The “Shemus” cartoons – war propaganda?

Felix M Larkin gave a short talk in the National Library on Friday about the “Shemus” cartoons in the Freeman’s Journal (1920-1924). “Shemus” was the pseudonym of Ernest Forbes, an English cartoonist who had come to Ireland in 1920 for unspecified reasons and left in 1924 to work for English newspapers. The cartoons shown by Larkin were all from the Civil War period, and he gave attention to two in particular. One was of Sir Henry Wilson, and referred to the popular view of his role in sectarian attacks on northern Catholics, portraying him as being in concert with the grim reaper. It was published two weeks before his murder. Another was a malignant caricature of Erskine Childers and Éamon de Valera, portraying the former as being the ‘power behind the throne’. Larkin was explicit in linking the Freeman’s Journal campaign against Wilson and Childers to their deaths.

Larkin detailed the control exerted by Dublin Castle over the editorial content of the Freeman’s Journal in his article in History Ireland [1], and during Friday’s talk he cited the autobiography of Desmond Ryan, who was a journalist for the paper at the time and resigned in protest at the treatment of Childers, that the editor, Martin Fitzgerald, gave specific orders as to the content of each individual cartoon. The Freeman’s Journal, it may be fairly be stated, became a propaganda organ for British government policy in Ireland by way of Dublin Castle from the time of the treaty debates, at the latest. Following the train of Larkin’s logic, was the death of Sir Henry Wilson British policy, just as Erskine Childers’s judicial murder may well have been? One of Michael Collins’s intelligence men, Joe Dolan, asserted that Collins gave the order for Wilson’s killing. [2]

The puzzling aspect of all this was Larkin’s summing-up. He quoted John Horgan on press freedom from this year’s Parnell Summer School as a lesson to those who did not like “Shemus’s” cartoons. I inferred, from the context, that he was referring to those with republican (referred to inaccurately during the talk as “Irregular”) sympathies. However, on the one hand, Ernest Forbes was clearly carrying out a political programme and had no journalistic freedom; on the other hand, I don’t see how press freedom and journalistic integrity apply in the case of war propaganda, which according to Larkin’s own account had what one must assume was the intended effect of having certain people knocked off. The notion that any campaign against the republican position must have been one of noble opposition to violent despotism is often carried almost to obsession, in my view.

[1] Felix M. Larkin, ‘A great Daily Organ’: the Freeman’s Journal, 1763–1924, History Ireland, May/June 2006

[2] Peter Hart, Michael Collins and the Assassination of Sir Henry Wilson, Irish Historical Studies, Nov. 1992, p. 158

See also

Felix M Martin’s book, Terror and Discord: the Shemus Cartoons in the Freeman’s Journal, 1920-1924 was published last year.


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