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The Leinster Leader – thundering of the presses since 1880

The Leinster Leader celebrates a modest birthday this year – 130 years ago the first edition of the paper rolled off the presses in Naas. It brought news, opinion and comment to a readership thirsty for vigorous journalism as the 1880s saw Irish society consumed in a period of political and social turmoil. And the pioneering editors and journalists delivered such vigour in columns of passionate opinion and lively reporting. From the start the Leader was a campaigning newspaper – unapologetic in its demands for Home Rule for Ireland and for Land Reform. Politics, meetings, speeches and proclamations filled the columns. Sport would come a little later and then in the most intimate way when the Leinster Leader had a ring-side seat at the inception of the Gaelic Athletic Association – beginning a relationship between the Leader and the GAA which has endured to the present day. Over thirteen decades of publication the paper has seen Ireland transform from being an integral part of the British Empire through Free State status and, in time, becoming a Republic. The Easter Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War triggered turmoil in Irish society yet the Leader never missed an issue – thundering off the presses each week adding its own salvos to the cauldron of nationalist politics.
In sporting terms the Leader saw Kildare take four All Irelands – 1905, 1919, 1927 & 1928. By the time of the 1928 All-Ireland sport had become a key part of the paper’s offering perhaps reflecting the fact that sport was one of the few uncontested spaces in post Civil War Ireland.
For the local economy, the paper fulfilled an essential function through its advertising columns which provided a popular platform for shopkeepers, merchants and auctioneers. For decades the front page was comprised entirely of advertisements. From Athy, for example,  the Leinster Arms hotel advertised its hospitality which featured ‘the most comfortable and commodious accommodation in the county’ including ‘beds for one shilling to two shillings each.’ In Newbridge Quinn’s Bakery proclaimed a product line comprising of ‘Plain, fancy and Hovis bread’ with ‘bread-van deliveries twice daily to the Curragh and surrounding districts.’ In the same advertising columns the Irish Peat Moss Litter company of Monasterevin advertised the merits of ‘The Shamrock Brand – made from the best air-dried absorbent peat.’ 
The paper’s idealism was, of course, tempered by commercial realities and it made sure never to stray far away from the interests of its readers and advertisers. The interests of farmers were championed in the paper’s campaign for the redistribution of land from the landlords to the tenants, at least those tenants who farmed on middle-sized holdings. The paper was strongly represented at local protest meetings in support of the Land League. So close was the Leader to the action that the first editor, Laois man Patrick Cahill, was imprisoned by the authorities for publishing seditious material. Cahill’s successor was another firebrand, John Wyse Power, who had strong connections with the Irish Republican Brotherhood. His tenure in the Leader newsroom was short but he connected the paper with one of the totems of Irish identity. In October 1884 he responded to a call from Michael Cusack to participate in the foundation of a sporting association dedicated to putting an Irish stamp on an emerging interest in athletics and field games. Wyse Power’s attendance at the meeting on 1st November 1884 conferred on him the enduring status of being one of the seven founders of the GAA.
The first issues of the Leader in July/August 1880 remain enigmatic; no copies are to be found in libraries or archives until well into 1881. However it is known that the early editions had just four pages and sold for a pricey four pennies. Within three years the paper had doubled its number of pages, increased the page content to seven columns from six, and halved its price. By 1901 there was a further reduction to one penny and the paper could claim a circulation area that covered Kildare, east Offaly, west Wicklow, and parts of counties Meath, Dublin and Laois. Whatever about changes in its commercial profile the editorial line of the paper remained fearless and in its early years rejected any retreat into the status of a passive paper of record. The Leader set out to provide its readers with a particular interpretation of events and to add fuel to the fires of nationalism and land reform. It is a stance that might seem remarkably partisan to modern notions of objectivity but the Ireland of 1880 was a turbulent place and the Leinster Leader was forged in the flames of activism imbuing it with a journalistic vigour and resilience that remains a hallmark of the Leinster Leader to the present day.  Series no: 191

Liam Kenny in his column 'Nothing New Under the Sun' from the Leinster Leader of 26th August 2010 reflects on 130 years of the Leinster Leader newspaper. Our thanks to Liam.

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