Academic journal article Journalism History

"Those Miserable Little Hounds": World War I Postal Censorship of the Irish World

Academic journal article Journalism History

"Those Miserable Little Hounds": World War I Postal Censorship of the Irish World

Article excerpt

On January 18, 1918, as war raged in Europe, the Irish World and American Industrial Liberator received word that its New York and Chicago editions for that week had been withheld from the mails. In a terse written statement to publisher Robert Ford, Postmaster Thomas G. Patton advised: "The question whether these issues are mailable under the Espionage Law...has been submitted to the Solicitor for the Post Office Department."(1)

Two other New York Irish-American weeklies, the Gaelic-American and the Freeman's Journal and Catholic Register, received similar notifications. Each of the offending newspapers carried an account of an interview granted by President Woodrow Wilson to Mrs. Hanna Skeffington, an Irish pacifist whose husband had been killed by a deranged British officer during the ill-fated 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. Mrs. Skeffington had presented a petition to the President calling for recognition of Ireland's right to self-determination under Wilson's Fourteen Points peace plan. The newspapers also reported the introduction of a pro-Irish resolution to Congress by the nation's lone congresswoman, Jeanette Rankin of Montana. The Hearst papers--the Irish press' sole ally in the mainstream press--carried similar accounts but escaped censure.(2) The implication was clear: Criticism of Great Britain's policies in Ireland would no longer be tolerated in the Irish-American press.

Although relatively immune prior to 1918, the Irish-American press was no stranger to governmental intimidation. In 1917 a federal district attorney quashed an August edition of the San Francisco Leader which contained an editorial discussing the effects of the war.(3) Bull, a satirical anti-British monthly, was forced to suspend publication in September 1917 after three issues were barred from the mails. Jeremiah O'Leary, the publisher of Bull, was indicted along with two others in November on charges of conspiring to obstruct the war effort.(4) John Devoy, editor of the Gaelic-American, was investigated by a federal grand jury in November 1917 for alleged pro-German activities.(5) These early attempts at control were harbingers of things to come.

The Post Office devoted most of its early efforts to socialist and radical publications and to the increasingly suspect foreign-language press.(6) Few Irish-American newspapers embraced socialism, and all were published in the English language. Confident of their status, Irish editors often boasted of their Americanism. When Bull was suppressed in 1917, the San Francisco Leader blustered: "Bull is not a Socialist publication! It is American through and through and its editor Mr. Bedford has 260 years of American ancestry!"(7)

The postal proscriptions of January 1918, however, marked a new departure. The postal bans set in motion a sustained campaign of censorship and suppression that would last until the end of the War and in some cases, beyond. For some Irish newspapers, only occasional issues would be declared non-mailable. For others, the penalties were more severe, the consequences, more damaging.(8)

The Irish World, like most Irish papers, relied upon the mails to reach its far-flung audience. The loss of mailing privileges had an immediate and devastating impact. Distribution became a logistical nightmare. The Post office had broad discretionary power to withdraw second-class mailing privileges--subject to its own interpretation of the Espionage Act--from any paper in the country. An October 1917 amendment to the law also made it illegal to distribute proscribed publications by other means. Thus the loss of mailing privileges meant that a newspaper faced imminent financial ruin.(9)

The Irish World--because of its prestige and publisher Robert Ford's willingness to cooperate--suffered less at the hands of its postal overseers and survived the War intact. In all, only five editions were banned from the mails. But the seemingly insignificant number of postal exclusions delivers a distorted picture of the ordeal endured by the Irish World during 1918. …

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