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Tuesday 16 March 2021

Vital Part Played by Typewriters in the Irish War of Independence

Kathleen McKenna. centre, was “a key force behind the Irish Bulletin. 

We’re coming up to the centenary of “The Great Dublin Typewriter Heist”, in which the “dirty tricks” section of the British Army stole Irish Republican typewriters in a clumsy effort to replicate the Irish Bulletin, a typewritten and mimeographed facts-of-the-matter newsletter. The plan behind the robbery, known as black propaganda”, was to sway public opinion against the Irish cause, on both sides of the Irish Sea, at the height of the 1919-21 Irish War of Independence. We could call it “Dublingate”, given similarities with events in Washington DC 51 years later, except in the Irish case nobody was ultimately made to pay for the foolishness (and Republicans of another sort were the targets). The purloining of the typewriters from the offices of Sinn Féin’s Publicity Department on Upper Mount Street, Dublin, occurred on the night of March 26, 1921. The whole thing was bungled from the get-go, with the typewriters seen to be loaded on to lorries belonging to the Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Ostensibly the idea seemed to be to curtail publication of the Bulletin, but it soon transpired that the Brits intended to bring out their own adulterated version of the newsletter and to try and pass it off as bona fide. Quickly exposed, the ruse backfired on the British, and whatever reputation for reliability that information emanating from British Crown sources had in Ireland, it was severely damaged.

Perhaps carried away by their success in finding the offices of the Bulletin - it had had to move 14 times in two years to elude British detection – the Brits blundered in trying to muzzle a publication which was determined to tell Irish people the truth about republican military and political successes, and British excesses. Its first editor, Desmond FitzGerald (left), and later Erskine Childers, were both scrupulous about avoiding fabricated stories on the basis that these would undermine the credibility of the Bulletin’s verifiably true reports. The Bulletin 
often drew on British government communications captured by the IRA and on sworn affidavits by victims of British Crown forces. A weekly summary of acts of aggression committed by the British forces in Ireland was compiled from newspaper reports.

The authors of the counterfeit Bulletin were Hugh Pollard and William Darling. Major Hugh Bertie Campbell Pollard was a British intelligence officer operating out of Dublin Castle as press officer of the Information Section of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Pollard followed up the fiasco of his stupidly forged Bulletin with a bizarre attempt to fake a military engagement in County Kerry (reported as the “Battle of Tralee”). William Young Darling was later knighted as the Unionist MP for the Edinburgh South constituency

The Irish Bulletin was a counter-propaganda publication, the official gazette of the breakaway, underground government of the Irish Republic (Dáil Éireann), which had been formed on January 21, 1919, following Sinn Féin’s landslide win in general election a month earlier, and which had declared Irish independence. The Bulletin appeared in weekly editions from November 11, 1919, to July 11, 1921. British-enforced censorship had remained in place during the war, meaning Sinn Féin successes and such pleasantries as summary executions by British forces went unreported by newspapers in Ireland and beyond.

Frank Gallagher

At a Sinn Féin Cabinet meeting on November 7, 1919, there was agreement that there should be “A scheme for a daily news bulletin to foreign correspondents, weekly lists of atrocities; entertainment of friendly journalists approved, and £500 voted for expenses …” Four days later the Bulletin made its début. Five issues were issued each week for the next two years, in the face of strenuous efforts by the British to suppress it. In its early days, the paper was produced mainly by Frank David Gallagher and Robert Brennan (left). Brennan, as Sinn Féin's director of publicity since April 1918, had played a leading role in his party's success in the 1918 general election. Gallagher had been London correspondent of William O'Brien's Cork Free Press, closed in 1916 upon the appointment of Lord Decies as Chief Press Censor for Ireland. Gallagher had accused British authorities of lying about the conditions and situation of republican prisoners in the Frongoch internment camp in Wales. Following the Easter Rising of 1916, Gallagher joined the IRA and fought alongside Éamon de Valera during the War of Independence. Gallagher had long stints in prison due to his IRA involvement and went on many hunger strikes (the shortest lasting three days, the longest 41). He contributed to An Phoblacht, the weekly newspaper of the Republican movement.

Kathleen McKenna

Kathleen McKenna was “a key force behind the Bulletin”. A 2014 article in The Irish Times, “Memoirs of a Revolutionary Secretary, Kathleen McKenna and the Shorthand of History”, said, “McKenna may never have fired a gun in anger but she played a significant role in the War of Independence and in the early years of the Free State.” The piece was referring to Teresa Napoli publishing her mother’s memoir, Dáil Girl’s Revolutionary Recollections. McKenna was born 1897, in Oldcastle, County Meath, to a strongly nationalist family. Her father was a typing teacher and briefly a newspaperman. In 1919 Kathleen joined Sinn Féin and was given the task of typing and printing the Bulletin. In 1931 she married Captain Vittorio Napoli of the Italian Royal Grenadier Guards, whom she first met while holidaying in Italy in 1927. They lived in Libya and Albania before settling in Rome. She became a regular contributor to the Irish Independent, The Irish Times and other Irish and international newspapers.

McKenna is referring to Arthur Griffith, a writer, newspaper editor and politician who founded the political party Sinn Féin. He served as President of Dáil Éireann for eight months before he died in Dublin of a cerebral haemorrhage in August 1922. Ten days later Michael Collins' was assassinated in County Cork. 'Béannacht de leath a leinbh' is a blessing to a godchild.

