It will be 20 years next year since the Irish Press group of newspapers ceased publication. A vestigial company, Irish Press plc, still survives, and goes through the motions of corporate existence. But the heart of the enterprise – the grimy, loud, chaotic business of producing newspapers – has stopped beating. It is a sobering thought that there now exists a generation of newspaper readers who have never seen a Press paper.
The demise of the newspapers is one of the many mysteries surrounding the Irish Press company. As late as the mid-1980s, the Sunday Press and Evening Press had circulation figures considerably in excess of their rivals, and the Irish Press was no slouch either. The Sunday paper, in particular, was a publishing phenomenon. Yet, within a decade, they were gone.
How could the most successful newspaper publishing company in the country collapse from such a height in such a short time? As with many simple questions, the answer is complex. But one of the reasons has to do with the way the company was set up in the first place.
It appears that the idea of founding a national newspaper to put across the nationalist viewpoint first came to Eamon de Valera in the early 1920s, during the War of Independence. He had seen how the existing Irish newspapers treated the Rising of 1916. Later, in 1919, he had seen the effect of favourable publicity during his own visit to the United States to raise funds for the War of Independence at home.
He began to plan for a newspaper that would be “as Irish as the Daily Mail is English”, as one of the early publicity leaflets put it. He set about raising the necessary funds, with the intention that £100,000 would be raised in Ireland and another £100,000 in the US. The money was slow to come, as the Great Depression and the collapse of the Gold Standard hit, but the Irish Press was incorporated in 1926, with a host of prominent Irish businessmen on its board. It would be another five years, however, before the company was ready to publish its first issue.
Included in the Articles of Association of the company was a curious stipulation about a “Controlling Director”. This person had sole control of financial and political policy, could hire and fire at will, and had a veto on any commercial or editorial decision. It was, as former Irish Press editor Tim Pat Coogan says, “the corporate equivalent of the three divine persons in the one God”. And the divinity in question was de Valera himself.
To get to the core of the issue of the de Valera dynasty’s control of the company involves a journey to the America of the late 1920s and early 1930s, with a detour around the labyrinthine mind of Dev himself.
De Valera’s first visit to the US in 1919 was concerned with the raising of a Republican Loan: Irish-Americans were asked to loan money to the Irish State – which was still fighting for its independence – to be repaid once an independent Irish republic was recognised. (A modern equivalent is not easy to find, but if you imagine the Basques trying to raise fighting funds in, say, South America, you get some idea of the situation.)
Some of these funds were sent back to Michael Collins, who was finance minister of the provisional government. But the greater part was left on deposit in New York. After the Civil War, these funds became the subject of a dispute over ownership: did they belong to the Cumann nanGeadheal government of the Irish Free State, or did they belong to de Valera, Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail.
The High Court in Dublin decided that the money send home be de Valera belonged to the Free State, but in New York, Judge Peters decided in 1927 that they belonged to neither side, but should be returned to the original investors.
It was at this point that de Valera’s masterplan for the Irish Press was deployed. He wrote to the subscribers, asking them to transfer to him whatever funds were due to be returned to them under the Peters judgement.
He wanted, he said, to continue the fight for freedom by establishing a national newspaper. He enclosed a document which invited them to assign to him and his heirs and successors any and all interest in the bonds. All they had to do was sign.
This they did in great numbers. They had contributed to the bond drive because they believed in the struggle for independence, and, with a little prompting from de Valera, they saw the founding of the Irish Press as part of the same struggle.
These maids and bootboys and labourers were issued with shares, not in the Irish Press itself, but in a shelf company called the Irish Press Corporation. Not only that, but theirs were so-called “B” shares; the Corporation itself was controlled by the owner of 200 “A” shares owned by de Valera himself.
And the Irish Press Corporation owned some 48pc of the Irish Press company itself. Thanks to his control of the American side of the operation, de Valera and his successors held the Irish Press against all comers for over 60 years.
With most of the financing in place, the work of getting the Irish Press off the ground could continue. Although the fundraising targets were never met in full, there was enough capital to proceed. And within a year of the first issue of the Irish press, de Valera was able to witness the power of his creation, as Fianna Fail were elected to government in 1932.
However, that early fund-raising shortfall was being felt. Further ads were placed encouraging more investment, but times were hard. The people with money were by definition opposed to the very existence of the Irish Press, while its readers had little to spare. Accounts circulated at a meeting in 1932 showed that the company was about £100,000 in debt.
Again, de Valera had a plan. The original subscribers to the Republican loan were promised that they would be repaid when an independent Irish republic was established. De Valera decided that the time was right to keep that promise. The original subscribers would be repaid, with a 25c premium added.
De Valera created something that was more like a State institution than a commercial company
There were political reasons for his decision (he was withholding land annuities from Britain, and he thought the repayment of the US bond would keep American opinion on his side), but there is no doubt that it helped the Irish Press out of its difficulties. By a strange coincidence, the money due to the paper via the US bond-holders who had signed their interest over to Dev, was about £100,000.
In the end, the question of whether de Valera manipulated the situation for private and family gain comes down, as it always has, to whether you believe Dev was operating from high motives or low ones. Yes, he created a family fiefdom, and yes, he constructed it so it could never be unpicked or taken over. But did he do it to make profit for himself and his family, or did he do it to preserve the ethos and the editorial direction of the papers and the company?
We now have a fuller picture of how he did it. Why he did it is still a matter of opinion. In the course of researching a post-graduate thesis on the origins and early years of the Irish Press, I became inclined to the view that he ring-fenced the paper so cunningly because he was afraid it might depart from his ideological line rather than because he wanted to reap the rewards of its commercial success.
Whether from pure or impure motives, de Valera created something that was more like a State institution than a commercial company. And that was to have tragic consequences when it came time for the Irish Press to adapt and change. Idealogues may be good at founding companies, but they are seldom good at running them.
De Valera had a vision for Ireland, just as he had a vision for the Irish Press. Both were radical at the time, but both were of their time. When Ireland changed, de Valera could not and nor, ultimately, could the Irish Press.
The tragedy in all this is that we have lost a vibrant part of our society: a company and a group of newspapers that contributed immensely to our sporting, cultural and political life. The documentary closes with stills from a recent Irish Press agm (the TV cameras were banned). At the top table sit Eamon de Valera and Vincent Jennings, the two men at the helm when the papers ceased publication.