Interview with Chris Morash

Professor Chris Morash is the Head of the Department of English, Media and Theatre Studies in NUI Maynooth. His most recent book, A History of the Media in Ireland, published by Cambridge University Press, traces the history of forms of communication in Ireland over the past four centuries: the vigorous newspaper and pamphlet culture of the eighteenth century, the spread of popular literacy in the nineteenth century, and the impact of the telegraph, telephone, phonograph, cinema and radio, which arrived in Ireland just as the Irish Free State came into being. Morash picks out specific events for detailed analysis, such as the first radio broadcast, during the 1916 Rising, or the Live Aid concert in 1985. His other works are: A History of Irish Theatre 1601-2000, Writing The Irish Famine, and Creativity and Its Contexts.


On 23 February 2010, Politico interviewed Professor Chris Morash, Head of the Department of English, Media and Theatre Studies in NUI Maynooth. Professor Morash is also the author of A History of the Media in Ireland, recently published by Cambridge University Press. I began by asking him about the role of early media as a tool of the governing elite. Today one could argue that the new media offers a democratisation of control. I asked Professor Morash when this shift took place or if, indeed, there was always a fluctuation of control between the governing and the governed?

I think there’s probably no easy answer to that Shane. When you look at very early media in Ireland, when you look at the seventeenth century, or earlier indeed, you’re looking at a very very limited media sphere, you know, that up until about 1640 the number of items that were printed is very very small so it was possible to control it and I think one of the things that that suggests to us is that scale of media has an impact on how controllable it is because where I really think you start to get a shift in the way in which the media functions in Ireland in terms of the relationship between the governing and the governed, to put it in those terms, is in the eighteenth century and particularly after the Copyright Act of 1709 is not ratified by the Irish Parliament and therefore doesn’t apply to Ireland. 

So in Ireland in the eighteenth century you have a situation where Ireland becomes a kind of pirates paradise, you can publish things but you don’t have to pay copyright so as a result there is an absolute eruption of printworks – people publishing. Publishing things sometimes to sell back to England but it produces print and the thing is once the printworks are there they’ll be used and it’s at that point that you get, I wouldn’t say it’s proletarianising of print culture because you don’t have anything like universal literacy, but you certainly get print being used in very contentious ways. So within the very limited, relatively limited, public sphere of the eighteenth century there is a highly contentious use of print. 

So I suppose if I was going to date it I would say 1709.

You begin the book by saying that you want to bridge the gap between the unconnected Ireland of the sixteenth century to Ireland today in the twenty first century as, you quote it as ‘the most globalised country in the world’. Is this not an oxymoron – Ireland as the most globalised country in the world?! This is a country where the broadband system radically needs modernising.

That claim was in the Journal of Foreign Affairs. That was a claim from the early part of the twenty first century from, I forget the actual dates now, 2003, 2004, in the Journal of Foreign Affairs and they used a number of indicators. They were quite clear as to what those indicators were and one of them was external connectivity, in other words, the amount people connected with the world outside of their national territory if you like. And that involved everything from telephone calls to internet usage and so on.

So yes I think we’re in an anomalous situation in Ireland in that, you know, compared to other countries our broadband is deficient. I mean all you have to do is live in anywhere that qualifies as rural Ireland to realise that, that it’s pretty bad, in some places. At the same time we use it quite extensively and I think there are various historical reasons for that.

But one of the things I was trying to do in the book was to get around the idea that Ireland is insular and has always been insular and that what has happened in the last decade, say, is somehow anomalous and disconnected from the history that went before whereas in fact you could point to moments in the, say, 1890s, you could point to moments in the 1790s where an awareness of what was happening outside of Ireland was very very acute so that there is more continuity there than we would like to think, or that we would perhaps ordinarily think.

You note that by 1500 Italy had 72 printing presses while Ireland had none. Why was Ireland late to this? And later it flourished. Why did the opposite happen?

It’s always slightly dubious from a historical point of view to ask why something didn’t happen. However, there has been speculation on this. It’s certainly not the case that books were unfamiliar. We know that from the libraries of various Gaelic noblemen of the period: they had books, they had manuscripts, but they also had printed books. 

