Between the deaths of Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins 100 years ago this month, also died a Dubliner whose influence on the world, for good or ill, was probably far greater than theirs combined.
He was born in 1865 as Alfred Harmsworth, but became better known as Lord Northcliffe, by which title he was the most successful newspaper editor of his time, or perhaps of any how long since.
A measure of his influence in 1914, in the opinion of a rival headline, was that “beside the Kaiser, [he] did more than any living man to bring about war”.
On the positive side, he also played an important role in shifting British public opinion towards some form of self-government for Ireland.
While Griffith had described him as an “evil genius” and “the Cromwell of journalism”, the Connacht Telegraph was able to say of Northcliffe posthumously: “Towards Ireland he was – in recent years, at any rate – a devoted friend.”
Harmsworth spent only the first two years of his life in Dublin. The fact that these were in Chapelizod, in a house called Sunnybank, won him mentions in both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, for whose author this suburb was of inordinate importance.
In Ulysses, where Leopold Bloom visits “the great organ” of Freeman’s Journal, Joyce asks one of his characters to pay the newspaper magnate a backhanded compliment: “Ignatius Gallaher whom we all know and his patron Chapelizod, Harmsworth of the farthing press. ”
In the Wake, set in an underworld of Chapelizod, it refers to the house: “by this river on our own sunny bank”.
Before becoming a lawyer, Harmsworth’s father was headmaster of the Royal Hibernian Military School, now St Mary’s Hospital, Phoenix Park.
But he and his family had long since left for London in Joyce’s day, and it was there that young Harmsworth honed his talent as a journalist who never overestimated popular taste.
Via the Daily Mail, from 1896, he created a newspaper that set world records for circulation. Price was part of the call, although Joyce’s reference to a “farthing” sold him short, 50%.
In fact, the Mail presented itself as a “penny paper” sold for a “halfpenny”. But selling it did, in large numbers.
The then British Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, thought it was “written by office boys for office boys”. And Harmsworth’s eternal youth was a trait noted even by his close friends.
One of them summed it up like this: “Boyish [in] the limited scope of his intellect, which rarely concerns itself with anything other than the immediate, the obvious, the popular. of boy [in] his irresponsibility, his reluctance to take himself or his publications seriously; his belief that anything that benefits them is justifiable, and that it is not for him to consider the effect of their content…”
Of this effect, historian Piers Brendon was damning: “…by confusing odds and ends with pearls, by selecting the paltry over the significant, by confirming atavistic prejudices, by oversimplifying the complex, by dramatizing the train -train, by presenting stories as entertainment and blurring the difference between news and sight, Northcliffe titillated, if not debauched, the public mind; he has polluted, if not poisoned, the wells of knowledge.
Despite everything, the vast success of the Mail enabled him in 1908 to also take over the Times of London. And despite promising then that there would be “no change” in its political direction, the newspaper quickly moved away from the vocal opposition to Irish Home Rule that had been at the heart of its politics for years. Parnell.
He had maintained emotional ties with his hometown, even going so far as to buy the old family home. But in reaction to his death, that newspaper’s London Letter wrote:
“Lord Northcliffe […] convinced himself – for economic reasons, I think, rather than sentimental ones, that Ireland would not prosper until it had control of our own local affairs. Very soon the [London] The times began to reflect his views, and since the war he had strongly supported the cause of Irish self-government.
For some of the same reasons he had become a vocal critic of British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who in 1919 accused him of “ill vanity”.
By 1921, however, illnesses of a different kind were destroying Northcliffe’s health, both mental and physical. A world tour did not have the recuperative effect he had hoped for and he was back in London when he died of a heart infection, aged 57, on August 14, 1922.
In a twist that Arthur Griffith might not have liked, the two men’s obituaries were published side by side in some of this week’s newspapers.