The actual Corona folding portable typewriter that Winnie Carney used under fire in the Dublin General Post Office during the 1916 Easter Rising was, miraculously, tracked down by a BBC documentary team in 2016, still in remarkably good shape.

Though not directly involved with the Bulletin, another brave typist during the War of Independence was Maria Winifred ‘Winnie’ Carney, a suffragist and Irish independence activist. Born into a Catholic family at Fisher's Hill in Bangor, County Down, in 1887, Carney moved with her family to the Falls Road in Belfast when she was a child. She learned shorthand-typing at the Hughes Commercial Academy and in 1914 joined Cumann na mBan, the women's auxiliary of the Irish Volunteers. During the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, Carney was one of a small group of women in the General Post Office who were under British fire. She had entered the building armed with a Corona folding portable typewriter and a Webley revolver. Carney was given the rank of adjutant and was among the final group to leave the GPO, when it became engulfed in flames. Carney was captured and held in Kilmainham, Mountjoy and Aylesbury jails until Christmas 1916.

Winnie Carney

In its earliest days, the Bulletin consisted mainly of lists of raids by British security forces and the arrests of Irish suspects. Extracts from foreign publications, particularly English newspapers sympathetic to the Irish cause, were frequently included. The Bulletin was more graphic in its coverage of violence than was usual for its time. An example was its reporting on the November 1920 deaths of Harry and Patrick Loughnane, from Shanaglish, Gort, County Galway. The men had been handed over by the Royal Irish Constabulary to local members of the Auxiliary Division. Their bodies were found in a pond, their skulls battered in and flesh  hanging loose on their bodies. The two men had been tied by the neck to a lorry and dragged after it until they were dead. Before bodies were hidden in a pond after an effort was made to burn them.

Yet the British had shown themselves five days earlier to be capable of far, far worse. Bloody Sunday (November 21, 1920) began with an Irish Republican Army operation, organised by Michael Collins, to assassinate the “Cairo Gang” - a group of undercover British intelligence agents working and living in Dublin. IRA operatives killed or fatally wounded 15 men. Most were British Army officers, one was a Royal Irish Constabulary sergeant, and two were Auxiliaries responding to the attacks. Later that afternoon, British RIC members called “Black and Tans”, Auxiliaries and British soldiers raided a Gaelic football match in Croke Park. Without warning, the police opened fire on the spectators and players, killing or fatally wounding 14 civilians and wounding at least 60 others. Two of those killed were children. A military inquiry concluded the killings were indiscriminate and “excessive”. This events further turned Irish public opinion against the British, with little wonder. The IRA assassination operation severely damaged British intelligence, while the later reprisals increased support for the IRA at home and abroad.

On the eve of another Gaelic sporting event, the 1931 All-Ireland hurling championship final between Kilkenny and Cork, The Irish Press was launched, with Margaret Pearse, mother of 1916 Easter Rising martyrs Padraig and Willie Pearse, pressing the button to start the printing presses. This signalled the start of the successor to the Bulletin, with the Bulletin’s Frank Gallagher editor of the Press. The Fianna Fáil-supporting Press was a national daily newspaper in opposition to the Fine Gael-supporting Irish Independent and the pro-British Irish Times. It was founded by a War of Independence political leader, New York City-born Éamon de Valera, “To give the truth in the news …” Financing had been raised in the United States during the War of Independence by a bond drive for the Dáil. De Valera went on to serve several terms as head of government and head of state.
He was still alive when I joined The Irish Press almost 50 years ago, with his son Major Vivion de Valera as managing director. IRA historian Tim Pat Coogan, the son of an IRA volunteer in the War of Independence, was my editor.

 On May 25, 1921, the Custom House in Dublin was occupied and then burnt in an operation by the Irish Republican Army The Custom House was the headquarters of the Local Government Board for Ireland, an agency of the British administration in Ireland, against which the IRA was fighting in the name of the Irish Republic. The operation was a propaganda coup for the republicans.

I had previously worked for the Cork Examiner (now Irish Examiner), where among my predecessors was Tadgh Barry, another victim of the British during the War of Independence. Barry was on active service during the 1916 Easter Rising and was selected as a Cork delegate to the historic October Sinn Féin convention in the Mansion House. Barry was arrested by British authorities on the ground he had delivered a "seditious speech" and was imprisoned. He was arrested again in 1918, charged with being a conspirator in the so-called German Plot, which British authorities alleged was a plan by members of Sinn Féin to collude with the German Empire to bring firearms to Ireland. In 1920, Barry was elected to the position of alderman in Cork, placing him in a position of power alongside the Lord Mayor Tomás Mac Curtain and newly elected MP Terence MacSwiney. Mac Curtain, an officer in the Irish Republican Army, was killed in front of his wife and children in an assassination by members of the Royal Irish Constabulary. MacSwiney succeeded Mac Curtain as Lord Mayor, only to die in October following a hunger striker. Soon after the city was devastated by the Burning of Cork in December, when members of the Black and Tans torched the city in an act of arson born out of anger from loses to the IRA. In the wake of MacSwiney's death, Barry and eight other councillors were arrested. Barry was transported to Ballykinlar internment camp in County Down, where he was placed with 2000 other arrested Irish Nationalists. On November 15, 1921, Barry was conversing with fellow inmates at the edge of the camp when he was shot dead by a young sentry guard. 

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