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Sparks from the Comet

Maurice Earls writes: The first number of The Comet newspaper was issued on Sunday May 1st, 1831 from offices at No 10 D’Olier Street. It prefigured the famous Nation newspaper, which was also published on D’Olier Street some ten years later. Indeed it shared a number of contributors, as well as a general political outlook, with that renowned journal.

The Comet was one of the most popular Dublin newspapers of the 1830s, very probably the most popular. In 1832, that is within one year of its launch, the circulation of The Comet reached 4,250. The readership would have been a considerable multiple of this figure. There was a strong second-hand market for newspapers, especially popular ones, in Dublin at that time. I believe that individual issues of a popular weekly paper like The Comet would often have had at least four owners. Papers were also hired out, particularly by the less wealthy in society, and in addition to that, in the poorer quarters of the city, popular journals were often read aloud to significant gatherings of people. The editors believed their newspaper had the potential to achieve a circulation of 10,000 and in time 20,000 copies. That projection seems to me quite plausible. However, it did not prove possible to test this proposition as the paper ceased publication in April 1832 following legal action by the authorities which saw both the editor and the proprietor gaoled for a libel against the established church.

Before looking at The Comet itself, it might be useful to briefly remind ourselves of the political atmosphere of the time. The major political issue in Dublin in the era prior to the arrival of The Comet was Catholic Emancipation. The city was divided into two warring camps over the question, which was eventually settled in favour of emancipation in 1829.

But that settlement did not mean that political peace followed. The fierce passions of the 1820s did not simply melt away. It was an intensely political time and Dublin was an intensely political city. There was therefore in the early 1830s a need, felt across the political spectrum, to find and define the issues on which the fundamental dispute in Ireland would focus following the settlement the emancipation question, which it should be recalled followed an external directive from Westminster rather than resulting from any collapse of indigenous Irish conservatism.

The conservative impulse in Ireland remained in rude good health and conservative Ireland sprang back from 1829 to assert its interests. Though having suffered a setback there was a deep conservative awareness that there was still much to defend in terms of privilege and advantage and that the struggle to dominate in the Irish polity was by no means over.

Similarly, the side led by O’Connell, which had fought for emancipation and which was comprised of Protestant liberals in addition to the broader Catholic movement, had to determine how it would take its politics forward. It took a little time for the battle lines to be drawn, lines which would prevail until 1922 and beyond.

On both sides, there was an eager younger generation which had missed out on the emancipation struggle, or at least had been too young for leadership roles. These now rushed into the fray. On the conservative side a group of young men associated with Trinity College established The Dublin University Magazine, whose offices were here on D’Olier Street and which was probably the most intellectually sparkling production of conservative Ireland throughout the nineteenth century.

The Comet was a comparably brilliant newspaper produced by a group of Catholic and Protestant young men of liberal if not radical views. It is this journal which I will speak about this evening.

The Comet was a weekly Sunday newspaper priced at sixpence. – two pence of that was tax. The group which produced it were known as the Political Tract Society and later the Comet Club. Initially they published a pamphlet excoriating the established church called The Parson’s Horn-Book. It was a great success, and its reception encouraged those involved to set up a weekly newspaper.

The Horn-Book offered a powerful and caustic satire on the temporalities of the established church and an unrelenting attack on the inequity of tithes. The Comet followed in the same vein, declaring in its prospectus that the paper would ensure the public mind was “kept agitated as to the necessity” of the established church “selling its vast revenues for the benefit of the nation”. This foundational position was extended to include a powerful advocacy of radical reform of the municipal and parliamentary franchise, introduction of a poor law into Ireland, repeal of the Corn Laws and repeal of the legislative union of 1800. This latter issue, in time, came to predominate in the politics of The Comet and became the big issue replacing emancipation.

The Comet was more radical than the main popular movement led by O’Connell. It was deeply sympathetic to the plight of the peasantry and to that of the urban working classes, and indeed to oppressed peoples in other countries, notably Poland. There was no dutiful reporting of O’Connell’s speeches. The Comet said it agreed with “the Liberator’s political principles as far as far as they go”. One of the contributors, John Cornelius O’Callaghan, declared that the Comet Club was independent, that they “wear the green but not the Merrion Square livery”, that they are “perfectly independent and disinterested supporters of O’Connel”. When O’Connell was suspected of preparing to pull back on repeal and perhaps take office, The Comet warned that repeal would not go away.

In addition to its explicit political content, like most newspapers The Comet contained a good deal of verbatim reports from parliament, the courts, election meetings and such like. However, unlike most newspapers, and again prefiguring The Nation, it carried a good deal of verse and poetry some of which was “national” in character and more again in the vein of classic eighteenth century satire which was the stylistic hallmark of The Horn-Book.

