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The Mosquito Press in the Information Age

February 15, 2010

I wrote this piece of Jason Walsh’s brilliant Forth magazine

PS O’HEGARTY’s 1946 essay ‘The Mosquito Press’ in the The Bell declared that an interesting book could be written about the weekly and monthly journals which he says ‘festooned the Separatist, Sinn Féin and Irish Ireland’ movements since the days of Parnell. (1)
Much the same could be said for the modern multi-media era which has seen an explosion in new journals and websites dedicated to the cause of documenting the present and negotiating the future of republicanism in the age of the internet.
From traditional newspapers like Saoirse and An Phoblacht to magazines like Fourthwrite and The Hibernian, internet journals like The Blanket and blogs like Splintered Sunrise – it has been a golden age for Republican journalism and while this vibrant and sophisticated new media ecosphere has often slipped off the radar of the mainstream media, anyone making a concerted effort to nose around the Republican Sphere will know a more complete picture of Republicanism is available from the many and varied corners of the information super highway.
It is not in the council meetings or cummann gatherings that the next generation of Republican activists is going to come, but from the blogosphere and online media.
Mick Fealty, editor of Slugger O’Toole, esteemed political commentator and ringmaster general of the Irish political blogariat says it is interesting to note that the age of the Northern Ireland peace process has run concurrently with the age of internet and social media and that the two things may be inextricably linked (2), certainly the media in all its forms became a key terrain of political interaction from well before the signing of the Good Friday agreement.
From roots in the prison journalism of Long Kesh to the Bobby Sands Discussion Group, development in groups like the Irish Republican Writers Group and Fourthwrite through to the myriad of blogs, websites and YouTube Channels, a new republicanism has flourished in the modern age and provided a challenge to the official narratives of Sinn Féin.

Republicanism & journalism
My own interest in the Republican media sphere was first piqued as I started out three years ago on a part time PhD looking at the Framing of republicans in the media in the post-GFA era. With Holy Cross, the Northern Bank Robbery and the murder of Robert McCartney all fresh in the memory, I felt republicanism was at an interesting place in its own timeline and that for the first time in its modern history, it had some modicum of control in its relationships with the media. From the vantage point of Liverpool and a career in journalism, it appeared to me that with every day Sinn Féin’s journey from political pariahs to mainstream political players (3) represented a kind of political and media miracle those of us reading Liz Curtis in the 1990s could not have foretold.
It is also interesting to note that at the height of Sinn Féin’s 32 County Political arc (before Northern Bank and McCartney) and in the midst of this explosion in writing and comment, the Belfast Media Group thought it intellectually sustainable and economically viable to launch Daily Ireland at this time. It had many critics, but it did at least aim to give a voice to the many strands of republicanism.
However, the more I read the mainstream media the less I became interested in ‘Official Provisionalism’, with its attendant New Labour style affectations. Actually, that is terribly unfair to Sinn Féin which had barely put a foot wrong and which had embraced the possibilities of the internet and social media before other political parties – An Phoblacht was the first Irish Newspaper on the net.
Rather it was the ever developing sphere of Republican dissent that fascinated me – not the hammer throwers concerned with revisiting the tired rhetoric of armed struggle and the good old days of a triumphalist reading of War News in the Phoblacht. No, it was magazines like Fourthwrite and The Blanket which most interested me, thanks to the unusually high standard of journalism, comment and production values – three things that one cannot always count on in Irish Republican journalism.
It struck me that these magazines and a number of the early republican bloggers had become a new and logical progression of the Mosquito Press, buzzing around Sinn Féin, making pests of themselves and opening up the republican sphere again. I was also most interested in why republicans, in particular, consistently return to writing and journalism as a means of manifesting their politics.
O’Hegarty notes that ‘All movements, and all sections of movements, in a democratic age, appealing to ‘the people’, have found it necessary and advantageous to have a paper of some sort to put their points to the people.’ Borrowing the phrase ‘Mosquito Press’ from John Redmond, O’Hegarty’s contention is that the large number of often small circulation magazines buzzed around together in the cause of first Irish statehood and sovereignty in the face of the Home Rule movement. It also struck me that this new mix of old style magazines and newspapers, websites and bloggers was closer to the second wave of mosquito press which grew in the 20s and 30s after the establishment of the Free State and which was dominated by the Frank Ryan edited An Phoblacht. Caoilfhionn Ni Bheachain’s excellent 2007 journal article for Eire-Ireland ‘“The Mosquito Press”: Anti Imperialist Rhetoric in Republican Journalism,1926-39’ updates O’Hegarty and evokes the period quite beautifully for an academic journal. References to Saoirse, Wolfe Tone Weekly, An Phoblacht and Republican Review have clear parallels with the growth of activist journalism in Ireland today.

