the Anglo-Irish War was the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed in December 1921, from which came the Irish Free State consisting of the 26 remaining counties, likewise with its own government, but also a dominion status [4] (Pelling 71).

Propaganda has certainly played a crucial part in Ireland’s road to independence. Ireland’s coordinated efforts managed to produce influential publications and generally expanded the propaganda and influence information operations from the domestic sphere to foreign grounds. Nevertheless, one of the main goals – achieving international recognition of the Republic – was not yet fulfilled. On the other hand, the British propaganda showed signs of fragmentation and stagnation, being almost solely reactive to the Irish activities, although it is important to take into account that the British principal efforts were usually deployed elsewhere. The split between the parliament and the government on the Irish policy proved that the UK did not have a united approach or a goal in the Irish question, which are key elements of effective propaganda that should continually steer the public towards a certain opinion or behaviour. 

The article is based on author’s BA thesis written and defended at the Department of International Relations and European Studies, Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University in June 2019.


Photo by Ľubomíra Tomášová.

Kristína Šefčíková

Kristína is a student of English Language and Literature and International Relations. Although she was formerly eyeing a career as a translator (partly because of her love for fantasy and historical fiction), the political part of her studies has succeeded  indrawing her in. One day she would like to work in the diplomatic service or in an international organisation such as the UN and see more women in politics. To start working on her goals, she is spending the summer doing an internship in the Forum 2000 Foundation in Prague, which pursues the legacy of Václav Havel. In her spare time, she stays loyal to the English Students’ Club at DEAS as a former vice chairwoman, sings in the department’s choir. So far, she would consider the position of the chief organiser of the IDEAS English Students’ Conference her biggest achievement.



1 Created on the basis of the Acts of Union of 1800, partly as a response to the Irish uprising in 1798, one of their many unsuccessful attempts to gain independence.

2 The Rising organisers arranged a shipment of arms from Germany, but the Royal Navy inspected the load of the ship. The crew fled in panic and 20 000 guns sank to the bottom of the Irish Sea.

3 The prime minister and head of government of Ireland.

4 The dominion status designated autonomous communities in the British Empire – legislatively independent countries with the English sovereign as the head of state. In the reviewed period, these included Australia, Southern Africa, Canada, New Zealand, New Foundland, the Irish Free State and since the 1940s, Ceylon, India and Pakistan.


Works Cited

Printed Sources

Bernays, Edward. Propaganda. Ig Publishing, 2005.

Doherty, M. A. “Kevin Barry and the Anglo-Irish Propaganda War.” Irish Historical Studies, vol. 32, no. 126, 2000, pp. 217-231, https://www.jstor.org/stable/30006997?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents. Accessed 23 Aug. 2019.

Ftorek, Jozef. Public relations a politika: kdo a jak řídí naše osudy s naším souhlasem. Grada, 2010.

Ftorek, Jozef. Manipulace a propaganda na pozadí současné informační války. Grada 2017.

Gantt, Jonathan. Irish Terrorism in the Atlantic Community, 1865–1922. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Jowett, Garth S., and Victoria O’Donnell. Propaganda & Persuasion. Sage, 2015.

McGarry, Fearghal. The Rising: Ireland: Easter 1916. Centenary ed. Oxford University Press, 2016.

Pelling, Nick. Anglo-Irish Relations, 1798–1922. Routledge, 2003.

Wilson, T. K. Frontiers of Violence: Conflict and Identity in Ulster and Upper Silesia, 1918–1922. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Online sources were directly hyperlinked in the text.

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