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Irish war correspondents in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries

by Ciarán McCabe


In 1927 the Irish war correspondent Francis McCullagh (1874-1956) was described as follows:


‘Trotsky of Russia knows Francis McCullagh. So does President Calles of Mexico. Peter, the king of Serbia, was McCullagh’s friend. The headhunters of the upper Amazon list Francis McCullagh as one of their principal deities. The warring tribes of Morocco call him blood brother. A room is always ready for him in the imperial palace of Siam. The latchstrings of hundreds of Siberian peasant huts are out in anticipation of his coming.’


The writer of the above description, quoted in John Horgan’s 2009 article on McCullagh, certainly deployed verbal embroidery in recording the international influence of the Irish correspondent. Hyperbole aside, the description captures the reality that McCullagh, the son of an Omagh publican and who wrote for (among many titles) the New York Herald, the Daily News, the Irish Independent and the Japan Times, was by the early-twentieth century, a war correspondent of significant standing throughout the world. Fluent in (or certainly in possession of a good grasp of) numerous languages, McCullagh negotiated his way into the front-line of battle and into the presence of world leaders. In 1905 his reporting of Japan’s sinking of the Russian fleet was a world exclusive. In the following six years McCullagh reported on the Young Turks’ revolt in Turkey, the revolution in Portugal and the Italian invasion of Libya. He returned to Russia in 1918, in the months following the Bolshevik Revolution and participated in the White Russian inquiry into the execution of the Romanovs. Later assignments included the Mexican revolt of the 1920s and the Spanish Civil War the following decade. As Horgan notes McCullagh’s reporting has its shortcomings, most notably its unashamedly partisan stances in its witness accounts of significant world events. The instance of McCullagh points to the prominence of Irish war correspondents from the mid-nineteenth century.

Philip Knightley rightly commences his First Casualty, still the best general history of war reporting, with the Dubliner, William Howard Russell, whose reporting of the Crimean War of the mid-1850s is seen as laying the foundations of modern war reporting. Russell, whose reporting of woeful military tactics and insufficient supply and medical services in the British army, contributed to the fall of the government in 1855 under the pressure of disillusioned British public opinion. The same war saw the rise of the Wicklow-born journalist, Edwin Lawrence Godkin (1831-1902), who reported from the Crimea for the New York Times and Daily News (London). Later moving to the United States of America, where he founded and edited a number of titles, Godkin campaigned against slavery during the Civil War and the corruption of Tammany Hall-era local government in New York.

William Howard Russell 001

Pic: Sir William Howard Russell

            Other Irish war correspondents included James David Bourchier (1850-1920), who reported from the Balkans in the 1880s for the London Times; Emile Joseph Dillon (1854-1933), the Daily Telegraph’s Moscow correspondent from the 1880s until 1903; George Lynch (b. 1868), who covered the Boer War for the Illustrated London News, as well as reporting on the Spanish-American War, the Boxer Rebellion, the Russo-Japanese War, and the 1905 Russian Revolution; Stephen McKenna, who headed the New York World’s Paris office in the 1920s; and David McGowan, Russian correspondent around 1905-6.

While war reporting was, and remains, a largely gendered profession, with men dominating its ranks, a number of women reporters have made significant contributions to the development of this trade, such as Martha Gellhorn (Spanish Civil War) and more recently the Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin, who died in a rocket attack in Syria in 2012. However, the pioneering female war reporter was Kathleen Blake Coleman (née Ferguson) (b. c. 1864), a Galway-born woman who moved to Canada in her early-20s and reported on the Spanish-American War in the late-1890s, becoming the first accredited female war correspondent.


Pic: Galway-born Kathleen Blake Coleman

            The prominence of Irish men and women among international war correspondents in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries is striking, yet demands explanation. John Horgan suggests that while no single factor can explain this prominence, ‘it is possible that the nature of journalism, as a career path for which university education was not a necessary qualification, may be part of the explanation’. In his short analysis of Russell, Godkin and Lynch, Daniel Mulhall sees these men as being subsumed into a wider Victorian world: ‘their worlds were those of Fleet Street and the great international crises of the second half of the nineteenth century, in which Irish affairs…were invariably a sideshow’.


Further reading

James Horan, “The great war correspondent’: Francis McCullagh, 1874-1956’ in Irish Historical Studies, 36:144 (Nov. 2009).

Daniel Mulhall, ‘Men at war: nineteenth-century Irish war correspondents from the Crimea to China’ in History Ireland, 15:2 (Mar-Apr 2007).

Philip Knightley, The first casualty: the war correspondent as hero, propagandist and myth maker (1975; rev. ed. 1999; rev. ed. 2003).


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