Century of Endeavour

Mick Ryan's account of the United Irishman in the 1960s and 70s

(This article was published in a special bicentenary issue of the United Irishman, revived for the occasion, published in Belfast in 1998 by Harry Donaghy, 27 Poland St, Belfast BT12 7EX. His home phone number is 04890 238706 and the number of United Irishman Publications, which imprint he how owns, is 04890 439095.)

(c) Roy Johnston 2001, comments to rjtechne@iol.ie.

The United Irishman is not just a title; it's a reminder of our origins at the heart and head of republicanism, of an obligation - born 200 years ago and never forgotten or betrayed - to stand together and resist sectarianism, whatever flag it follows and however it cloaks its divisive intentions.

Through the most dangerous years, which some have forgotten and many, too young to remember, can barely imagine, THE UNITED IRISHMAN remained as good as its name and as proud of its origin as any struggling paper could be.

Newspapers have always played an important part in political movements in Ireland and elsewhere. Lenin edited ISKRA. Connolly was editor of THE IRISH WORKER. THE NATION was not only the title of a paper, it was the name by which the group it inspired came to be known.

THE UNITED IRISHMAN in the 1960s and 1970s had at least three roles. Particularly under the superb editorship of Seamus O Tuathail, it stimulated debate inside the republican movement and had a powerful influence on the way the movement developed and the direction it was to take.

It represented the republican movement to the public - in particular, to that section of the working class which was republican minded but also sensed the need for change and development.

And it was a unifying force in an organisation one of whose tasks was to supply and sell the paper, often in circumstances that ranged from difficult to hostile. The paper's managing editor, too, had overlapping functions. One was to encourage political analysis and debate, setting out and assessing the way we were - both in the organisation and in the country at large.

Another was to propose answers to the famous question: "What is to be done?" And, in the case of the organisation, not only to find answers but to persuade those in positions of power and influence to implement them. Working for THE UNITED IRISHMAN, you didn't have the luxury enjoyed by hurlers on the ditch.

There was something else which characterised the paper and the efforts of everyone who worked for it, month after month, especially in the most difficult years.

It's no exaggeration to say that the paper's struggles fairly reflected the state of the organisation; never more accurately than in the middle 1960s when the paper's circulation had fallen to a mere few thousand; its debts were in the region of £3000 - an enormous amount for that time - and its very future was in serious doubt. By the middle of 1967 THE UNITED IRISHMAN was on the verge of extinction, as was the organisation, I was soon to discover.

At that time I had been working for three years as an insurance agent, a job which allowed a lot of spare time to travel the country carrying out odd tasks for the movement - unknown to my employers, though they were generally sympathetic to the republican cause (in fact, it was one of the few employers in the country prepared to employ those of us who had participated in the '56-'62 campaign.)

Anyway, just before I was due to take my two weeks annual holidays in the summer of 1967, I was told by the only full-time member of the leadership of the organisation of the dire state of THE UNITED IRISHMAN paper - the huge debt, the poor circulation etc - and he asked me if I would use my two weeks holiday to travel around Ireland and meet as many of the sellers of the Ul and the local leaders of the organisation as I could possibly fit in over the two weeks; and to collect as much money as was owed or by way of donations to save the U I and, also, I was to discuss the state of the organisation with all I met and re- port on same upon my return to Dublin two weeks later.

(I had an Austin Mini that I was buying on the HP! By the way, there were no such things as 'expenses' in those days; everyone gave of their time and resources voluntarily; anyway, there was no central fund to supply expenses in any event. But the members around the country were always the 'heart of the corn' in their generosity; they'd always give you a bed, food and encouragement; and those who could afford it would even give you the few shillings to buy a pack of cigarettes, or a couple of gallons of petrol to take you to the next place you were calling to.)

I agreed to undertake the country-wide 'tour'on the basis outlined. Little did I realise that it was probably one of the most momentous decisions of my life and, moreover, was to have profound repercussions on the future of the movement as well.

I began my whirl-wind 'tour' of Ireland on a Saturday morning in Kildare, where my first call was to two staunch members, a brother and sister, who sold a couple of dozen Uls in the Kill-Naas area. They had a few pounds ready for the Ul and donated a couple of pounds as well, and after getting their report on the 'state of the organisation' - 'dire' - over a cup of tea followed by a chat, I headed off for my next port of call, a man in Newbridge...

