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Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

Cocking A Snook

John McCourt

Thomas Fitzpatrick and The Lepracaun Cartoon Monthly 1905-1915, by James Curry and Ciarán Wallace, Four Courts Press, 208 pp, €17.95, ISBN: 978-1907002175

The reprinting of a large number of cartoons from The Lepracaun Cartoon Monthly in book is indeed a timely event. For ten years, from 1905 to 1915, the monthly was Dublin’s leading satirical publication, poking pointed fun at politicians, clerics and at the country’s economic and social elite. The magazine was founded and edited by Cork-born Thomas Fitzpatrick (1860-1912) and he also was its chief cartoonist. The one hundred and seventy cartoons reprinted in this volume provide a rich sample of what made this publication such a popular and enduring institution in the decade leading up to 1916. The Lepracaun Cartoon Monthly clearly captured the flavour and atmosphere of its times and much of its spirit is transmitted in this selection, which divides the cartoons into five (somewhat arbitrary) sections (Society, City Politics, National Politics, Women and Labour). These are preceded by a rather fastidious and self-important foreword by Jim FitzPatrick (Thomas’s grandson), a useful biography of Thomas by James Curry, and a vivid description of the monthly publication by Ciarán Wallace. These two essays hover somewhat uncomfortably between the popular and the academic without fully satisfying the demands of either.

Further annoyance was caused to this reader at least by the layout and composition of the book itself, which is just too small to render justice to the cartoons. It is well-nigh impossible, without a magnifying glass, to read the small print in the cartoons or to appreciate the fine line-drawings done with such skill by Fitzpatrick and his collaborators. A bigger format, surely, was needed, both to do justice to the artwork and to render the small print legible. So often, with cartoons, the devil is in the detail, and here the visual and textual detail is just too small to be fully or immediately effective. To be fair, each cartoon is accompanied by a short but useful commentary by Curry and Wallace which does much both to contextualise the visual and to identify the primary target of its satirical dart. 

These reservations aside, there is much to appreciate here in this publication. Part of the fascination of The Cartoon Monthly derives from the time of its publication – the ten years between 1905 and 1915. Its readership was broadly middle class, urban, Catholic and nationalist: we can imagine it in the homes of both Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus (and it would also have given Molly Bloom the odd laugh), but it might also have been read by Gabriel Conroy and, indeed, Miss Molly Ivors (even if she would have disapproved of its negative stance with regard to the campaign for votes for women). It was certainly read by James Joyce himself, who, as Wallace notes, “worried that a poem in The Lepracaun signed ‘Joyce’ might be mistakenly attributed to him. Writing from Rome in 1906 he mentioned receiving copies of the cartoon monthly and that other new publication Sinn Fein.” A further sign of how Joyce probably enjoyed the topicality and the cautiously pro-Sinn Féin stance of the publication can be attested to by the fact that he took the trouble to post it to Stanislaus up in Trieste in this period (and this, despite the fact that Fitzpatrick had, at least in part, made his name through his work for the anti-Parnellite papers).

The political figure who seems to have most exercised Fitzpatrick was Parnell’s successor, John Redmond, a figure who continues to divide today and whose Home Rule legacy is still very much contested after it was so roughly rendered irrelevant  by the events of 1916. Redmond reunited the Irish Parliamentary Party in Parnell’s wake and engaged in a prolonged and ultimately successful campaign to achieve Home Rule, becoming the country’s dominant politic figure in the years of the Lepracaun. He is the subject of numerous cartoons which see his standing vacillate as the possibilities for Home Rule rise and fall and rise again, even if Fitzpatrick and his team were clearly in favour of the emerging Sinn Féin movement. When Redmond’s fortunes are high (for example following the passage of the Parliament Act of 1911, which finally broke the House of Lords’ veto and thus cleared a major obstacle blocking Irish Home Rule) he is seen in the driving seat of a powerful modern motor car bringing an imperious female Ireland, complete with shamrock crown to her inevitable sovereign destination despite the baying of Ulster Unionist leaders, depicted as dogs with human heads (Carson, Bonar Law, Lord Londonderry). Elsewhere the Ulster Unionists are depicted as immature, baying, sulking, and spoilt children but of course they were to prove far more able opponents of Home Rule than this Nationalist Dublin publication realised.

The use of the motor car in this 1912 cartoon is not an isolated one. In an earlier cartoon (1907), Sinn Féin is seen speeding away in a motor car while John Redmond is seen as the jarvey on an old-fashioned Irish side-car over the caption “Thing of the past”. The car, as a somewhat threatening example of modern technology, appears elsewhere but there is a real sense, especially looking at the broad array of social affairs cartoons, of plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Thus the urban and urbane cartoonist takes issue with the domineering Catholic Church led by Cardinal Logue and Archbishop Walsh over the university question; a big brewery – Guinness, seen as a modern “Bung Frankenstein” ‑ is vilified (rightly) for bullying its smaller rivals out of the market by imposing a monopoly; the legal profession is ticked off for putting on the poor mouth (we see a poor solicitor who has killed his client – the goose with the golden eggs – by overcharging him); the Vintners’ association is pilloried for opposing Sunday closing and St Patrick’s Day closing; Dublin Corporation is exposed for a huge overspend on the establishment of a city-wide electricity network. Interestingly, the social unrest caused by the strikes from 1911 to 1913, and especially the 1913 Lockout are also prominent. The Lepracaun cartoonists show little enthusiasm for Larkin but, like most decent Dubliners, were scandalised by the heavy-handed police reaction. The cartoon entitled “The Real Strikers” by “Spex” – John Fergus O’Hea ‑ is particularly effective in this regard.

This new publication of these rather old, rare, and difficult to find cartoons is a most useful addition to our knowledge of the early years of twentieth century Ireland. Collectively, they provide a lively shorthand visual account of the main social, economic, and political issues on the minds of the denizens of what one cartoon  ironically calls “Dear Dirty Dublin”.

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