Our friendly and excellent guides are available as Step On Guides for any visiting tour or coach operators who may like a unique, entertaining and educational tour of Irish History and the events of Easter Week 1916.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Trials of the 1916 Press Pack - Part One

The barrister, poet and educator Patrick Pearse stepped out onto the steps of Dublin’s General Post Office just before one o’clock on a sunny April bank holiday Monday and read aloud the proclamation declaring an Irish Republic.

As news of the first shots of the Easter Rising reached the news desks at Fleet Street in London, editors quickly realised that this was more than just a cabbage patch rebellion. Telephone and telegraphic communications were either cut by the rebels or by the British authorities meaning Dublin in terms of news was further from London as the British capital was from Moscow.

Two of the three leading Irish newspapers the Irish Independent and the Freeman’s Journal were off the Dublin streets as the battle intensified and their offices and printing presses were ablaze while the Unionist pro-British Irish Times were limited in both publications and content. Journalists were in the dark and subject to the strict reporting restrictions of the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) which had been introduced at the outbreak of World War One. There had been a crack down at the start of April 1916 on many of the nationalist newspapers that flooded the streets of Dublin. On Friday April 1st, the police raided the offices of the ‘Gaelic Press’ on Liffey Street from where publications such as The Spark, The Gael and The Gaelic Athlete were published. Liberty Hall, the headquarters of James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army was also raided by armed police as they attempted to close the printing press there that issued ‘The Worker’s Republic’ but armed Volunteers forced the police to withdraw and the paper was printed the next day. Other papers suppressed were ‘The Irish Freedom’, ‘Ireland’, ‘Scissors and Paste’, ‘The Irish Workers’ and in Cork ‘Fianna Fail’.    

The battles of the western front had dominated the news cycle and front pages globally and Ireland had almost been forgotten about. Those editors whose reporters were filing for newspapers and the news wire agencies knew that the large Irish-American population would be far more interested in the events in Dublin than the French frontline as in April 1916. The United States was still a neutral nation and in the midst of a Presidential election. Trouble in Ireland would become a media event.

The first trickle of information began to immerge from the House of Commons on the Tuesday when the Chief Secretary of Ireland Augustine Birrell made a statement to the House of Commons in Westminster attempting to minimise the effects of the rebellion on Ireland. Birrell announced that there had been grave disturbances in Dublin and that rebels were in control of four or five parts of the city but that the situation was well in hand. The debate in the House of Commons itself was held behind closed door and the press relied solely on official Government communiqués which minimized the impact of the events unfolding in Ireland.

While all reports in the UK press were copied from official Government communiqués, the US press were harder to control and it was done with the use of wireless telegraphy and Atlantic cables.

Many of the U.S. newspapers received their news from wire services. In August 1914 the British Government created the Press Bureau with the intention to gather news and telegraphic reports from the British Army then censor it and issue the sanitized version to the press. The Bureau allowed neutral journalists (The US was still neutral in April 1916) to write their own articles after providing official communiqués. This was of major importance to American journalists. This helped camouflage the source of the propaganda, making it more acceptable to the reading public.

The official communiqués reprinted often without a by-line, simply a 'report from London' began to appear on Tuesday in New York and Washington with the official line from the UK Government which had been wireless telegraphed from Caernarvon in Wales via the Press Bureau.

There was however an interesting piece in the New York Tribune printed on Easter Sunday, the day before the Rising began with the paper already reporting 'disturbances' in Dublin. 'Rumours of political rioting have reached Berlin' began the article which had been sent on the wires from Europe on Saturday. Despite disbelief by the newspaper in much of the news dispatched via Amsterdam they did conclude that there was at that stage serious rioting on the east coast of Ireland and that the areas were under military control.

The strange aspect to the story is that the report is attributed to the 'Overseas News Agency' which was in fact a British covert propaganda operation run by the British in the United States. The ONA would feed stories to the US media especially The New York Tribune who having picked up the story would in turn become the source for other media outlets lending credence to whatever story the British wanted published.

