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The Story of Dublin Opinion

by Frank Kelly

There was a time when people all over the world knew of the existence of Dublin Opinion. The New York Times featured a major cartoon from it on 30 September 1945 on the subject of post-war peace conferences. But time passes and even a couple of generations on, it won’t even have touched the consciousness of thousands of highly literate and skilled humourists. In brief, Dublin Opinion was a satirical political journal, which emerged during the turmoil of the bitter civil war which followed the end of British rule in Ireland.

The Irish have always taken a great pride (not always justified) in being able to laugh at themselves. But the civil war period was a particularly dangerous time to make political jokes: men were willing to kill each other for slight differences of opinion at that time. This is not to say that Charles E. Kelly and his two colleagues, who founded Dublin Opinion, were being consciously heroic; they just had that priceless, youthful spirit of irreverence, which brooks no obstacles and knows no physical fear, because life is going to continue forever. Without that spirit we should all die of self-censorship and there would be no cartoonists.

Charles E. Kelly was a member of an amateur dramatic society and another member invited a friend to see one of their shows. This man was Arthur Booth, who worked as a clerk in a tramway company. He was a skilled painter and cartoonist and was appalled at the poor standard of the society’s scenery. He offered to make settings for the company and thus was born the friendship between Kelly and Arthur Booth. Booth was 28 and Kelly was just 19, but they shared a love of drawing and a common passion for talking and argument about almost anything. Neither Booth nor Kelly had any money, Booth being a clerk and Kelly being a very junior civil servant. Then a friend offered Booth a loan of £15, which made possible the printing of the first issue of 3,000 copies of a 16 page paper. The first issue came out on 1 March 1922, with a civil war brewing which was to break out in less than four months. Anyone who has seen the Michael Collins film, starring Liam Neeson, will realise how bitter that civil war was. It maybe that the starting of Dublin Opinion at this time was a lunatic thing, but its very madness proved to be its best publicity. The motto of the magazine was “Humour Is the Safety Valve Of A Nation”, and if ever a nation needed a safety valve it was then.

The first issue sold out, with a cartoon showing Arthur Griffith and Eamonn De Valera, who had been bitter enemies, smoking the pipe of peace, with the title ‘Unity Blend’. The second issue didn’t sell too well and the printing of this issue required a council of war. The decision was to keep on trying, even at the risk of financial disaster, but two things were to turn the scales in favour of success. Messrs. Eason & Sons, their distributors, agreed to ‘box out’ the issue in relatively large numbers at their chain of bookstalls throughout the country, and with the retail newsagents, and Arthur Booth drew as a cover a skull and crossbones, which on being turned upside down, showed the heads of Griffith and De Valera in the eye sockets, with their hands grasped below and an Angel of Peace for the nose. The novelty and cleverness of the cartoon caught the public imagination and for 46 years Dublin Opinion never looked back.

In October 1926, Arthur Booth died at the age of 33 and Tom Collins and my father became joint editors; Booth had resigned from his job in the tramway company some two years before. Tom Collins resigned from the civil service in 1934 and worked full time in the Dublin Opinion office, but Kelly was unable to resign from the service. He could actually have retired under the Anglo-Irish Treaty, but his pension was too small and his family too big to make it thinkable. Thus Kelly pursued a full-time civil service career, as well as co-editing Dublin Opinion in what would have been another person’s spare time.

Kelly’s wife complained that she was ‘married to a magazine’ but she was tremendously supportive towards him, although for half of every month their social activity was severely curtailed because of her husband’s editorial responsibilities. Husband and wife were on the same wavelength and he often noted down her sayings for use in the magazine.

Ironically, instead of militating against Kelly’s progress in the civil service, his identity as a satirist seemed to work in his favour. Perhaps this was because, in a culture of anonymity, he had a distinct persona. When he came before a selection board the chairman would often open proceedings by remarking that they would have be careful or risk ending up in the pages of ‘Dublin Opinion’. Kelly rose rapidly through Civil Service ranks to become Director of Broadcasting.

The Kelly family grew up in an extraordinarily privileged culture of satire, in a household where it was believed that humour and satire were necessary and not just signs of mere frivolity. As schoolchildren they could not understand why teachers regarded humorous reactions as being subversive. From an early age they were convinced it was impossible to make wise decisions without considering the humorous ramifications of plans gone awry.

I wrote earlier that the Irish people picture themselves as a nation able to laugh happily at its foibles but this belief is not always justified. Irish TV carries virtually no satirical material, the exception being the series ‘Hall’s Pictorial Weekly’ which ran for 12 years. The success of this series was built on the towering strengths of its creator, the late Frank Hall, who negotiated a contract which gave him complete autonomy in running the show. Hall repulsed any attempts at censorship with exemplary ferocity. As bureaucracy learns from its perceived mistakes such a contract is unlikely to be written again – well, perhaps at the end of the next millennium.

