The truth in the news?

A scandal has broken which may blight the memory of Limerick's most famous son. A documentary screened on RTE 1 suggested that freedom fighter, politician and statesman, Eamon de Valera from Bruree founded and obtained control of The Irish Press publishing house by deliberately abusing and hoodwinking its shareholders.

Imaginative business schemes ensured that the mathematician de Valera controlled and effectively owned the company from the beginning.

But lifelong friend and founder of the de Valera Museum at Bruree, Dr Mainchín Seoighe, said that the programme “would appear to be a hatchet job”.

The programme sought to demonstrate how monies collected in America arising from de Valera's fund-raising trip to America following his escape from Lincoln Jail in 1919, ostensibly by sale of bonds to create a “National Credit” by way of an “external loan to the republic”, were diverted to the creation of the new publication, controlled and substantially owned by de Valera himself.

The money was retained in New York banks and a question as to its ownership arose after the foundation of the Free State. The New York Supreme court ruled on the ownership of the money in 1927 by requiring the return, after administrative expenses, of monies to the original subscribers.

De Valera circumvented this by asking subscribers either to endorse the forthcoming cheques and send them to him, or else to legally assign the bonds to him, which would have had the same effect. He asked them to do this for the purpose of establishing a newspaper which would counteract the prevailing journalistic ethos in Ireland, which, de Valera wrote to them, “is consistently pro-British and imperialistic in its outlook”. Very many subscribers did as he asked.

Some received shares in The Irish Press Ltd - a shares drive was under way in Ireland at the same time with 200,000 shares in the new company being issued at £1 each - but many others received shares in Irish Press Corporation, an American entity registered in Delaware. The programme sought to show that little is known about the Irish Press Corporation, which still exists, and its connection with The Irish Press publishers in Ireland. It suggested that de Valera himself managed to take control of the American entity and its voting block in the Irish newspaper company for a paltry sum.

Dr Seoighe this week recalled The Irish Press and said that he proudly retains a copy of its first ever edition, sent to him by Dr Liam Brophy, father of former Sunday Press journalist, Éanna.
Dr Seoighe was a friend of de Valera through his own mother, who, he said, was a neighbour and contemporary of the politician in his youth in Bruree.

“He would often call to the house to us.” said Dr Seoighe. “I knew him very well, and I took him on a tour of all of his old haunts in Bruree and on to Charleville.”

Dr Seoighe had great respect for de Valera and, while having no direct knowledge of the circumstances of the setting up of The Irish Press in 1931, said that this week's programme “would appear to be a hatchet job”.

The Irish Press was, for many decades, the semi-official organ of Fianna Fáil and Éamon de Valera maintained absolute control of its editorial content, a grip subsequently maintained by his son, Major Vivion de Valera.

“The Controlling Director shall have sole and absolute control....”, the articles of association stated boldly.

Even when he was Taoiseach, it was not unusual for Éamon de Valera to summon The Irish Press reporter who had been covering a function at which “The Chief” had been speaking and agree the wording to be used next day, before it would have been sent over the wires to editor Frank Gallagher at Burgh Quay. A member of this writer's family witnessed exactly that happening in a town in County Limerick in the 1930s.

The Irish Press was established in September 1931 and quickly established a sound circulation base, mainly among non-professional readers. Its timing was perfect for the newly emerging Fianna Fáil and was largely instrumental in allowing that party to take power for the first time five months later in the teeth of hostility from the two pre-existing Dublin dailies, the Irish Independent and The Irish Times.
A sister paper, the Sunday Press had a circulation touching 400,000, the daily Irish Press, over 100,000 and the Evening Press almost twice that figure.

Circulation wars, mainly with the Irish Independent group including Evening Herald and Sunday Independent, saw The Irish Press publications under pressure in the 1980s, especially in the lucrative and growing Dublin market, where the advertising pool was concentrated. Television and the availability of British newspapers also found the more staid Press titles under pressure, and their heartland was increasingly non-Leinster.

The decision to print the The Irish Press as a tabloid failed in two ways. It failed to recover losses to the existing tabloids in urban areas and turned off many more traditional readers to whom tabloid was synonymous with low standards.

But The Irish Press never had low standards. Apart from a loyalty to the Fianna Fáil, and more particularly the de Valera line on matters of national interest, it had the most scrupulous attitude to news of any Irish publisher.

But the company's fortunes continued to decline and, after a series of industrial difficulties, it finally closed its papers on September 8, 1995 with the loss of some 600 jobs. The Irish Press still has properties, however, and continues as a publicly quoted company, holding regular annual general meetings and renumerating its three directors, one of whom, Dr Éamon de Valera, is the founder's grandson.

Courtesy of the Limerick Leader
November 2004