Publication of the Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Freeman’s Journal was the first independent Irish newspaper to survive for more than a few issues. During its first forty years, it evolved from a journal consisting mainly of contributed editorials to a newspaper that strove to present a comprehensive, accurate picture of Irish news. Noteworthy among its offerings were the letters collectively known as Baratariana and its effective support of the Union Act.

Summary of Event

The Freeman’s Journal commenced publication in Dublin, Ireland, on September 10, 1763. The periodical’s founders were three Dublin commercial men, John Grant, William Braddell, and Edward Tandy. Their primary motive was profit. Also involved in the production of the paper was Charles Lucas, a writer and reforming politician who had recently returned to Ireland after a decade in exile and represented Dublin in the Irish House of Commons. Lucas’s influence with the paper helped set its initial reformist tone. Although Dublin already supported several newspapers, they were either mouthpieces for a small aristocratic elite or primarily vehicles for advertisements. [kw]Publication of the Freeman’s Journal (Sept. 10, 1763) [kw]Freeman’s Journal, Publication of the (Sept. 10, 1763) Newspapers;Ireland Freeman’s Journal (newspaper) [g]Ireland;Sept. 10, 1763: Publication of the Freeman’s Journal[1720] [c]Communications;Sept. 10, 1763: Publication of the Freeman’s Journal[1720] [c]Government and politics;Sept. 10, 1763: Publication of the Freeman’s Journal[1720] Lucas, Charles Brooke, Henry Higgins, Francis

The Freeman’s Journal appeared biweekly, each issue costing a penny. Circulation in 1794 (when the paper changed hands) ranged from two to three thousand, comparing favorably with London’s dailies. The paper’s first editor was Henry Brooke, an Irish playwright. Under Brooke’s editorship, with the aid of Lucas’s pen, the paper became the chief outlet for liberal opinion on the leading nationalist controversies of the day—free trade and the independence and integrity of the Irish parliament. Parliament;Irish

These contemporary issues were interrelated. Under a 1494 statute known as Poyning’s Law, the Irish parliament was completely subservient to the British parliament, Parliament;British which had the right to approve or reject any law passed in Ireland. Consequently, any efforts by the Irish parliament to reform trade and tax laws ran aground in England, and the cry of “no taxation without representation” rang as true in Dublin as it did in Philadelphia. English patronage further compromised the independence of both houses of Ireland’s Parliament. By 1790, fewer than one-quarter of the seats in the House of Commons were occupied by elected members, and a high proportion of the peers were English absentees.

The paper’s editorial stance reflected the concerns of the Dublin commercial community, which in 1763 was entirely Protestant. Under the editorship of Brooke, whose fictional writings had a strong anti-Catholic slant, the otherwise liberal Freeman’s Journal opposed concessions to Catholics and treated Catholics contemptuously in its coverage of news relating to them. Irish nationalism of the 1760’s and 1770’s had a decidedly Protestant slant.

The early issues of the Freeman’s Journal consisted mainly of letters to a nonexistent Committee for the Support of a Free Press. These covered a wide range of topics but rarely focused on current events. For some months the columns of the paper were dominated by the putative medicinal benefits of Turkish baths, which were thinly veiled advertisements for a particular Dublin entrepreneur. This lack of distinction between news items and paid advertisements was characteristic of eighteenth century newspapers, including the London Times.

In 1770-1771, the Freeman’s Journal published a series of satirical letters from “a native of Barataria,” which were later reprinted as Baratariana: A Select Collection of Fugitive Political Pieces, Published During the Administration of Lord Townshend in Ireland (1772). The principal author of these letters was Henry Flood; Charles Lucas and Henry Grattan also contributed. Utilizing bitter invective, the “native of Barataria” attacked Sir Charles Townshend, the incoming viceroy, for his determination to replace a system of local control by a few powerful British-Irish aristocratic families with more direct government by the Crown-appointed viceroy and his cabinet. In content and style, the letters resemble the more famous “Letters of Junius” attacking George III that were published in London in the Public Advertiser from 1769 to 1772.

The Freeman’s Journal played a prominent part in Irish agitation for repeal of Poyning’s Law and for general parliamentary reform. The former goal was achieved in 1782, when Irish nationalists were able to use their support of the British crown during the American Revolution as a lever to win concessions from the English parliament. Much of the ostensible shift toward conservatism in the Freeman’s Journal’s politics after 1782 resulted from a split among the nationalists, many of whom felt the “revolution of 1782” was as much reform as the country could handle.

