- Daniel O’Connell, the British Press and the Irish Famine: Killing Remarks
Leslie Williams's study is not intended to be a history of the terrible famine that ravaged the Irish countryside in the 1840s and early 1850s, but, rather, an "inquiry into the nature of the discourse on the Irish Famine as it appeared in the press." In examining press coverage of the event over the course of the 1840s, Williams reveals how this language exercised an "Orientalism" where Irishmen and women became the Other for Britons. By the time readers of British newspapers came to realize the awful truth of the Famine, their responses had already been conditioned by a discursive process first used to demonize Daniel O'Connell and his repeal campaign during the early 1840s. Consequently, the image of the ungrateful, occasionally violent, and hopelessly backward Irish peasant had become a central part of the national imagination. Williams asserts that most of these discussions about Ireland revolved around what it meant to be British—and never truly engaged the situation in the island to the west.
These attempts to fix notions of Ireland and Britain, she shows, emerged as the British press itself was undergoing some fundamental changes. Over the 1840s, the Illustrated London News, the Economist, and Punch—as well as such provincial papers as the Manchester Guardian—began to challenge the Times as distinctive organs of, and for, public opinion. These new papers, in turn, created an increasingly competitive marketplace: Daniel O'Connell and Ireland could, quite simply, sell newspapers. These market forces had important consequences in influencing what was included in the paper and how it was presented. Moreover, the editors knew their readers. In the midst of the Famine, many of them hesitated to present the full force of the suffering for fear of driving away their comfortable, middle-class readers.
In "The Commissioner," Williams reveals how politics, personal prejudices, and commercial interests at the Times combined to establish an image of a regressive and dirty Irish Catholic peasantry that would have profound consequences on how Britons understand the Famine. After the Devon Commission issued a somewhat sympathetic report on the Irish landholders in February, 1845, John Delane, editor of the Times, appointed his own "Commissioner" in the person of Thomas Campbell Foster to provide a true portrait of the Irish countryside. With promises of delivering an impartial and reasoned analysis of the situation, Williams argues that Foster was to be the very epitome of the dispassionate Victorian observer. The very title of "Commissioner" was meant to convey a sense of authority and legitimacy to the newspapers' stories. Initial [End Page 147] reports demonstrated some sympathy for the insecure Irish tenantry, who enjoyed neither fixed rents, nor even secure tenure. Yet Foster quickly ran into an editorial policy inimical to most things Irish; the series that began with the premise that the Irish Catholic landholders could not be considered blameless soon became an extended exposé of all the defects in the Irish national character. Exotic and archaic, stories about sleeping with animals in the house, peasants who ate seaweed with potatoes, and lurid Roman Catholic rituals were sure to fascinate British middle-class readers, as well as to affirm their cultural and national superiority.
Williams's experience as an art historian informs her analysis of the many illustrations that accompany this book. She examines some of the caricaturists' clear attempts to discredit Daniel O'Connell by dressing him as a woman, but she also provides some valuable insights into the subtexts that also inform the cartoons and drawings. The words in an article are, of course, only part of its impact; the layout on a page can change the impression of the article in myriad ways. Williams shows that when the Times placed a story about one of O'Connell's monster meetings in June, 1843, next to an item about troop movements in Ireland in the next column, readers were invited to supply any number of conclusions...