Enjoying a good circulation, the paper was well-supported by advertisers. Numerous adverts were carried for auctions, furniture, property, musical festivals, life assurance, educational services, wines, spirits, veterinary products, teas, books, theatres and the like; in short not all that different from today. One difference was in the area of medicines, which today is more regulated area in that advertisers are no longer allowed to make extravagant claims. The Poor Irishman’s Friend, advertised in The Comet and sold at 28 College Green was offered as a cure for

external eruptions, scorbustic complaints, wounds, bruises, cuts; sore scabby and scald hands; ring worms, nodes on the shin bones, pimples on the face, ulcerated sore legs, burns chilblains, breaking out on the mouth, nose etc, cancerous humours, sore breasts, venereal ulcers, sore and chapped lips, hands etc, shingles, piles, fistula, inflammations and contusions.

The public was warned in grave tones against imitations being passed off as the genuine article, as if the advertisers, who were clearly taking advantage of sick and presumably desperate people, could themselves be tricked by purveyors of counterfeit brands.

In another example of spurious medical claims Dr Smith, author of a treatise on female complaints and manufacturer of his eponymous tonic pills for the treatment of infertility, published in the advertising columns of The Comet a testimonial from a satisfied customer, the wife of a tenant farmer, which read

Dear sir, gratitude to you and a desire to be of service to those of my own sex, who may be similarly situated compel me to use violence to my natural delicacy in communicating the following ‑ at the age of seventeen I married and nine months after I had a miscarriage in consequence of a fright being then in my seventh month, soon after my health began to decline, my appetite became bad, my constitution irregular and all hopes of a family vanished. Thirteen years I continued in this state. Though having the advice of some eminent physicians, I derived very little benefit, and but temporary relief. At length the clergyman of the parish (an exemplary old gentleman) first brought me your treatise on female complaints and recommended a trial of your tonic pills which he said were of great service to several of his acquaintance in Dublin.

As we might expect, there was a happy outcome to the consumption of Dr Smith’s tonic pills ... restoration of appetite, general health and motherhood all followed.  Like the manufacturers of the Poor Irishman’s Friend, Dr Smith was worried by imitations of his pills being passed off as the genuine article and solemnly warned the public against them.

These exploitative advertisements for medicines were not to everyone’s liking, and well before legislative restrictions came into force many newspapers refused to carry them. When Thomas Davis, Charles Gavin Duffy and John Blake Dillon were setting up The Nation, they agreed they would not carry medical puffs.

Muscular personal attacks were the hallmark of the Horn-Book and also featured in The Comet, whose writers were unaffected by certain proprieties observed in today’s press. Thus in a piece entitled “Queer Lodgings” a political opponent, accused of deserting the Repeal cause, was attacked:

A few days ago, our corpulent acquaintance Sir E Noogint was in Fatty Kearnan’s shop at the corner of temple lane reprobating with accents of thunder and eyeballs of fire to Counsellor Paddy Maddy Pratty, his once favourite measure of raypale, he inadvertently sat down on a chair, where happened to be laid, ready pasted, a paper the inmate of the shop was preparing to place in the shop window. At the worthy alderman’s departure the effect produced on the fashionable loungers on college Green, as he hustled his huge dimensions along may be better imagined than described when they read legibly printed stuck upon his nether habiliments ‘lodgings to let inquire within’.

The issue of women’s rights featured occasionally in the pages of The Comet. I will give two examples, one of which is more politically substantial than the other. A letterwriter complained of young Irish women being, as we would call it today, trafficked out of the country and sent to Van Diemen’s land. So far so good, but the writer’s attitude ultimately endorses the understanding of women as chattels rather than undermining or attacking the concept. He complains that thirty of “the most beautiful of the opposite sex of our country” have been purchased “to people the colony”. In a cri de coeur he asks:

Why should we submit to see the beautiful daughters of Erin pilfered from her sons. I saw them parade yesterday for the inspection of Major Woodward, and a more delightful sight my eyes never beheld ‑ they looked more like angels than earthly beings. There was one particularly struck me; she was an entire pocket venus ... she had eyes that would pick a lock, teeth that would cut marble and feet and legs like an antelope.

This letter was something of a filler. When the issue was addressed editorially the attitude was more enlightened. In 1832 a single tax-paying English woman managed to get a petition brought to parliament arguing that justice required that tax-paying women such as her should have the right to sit on juries. The debate was full of mirth as the honourable members joked that men would so much enjoy being locked down with women in a jury that verdicts would be delayed for months.(Order! Order!) The Comet took a clear stand favouring the petition and pointing out that the paper was “ever ready to stand up for that adorable sex to whom our best (editorial) energies have unceasingly been devoted, we hail with sincere pleasure one of the most glorious shadows of coming events, namely the parliamentary recognition of the “rights of women”. Apart from that Craggy Island adjective “adorable” we can recognise the beginning of a politics which continues into the twenty-first century.