So there was an awareness of books. Ray Gillespie in Maynooth has done great work on the book trade in Ireland. So there was a book trade in Ireland in the early part of the sixteenth century in, you know, the 1500s, 1540s.

Could people read these books?

Oh yeah, well, some could. Again, there’s a tendency to think of books as being English language books. There were books in Latin, there were books in a variety of other languages that were being imported and there was a secret trade of books aswell. There was a surreptitious trade, particularly in Catholic books. So there were books coming in to the country and people reading the books.

Why there wasn’t a print culture? I think there were a number of reasons. One could be that the aristocracy who might have sponsored that were heavily invested already in a form of culture that combined manuscript with a certain amount of oral tradition and that the people who were the keepers of those traditions were quite powerful figures. That’s one speculation, that’s not even my speculation, that’s, you know, others have argued that.

I think the other argument is that print in its earliest phase tends to be an urban phenomena and Ireland wasn’t predominantly, or by any stretch really, an urban culture at that point. So if you look at where print starts, it starts in the cities, you know. It’s in Venice, it’s in Strasbourg, it’s in that whole belt of cities that you can trace up through the spine of Europe. It’s not in rural places.

And yet printing flourished here in Ireland. Is that solely attributable to the copyright problems?

It seems to be yeah. The first time you really get a sense of print, kind of, coming into its own, is in the 1640s. During the, whatever you want to call it, the English Civil War, the War of the Five Kingdoms, that period between 1640 and 1660, say, when suddenly news takes on a sense, a sense of urgency. That what happened yesterday becomes important.

Once that happens you start to get pamphlets, you start to get the first newspapers, you start to get a sense of print as something that responds to the present and that’s a new thing that comes into Irish culture. But it really doesn’t take off and achieve any serious critical mass until after that 1709 Act.

The project of An Foras Feasa in the seventeenth century is fascinating. Would it be fair to say that this is the beginning of the intertwining of art and nationalist politics that would later become so prevalent in the 1890s...

I think it’s always difficult to talk about nationalism in some ways prior to the 1790s. I mean the real, if you like, the formulation of what becomes nationalism in an Irish context is really a product of the 1790s. You get what is called ‘patriot nationalism’ in the 1740s so to stretch that back earlier again to the earlier part of the seventeenth century I think is probably a step too far. 

There certainly is a sense in which what Keating was doing in the early part of the seventeenth century is useful later on in the formulation of the idea of a national state. But I don’t think it’s the case that you can talk about it as nationalist in the sense that you would use that word today.

You say that new technologies made the Famine of 1845 a media event. The events, you write, “etched themselves on a public consciousness”. The Nation was an important newspaper during this and doing this. Why then was it not until 1848 that it was considered sedititious by the British government and then shut down?

Two questions there. I suppose first of all the Famine is interesting because it happens at more or less precisely the moment that the media world changes in a revolutionary way in that it happens in the same decade as the telegraph and the telegraph starts to be used for news for instance Reuters news agency comes into existence in 1851. News is being sent by telegraph roughly the decade before that. I think it was 1844 that Morse invents Morse Code. 

So the Famine takes place at exactly the moment that it becomes possible to instantaneously transmit a piece of information from one part of the world to another and what that does is detaches information from the human carrier of information. In other words, before that news could only travel as fast as a person or a person on a horse or a person on a train could travel. Suddenly it can travel as fast as an electron and that completely transforms the shape of the news world. So something that’s happening in, you know, say, Louisburgh, Mayo or Donegal or Kerry or Skibbereen, is instantly accessible in London, you know, particularly once telegraph offices get built, which they do.

So the Famine in the 1840s can be reported in a way that wasn’t possible in the Famine of 1817 for instance or the Famine of 1741 so it becomes a different kind of media event and you get people like Thomas Carlyle writing about the other phenomena that happens in this period of the 1840 is steam travel, and particularly steam ships. And there’s a passage in one of Carlyle’s writings where he comes to Ireland in 1847 and he’s absolutely flabbergasted that what he sees, this almost medieval image of people starving in fields is only a day’s journey and it’s the speed of travel and the speed of information transfer, changes, changes the way in which information travels.

With The Nation, the specific question on The Nation, there probably was a will to shut it down. There was certainly a desire to shut it down before that. It was really when there was the attempted rebellion of 1848 made it possible to do that.