Back in London Augustine Birrell when responding to a question in the House of Commons when he said,
‘It had been necessary during the last few days that news should not reach countries and especially our friends in America which would give a false impression of the importance of the events, important as they were.’
Hansard House of Commons Debates

He added that he hoped that the strict censorship would be taken off soon. But the rebellion was already front page news in the New York Times as it hit the streets on Tuesday. In Wednesday’s New York Times their report stated,
‘According to a statement of a prominent leader in Irish American affairs last night (Tuesday), the revolt in Ireland has spread to a far greater extent than has been given out by the British authorities. It was affirmed that the news had come from private sources in Ireland and received in Brooklyn.’

The Federal Bureau of Investigations had discovered documents in raids in New York on supporters of John Devoy that rebellion plans had always included the setting up of a broadcast station to get news of the new Provisional Government out to the rest of the world.

In a report in New York’s 'Evening World' on Tuesday, the General Post Office (GPO) had been captured by rebels but had almost immediately been retaken by British forces. The 'revolution in Ireland had been planned by the German Government' was slanting the view and exaggerating the influence of the Germans in the Rising. In the space of seven paragraphs the rebels were referred to as 'rebels', 'rioters','revolutionists' and 'a mob'. 

British influenced newspapers referred to the outbreak of fighting in Dublin as ‘riots’, ‘serious riots’, ’disturbances’, ‘grave disturbances’, ‘outrages’, outbreak of alarming character’, ‘traitorous events’ and ‘Dublin sensation’ while papers in North America within hours were referring to ‘A Rising’ and ‘A Rebellion’.

Newspapers reported that wireless messages had been received by Irish American organisations in New York from Ireland but some papers countered this by stating that was impossible as 'cipher messages out of Ireland were impossible due to a strict British ban on cipher messages'. And while many of the news reports were certainly fanciful, rumour based and displayed a vivid imagination by some Irish Americans of exactly what was happening on the streets of Dublin, we know now that the Ring brothers did telegraph news of the Rising launch from the Valentia Wireless station in the early days of the Rising before the British gained control of Valentia. 


Wilbur Forrest was the youngest chief in the history of the United Press wire service. (God within the Machine). Forrest was born in 1887 in Illinois the son of a surgeon but rather than a medical career he moved into journalism joining United Press in Chicago. He had been the first wire service correspondent to arrive at Queenstown (Cobh) County Cork after the sinking of the liner The Lusitania off the Irish coast by a German U-boat submarine in 1915. He had reported from the front lines in France although certainly not an admirer of the horrors of war. He said covering these hellish sights were
            ‘The glorified dissemination of Government propaganda’

In April 1916 Forrest was twenty nine years old and was earning *$32.50 per week He had just filed a report that
            ‘Aristocratic owners of England’s famous country estates are selling their holdings because the war has pinched them financially. Forrest married Floss Springer in October 1914 and as he travelled Europe delivering reports his wife was in April seven months pregnant.
(*Spokesman Review December 27th 1957)

His employer was the United Press news agency founded in 1907 by E W Scripps. Their main competitor was the Associated Press that could trace its origins to 1846 New York. The AP had an advantage on its rival as it used a modern 34 word teletype telegraph system with over two thousand outlets using their service. The UP was still using Morse code which required its subscribers to employ a Morse code operator in their offices to write down the story. The third US based news agency was The International News Service founded in 1909 by the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.

All official Government traffic would be given priority in war time for telegraphing across the Atlantic leading to delays of up to twenty four hours to get stories flashed across the great ocean. The AP by passed much of this log jam by using the more expensive private telegraphs often from the west coast of France, thus also by passing official British censorship who would have to clear every word being sent from Britain. This was costing the news agency $2,000* per day but it was deemed worth it as they supplied more newsrooms that their rivals.

