Press, Politics and the Public Sphere in Europe and North America, 1760-1820

By Hannah Barker; Simon Burrows | Go to book overview

5
Ireland, 1760–1820s
Douglas Simes

In its earliest years, perhaps through to 1760, the Irish newspaper was in many respects close to the model propounded by Jürgen Habermas. 1 Intimately associated with learned societies and debating clubs on the one side, and with coffee shops, booksellers and other commercial enterprises on the other, it was inextricably linked to the literary and political spheres. 2 As well as philosophical and moral essays it contained practical disquisitions on developmental issues, verse and belles lettres, and occasionally political polemic. Jonathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick's, who was a leading politician and propagandist, as well as a literary lion, and who patronised and utilised the press and maintained close ties to it, was a symbol of its aspirations, if not, perhaps, of its achievements. A century and more later, when, in 1833, the foundation of the Dublin University Magazine again brought together many of Ireland's best intellects in both the literary and political spheres, much of the early promise remained unrealised. The Irish newspaper press was not a failure, and indeed even in its darkest hours retained a vigour and freedom which would have been found astonishing in many parts of Europe. It was rather that it had developed less than might have been anticipated. It was still dominated by small-scale family enterprises of marginal profitability and tenuous viability. Its influence, in the political sphere, which admittedly had changed markedly, was still limited and uneven. Above all, it had moved away from rational-critical discourse, to reflect the sectarian divisions of an increasingly polarised society.

This outcome has often been explained in terms of national struggle and political repression, with special attention being given to the activities of the executive at Dublin Castle, and the adverse impact of the Act of Union in 1800. The seminal and detailed workof R. R. Madden, with its intense romantic and nationalist bias, has cast a long shadow, 3 and continues to exert an influence. Yet, while it would be foolish to deny any validity to the factors Madden identifies, they do not constitute an entire explanation of the unusual trajectory of the Irish press. It was clear long before the Union, and indeed almost from the outset, that a volatile

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