The first successful trans-Atlantic telegraph line, we’ve just been talking about them, was laid in 1866 with Ireland at its centre. You write that now Mallow was a suburb of New York! Did this telegraph really change Ireland? Did Ireland become less peripheral because of the telegraph? Just because the news was global it didn’t necessarily make Ireland...

No, I mean, on one hand Ireland was if you like a telegraph hub simply by matter of geographical convenience as was Newfoundland on the other end. Did that actually have a physical material affect on the Irish economy for instance probably not. But what you do find is people in Ireland starting to think about themselves differently. They start to think about themselves, particularly in relation to the United States, differently. And I think it’s also probably not coincidental that the Fenian movement of exactly that period, you think of the Fenian Rising in the United States, Fenian activities around 1866, ’67, happen exactly the same time as the telegraph because the Fenian movement organises itself internationally. They were organised in Ireland, they were organised in the States, they were organised in England. And it’s only possible, I would say, to really organise in that international way once you have simultaneous global communications or international communications.

So the Fenian movement certainly would not have had the shape it had had it not been for the telegraph. And one of the things I looked at in the book is slightly later: the incident of the famous Parnell letters, the letters that Parnell ‘wrote’, that were forged, well, seems to be forged, there is now, that question is being reopened again, that, were what was at stake was a letter, a manuscript letter, and tracing through correspondence on that, particularly from Irish-Americans, this is at a slightly later date, this is 1884, what’s fascinating is, how the material existence of that letter absolutely throws things into chaos because information could be sent from Dublin to London, from London to New York, from Dublin to New York, from Dublin to Nebraska, instantly.

But a visual image, what we now call a graphic, of a letter, can’t be sent instantaneously. So you find Irish-Americans scrambling to keep up with the story because they can’t get the actual letter. So the Irish-American press is commenting on something they haven’t seen and they won’t see until the ship makes it across the Atlantic and it’s like this rupture of an earlier informational order into one that had very very quickly become used to trans-Atlantic information flows.

You say that the phonograph seemed like precisely the technology Ireland had been waiting for since the 16th century. How did it effect and disrupt or change Gaelic culture?

I think probably the simple answer is not very much but what is interesting is that it should have, by logic, in that going right back to the sixteenth century and you mentioned this earlier, Ireland had a, in the initial years of print, had a very adversarial relationship with print, many Irish people did, that print initially was introduced as an instrument of state, it was introduced as a form of proselytising.

Now it certainly was indigenised in the eighteenth century but it was still very much something that was imported and one of the things that I speculate on, I mean this is not something you can prove, is that the fantasy we have of Ireland as a primarily oral culture possibly goes back to the way in which print was introduced to Irish culture, that print was brought in as a kind of foreign importation and that, particularly with the Irish language it’s not really until the 1890s that you start to get Irish books published in any quantity.

So the sense that ‘Irish’, the Irish language, was the, if you like, authentic form of Irish being and that that existed outside of print, created this equation where ‘real’ Irishness was somehow an oral culture. So once you get a medium like the phonograph that comes along that is an oral medium, the argument is there well maybe this is what we’ve been waiting for for the last 300 years.

What is interesting is that that’s not what happens because the phonograph is a technology that is owned by multinationals from a very early period. So it’s organisations like Columbia or Edison, from a very early period they are dividing up the world and dividing up world culture in ways that map onto their own cultural preconceptions. And so what happens is that, at a very early stage with the phonograph, ‘Irishness’ becomes almost an invisible ethnicity that fits in with an American culture, American popular culture, and it takes a long time to break out of that.

Did cinema push Ireland further into peripherality or did it bring us closer in any way to the media world?

I think with cinema you have a very similar pattern that, you know, it’s something that’s for instance an argument that Donald Taylor Black made a number of years ago in a film called Ourselves Alone – the history of Irish cinema he made I think in 1997 – where his central thesis is that Irish culture has always been more represented by cinema than it has represented itself. And so in other words there has been far more films made about Ireland than there ever have been films made in Ireland.

And so you have this kind of imbalance, this kind of, lack of balance in terms of representation and that continues today, it continues right through to the present. So in a sense I think cinema has had contradictory effects on Irish culture, that it creates, if you like, a certain alienation from ourselves. That we see Irishness on film and don’t recognise it.

