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When the presses ran green

Patricia McCracken small

From founding fathers to renegades, with roguish charmers and reprobates in between, South Africa’s early Irish editors were nearly as varied as the Emerald Isle’s legendary ‘40 shades of green’. Patricia McCracken highlights some of the most colourful in a story originally published in The Media magazine.

If you meet the recently appointed ambassador of Ireland, Brendan McMahon, you’d be amazed to find that, while he will entertain discussion on Celtic issues, the key to his heart is in Middleburg in Mpumalanga.

Its attraction for someone like McMahon – who took a degree in modern history and politics at University College Dublin – is that an Irishman edited the Middelburg Courant for six months from July 1897. This Irish editor was Arthur Griffith, who went on to found both the United Irishman back in Ireland in 1899 and Sinn Féin in 1905, then became first president of the Irish Free State in 1920 and led the nationalist treaty negotiations after the civil war.

In Middelburg, Griffith coped with running short of type and paper – but took issue with the Courant’s policy of pleasing everyone, particularly the English. He told his proprietor:

Its policy must be one which would please myself by arguing that… God Almighty had not made the earth for the sole use of the Anglo-Saxon race… I eventually managed to kill the paper, as the British withdrew their support, and the Dutchmen didn’t bother reading a journal printed in English – the Dutch were quite right – and all was peace again in that world-forgotten dorp.

Though police in two hemispheres watched Griffith’s movements in and out of Ireland and South Africa at least, it’s not clear how his politics were reflected in the Middelburg Courant. Copies went AWOL more than a couple of decades ago from the National Library in Pretoria.

The fighting Irish

Very outspoken in the press and even better-known to the police was Irish newspaper renegade Alfred Aylward, a Fenian and police informer shipped out of Dublin in 1868 for his safety. He first worked on a Cape newspaper, then served 18 months’ hard labour after shooting and wounding a man. Next in Kimberley, he chaired the diggers committee and, by October 1874, was editor of the Diamond Field, with a brief to oppose the pro-government Diamond News, edited by R.W. Murray Snr. The two reputedly drank together in the evenings, dreaming up ways to abuse each other in their leading articles the next day – driving up reader interest and circulations.

Within six months, a fervent Aylward article supporting the diggers and attacking the government was cited as proof he was a ringleader in the Black Flag rebellion on the diamond fields. Clearly, the proprietors leaned on and Aylward, employed for his history of anti-government agitation, was dismissed and charged with sedition and conspiracy.

Aylward was eventually cleared and re-employed on the Independent by William Ling, who’d signed his dismissal from the Diamond Field.

The Irish editor as jailer

In September 1876, the proprietor was forced to sell and Aylward joined the Transvaal Republic’s Lydenburg Volunteers, bringing him into opposition with another Irish editor, W.J. Phelan of the Gold Fields Mercury in Pilgrim’s Rest. He was pro-English and anti-Boer, but also prone to repeatedly attacking in print the Transvaal Republic’s gold commissioner, John Scoble – once so venomously that he was jailed for 14 days.

After Scoble ignored a petition from 150 of Phelan’s loyal digger readers to release their editor, they marched on the jail singing ‘Marching through Georgia’, broke down the door and carried him out. The law-abiding Phelan asked to go back, but the diggers explained they’d simply rescue him again – and burn down the jail. Aylward unusually turned peacemaker, sent by the Lydenburg landdrost with a cannon and a company of volunteers to resolve the issue. Phelan happily became his prisoner on bail.

After Aylward published his surprisingly restrained book The Transvaal of Today in 1879, he became editor of the Natal Witness. Given that he openly called Pietermaritzburg a “sleepy hollow” and told it to “wake up”, it was a strange appointment.

Aylward was a controversial editor readers loved to hate, and his flamboyance made him popular with staff. He made a commercial success of the paper, changing it from triweekly to daily in January 1881, and capitalising on the outbreak of the first Anglo-Boer War in December 1880. But Aylward had been inciting the Transvaal Boers to rise against British annexation, and war made him turn the Natal Witness into the colony’s only pro-Boer paper. Durban’s Natal Mercury revelled in reporting rumoured threats of tarring and feathering and – later when he was believed to be advising Boer leaders – lynching.

One day, Aylward never returned from his early morning ride, and turned up at Majuba, the climactic battle of the first Anglo-Boer War. He acted both as a British war correspondent and Boer press attaché. Later, he claimed to have put the brains back in Dublin-born General George Colley’s skull. He decamped to America, and was rumoured to have been killed by a bear. More prosaically, he died in a wagon crash.

