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19th Century Ireland and the Cartoonists

by Roy Douglas

A cynic once declared that Anglo-Irish relations were all a matter of trust and understanding: the Irish did not trust the British, and the British did not understand the Irish. If there is a scintilla of truth in that observation, it is surely in the interest of the people of both countries that trust and understanding should be encouraged. Cartoons are a remarkably useful way of doing so. The cartoonist is a sort of licensed jester. He can say and do things that the responsible statesman, and even the responsible journalist, cannot say and do. Nobody believes for a moment that his drawings are intended to represent a literal report of what has happened, and he is virtually immune from the laws of libel. Yet the cartoonist throws some very useful sidelights, not only on the events and attitudes which he satirises, but also on the assumptions and prejudices of the cartoonist himself and of the people for whom he designs the cartoon. In many cases the cartoonist evidently hopes to influence future attitudes and actions, and in that sense he is sometimes a significant contributor to the historical process.

The Irish rising of 1798 brought a great spate of cartoons. Striking drawings by English cartoonists portray the rebellious Irish as savages, but then – rather swiftly – as fundamentally decent, if somewhat obtuse, people. At a time when English sentiment was passionately anti-Catholic, cartoonists, like other people, could very swiftly ditch one prejudice and substitute another when it suited them. Whatever else the British cartoonists disagreed about, they all agreed that the Irish rising was a thoroughly deplorable thing. Soon after the rising was over, Prime Minister Pitt sought to achieve political union between Britain and Ireland (in which he was successful) and to emancipate the Catholics from various disabilities (in which he failed). Both issues produced many cartoons. They provide excellent illustrations of the arguments on both sides, for neither the British nor the Irish were anything like unanimous on the union question.

Another important historical point emerges as well. People often suggest that Pitt’s attempt to achieve Catholic Emancipation was wrecked by the obtuse opposition of George III. Cartoons of the early 19th Century, from more than one source, leave little doubt that Pitt would have had considerable difficulty in persuading the British people to accept emancipation even if the King had supported him. More than a quarter of a century later, when the emancipation question was again pushed through to the front of public attention after O’Connell’s electoral victory in Co. Clare, a Williams cartoon shows Wellington kissing the Pope’s toe, while Peel holds the Crown so it can be extinguished by the Papal tiara. Wellington and Peel ("Orange Peel", he was sometimes nicknamed) where certainly not crypto-Papists, and they accepted emancipation most reluctantly as a political necessity; but such cartoons suggest that the government’s eventual decision was fraught with great political risk in Britain.

O’Connell himself was a highly controversial figure, splitting opinion not least among English radicals. O’Connell was at first seen as a radical hero –"the Lion of Ireland" – in Figaro in London; but when Punch appeared in 1841 he was savagely excoriated. One Leech cartoon of 1845, at the beginning of the Famine, represents O’Connell as "the real potato blight of Ireland". Leech soon exceeded even this insensitive precedent in 1846, when Irish people were dying of hunger in great numbers, a beggar approaches John Bull, seeking "a trifle… for a poor Irish lad to buy a bit of – a blunderbuss with".

When the Fenians generated trouble of a more violent kind in the 1860s, the cartoons of Leech’s successor in Punch, (Sir) John Tenniel give no hint that the Irish rebels were anything but wholly at fault. In many cartoons of the time, Irish people appear with almost simian features. Punch’s rival, the Conservative Judy, sees the Fenians as a dragon assailed by St George; the ephemeral Tomahawk parodies that idea by a cartoon entitled "St Dragon and the George", in which the Fenian dragon impales St George.

By the time the "Land War" began at the end of the 1870s, cartoons were appearing in many countries. Thus it becomes possible to see much more clearly how matters looked outside Britain. While Punch and Judy alike have no doubt that the fault lies wholly with the Irish, the Irish World of New York shows an Irish tenant, supported by Justice, repudiating "the land thief’s claim". Le Charivari of Paris was savage. England, dragging a suffering Ireland in chains behind her, assures the world that it is an "infamous calumny" to suggest that her sister "is not attached to me". In the Weekly Freeman of Dublin, "Pat" coerces Gladstone to draft the Irish Land Bill of 1881. The Prime Minister’s willingness to do this was not accounted for virtue by Judy, who showed him feeding "concessions to violence" to the caged "Irish American dynamite skunk".

As the 1880s advanced, the Irish electorate became increasingly concerned with the cause of Home Rule. The General Election of 1885 was of crucial importance, as – for the first time – nearly all male householders received the vote, and so there was a real test of public opinion. The Irish nationalists contrived to hold the balance of power. In a Weekly Freeman cartoon, their leader Parnell sits in a box office, where he is approached by the two Party leaders, who seek "a ticket for Treasury seats". He insists that the price is "legislative independence for Ireland".

Gladstone became Prime Minister, and soon brought forward the first Home Rule Bill. A Judy cartoon reflects that Home Rule, if granted, might extend beyond Ireland. Gladstone reclines, surrounded by admiring Scottish and Welsh and Irish figures. John Bull, with three limbs amputated, views the proceedings with dismay. In the event, 91 of Gladstone’s putative followers rebelled, and the Bill was defeated, so Gladstone called for another General Election. The Berlin Kladderadatsch shows the House of Commons, as tenant, protesting to Gladstone, the landlord, that Home Rule was not in the contract. The Prime Minister retorts that, in the event, he will seek another tenant.

The upshot was victory for the "Unionist" opponents of Home Rule; but in that election an important new factor appeared – the discovery, or invention, of "Ulster Unionism", in which Lord Randolph Churchill played a major part. The Weekly News of Dublin shows Churchill, bearing a blazing torch, encouraging the demon of religious strife, who carries the inflammable load of "political petroleum", "bigotry " and "hatred".

The incredible end of the Parnell story dominated the turn of the decade. When The Times was shown to have published a libellous forgery purporting to emanate from the Irish leaders, even Punch laughed at the "penance" which the newspaper was compelled to perform. But the O’Shea case, with its revelation of Parnell’s adultery, produced a much more divided response, most notably in Ireland. In December 1890, United Ireland shows Hibernia and most of the Irish leaders looking in the direction of "Ireland and liberty", while Parnell points in the direction "For Parnell". A few days later, Parnell seized control of the newspaper, and the very next week’s cartoon shows "the Chief" in a heroic pose. For the few months of his life which remained to him, and for years after his death, the savage disputes between Parnellite and anti- Parnellite Nationalists attracted the attention of cartoonists in both Ireland and Britain.

At the end of the century, many Irish Nationalist cartoons recall nostalgically the centenary of the 1798 rising. When one reads the Irish newspapers of the period, and particularly when one studies the cartoons, the intensity of this feeling is emphasised. Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations of 1897 proved a sort of curtain raiser. In the Weekly Freeman, Britannia invites Erin to join in her jubilation. Erin, pointing to the graves of the heroes of the rising, retorts, "No! My place is here." All kinds of consequences flowed, in the short and the long term, and a great spate of cartoons was to show the vast changes in attitudes, in Britain and in Ireland alike, as the new century advanced.