Troops and police gather outside offices on James Street, Kilkenny in 1919
August 2019 marks 100 years since the ‘Kilkenny People’ newspaper was forcibly shutdown for over a month by the military censor based in Dublin Castle, Major Bryan-Cooper.
It was the second time in two years the newspaper had been suppressed by the authorities (the previous occasion was exactly two years previously during the August 1917 by-election).
The paper was correctly perceived to be the main mouthpiece in transmitting the new ‘Sinn Féin gospel’. Its editor and owner was 51-year-old Kerry born Edward Thomas (ET) Keane, who was also President of the Kilkenny City Sinn Féin club.
The Sinn Féin movement at this time was a broad-church of nationalism, with its membership coming from many different walks of life. Its political leaders included Éamon de Valera, Michael Collins and local T.D. William T. Cosgrave. Just a few years later the party would fragment, with the vast majority of its members following either Cumann na nGaedheal (later Fine Gael) or Fianna Fáil.
To stop the ‘Kilkenny People’ issuing, the main components of the printing press were physically removed from the print works on James Street in Kilkenny by a mixed convoy of British soldiers and RIC.
By shutting down the newspaper for an indefinite period, the authorities knew Keane would lose revenue from sales and advertising. This was deemed a suitable punishment for breaking the censorship rules. During this era prior to radio and television, newspapers were a vital source of information.
The drama also had a follow-up. After the parts of the printing press were returned and the newspaper reinstated, the local RIC police inspector then decided to swoop in and arrest Keane and his good friend James Nowlan, who by then had been President of the GAA for 18 years.
The authorities believed these men were the principal leaders of the republican movement in Kilkenny and were thus trying to mollify them.
A Quiet Start
Just to give some general context; although the War of Independence is defined as beginning in January 1919, events in Kilkenny had been relatively quiet during the initial seven months of the conflict.
Of course, ET Keane continued his unsubtle attacks on British rule in Ireland in the pages of the weekly ‘Kilkenny People’. His attacks had increased since the 1916 Rising and there was very bad-blood between Keane and RIC County Inspector (CI) Pierce Charles Power, who was the highest-ranking member of the RIC police force in Kilkenny.
Power, a Westmeath man by birth, often mentioned Keane in a negative light in his monthly reports to his superiors in Dublin Castle. It was therefore only a matter of time before Inspector Power and Keane crossed swords once more.
The ‘inflammatory’ editorial
It was, however, Dublin based censor Major Bryan-Cooper who initiated the shutdown of the newspaper in early August 1919. The censor was well aware of Keane’s anti-British government sentiments, his staff being required to read Keane’s paper on a weekly basis. Keane had no problem lambasting Bryan-Cooper in his editorials.
The following passages appeared in the ‘Kilkenny People’ editorial section on 2 August 1919, one week prior to the forced shutdown.
The ‘offending’ words were direct quotes by Count Plunkett – father of executed 1916 leader Joseph Mary Plunkett – in a speech he made at Graignamanagh at the end of July 1919. The censor had deemed some of the language used to be against the Defence of the Realm Act (1914).
Keane wrote the editorial using his usual style of long, wordy sentences and it is easy to imagine that some of the personal remarks are what really infuriated Bryan-Cooper:
“We feel it our duty as public journalists to enter an emphatic protest against the grossly unfair, arbitrary, and we think we are entitled to describe it, scandalous manner in which the work of censoring the contents of Irish newspapers is carried out by the Department set up for that purpose in Dublin by the military autocracy that rules this country… with hypocrisy unparalleled outside the sphere of British influence in Ireland, lying statements are made…
“Quite recently Sir Edward Carson [leader of the Ulster Unionists] delivered a speech in Belfast in which he renewed his threats of civil war and armed rebellion [if Home Rule was introduced] … Needless to say Sir Edward Carson is much more likely to enter Cabinet than he is to enter gaol… The military censor, Capt. Bryan-Cooper, is in fact a former colleague of Sir Edward Carson. Whether he possesses any other qualifications justifying his selection as censor over the Irish press we do not know.
“As an illustration we may instance the manner in which he has dealt with what we intended to be a report of the speech delivered at Graignamanagh last Sunday by Count Plunkett.