Activist Journalism
Fourthwrite, 10 years old and still covering Ireland and the world from the left, remains one of the best magazines of its kind in Britain and Ireland. Its world view is crucial to its success. Editor Tommy McKearney has left links forged across the world and as a result gets regular contributions coming from Nepal and Gaza. The magazine grew out of the Irish Republican Writers’ Group and despite allegations of intimidation from Sinn Féin (4) in the early days and a shift in emphasis after founder members Tommy Gorman and Anthony McIntyre left to start The Blanket, it has continued to plough a studious and honourable furrow. Academics have given much time and tortured deliberation to formulating definitions of citizen and activist journalism, in interviews, McKearney has given me a simple one. His writing is activism – he claims to have no literary intentions – and Fourthwrite is an extension of his political engagement.
Weekly internet magazine The Blanket, which began in 2001 under the editorship of Carrie Twomey, is a veritable treasure trove for modern day researchers and will doubtlessly become a valuable resource for historians in the future. Twomey’s husband Anthony McIntyre was lead writer on the The Blanket and his often provocative style saw his work get wider attention in the Guardian and the Los Angeles Times among others. The website ran for seven years and helped alter how modern, dissenting republicanism was perceived by the outside world. It felt it was important to give a voice to anyone who wanted to write for it – a stance born out of the intimidation Twomey, McIntyre and their friend Tommy Gorman received at the hands of Sinn Féin. By the end of its life it had Irish Daily Star columnist and committed evangelical Protestant John Coulter as an honourary blanket man. It could be said that the Blanket’s template was the irreverence and intelligence of The Bell as edited by Peadar O’Donnell rather than the dogmatism of the Provisional green book.
Twomey and McIntyre shut The Blanket in 2008, but McIntyre’s website The PensiveQuill, which he updates three times a week is the best site of its kind in Ireland or Britain. He has a talent for entertaining political commentary which would put many in the mainstream media to shame while his insider knowledge of the Republican movement makes him one of the most authoritative voices in opposition to Sinn Féin. His wicked sense of humour manifested itself wonderfully during the recent Iris Robinson affair with: “As for her young beau in all of this, in tackling Iris Robinson, Kirk McCambley might not have been imaginative but he was certainly courageous.”(5)
While Republican Sinn Féin’s Saoirse continues to land on the doormat once a month and the 32’s Sovereign Nation follows suit, the days of a party paper in those formats must soon be a thing of the past. With fixed costs of printing and distribution on the rise and dwindling numbers of activists to sell copies – the distribution model for the old activist paper must be under threat. Certainly éirígí made a conscious decision not to print a newspaper to sell at branch meetings because successive Sinn Féin ard fheiseanna made it apparent that papers are no longer self-financing and actually cost the party money.
Instead éirígí have made a conscious effort to be ‘more creative’ with the means of communicating with their public. Their website is excellent and it updated regularly with news and they have got a lot of respect for their ability to react quickly to events. They have also garnered headlines and made inroads into the Irish political life thanks to publicity stunts like the rebranding Starbucks and eye catching election material like the Sex Pistols-inspired Lisbon No vote poster from 2009.
Also on the Republican left are blogs like the 26 Counties-based Cedar Lounge Revolution and Sinn Féin Keep Left who have socialist republicanism at heart rather than the other way around. They are tremendously interesting sites as they really signpost the gap between both Sinn Féin in the South and the left and the overall gap between parties on both sides of the border.
Anyone wishing to waste several days looking at the artefacts of the Irish Left should get along to its Irish Left Online Document Archive. These are interesting sites because they evidence the split personality of Republicanism as Sinn Féin in the north drifts to the centre and slowly disintegrates in the south.
The peerless Spintered Sunrise, a Belfast-based left wing Republican blogger who manages to mix examinations of both identities with an occasional foray into the world’s of glamour models and pornography. What sets Splints aside is a brilliantly entertaining writing style and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the left and Republicanism. He (she?) is up for an Orwell Award at the minute, so get along and cast your vote.
In the blogosphere the myriad forms of republican Catholicism are given room to have their say. South Armagh man Chris Gaskin’s Balrog up until quite recently did a fine job of explaining the catholic Republican identity. And if I am positing the theory that the new media ecosphere allows for all voices marginalised to be heard, then special mention needs to be made at this point of the Hibernian Magazine edited by Gerry McGeough.
While republicanism was at the heart of the magazine’s ethos, it was more concerned with recovering a right wing, Catholic Ireland which McGeough felt had been lost with Sinn Féin’s embracement of the left and the growing secularism in the 32 Counties. It is true that The Hibernian did reflect a core older, grass roots Republicanism both in rural Ireland and in the emigrant communities of the USA, especially with the tagline ‘For Faith, Family and Country’. It ran until late 2008 for more than two years on an editorial diet of faith and new world order-style conspiracy theory which often saw it derided, but it was tremendously well designed for a Republican publication and perhaps the most professional of any of the hard copy formats available recently.
What would O’Hegarty make of all this? Well he makes mention of WP Ryan, editor of Peasant and Nation between 1907-1910, and describes the editor as having ‘in him a mixtre of Theosophy, Paganism, Celtic Mythology, Socialism and Modernistic Collectivisim,’ which looking back over the last 10 years is a mix that has yet to find foothold on the internet – who’s going to be the first?
—–

1. PS O’Hegarty, ‘The Mosquito Press’, The Bell, April 1946, Vol 12, No1
2. Mick Fealty, ‘Slugger O’Toole’: The New Media as Track Two Diplomacy’, Public Diplomacy, Cultural Interventions & the Peace Process in
Northern Ireland: Track Two to Peace?
3. Graham Spencer, ‘Sinn Féin and the Media in Northern Ireland: The New Terrain of Policy Articulation’, Irish Political Studies, Volume 21, Number 3, September 2006
4. Anthony McIntyre, ‘The Irish Republican Writers Group and the battle for new ideas’, HYPERLINK “http://www.socialistdemocracy.org” http://www.socialistdemocracy.org
5. The Pensive Quill, ‘The Iris Virus’, Jan 7, 2010
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2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 18, 2010 7:58 am

    Your lucky you spent all that time reading the Bell! When are you actually coming back to our beloved institute?

  2. February 21, 2010 1:36 pm

    Paddy,Your research looks fascinating. Too little attention is paid to media production beyond the mainstream. And some of the writers/bloggers you mention offer much more interesting comments on political affairs and peace process in the north of Ireland than most of the mainstream media. Certainly they've offered a more intriguing insight into the problems of achieving accord in Northern Ireland. Hope you keep us posted on how you get on.

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