It was a matter of meeting the chair-person or secretary of the local or county 'organisation', where possible.) I repeated the formula here, got a few quid that was due to the Ul and an extra few pounds as a donation and in a matter of an hour was headed on to a man in Carlow whom I was told would maybe sell the Ul and give a donation. And so on to meet the few remaining republicans in each county (into Wexford, on to Waterford, Kilkenny and so on right round the country from the south-west up into Connaught, thence to Donegal, and then across into Derry, Tyrone, Armagh, Belfast and back down the east coast through Down and Louth.

I soon discovered that our financial and organisational problems mirrored each other: sellers were scarce, sales were lower even than we thought, money was in short supply. But in the course of the fortnight, 1 collected £300, which was a fairly large amount for us at that time. I was delighted to be coming back with so much money as it helped to keep the paper in business.

But what was really a shock and disheartening was the awful state of the organisation and, just as bad, the refusal of some of our leaders to come to terms with this fact. No regular meetings were being held, there was a lack of direction, and the few members we had were in the main disheartened and demoralised and without much hope in a future for the republican ideal.

At leadership level it had been decided to end 'mealy-mouthed sentimentality' about the movement and that we would be totally honest with each other and be honestly critical of each other without failing out with each other. Yet, when they were told how few members we had in limerick, Cork, Belfast, Derry and even in Dublin (and that in many paces in Ireland we had no presence at all, not even a token one) some seemed unable to take it in, to recognise what it meant or even accept it as fact. This really bothered me because if we were to begin to make progress all must first accept that we were starting from poor beginnings, and accept that we had no 'real functioning organisation'. And that if the philosophical question - about the nature of the movement and its appeal to the public - was of the first importance, a well-run organisation was still essential to give it meaning.

Upon my return to Dublin two weeks later, among the recommendations I made in the course of my report was that if the movement was to survive we needed to put a full time organiser into each of the four provinces, and soon. This was put to the leadership who a short time later agreed to the idea. And so it was that in December 1967 I was asked to go full time as the organiser for Dublin, the rest of Leinster and Waterford. It was also decided that the sale of the Ul would be the basis of the beginning of rebuilding the organisation.

Soon thereafter Malachy McGurran was appointed organiser for Ulster, and another two were appointed for Connaught and Munster. (McGurran and I agreed to go full time provided it was accepted by the leadership that 'there was no organisation as such'.)

In the middle 1960s our tactics and strategy changed radically and the paper, edited with great insight by Seamus O Tuathail, not only reflected the change; it showed the way.

Housing, fisheries, unemployment, workers rights, women's liberation, the ownership and control of our natural resources, and civil rights - these were the subjects featured in our pages, issue after issue. They replaced an older, simpler but by now barely relevant appeal to what cynical Fianna Failers called the national question.

In the next couple of years - 1968-1969 - the Ul was made viable and actual sales had reached 30,000 - and sold copies were being paid for because part of the organisers' job was to ensure the collection of money and return of same to head office for all papers sold. (But the UI still had large debts because it was now financing the rebuilding of the organisation. Now, however, it was able to meet its printing costs easily and its future was assured and safe.) And we began to rebuild the organisation. The Ul during those years was a trailblazer, a radical, progressive relevant paper to progressive republicans, small farmers, fishermen and radical trade unionists and those involved in the struggle for civil rights.

There was a new, young, radical and energetic type of person joining the movement. Generous with their time and their money, as in the best tradition of earlier movements. We, the four organisers, of course, though promised a weekly wage of £10 got it for the first few weeks and then it ceased and we were thrown back onto our own resources and the tradition of living off our supporters throughout one's area. And those supporters never failed us.

However, all was soon to change.

When the pogrom of August 1969 and the events which followed changed everything, in the movement and outside, the same national question became the excuse for some in Fianna Fail to provide financial - and more direct - support for those who departed the movement to follow the Provisional line.