The newly independent Irish parliament proved to be a surprisingly responsible steward of Irish affairs, despite its corruption and exclusively Protestant makeup. One of its first acts was to remove the economic disabilities on Roman Catholics, which encouraged émigrés who had prospered abroad to return to their homeland. In 1793, Catholics were granted the right to vote, to practice law, and to hold commissions in the Irish militia. By the mid-1790’s, Dublin had a substantial Roman Catholic commercial and professional community, and this community, for the most part, was firmly loyal to a Tory-dominated Parliament, the English viceroy, and a cabinet controlled by Englishmen.

The Freeman’s Journal also covered the American Revolution in considerable detail, publishing long excerpts from the American press. Initially, commentary was favorable, but as the Revolutionary War progressed, sympathy for the colonists waned. This period coincided with the growing influence of Francis Higgins, who joined the staff around 1778 and became editor in 1782. It is uncertain to what extent distancing Irish nationalism from the avowed separatism and antiroyalist sentiments of the Americans represented genuine conviction and to what extent it was based in prudent self-interest. Higgins’s distaste for the anti-Catholic bias of the Continental Congress, however, was probably sincere.

Francis Higgins became a controversial figure in Irish history. A man of humble origins and a convert from Catholicism, he earned the nickname “The Sham Squire” by assuming the guise of a landowner in order to court an heiress. Under his editorship, the Freeman’s Journal started publishing more news and less philosophy. Paid government announcements became a significant source of revenue for the paper, which began to attack the former contributor Grattan, as well as others who maintained that the reforms of 1782 did not go far enough. During the Fitzwilliam episode of 1795—when William Pitt the Younger appointed the radical Whig the second earl Fitzwilliam as viceroy and recalled him abruptly after a few months—the Freeman’s Journal remained aloof from the general recriminations against Fitzwilliam and enthusiastically supported his successor, Sir John Jeffreys, second earl of Camden.

Higgins’s role in the 1798 Irish Rebellion and its aftermath is murky. He has been accused of being a spy and an informer. Certainly, under Higgins, the Freeman’s Journal was hostile toward anything connected with the United Irishmen, and it allotted a prominent position to coverage of rebel atrocities while glossing over the excesses of the government’s forces. It is unlikely that such a well-known establishment supporter would have been privy to treasonous activity; on the other hand, Higgins may have served as an intermediary for informers.

In the wake of the rebellion, Pitt’s ministry in London and the First Marquess Cornwallis’s administration in Ireland initiated an effort to dissolve the Irish parliament and to merge it with that of England. The Freeman’s Journal lent its unqualified support to this measure and was prominent in convincing the Catholic Committees, which lacked representation in the Irish parliament but wielded considerable economic clout, to support union as well. The measure succeeded, in no small part because of Pitt’s willingness to pay a large number of Irish members of Parliament to relinquish their seats, and the Act of Union became law on January 1, 1801.

Significance

The Freeman’s Journal continued publication until 1926. Throughout its long history, it remained the effective mouthpiece of the Dublin commercial community. Its seeming swings between separatist nationalism and collaboration with the central government in London make sense in the light of the shifting interests of the paper’s middle-class readership. The Freeman’s Journal is therefore an invaluable resource for the historian of Irish society and politics. Reading it, one encounters a reflection of one substantial segment of public opinion in Ireland, rather than an attempt by a faction to convert the public to a stance that did not necessarily have many supporters. The paper did not so much shape history as correctly identify the shape that history subsequently took.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Killen, John, ed. The Decade of the United Irishmen: Contemporary Accounts. Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1997. Includes news stories from the Freeman’s Journal published from 1791 to 1801.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">

    The London Times, Microfilm Edition, 1786-1801. The Times copied most of its Irish news from the Freeman’s Journal, which it regarded as the most reliable of the Irish newspapers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McDowell, Robert Brendan. Ireland in the Age of Imperialism and Revolution, 1760-1801. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1979. A clear, well-balanced account of Irish politics in the latter part of the eighteenth century; the role of the Freeman’s Journal is discussed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Madden, Richard Robert. The History of Irish Periodical Literature from the End of the Seventeenth to the Middle of the Nineteenth Century. New York: Johnson Reprint, 1968. Contains a wealth of information but is highly biased in favor of violent separatism and is hostile to the point of libel toward the Freeman’s Journal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mathew, H. C. G., and Brian Harrison, eds. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: From the Earliest Times to the Year 2000. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. This multivolume set includes detailed biographies of Lucas, Higgins, and Brooke. It is an invaluable source for biographies of obscure British historical personages.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Munter, Robert. The History of the Irish Newspaper, 1685-1760. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1967. Gives a good overview of the background, and of Charles Lucas’ relationship with the press; includes some information on post-1760 events.

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Irish Rebellion

Act of Union Forms the United Kingdom

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