Smyllie's Ireland

Protestants, Independence, and the Man Who Ran the Irish Times

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Caleb Wood Richardson
Irish Culture, Memory, Place
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , April
     2019.
     224 pages.
     $35.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780253041241.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

For at least three generations, The Irish Times had championed the Protestant, Unionist, and ruling-class voices of Ireland. After that nation's partial independence in 1922, R.M. Smyllie, raised by a Scots emigrant in Sligo, followed his father's editorial trade. By the next decade, the younger Smyllie took over the nation's flagship newspaper, in an era when mostly Catholic nationalists vied among themselves to wrest control from the establishment, to build their own Gaelic if sectarian vision of an island republic. Caleb Wood Richardson tells what happened next. Smyllie ran, into mid-century, a newspaper determined to bring critical insights and eminent journalism to more than part of the Irish.

Neither a conventional biography nor a straightforward history of the Dublin-based press nearly a century ago, Smyllie's Ireland situates Smyllie's career within the frame of the Irish Free State. This entity sought to connect itself to the Continent, rather than rely on imperial Britain whose fortunes enriched many of the Protestant movers and shakers who long had controlled Ireland. That class, Richardson asserts, “refused to be defined by decline” (14).

Not that Smyllie smoothly enriched the paper chronicling this cultural shift, at least as far as his own prose style confirmed. Richardson judges it more than once as “pompous,” full of clichés, as was the editor's speech, “a blend of Dublin argot” and obscure or untranslated references which “often resembled the kind of English that non-Protestants believed Protestants spoke in private” (85). Such sly observations suit Richardson's subject elegantly.

He tracks, even in the First World War, Irish Protestant identity evolving into “an approach to life” rather than a reductive “loyalty to a union, monarchy, or empire” (52). Smyllie, alert to the Central European heritage, had been interned during the conflict in a German camp. In peacetime, he visited Czechoslovakia, finding its predicament and promise an instructive “doppelganger,” (65) in Richardson's apt word, for the Irish. The two nations shared a complicated relationship of contending religious identities, cultural differences, linguistic tensions, and domination by neighboring powers.

Smyllie advanced the embattled native language of his own homeland, too. He hired Brian O'Nolan, he of the many pen names such as Myles na Gopaleen and Flann O'Brien, whose macaronic satire and bilingual wit pleased his like-minded boss. Smyllie, and his sharp staff, defended their cultural ground against assaults by Church and State. Richardson steps aside from Smyllie to add, as this book's title indicates, chapters exploring Protestant roles in debates over divorce, censorship, “the language question,” the fate of “the Big Houses” of the ousted or dogged gentry, and neutrality during the “Emergency” between 1939-1945.

The Irish Press, Richardson observes, managed under its manager “to offend everyone at once” (124). “Like many Southern Protestants, his confidence came from the knowledge that he had responded to the war as a citizen—with all the contradictions, discomforts, and critical self-examination that true citizenship requires” (128). Richardson wraps up this well-paced if all-too-brief investigation, supported by archival documentation and extensive research, with a look around what came to be named “Dublin 4,” post code for the bien-pensant enclave of pundits, promoters, and politicos, no longer nearly all-Protestant, which since Smyllie's residence has attracted the likes and clicks of a fast-secularizing Irish polity.

While Richardson limits his gaze to the middle of the last century, the implication of his findings about R.M. Smyllie's lasting impact over the Irish fourth estate extends to today. In another age when the slant of the news and the bias of the media generates global attention, added to an acceleration of purportedly progressive and anti-religious critiques among the intelligentsia, academia, and all who transmit thought made viral, Smyllie's Ireland offers a case study in how a newspaper in command of an influential elite has shaped a nation's fate.

About the Reviewer(s): 

John L. Murphy is Assistant Professor of Arts + Humanities at Westcliff University.

Date of Review: 
March 2, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Caleb Wood Richardson is Assistant Professor of History at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.

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