In Search of the Creator of Irish Journalism

Anne Staunton
Ann Staunton. Mansion House. Permission with author.

Next up in our postgraduate bursary winner blog series is Abigail Rieley (Sussex) on her BAIS funded visit to archives in Dublin.

Thanks to the BAIS bursary I headed off to Dublin this July to research the life and work of newspaper editor Michael Staunton (1788 – 1870). Staunton was the founder of the Morning Register, the first Catholic daily paper. Thanks to the research of Brian Inglis in the 1940s, and his seminal book The Freedom of the Press in Ireland, 1784 – 1841 (Faber, 1954), it’s known that Staunton was dubbed the ‘Creator of the Irish Press’ by his peers. It’s known that he trained the three founders of The Nation newspaper – Thomas Davis, John Blake Dillon and Charles Gavan Duffy. Staunton often clashed with Daniel O’Connell over press freedom and anyone who studies 19th century Irish newspapers knows his name.

Once you try to pin down Michael Staunton, however, he retreats into the shadows. He is always name-checked but never researched in his own right, as his protégées and The Nation have a tendency to hog the limelight. The purpose of my trip to Dublin then, was to find the Creator of Irish journalism.

Staunton does not have his own archive. Despite the fact he was the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Chairman of the Board of Guardians in the North Dublin Workhouse, a prominent newspaper editor and active member of the Catholic Association, he has always ended up as a footnote rather than leading man. Part of this may be to do with the fact that he does not appear to have been interested in taking to the national stage. Michael Staunton was a native of Clare but cared deeply about his adopted city of Dublin. When he left journalism seems to be interested in playing his civic duty rather than sitting in Westminster.

My trip to Dublin was for almost three weeks. Before I left I’d identified as much of the material on Staunton as I could online in the various different archives. I knew there were letters from him in the O’Connell archive at UCD, some in the National Library of Ireland and in the Dublin City Archives in Pearse Street, Dublin there was the archive of Richard Robert Madden who had written the main 19th century history of the Irish press. His notes for a third volume of this extensive work were part of his archive. Any archive trip is something of a fishing exercise but researching Staunton was going to be like piecing together a piece of Roman pottery. The one thing that I was confident of finding somewhere was an illuminated address presented to Staunton by his peers when he became Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1847. According to Brian Inglis it was kept in the City Hall after being donated to the City of Dublin by the Staunton family, something confirmed by Staunton’s great, great grandson who I’d tracked down to Australia.

Labor Omnia Vincit.jpg
The Staunton Family Crest. Permission with author.

My first stop was the O’Connell archive out in UCD’s Belfield campus. I’ve always enjoyed visiting UCD in the past and, in the heat of this July, the temperature control of the Special Collections building was very welcome indeed. I’d already checked the published O’Connell letters but was delighted to discover that many of the Staunton letters had been heavily edited. While what Staunton wrote might not have been of interest to someone focused on the career of Daniel O’Connell, for my field of study which concerns the evolution of 19th Century Irish journalism, Staunton’s complaints about advertising revenue and the heavy burden of stamp duty on a daily paper were worth their weight in gold. Most exciting for me as a former journalist, were the letters Staunton wrote to O’Connell as a journalist to a source. Staunton did a great deal of work on the peculiarities of the Irish Excise system (he eventually became the collector general of metropolitan rates – something that may well have come his way in part to stop his meticulous financial journalism) and would ask O’Connell to get him certain information. What excited me about these letters was the insight into Staunton’s methodology. It’s rare to find evidence of how 19th century journalists actually constructed their stories unless they wrote about methodology in diaries or memoirs. Even in those cases, they don’t tend to disclose the actual questions they were pursuing or the minutiae of how they constructed their case. Staunton’s letters answer both questions.

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Statute of William Smith O’Brien. Permission with author.

The most tantalising find in the O’Connell archive was a fragment of an anecdote, possibly written by O’Connell himself, possibly for some informal speech, which described Staunton’s escape from the police when a warrant was put out for his arrest in 1831 after the Morning Register published letters by Daniel O’Connell. The fragment describes Staunton putting up his collar, pulling down his hat brim and walking with a limp so that the local bobby on his street would not recognise him. Sadly the bulk of anecdote has not been catalogued so all that remains is that cloak and dagger image.

This fragment is a little emblematic of Staunton himself. Tantalising glimpses do not quite provide a complete picture. I visited the pictures of Staunton and his wife Ann that now hang in the Mansion House in Dublin (the picture of Ann Staunton is the only picture of the Lady Mayoress from the 19th Century) but little detail about either of their backgrounds has survived. My search for the illuminated address also sadly hit a brick wall. According to Brian Inglis the address was printed on satin and much decorated. It must have been quite something to behold. It had travelled safely from Australia in the 1940s and had been seen by Brian Inglis when he was researching his doctoral thesis that same decade. However, it had not moved across the city of Dublin to the mayoral collection’s new home at the Dublin City Archive. Such is the way of archive research but I can’t help but be sad this particular piece of the puzzle had been lost.

All in all it was a very fruitful trip. My research on Michael Staunton has given me a new journalistic hero and I’m looking forward to telling his story in my thesis and hopefully elsewhere. I was so grateful for the doctoral bursary to enable me to do this research. Michael Staunton should be remembered for the important figure he was rather than simply a footnote in history.

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