So that begs the question, well, what is our culture? In the last couple of decades obviously there has been more Irish filmmaking largely through initiatives such as The Film Board and say with television the Sound And Vision Scheme, and so on. That is readdressing the balance but that is producing kinds of films that we probably wouldn’t have predicted.

How do you mean?

Well to take a film, just to take on off the top of my head, a film like Adam and Paul or a film like Kisses that, you know, I think it’s unlikely someone would have predicted ten years ago that this would be the kind of defining type of Irish film because in some ways it’s about a kind of urban experience that on many levels is commenting on other urban centres as opposed to emphasising the particularity of Irishness.

To move on to radio. You write that “The first media broadcast was an accident of war”. This was 1916. As James Connolly said the success of the Rising depended on the spread of information from Dublin to the rest of the country. Today newspapers are dying and there’s a digital migration taking place but radio has retained its popularity. Is this because radio is a medium that adapts much more successfully to the new technologies because people have a sense of ownership over these radio programmes. People can text in to these radio programmes in a way that you can’t really do with a recorded TV programme. 

I take that as, there’s two things in that. I suppose the first thing is the idea that the first radio broadcast took place during the 1916 Rising, it seems one of those ideas, I like it and I work with it. Can’t ever prove it because we don’t that people weren’t experimenting in Italy, or doing the same thing, but the idea that you could actually use radio not to make a point-to-point communication, not from one ship to another or one radio operator to another but could send out a signal all bands and make, literally, a broadcast. There is a claim that that happened for the first time in 1916. So Ireland has a claim to be the home of radio. Now of course this wasn’t oral this was Morse Code so it wasn’t oral in that sense.

Do you think the revolutionaries in 1916 were very conscious of this as opposed to 1798 where the failings of the rebellion was the lack of information?

Well I think in 1798 they were very conscious of media aswell. I think it’s one of the things, if you look at Ireland’s history of revolutions, say you want to take the highpoints 1798, 1848, 1916, all of those moments were revolutions that involved highly literate – media-literate, sorry – revolutionaries. So in 1798, a lot of that was hatched in newspaper offices, was based around newspapers like the Northern Star. 1848 was basically a revolution of newspapermen. It was The Nation but then there were later newspapers, The United Irishmen, The Irishman, The Irish Felon, a whole string of newspapers.

1916 is particularly interesting because now the first thing any self-respecting revolutionary does is takes over the radio station. There was an awareness that if a small group were to act as a kind of vanguard they would have to communicate with the masses and that there had to be a technological medium through which you did that.

Now aswell as sending out a signal on all bands using Morse Code, they also, they went down to Dame Street and took over the telephone exchange. So there was a really clear awareness that taking over the means of communication...

The wireless telegraphy office aswell...

Well the wireless telegraphy office is where they set out the signal to the ships. That was right across from the GPO. So there was a very acute awareness there that taking control of the media, and even improvising with the media, was the key to launching a revolution. So I suppose what I find fascinating is the image we often have of 1916 is of the rhetoric that people like Pearse used which was often quite self-consciously archaic, you know, images of Cuchalainn or blood sacrifice or all that kind of stuff, but in fact they were very very modern in terms of the way in which they thought of media.

To take the second part of your question which is a different question of where we are today, I think if you talk about the ways in which older media are adapting to a digital environment, I think the comparison you’re making there between radio and newspapers is very interesting. But I think it actually goes to the business model, that the business model of newspapers has always involved generating revenue through two means – selling advertising and selling the newspaper itself. And selling the newspaper itself with the exception of free sheets has always been central to the ways in which newspapers have made money. 

The difficulty with the internet is that people by and large don’t want to pay for content and that has been that has become one of its defining features. Radio has never worked by making people pay for content. Radio has always been free. Radio has always worked on a business model that has involved simply selling of advertising, or the public service model which just involves a different model of funding. So radio can actually adapt quite easily to the internet because in fact what you’re doing is multiplying your listenership by having programmes that are podcasts and therefore can be listened to in different times, can be broadcast globally. I have an internet radio at home, I listen to CBC Canada, I listen to radio stations in the States, all over the world. 