At the heart of the battle

Later, a senior Irish reporter was central to the outbreak of the second Anglo-Boer War. As the issue of granting foreign miners (uitlanders) full political rights raged, editors were opportunistically fired and newspapers bought or even founded so proprietors could have their say. Perhaps inevitably, M. Bellasyse, Reuter’s South African chief agent and a champion of objectivity, was accused of bias by both sides.

It was a Bellasyse telegram that Jameson used as a pretext for his raid. London’s Daily Mail repeatedly attacked Reuters for ‘trading with the enemy’. As an apparent sop, Reuters sent out a jingoistic correspondent to work under Bellasyse. By November 1899, market pressure from subscribing editors and readers for patriotic fervour saw Bellasyse fired.

The war brought foreign journalists flocking, but already at its heart was William Flavelle Monypenny, who’d been the 27-year-old assistant editor of the London Times when he was invited in 1899 to take over The Star by Lord Milner. Outspoken against the Boer government, Monypenny sparred in print with the likes of Danie Theron, later a hero in the second Anglo-Boer War. When another editor was charged with high treason, Monypenny’s provocative article meant he had to flee ahead of the dreaded Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek Politie. He hid in the Ferreira mine with H.C. Hull, a future cabinet minister. After a week, they escaped disguised as prospectors, with newly grown beards.

Monypenny was the first of the Ladysmith press corps to take the train to the Dundee front line, and so landed the scoop of the war’s first battle at Elandslaagte, writing rousing reports of British victories and a tear-jerking description of General William Penn Symons’ fatal injuries. Monypenny was commissioned into the Imperial Light Horse in Ladysmith, alongside so many journalists it was nicknamed the Imperial Light Herald.

When The Star reappeared in 1902, Monypenny returned as editor – but resigned in 1903 after a conflict with his proprietors because he opposed the controversial import of Chinese labour. He returned to London overland on foot via Khartoum, and could amaze all by producing the gold cigarette case that was his leaving gift from his colleagues from The Star.

The caustic saint

The real Irish founding father, though, is Frederick York St Leger, whose Cape Times still shares a morning java with readers in the Mother City. St Leger was more of a buccaneer than his in-house nickname of ‘the old saint’ suggested. He excelled at Cambridge and arrived as an adventuring missionary and teacher with his family to the Free State, enlisting as a soldier in the first Free State-Sotho war before turning to diamond buying.

When his trading skills couldn’t support his wife and six (later seven) children, he started contributing reports to the local press and, in 1873, became editor of the Diamond Field. St Leger lasted a year and resigned after a row with the proprietors – succeeded, ironically, by Irish loose cannon, Aylward.

St Leger had the foresight to copyright the title Cape Times, and though he took until late 1875 to reach Cape Town, he launched it on 27 March 1876 with the son of his former opposition editor, R.W. Murray Jnr. The small-format four-pager was shrewdly priced at a penny and was immediately successful. Within months, the paper became standard format.

Crusaders and grafters

St Leger became renowned as a perceptive political and economic commentator, said to guide the trend of colonial policy, while his long-running feuds with Cape politicians were balanced by his independence and impartiality. Competing with him was another Irishman, Thomas McCombie, who edited and owned Cape Town’s The Lantern from 1881. McCombie was “an erratic writer and no businessman”. Later he founded the Transvaal Truth, which failed. He drowned at Salt River.

There were rarely inaccuracies in St Leger’s incisive, quickly written copy, and he insisted on high standards from staff. If he found inaccuracies in the paper, he sent “a brief note of reproof, spiced with faint sarcasm” to the newsroom. He retired in 1895, but continued in control of his paper’s editorial management.

Possessed more of a roguish twinkle than any recalcitrance or renegade qualities, Barry Ronan came from his “dear, dirty Dublin” with 50 Gatling guns “to liven things up a bit” in 1881. But peace had been declared and after trying theatre, he became a junior reporter on the Cape Argus. Ronan’s fairly typical journalistic career started with scissors-and-paste from the news exchanges, sports and political reporting. Once he covered an Afrikaner Bond congress not understanding any Dutch, by enlisting two Hollander delegates to take notes for him – and toured the district with the local farmers’ daughters.

For a while he edited the Umtata Herald, splashing the exploits of a gunrunner called Golding. He went undercover as a prospector for a scoop on Swazi leader Mbandzeni’s dealings in mining concessions. Ronan enjoyed a good exposé, and his articles on the Boer treatment of Sekhukhune’s tribe resulted in Africans appearing at the Pretoria High Court for the first time under Kruger’s government.

Irish journalists and editors like Ronan were more often than not larger than life and ensured good copy in an age when, as Aylward said of Pietermaritzburg, there was “mud in the streets and mud in the press”.