“The “proofs” of Count Plunkett’s speech as submitted by us to the censor were returned with whole chunks cut out of them… Notwithstanding that they were deleted by the censor we take the responsibility of printing some of the sentences spoken by Count Plunkett which the censor seeks to prevent us from publishing – the same censor who took no action in the case of Sir Edward Carson’s speech with its threat of armed rebellion and civil war.
“Dáil Éireann was carrying on a most responsible duty and every trouble affecting Ireland was brought before it”.
“Here, however, is a sentence which he allowed [to be] published:
‘The Dáil Éireann held Ireland and it was its business to carry out the national will’
“Where the treason lurking in the former statement is missing from the latter is a conundrum we cannot solve.
“By publishing, in disregard of the censor’s mandate, the sentences deleted from Count Plunkett’s speech, we are no doubt running the risk of the suppression of the “Kilkenny People”; but we refuse tamely to submit to such a monstrous interference with our rights and duties as public journalists…”
The final part of his editorial shows that Keane knew the likely outcome of what he was doing.
In legal terms it was an open-and-shut case. Keane had printed certain sentences which had been censored or modified by the censor.
As can be deduced, Keane was also angry with how he perceived the regulations were applied to Unionist newspapers, or more accurately, not applied. He felt it was one law for unionist publications and another law for nationalist publications.
Perhaps the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ was the fact that the Kilkenny People was suppressed even though its main competitor, the Kilkenny Journal, was not. Both newspapers had printed the same ‘offending’ extracts from Plunkett’s speech.
However, the Censor later explained that the Journal had received the revised text too late. The Journal printed on a Wednesday and the People on a Friday but the censored text was not received by both publications until Thursday. Thus, the Journal had an excuse for printing the inflammatory words, but the People did not.
The Kilkenny People was permitted to publish again one month later – the hiatus deemed a sufficient punishment by the authorities – and the printing equipment taken was returned.
The events of the previous month were detailed in the return issue on 13 September 1919:
‘On Tuesday, August 12, a party of military and police, acting under the instructions of “the “Competent Military Authority”, visited our printing works with orders to suppress the newspaper, and removed portions of our printing machinery and gas engine.
ET Keane, Editor and Managing Director, was away at the time, but the officer in charge of the party, District Inspector Spears, carried out his duties courteously and with an obvious desire to cause no unnecessary trouble or inconvenience.
The reasons for the suppression of the Kilkenny People, as set forth in the warrant… were that our issue of the 2nd of August “contained statements calculated to cause disaffection to His Majesty”.
The particular statements referred to were certain passages which had been deleted by the Censor, Major Bryan Cooper, from proofs which were submitted to him by us… There is no doubt that we did publish certain passages deleted by the Censor.
The exact position of affairs is this:- We received the proofs back from the Censor, with certain passages deleted, on Thursday, August 7. On the previous day, Wednesday, the “Kilkenny Journal” was issued, and its report included practically all the censored passages that we were prohibited from publishing. A
fter the suppression the Censor stated that the publication of the passages in the “Kilkenny Journal” was only noted in his office after our proofs had been dealt with and posted to us, and that when the attentions of the Manager of the Kilkenny Journal was called to the fact that it had published objectionable matter he expressed his extreme regret…
The action against the Kilkenny People was due to the fact that it was evident from the tone of the leading article that no such regret would be expressed as the Censorship had been deliberately defied…
On September 5 the Solicitor to the “Kilkenny People” Ltd., Mr John Lanigan, received official notification that the prohibition would be withdrawn and on September 8 the parts of our machinery removed by the military and police were handed back to us.’
The suppression of the Kilkenny People made national headlines. However, this was not the end of the story. Although Keane appeared to have reached something of a truce with censor Bryan-Cooper, the local RIC were not so forgiving.
Just days after the Kilkenny People was restored, police swooped in on Keane’s home. Part Two of the story will be published next week.
Eoin Swithin Walsh’s book, ‘Kilkenny, In Times of Revolution, 1900-1923’ is available now in all good bookshops or direct from the publishers Merrion Press