Kelly knew the power of a cartoon as opposed to a long-winded tract. During the war, when tea was as scarce as gold dust, Eamonn de Valera promised ½ an ounce to every household each week. So Kelly presented De Valera as a landlady, clutching a tiny pinch of tea, with the caption, ‘The Wizard of ½ Ounce.’

When Fianna Fail tried to abolish proportional representation Kelly published a cartoon in the style of an old Fry’s Cocoa advertisement, showing a schoolmaster with his pupils lined up beside him in descending order of height, right down to a tiny fellow. The caption ran ‘Under proportional representation each boy gets an apple. Under the straight vote the big boy gets the lot’. I believe this cartoon alone served to undermine Fianna Fail’s campaign. The following week the ‘Sunday Press’, then a Fianna Fail backed paper, produced a cartoon ‘after Kelly’, with a convoluted caption, running to several paragraphs, that failed utterly to rebut the original, simple message.

How did Charles Kelly and Tom Collins come through the Civil War and the Second World War unscathed, surviving one political drama after another, busily satirising every event in written word and cartoon? Well, Kelly was not entirely unaffected. Fianna Fail was a monolithic party, its leader, Eamonn De Valera, considered beyond reproach by his followers. To cartoon ‘The Chief’, as he was known by his worshippers, was definitely blasphemous and vengeance had to be exacted.

Kelly’s appointment as Director of Broadcasting took place under a coalition government and when Fianna Fail regained power they removed him from this post and shunted him sideways to become Director of National Savings. Such appointments were supposed to be the prerogative of the Civil Service Commissioners, not the government in power.

Kelly took his change of post with characteristic dignity and continued to beaver away at ‘Dublin Opinion’. Public interest in humour and satire was reflected in the magazine’s huge circulation. Its popularity extended throughout the country and was not restricted to the capital, despite its metropolitan title.

There would seem to be a contradiction between ‘Dublin Opinion’s popularity and my earlier assertion that the Irish are not so good at laughing at themselves. But then, people have to be allowed to laugh. Dictators always single out humourists and satirists for early elimination. The culture of self-censorship is a subtle one and difficult to define. It tends to occur when the dispensing of opportunities to creative people is almost entirely in the hands of the uncreative; when the officers haven’t come through the creative ranks, so to speak.

How does one sell a creative vision to someone who believes only in the existence of what he can reach out and touch? Just because a person is endowed with a strong sense of irony and humour does not mean he or she is incapable of reading a balance sheet. Until the Irish address this problem properly, and believe it can be solved, the outlook is bleak for satire in Ireland.

Returning to ‘Dublin Opinion’, it is interesting to note that Charles Kelly and Tom Collins considered the domestic lives of their targets to be off limits. They only felt justified in lampooning the public persona of their victims, unless those victims were taking the high moral ground and then failing to live according to its demands. Neither Kelly nor Collins could abide hypocrisy.

When Tom Collins died Kelly struggled on for a couple of years, editing the entire magazine on his own, whilst writing and cartooning too. He dithered between selling the title, and allowing someone else to take the reins, or merely winding up the whole operation. Kelly was advised to sell the title because if he got a good price that would be some measure of what he, Arthur Booth and Tom Collins had achieved. If he didn’t sell it as a going concern it might be thought ‘Dublin Opinion’ had simply been his toy and not a really professional enterprise.

‘Dublin Opinion’ was sold and appeared under a couple of new managements but there was little resemblance to its former glory. Kelly regretted that he had not wound it up with dignity. The original magazine had been imbued with the genius of its creators and this was irreplaceable.

Frank Kelly – Biography

Frank Kelly is Father Jack Hackett in Channel 4’s multi-award winning series, ‘Father Ted’. He is the son of the late Charles Kelly, cartoonist and co-founding editor of the highly influential satirical journal, ‘Dublin Opinion’.

Frank’s career spans radio, TV, theatre and films. His film appearances include roles in ‘Ryan’s Daughter’, ‘The Italian Job’ and ‘Taffin’. More recently he appeared in ‘Miracle at Midnight’.

Frank’s has written widely for TV and radio; for seven years he had his own weekly comedy radio show which eventually generated over one million listeners. Six albums of Frank’s comedy material have been released and he wrote a very successful comedy novel, ‘The Annals of Ballykilferret’, which was serialised on radio. An illustrated book of his spoof on the twelve days of Christmas is soon to be published by O’Brien Press.

Frank has appeared in many TV programmes, including ‘The Year of the French’, ‘Memoirs of an Irish RM’, ‘Remington Steele’ and ‘Troubles’. For twelve years he appeared in the popular satirical show, ‘Hall’s Pictorial Weekly’.