At the Sign of the Peacock
Newspapers in Belfast
In a growing city the influence of a newspaper can far outweigh its readership and Belfast has been the centre of much activity in this regard.
It was Francis Joy who brought out the first issue of The Belfast Newsletter ‘at the sign of the Peacock’ on September 1 1737, printed twice weekly at one penny an issue. The News Letter, as it is now known, is the oldest continuous newspaper still printed in the British Isles. This extraordinary achievement has been due to the ability of the paper to adapt its nature and ethos in the light of the prevailing political attitudes of the time.
The 18th century News Letter was tinged with radical politics, reporting earth-shattering events such as the American and French Revolutions, of 1777 and 1789 respectively, in a favourable light. Henry Joy, editor at the time and grandson of founder Francis, was broadly sympathetic to the aims of the Volunteer movement, and indeed was a member of the Belfast Volunteers. His uncle was Henry Joy McCracken, General of the Antrim Forces of the United Irishman in the failed uprising of 1798.
At the start of the 1790s the News Letter was the only newspaper in Belfast, having seen off both the Belfast Courant and The Belfast Mercury. In 1791, however, members of the United Irishmen opened the Northern Star, a radical newspaper that was tremendously successful in creating a subscription base from as far afield as Dublin, Edinburgh and London.
With government suppression of the United Irishmen from 1794, the Northern Star’s days were numbered. Henry Joy at the News Letter, however, had a choice. He had sympathies towards the ideal of the United Irishmen but felt that open revolt was against the interests of his major constituencies.
Selling the News Letter to Robert Allen of Edinburgh for £1,650 in 1795 solved this dilemma. The new owners attempted to survive in an increasingly difficult political atmosphere, but eventually were forced to accept a government subsidy, at around the same time as the Northern Star was suppressed and shut down.
The 19th century saw a greater number of newspapers being published, but many of these were short-lived affairs. Exceptions included The Belfast Commercial Chronicle, which lasted from 1805 to 1855, and the Northern Whig, which launched in 1824 and became one of the ‘Big Four’ in Belfast until its demise in 1964.
The Belfast Morning News began life in 1855 representing nationalist and Catholic opinion. Perhaps its most famous writer was Robert A Wilson, a champion of worker’s rights whose pen name was Barney McGlone. In 1890, however, the Morning News ran into controversy for denouncing Charles Stewart Parnell following the O’Shea divorce case. Despite the sacking of the editor, Belfast’s Catholic hierarchy began to organise a paper that would reflect their view of the Parnell split.
Led by Edward Hughes of Hughes Bakery the new paper – the Irish News – got off to a flying start, with the Morning News being widely boycotted for supporting the disgraced Parnell. The Irish News swallowed up its rival in 1891 and, still in print today, remains the main voice of nationalist opinion, although it has recently faced competition from a new paper, Daily Ireland.
Belfast’s current leading newspaper The Belfast Telegraph was begun by two brothers George and William Baird. A printer by trade, George Baird was recuperating from a long illness in Rostrevor when his interest in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 inspired him to write:
‘If the war should take any time, there will be a great interest taken at all hours of the day for news. If a halfpenny paper were issued as near to three in the afternoon as possible, it should command a good sale. I would call it the Belfast Evening Telegraph.’
Unfortunately for the Baird brothers somebody else had thought of this idea, with the Evening Press announcing itself through adverts in the city. The Bairds made the monumental effort of putting together a four-page newspaper, complete with news, editorial and advertising departments in the space of four days.
This feat ensured that they stole a march on the nascent Evening Press and began a century of publishing. The Telegraph also started the Ulster Saturday Night, which in turn began the long reign of Ireland’s Saturday Night (the name changed because the paper became popular in Dublin). This was Belfast’s only ‘Pink’ paper, reporting sporting events immediately after the result was known.
The beginning of the 20th century saw the ‘Big Four’ – the Irish News, The Belfast Telegraph, News Letter and The Northern Whig – jockeying for position. They were rarely threatened by any upstarts, although a Sunday newspaper The Sunday News was launched in 1965.
This was in turn challenged by The Sunday Life and The Sunday World in the 1980s, as the domination of the daily newspapers discouraged any potential competitors. Indeed, the newspaper market at the end of the century was much the same as at the start of the century.
Community newspapers, however, were able to find a market within the city’s populace, with newspapers such as The Andersontown News launching in the 1970s to represent the views of the republican community in west Belfast, who had become alienated from the more establishment Irish News. Recent additions include the East Belfast Observer and The Community Telegraph. These papers continue to give a more localised coverage to news and events than the city-wide papers are able to offer.