I mentioned earlier that the conservative interest and the popular interest were engaged in a fierce political struggle to determine which force would shape and control Ireland in the nineteenth century and beyond. One of the issues which arose during the emancipation campaign was that of proselytism, which we will not dwell on here other than to say that it can be read as the last great campaign of conservative Ireland to control – on the basis of its own resources ‑ the political future of the country. The Comet did not mince its words on the subject. Speaking of aristocratic benevolence toward the poor it comments:

Under all their hypocritical schemes of benevolence for the poor, the lurking serpent of proselytism has been coiled up and cherished for a fitting opportunity ... to dart forth its fangs upon its prey. Every effort that has been made by these societies has been made with a view of rendering the lower classes subservient to the upper, or dependent on their bounty ... Such societies would sooner chop off the right hand of its members as teach the people how to render themselves independent of their task masters, the aristocrats of the land.

Those writing for The Comet were under no illusions regarding the nature of the political struggle under way; in their efforts to bring the struggle to conservative doors they proposed economic boycott, arguing that Catholics and liberal Protestants have no dealings with oppressors of the people. It called on the men of Carlow and Wexford to copy the behaviour of the men of Meath “who will not cut a blade of corn for the Orangemen of that county”. “What,” it asked “is it to the poor whether there be corn in the country or not, for they never taste a bit of bread. Almost all the corn and cattle of the country are exported to England, to pay rackrents to a set of the most inhuman demons in human shape that ever cursed the earth.”

Over time the main political focus of The Comet became repeal and legislative autonomy for Ireland. There were two currents to this advocacy within Irish nationalism in nineteenth century Ireland and beyond: the romantic nationalist and what might be termed the rationalist nationalist. Both are represented in The Comet. First I will give an example of the romantic nationalist from the pen of James Clarence Mangan and published on July 17th, 1831 under the heading “Anniversary of the Battle of Aughrim”. (The change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in 1752 meant the Battle of Aughrim was shifted from its original date of July 12th and that the Battle of the Boyne was shifted from its original date of July 22nd to July 12th)

On the 12th of July the joy bells of the various ... tabernacles of bribery in this city were rung as usual in honour of their country’s degradation by those black vampires of profitable discord, the parsons who in order that they might gorge in security on the vitals of our industrious and starving poor have uniformly supported foreign supremacy and national debasement in every shape however mortifying and despotic. In saying this we are sure the members of The Comet Club will not be suspected of entertaining any wretched sectarian partiality for that unfortunate priest ridden bigot James II ... We speak merely as Irishmen who regret and who would bury in oblivion the defeat of our ancestors by Englishmen, Scotchmen and Dutchmen as much as we regret and would wish to bury in oblivion their overthrow by the natives of France Spain or any other country ... Orangemen of Ireland how then can you have remained so long the blind dupes of pampered hypocrisy. How can you be persuaded that it is not as great an injustice to force anyone to support a clergyman in whose doctrine he does not believe ... as it would be for a Roman Catholic Priest to take tithe from you by the bayonet, the cannon and the musket! … Orangemen of Ireland you have been too long instructed to hate your Catholic brethren and fellow countrymen by a set of anointed swindlers in order that they might at our mutual expense put superfine black coats on their broad backs, roll in splendid equipages, feast on dainties and shoot the poor of every religious denomination who refuse to support the pagan luxury in which they wallow ...  Orangemen of Ireland ... To  England and the parsons alone, have our divisions been a source of gain, to them alone has our ridiculous animosity been mint of emolument; they have eaten the oyster and handed us the shells.

We could spend all evening discussing this remarkable piece of writing, which is one of the first if not the first articulation of a post-Enlightenment modern romantic nationalism, implicitly republican and secular, anti colonial, anti-Jabobite and international. Mangan was one of the first to embrace the political language of Romanticism. A decade later he would write “Dark Rosaleen”. Much of his writing was done in taverns and it is known that he did some in this very room.

But Romantic nationalism was not the only language in which repeal was advocated. There was the equally influential classic rationalist enlightenment style as reflected in the following, published in April 1832, which argues in favour of a sort of customs union with Britain.

Let it not be said that we are advocates for “separation” or of a violent struggle to achieve “repeal”. The former we are sincerely opposed to, for the sake of Ireland, and for her sake only. If we saw that the connection with England, instead of being serviceable to the interests of Ireland, was pregnant with ruin to her condition, that moment we would proclaim to our countrymen the necessity of plucking “the emerald gem of the western world” from “the crown of the stranger”. It is no especial love for Britain that hinders us from being separationists – neither is it any dread of a fight or its consequences. Our opposition to a separation of the two countries springs from a very different source – self-interest; and we unhesitatingly declare it. England is the best mart for the overflowing produce of our fertile soil and we in turn are the best consumers of the produce of the British loom.

The author seeks repeal by peaceful means arguing that “Blood ought not to be spilt while any other course remains ... it is only in the last extremity that Irishmen should stride over corses and upon this mound climb into the ‘Temple of Liberty’

This is a somewhat confused piece of writing and does not have the range or depth of Mangan’s piece. Nevertheless, it represents a language in which many envisioned Irish autonomy throughout the nineteenth century. In my view these two styles are more indicative of fundamental divisions within nationalism than the usually cited one of the utility and morality or otherwise of physical force.

15/10/2017

This is the text of a talk given by Maurice Earls in Books Upstairs on Culture Night, September 22nd, 2017.