Cartoons, Catholicism and Distributism in the Irish Press 1930-1939

plentyBy Barry Sheppard

The following article will look at several examples of editorial cartoons from the 1930s which were published in the Irish Press newspaper and the newsletter of the British organisation, the Catholic Land Movement.

Exploring themes of economic trade, the plight of the working man, and the family unit they were a response to the crises of the period.

Primarily the cartoons reflected the political and economic viewpoints held by the Fianna Fáil government in Ireland, as well as the economic aspirations of the Catholic Land Movement.  However, further to this they were a reflection of the Catholic social teachings contained within the Papal Encyclicals Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno, specifically the depiction of the working man which the Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI addressed within their two seminal documents.

The cartoonists     

During the early part of the twentieth century there were a number of editorial cartoonists operating in Irish newspapers and periodicals. Ernest Forbes produced over three hundred ‘Shemus’ cartoons for the Freeman’s Journal between 1920 to 1924, Gordon Brewster’s was employed as illustrator in the Evening Herald and Irish Independent over the course of the 1920s and 1930s, while Charles E. Kelly’s founded and edited the popular satirical magazine Dublin Opinion, achieving a circulation of 60,000 at its peak.  While Britain has a long history of political cartoons dating back to the eighteenth century with the English painter and satirist William Hogarth.

Political cartoons have proved to be a very effective means of ‘disseminating emotional attitudes’.

The popularity and impact of the editorial cartoon was something which newspaper editors knew all too well, especially during contested periods in Irish political history.  It has been argued that editorial cartoons have more of an impact than many other forms of media on the public and are ‘an excellent method for disseminating highly emotional attitudes’.[1] Historically the influence the editorial cartoon had was a powerful political weapon, especially when the publication was attached to a political party, as was the case with the Irish Press.

The Irish Press

Frank Gallagher, the first Irish Press Editor.
Frank Gallagher, the first Irish Press Editor.

The Irish Press newspaper launched on Saturday 5 September 1931, and from the outset the paper was keen to stress its Irish republican credentials (the mother of two republican icons Pádraig and Willie Pearse ceremonially switched on the paper’s printing press).

While many of the articles stressed the value of Fianna Fáil political policies, many of the themes paper addressed were related to the impact of the various papal encyclicals.

In the first months of the paper’s existence, from September to December 1931 there were forty-nine articles referencing the importance of the encyclicals.  Titles such as ‘What the encyclicals teach: Case for the small landowner’,[2] and ‘What the encyclicals teach: Capital and Labour’ explored what the lessons the texts had for independent Ireland.[3]

Catholic Social Teaching and the rise of Catholicity in the Irish Free State

A Catholic Land Association poster.
A Catholic Land Association poster.

Catholic social teaching inspired by encyclicals issued by a succession of Popes have had a major social impact over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Catholic communities across the globe, and in particular Ireland where a number of aspects of the teachings worked their way into government policy.

The 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno was said to have ‘transformed Irish social and economic debate’ by seemingly ending ‘the free trade orthodoxy which characterized the Cosgrave government’.[4]  It is further suggested that in its wake among Irish church and political figures it was held that not only could the ideals of the encyclical be implemented in Irish life, but, as far as possible, had to be implemented’.[5]

Papal encyclicals of the 1930s tried to forge a social policy that was neither capitalist nor communist.

The release of Quadragesimo Anno bookmarked a period of increased religiosity in Ireland, with Dublin hosting the 1932 Eucharistic Congress.  An event which arguably ushered in an era of Catholicity not seen in Ireland since the implementation of Cardinal Cullen’s ‘Devotional Revolution’.  This culminated in the Catholic Church’s position in the 1937 Constitution which had significant input by John Charles McQuaid who emphasised the importance of papal teachings contained within the encyclicals in his correspondences with de Valera.[6]

Noted academics like Professor John Busteed emphasised papal encyclicals as alternatives to the status quo in where ‘the means of production and distribution were in the hands of ‘a small group of natives and foreigners’.[7] The claim that power lay in the hands of ‘foreigners’ is perhaps uncomfortable language, yet it is indicative of the views of many in Ireland in the period, especially in relation to the perceived power imbalance in Anglo-Irish trade, a point repeatedly made in Irish Press cartoons.

Protectionism and the Encyclicals

Eamon de Valera.
Eamon de Valera.