For THE UNITED IRISHMAN, now more than ever, it was necessary to avoid the traps of sectarianism; and so from 1969 - as indeed it did previously - month after month THE UNITED IRISHMAN warned of the risks of civil war in which working class people would be set to fight each other while attention was diverted from the exploitative activities of their bosses, North and South.

I became managing editor of THE UNITED IRISHMAN in January 1970 - more manager than editor since Seamus O'Tuathail was editor and probably was the best editor of the UI ever - at the end of the week in which the 'walk-out' from the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis occurred, the Provisionals were founded and the movement split irrevocably. There was a note of personal regret as I took over from Eamonn Mac Thomais (who had left to join the Provisionals) who shook hands with me as he handed over the books and said: "This is a tragedy". Unfortunately, not all who left felt like that.

The paid sales/circulation of the Ul in December '69 was 30,000, a huge increase in a few short years. It still had a serious debt but it was going down gradually.

So now, in January 1970, I am managing editor of the UI, along with my other assignments. (I always seemed to get the 'nice' jobs at a crucial time! But more about that at some future time). ...

Within a week of the split, however, in January 1970, that 30,000 circulation was dramatically reduce by half because of all those who left to join the Provisionals cancelled their orders. Now the Ul was back to 15,000 sales per month.

Also in the early 1970s, as Fianna Fail and the Provisionals, the Irish Press group and RTE, launched a succession of political propaganda and assaults on the movement it became more and more difficult to sell the paper or to remain an active member of the now 'Official' Republican Movement.

Internment in 1971 was simply the most notable example of repression in the North. Day in and day out over the years, those who supplied and many who read THE UNITED IRISHMAN were hounded and harassed by the RUC and the British Army.

The harassment continued even when, in line with the changes begun in the mid 'sixties, we moved towards the logical conclusion of our political development. But despite all that, the UI circulation began to recover and by 1973, within a 3 year period, circulation had risen to almost 90,000 countrywide, mainly in the south. All debts had been cleared and the Ul was supporting the organisation in many ways.

Despite massive harassment and an unremitting barrage of vicious and jeering propaganda from many quarters, the UI and the movement remained steadfast: Our aim remained the achievement of a united socialist republic, but it was now to be achieved only through a 'combination of peaceful, democratic political action and physical force totally subordinate to the political programme'.

Alas, however, there were some at leadership level who felt that the UI, in its title and content, had no appeal to working class Protestants/Unionists, or to trade unionists generally, and that its publication should be discontinued and that, instead, a new magazine-style monthly paper entitled Workers Life be published. This new style magazine would, it was claimed, have a favourable impact upon working class Protestants/Unionists and indeed trade union activists in the south as well. A very laudable aim, but it never really got off the ground. Despite the huge expenditure of money and other resources, WORKERS LIFE never was popular with its target audience (indeed, most members of the movement didn't buy it and regarded it as to elitist); and it was kept alive way beyond its natural life span at great cost to the movement. But that's another question for another day - as indeed is the fate of the WP itself.

THE UNITED IRISHMAN - and the proof is there for anyone who cares to look back over past editions - remained true to the great tradition espoused and represented in its masthead, and handed down from Wolfe Tone and those other great Irish republicans who were its inspiration.

I am proud to have played some small part in promoting it and what it stood for. And glad to have met some great and truly committed men and women in the course of the struggle, some of whom died for that great cause. We should never forget them, as we remember the past and prepare for the future.

The 200th anniversary commemorative edition of the United Irishman was produced by a small group of Belfast people who had been positively influenced by the old United Irishman in the 1969s and 1970s. They are supporters of the Good Friday Agreement, and aspire to representation in the new Assemble with the 'others' (ie those who refuse to accept tribal labelling) as part of a 'broad left'. Other contributors to the special issue included Mikhail Gorbachev who gave an internationalist view of the Agreement, Theresa Moriarty on the women's role (Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Ann McCracken etc), Colm Breathnach, Seamus O Tuathail, Roy Garland, Danny Morrison and others, including various comment papers from the agreement-supporting parties. It was a creditable bridge-building exercise and it is to be hoped that its influence will be seen to have been positive and significant. It is on record in the Linen Hall Library I understand, and so available to historians. RJ August 2001.

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Copyright Dr Roy Johnston 1999