And so suddenly there’s an advertising base that is actually bigger. So I think actually radio can adapt quite well to the internet because its business model is actually one that the internet can work with. Newspapers are going to have harder time and are having a harder time because they have to find a business model that is based solely on generating revenue from advertising.

To bring in television in that, sort of, trilogy. How do you think television will fare in this new world?

I think television, I mean, television is like radio in that is has never charged for content. Well I suppose it has with pay-per-view but it has never been the central mains by which television works. The difficulty at the moment and the only thing really that’s stopping television being in the same situation as radio, is bandwidth, you know, is just the sheer size of files if you like. So that’s something that will resolve itself in a very short period of time. 

Again I think television can probably adapt quite well to the internet. I think what is interesting is the way in which, you know, web 2.0 forms of using television, YouTube for instance, you know, which are participative, are changing the nature of television. And it’s that division between media in which we have gatekeepers, you know, you turn on the news at six and there is a news team that has filtered the news for you and the form of news in particular that is being produced on the internet in which there are no gatekeepers in many cases. I think that is going to produce some interesting tensions and is producing interesting tensions.

When television was introduced to Ireland you note in your book that it brought Ireland closer to America rather than Britain. Was this some sort of a remnant of colonial hate ideology or...

It was pure, it was money, it came down to money. I forget the actual figures but it was the, you know, let’s say if it cost, it was costing I think the BBC something like, this is from memory, something like 200 pounds an hour to produce a television programme. RTE were trying to budget 20 and they could buy shows from America for 2, you know, that because of economy as a scale the American networks could sell their programmes and particularly, I mean, when RTE first started broadcasting a lot of their content was American and a lot of it was quite old. They were buying stuff that was 3, 4, sometimes 5 years old because they could buy it cheaply and so it was simply money.

You could buy American, you could buy Bonanza, you could buy Dragnet, you could buy The Virginian, you could buy Get Smart, you could buy all these series that were very popular, very well made, much more cheaply than you could produce something yourself. So it came down to sheer money.

As it still does.

It does yeah yeah.

One final question. You note that in the recession of the 1980s the media in Ireland expanded, rather than contracted. Are you seeing something similar today?

I think one of the things that’s interests me in the 1980s is the way in which you get a sense of the media not quite matching up to the reality around it and for me the interesting case there are the pirate radio stations, where you had a sense in which there were things happening, say particularly in popular music that RTE as a national broadcaster, as a single broadcaster couldn’t deal with. So you had, you know you had all of these radio stations developing, sometimes only lasting a short period of time that were there trying to fill that gap. And you had something similar I think happening, although it wasn’t in a pirate way if you like, with print media so you had magazines like Magill and the role that Hotpress would have played, the role that a magazine like InDublin might have played, that become an alternative form of commentary.

I mean John Waters has referred to, at one point refers to Magill, Hotpress and InDublin as a kind of Irish counter-culture, not because they had anything in common but they were, well they had some things in common but they weren’t a united front, but because those 3 magazines were presenting an alternative view of what was happening.

So I think when things get tough people ask, well, is there another way of looking at things and that opens up new media outlets. Now that’s happening now in point where technologically there are new media outlets, such as the website where this is being podcast. So that what we have at the moment is a new, are new technologies and people perhaps starting to ask new questions. And whenever that happens, you’re going to find media taking new directions.

And any idea as to where those directions will lie?

Again, historians hate to be asked why something didn’t happen, the only thing they perhaps hate more is to be asked what’s going to happen! I think, I mean it’s certainly the case that the future is digital. What form that is going to take is going to be very difficult to predict. I think we’re still in a phase in which by and large a lot of digital media are still based on earlier media, that we’re trying to figure out how you put a newspaper on the internet, how do you broadcast radio on the internet.

The intrinsically or, if you like, indigenously digital forms, are still taking shape, you know, that there are things like Twitter will appear. It’s difficult to predict how long that will last, you know, that there are phenomena that appear and then disappear still quite quickly. So I think perhaps the only thing we can say is that there’s going to be certainly a period in the foreseeable future in which there is quite a lot of fluctuation as to where things seem to be going as we try out the possibilities, which are multiple, of this new all devouring form of media. 

Chris, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us.

Thank you Shane, thanks, thanks.