Paper Walls and Paper Wars: a historical case study

Is there a difference between “fake news” and propaganda? In the dictionary sense, the word “propaganda” may or may not have derogatory connotations, depending on its usage. Like rhetoric, as a tool of persuasion or argument, it is probably as old as humanity itself, certainly as an aspect of politics or even the writing of history.

A century ago Ireland experienced propaganda battles that were typified as an attempt to either build or dismantle “a paper wall” around the island. Those who sought political independence from Britain attempted to propagandise their cause internationally, while Britain, in resisting this campaign, was accused by the same party of maintaining “a paper wall” and propagating “fake news”, both nationally and internationally, to undermine the same goal.

If one was to ask: who was right and who was wrong, or who was really telling the truth, in these debates, would that not be entertaining a value judgment? Therefore, can one be truly objective in addressing such a question? Perhaps, at most, it is possible to ascertain a sound perspective. I will suggest here that the traditional obsession of historians with accurate chronologies can throw some light on this curious historical phenomenon.

Let us consider a case study: Ireland recently celebrated a centenary of the 1916 rising, but how many people abroad appreciated the Irish aspiration for independence a century ago? It is difficult to tell. On the European continent, perhaps the principal newspaper that might be expected to refer to Irish matters was La Gazette Franco-Brittanique (Paris). However, ever after Irish politicians refused to attend Westminster and provisionally set up Dáil Eireann in January 1919 (while citing the 1916 rebels as a source of inspiration), this journal admitted that it was requested by British authorities to write “not a word about Ireland” (quoted Nationality, 1 Mar. 1919). Therefore, for Irish politicians to propagandise their cause in Europe was a tremendous uphill challenge.

It took four months after the Dáil was established before a (pioneering) Franco-Irish Society could be created in Paris, but communiqués sent to the French government could not be published either in France or in Ireland (Nationality, 17 and 31 May 1919). British censorship notwithstanding, as was shown by George Gavan Duffy’s contributions to Nationality in June 1919, it also took some time for the Dáil’s envoys in Paris to truly familiarise themselves with the state of opinion in a war-weary France or, indeed, European continent. Nevertheless, it was eventually possible for the Irish in Paris to publish a regular series entitled “France and Ireland” that reported on French reactions to Irish political developments.

France and Ireland

Let us consider the questions: who was behind this development and was it noteworthy, accurate or “mere” propaganda? Dáil Eireann’s first Parisian officials were men who later distinguished themselves in Irish governmental circles: Michael MacWhite, Sean T. O’Kelly, George Gavan Duffy and Joseph Walshe. While the “France and Ireland” series did not carry by-lines, the initials ‘M.M.’ certainly suggests the involvement of MacWhite, an Irishman who had once served in the French Foreign Legion. The later articles in the series, which ran from January 1920 to February 1922, usually featured no initials, although one bearing the initials ‘S.P.B.’ probably referred to Walshe’s name in Gaelic.

While an Irish Bulletin was the principal medium used by Dáil officials to propagate Irish news on the continent, “France and Ireland” was published in Young Ireland, a Dublin weekly whose staff was imprisoned frequently by British officials. It sought to convince the Irish public that the Irish political mission abroad was notable or a success. As such, its contents can certainly be classified as propaganda. Nevertheless, it is certainly not without interest because, biased commentaries notwithstanding, through publishing translations of French newspaper reports on Ireland it gives an indication of both the levels of success of the Irish mission and the degree to which French opinion could become interested in Irish affairs. In this, it was not necessarily inclined to exaggerate. In fact, it may be said to highlight that although sympathy with the Irish cause could be mustered in the French press only a handful of French politicians were inclined to speak on the Irish case and this was usually done only at Irish events held in Paris, or events in Brittany, rather than in the French National Assembly. Most of all, to discerning readers, the series can throw light on two questions of motive: first, why the Irish desired to affect French opinion; and, second, what generally motivated some French commentators to take up Ireland’s case?

The great variety of French publications quoted in translation in the series—national, provincial and sectional—indicates that the Irish authors essentially deemed any publicity to be good publicity. From this point of view, it is perhaps of note that the greatest wave of French press interest in Ireland seemed to coincide with the first real successful efforts within Ireland to consolidate the Dáil’s authority. This took place during the summer of 1920. By contrast, the actual contents of the French writings point to the reality that these French authors were concerned less with Irish fortunes than the degree to which giving, or not giving, publicity to Irish grievances against Britain could be used as a bargaining chip in France’s own relations with Britain: in particular, attempting to persuade a very reluctant Britain to throw its weight behind the French desire to take control of the Rhineland. Indeed, this series indicates that the French intimated quite successfully to the British authorities that pro-Irish press reporting in France would be curtailed (as evidently it was for much of 1921) only if Britain treated French strategic interests with more sympathy. This was the essential French motive. Faced with this reality, the Irish could only “look on” while trying to persuade themselves that cynicism was not inherently at the root of the political game of diplomacy; a field of activity in which they were inherently newcomers.

The “France and Ireland” series concluded in early February 1922 after the French premier formally received an Irish government delegation for the first time. Did this mean that the Irish mission was a success? French sources quoted illustrate that it was only a partial success. The French government stated frankly that it could receive an Irish government delegation only because the latter had reached an agreement with Britain; a clear admission that Ireland would not acquire seniority over Britain in French diplomatic relations. Such, perhaps, is the usual fate of small nations in international relations. To discerning readers, the tone at this time of Le Temps, which was a semi-governmental French organ, might be considered to be of particular note because of its ambiguity. It was rare for the Irish cause to attract positive publicity in major or national French journals such as Le Temps. Now that it did, its praise of the leader of the Irish government as a would-be autonomous figure of note was combined with observations in which doubt was cast subtly on the degree to which the Irish acceptance of an agreement with Britain could allow them to exercise diplomatic independence. This perspective might be said to have reflected the challenges that would soon befall the first diplomatic missions of the Irish Free State. Many historians would describe that as the first true chapter in Irish international relations, as only from this time forward did various foreign governments slowly but surely begin the protocol of formally meeting Irish government representatives. However, the fact that Michael MacWhite and Joseph Walshe acted as the two key figures in the Irish Free State’s department of external affairs for many years afterwards points to the reality that the root of the Irish diplomatic mission can be located earlier; in particular, in the initial propaganda campaigns that were launched during 1919.

Perhaps necessarily, propaganda served as the first step for Ireland in acquiring an international audience. Its bias was necessary in order to make a persuasive case. If seen in this light, the “France and Ireland” series may be considered as a sort of beginning, or prelude, to Irish diplomatic history that was not without significance through highlighting certain dynamics of previously untested political waters before any Irish government could truly enter them. This “France and Ireland” series has not hitherto been available through any digital library. Its contents are free from copyright, however, and an online archive of the series can be found at the Research Library link on this site.