The overnight disappearance of the British-based Irish Post from the ranks of our newspapers may not rank as highly in news terms as the disappearance of others. The sudden collapse of The Sunday Tribune and the self-immolation of the News of the World were far more spectacular and registered far more highly. In human terms they were the cause of far more job losses.
Yet the loss of the Irish Post is not simply another signpost in the changing world of newsprint and electronic media or the tale of an organisation judged cold-heartedly to be no longer a going concern. The loss of the Irish Post on the 19th August says as much about the Irish community in Britain that established it as it does about anything else.
Until Thursday 19August the Irish Post was published weekly for forty-one years. Founded in 1970 by the Clare-born journalist BreandÃ¡n Mac Lua it was the first paper to give voice to a growing and burgeoning Irish community and it is this community that gives the fate of The Irish Post that special twist.
Inside Ireland there has been, at times, little recognition of this community and apart from second-generation Republic of Ireland footballers little acceptance of its complexity and legitimacy. The Irish Post was in itself a riposte to that. It was also far more.
The year of it’s founding, 1970, was, of course, around the dawn of the modern Troubles, a conflict that soured relationships between Ireland and Britain for decades to come. Throughout all of that time, the time of IRA bombing campaigns in major British cities, the Irish Post remained visible when the community often could not. The paper was there during the days of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four and did not succumb to the safety of silence in its support for those wrongly imprisoned. It was there for a community that was seen as suspect, a community that was associated with the IRA in the popular British mind, in the way that the Muslim community is now associated with Al-Qaeda. It was, in the best traditions of newspapers, a campaigning one.
Yet, the main narrative coming from the Post’s disappearance is not even primarily the loss of a paper that once had a certain nature. It is not, in fact, even about the paper itself. The collapse of the Irish Post might well be about falling circulation figures and advertising revenue, it might well be about hard headed and cold hearted business decisions, but the real story, the story behind the headline, is the story of the Irish in Britain.
John McGahern once wrote that there was a “whole generation of Irish people who had been forced into England to earn their bread. Those people forced into England through no fault of their own were often looked down on, most unjustly looked down upon, by some whose only good was that they managed to remain at home”. The naked statistics behind McGahern’s majestically bare prose are that between 1941 and 1961 over 400,000 Irish people left the country. Two thirds of those went to Britain. In 1971, a year after the foundation of the Irish Post, the Irish-born population of Britain was 700,000. And that is the story behind the Irish Post.
From London through Birmingham to Manchester and Glasgow and many other places between and besides the Irish Post was a staple of Irish homes, perhaps bought on a Sunday after mass, left around the house for a week. For that sometime derided and often, by Ireland, ignored community the paper was a signal of existence.
Sadly though, in 2011, those people who founded the paper and bought it, those 1950s emigrants, those whom Bob Geldof called the true Irish ‘lions’ that the Celtic Tiger had further obliterated, are declining. They are older and they are sometimes gone. The long-established Irish communities of Britain are changing and altering. Those who gave birth to the paper are not around anymore. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the Irish Post it could be said that they might have gone even more silently than in truth they have. The Irish state might have been able to ignore them completely. There is some synchronicity, it has to be said, in the demise of this paper as a generation that disappeared once before begins to disappear again.
Still, reports of a death have sometimes proved to be premature. In 1996 the British Medical Journal estimated that there were about two million second-generation Irish people in Britain, people with both or one Irish-born parent and that is not even taking into account the third-generation, whose identity would be particularly strong in places like Scotland or even the newer influx of Irish now coming once more to Britain.
In recent years the paper had been talking to these generations more and more and in a Britain that supports The Voice and Asian Eye, amongst myriad other immigrant publications, it would seem odd if one of the oldest and largest immigrant communities had no proper media voice. As Jennie McShannon of the Federation of Irish societies recently said, for the Irish community in Britain the Irish Post was more than a business, it was an institution and a paper that had intergenerational loyalty.
Like John McGahern, John Banville remembered the 1950s emigrants and wrote that he recalled them going to “the building sites of places with cruel sounding names: Hackney, Wolverhampton, Liverpool. Many years later, at the very end of the 1960s when I was living in London, I would see them again, these same men, grown older and harder but still awkward, still lost, playing mournful two-man games of hurling in Hyde Park on summer Sunday mornings.”
The Irish Post would have been their paper and whilst hopes for any future for it lie with others, the story behind the paper is what it always has been. The story of the 1950s community that founded it.