On Wednesday morning Forrest made his way promptly to the UP offices on Bouverie Street and to his editor Ed Keen who immediately agreed with him that he should make his way to Dublin. With the words ‘go to it’ still ringing in his ears he quickly grabbed a travel bag he kept at the offices just for such a fast deployment and his trusted portable typewriter. He was already familiar with the routes to Ireland after his 1915 visit to cover the Lusitania disaster. He hailed a taxicab and made his way to Paddington railway station to catch the train that would take him to Fishguard in Wales and then make his way across the Irish Sea to Rosslare in County Wexford, the route he used to get to Queenstown.

Once at Paddington he made his way to the ticket office only to be disappointed as he had just missed the train and thus his chance to reach Dublin before any other reporters to obtain the exclusive scoop for his employers, a journalistic gold medal.

As he stepped away from the ticket kiosk he met a fellow reporter, the Scottish born Robert Berry from his rival wire service Associated Press. They mused as to what to do next with returning to their respective offices not a viable option. At this stage they realised the folly of both of their original plan of getting a ferry from Fishguard as this would have meant travelling northwards the ninety five miles to Dublin through both rebel and Crown forces cordons that may have been set up around the capital.

A look at the curtailed train timetables as a result of the war and the military use of the railway lines, they noticed that a train would depart shortly from Euston Station heading for the naval port of Holyhead in North Wales. The men shared a cab the short distance up the Marylebone Road to Euston Station. As they arrived at the station Forrest realised that as an American citizen in wartime London he would have difficulty in purchasing a rail ticket to a British naval port. But once they got inside the main concourse this problem was overcome as even though Berry worked for an American news service, his Scottish birth and British passport allowed his to purchase two tickets without any complicating questioning or further delays.

They sat overlooked by the large statue of the civil engineer and railway pioneer George Stephenson in the waiting room passing the thirty minutes to the departure time for their train that would transport them the three hundred miles to Holyhead. Suddenly the station was plunged into darkness as German zeppelins approached the English capital on yet another bombing raid. There had been three raids earlier that same month including one the night before. For the fifty people in the waiting area with the two reporters the minutes ticked slowly by as they waited. The German airships would use the River Thames as a navigation tool but once they reached the populated areas their bombs were often widely inaccurate and therefore the chances of a bomb landing on the railway building was remote.

The British anti aircraft guns opened up in the afternoon sky attempting to deter the German raiders. An enemy bomb landed nearby rattling both the building and those intended passengers inside*. Once the anti aircraft guns fell silent the two journalists nosed outside the front door and they could see the flames and smoke rising in the aftermath of the German attack. Despite this being news worthy story they both knew that anything they would write about the attack would never get passed the British censor in the War Office. They speculated if the consecutive nights of Zeppelin raids on the east coast of England had anything to do with the events of Ireland already aware that a German ship had been captured off the coast of County Kerry carrying a deadly cargo of weapons and munitions for the intended rebellion.

(According to the closest any Zeppelin’s came to London on the night of 24/25th April was North East of London near Illford when LZ 97  commanded by Erich Linnarz)

The attack had the knock on effect of delaying train arrivals and more importantly departures at Euston station until the all clear was given by the military. Nothing seemed to be falling in their favour but eventually the all clear was given and they made their way down the platform and boarded their train. A short time later the steam engine slowly dragged itself out of Euston hurtling across the English countryside into Wales and eventually onto the Isle of Anglesey and the port of Holyhead.     

Once they arrived in Holyhead train station, the two men hurried down to the pier towards a British naval destroyer that seemed to be ready to depart. Half way down the pier their path was blocked by a Naval Lieutenant. The two reporters explained who they were and what their mission was.
‘If you men go to Ireland on that destroyer and I don’t know even if it is going to Ireland, you will board it without the permission of his Majesty’s admiralty in London

The command was delivered to the two men in such a manner to leave them in no doubt that getting permission from London was almost impossible. 

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