The protectionist ideology so associated with de Valera’s Ireland has its roots in the teachings within Quadragesimo Anno by Pope Pius XI.   This seminal document was, in part inspired by the Catholic economist Heinrich Pesch’ (1854-1926) theory of Solidarism, which held that completely free trade must be rejected due to unfair power balances.[8]

Similarities can be drawn with the Catholic Land Movement and the socio-economic theory of ‘Distributism’, which argued that real economic freedom was to be achieved through widely distributed property ownership and decentralized capital.[9] This would be achieved by ‘the deliberate protection of certain experiments in small property, if necessary, by tariffs and even local tariffs’.[10]

Ireland became a source of inspiration for the Catholic Land Movement and it’s organisers who admired the state for its Catholic values and economic policies which were being influenced by Catholic social thinking.  The organisation’s leaders, such as G.K Chesterton and Eric Gill had views on English liberalism which ‘mirrored that of Irish nationalists’.[11]

Eamon de Valera’s vision of a more equal, self sufficient independent Ireland drew heavily on Catholic teaching.

Several of the leaders of the Catholic Land Movement would come to Ireland to strengthen their network of those who had put into practice the edicts of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI.  Giving lectures on ‘Catholic Homesteads’, small farmers and the need for land reform,[12]  they fitted in well with the social and economic line the Irish Press had been pushing since its very first edition hit the stands.

It is clear that for the members of the Catholic Land Movement who visited Ireland there was a model in action which they could aspire to, a nation of small holders which fitted in with their interpretation of the peasantry which Chesterton had wanted recreated in England.  This was reflected not only in the literature of the Cross and the Plough, but also in its art in the form of its editorial cartoons. This interpretation bared some remarkable similarities to the cartoons which complimented many of the articles which appeared in the Irish Press newspaper.

 The Cartoons

Fianna Fail tackling slums June Bulletin 1937This notion of the peasant figure, or small farmer which Chesterton and his cohort had idolised, was also central to Fianna Fáil and their vision for ‘Irish Ireland’. Their plight would be highlighted in a number of the editorial cartoons of the Irish Press against the backdrop of the trade dispute with Britain.

The vast majority of the cartoons, by Victor Brown which appeared in the first two years of its existence dealt with the economy, protectionism, and the ‘Economic War’.  While the cartoons undoubtedly made political points, they also reflected aspects of the papal encyclicals’ teachings, especially in relation to the worker (or small farmer) and the family.  Arguably the ‘Economic War’ provided a focal point where the ideals of the encyclicals could be played out against a system which was contrary to its teachings.

The Irish Press cartoons portrayed Ireland as ‘shackled’ by the domination of its economy by foreign imports.

This is addressed in Campbell and Varley’s ‘Land Questions in Modern Ireland’, which argue that the economic nationalism of self-sufficiency, fuelled by small farm tillage was a response to world economic conditions and the Economic War. This brand of small farm economic nationalism ‘acquired further legitimacy by being consistent with Catholic social teaching, as enunciated in the papal encyclicals Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno’.[13]

The following cartoon appeared in the Irish Press just after Fianna Fáil’s Ard Fheis of 1932.  Based on a quote from Mr de Valera which addressed the ongoing trade dispute, it states: ‘We will come out of this a real nation’.  The cartoon symbolically illustrates where the state was at that time; shackled and bound by the bars of foreign imports, large-scale ranches designed for export, and of course the ongoing trade-blockade. A short distance away, the idyllic small farm so favoured by Fianna Fáil in those early days, is just out of reach of a lone figure representing Ireland, gaunt and shackled. [14]

C_eGKcrXYAAcdRQThe illustration portrays the stark contrast between the ambition of a self-sufficient nation of small holders, the virtue of which was emphasised in the great encyclicals, and the obstacles presented by big business interests in achieving that ambition.

A similar-themed illustration by Philip Hagreen (who was mentored by Eric Gill) appeared in an edition of the Cross and the Plough in 1944.  While not as elaborate as the previous Irish Press example, it carries a similar message, the idyllic rural peasant vs. those representing big industry. [15]

In this cartoon the figure is hunched, blindfolded and, again, shackled.  He is before the dock where two men, representing industry are adjudging him to be only fit for the soulless work of industrial employment.  Interestingly, one of the ‘judges’ is wearing the collar of a clergyman.  Given the organisation’s staunch Catholicism, this is attempting to show that those attached to the established church in England don’t have the best interests of the Catholic minority at heart.  Not only that, they are working hand-in-hand with those who control industry.


The two cartoons display similar themes, the shackled figure constrained by industry, or larger interests which are viewed as either foreign in nature, or detrimental to true spiritual fulfilment. The Distributists held ‘that the industrial age factory system would lead to the enslavement of the mass of working people who were controlled by a concentration of the rich few’.[16]

While the illustrated figure of the farm labourer, or rural peasant was important in highlighting the plight of the unemployed, the family was an even stronger visual image.  The encyclical Rerum Novarum stressed the utmost importance of the family unit, stating: ‘Hence we have the family, the “society” of a man’s house – a society very small, one must admit, but none the less a true society, and one older than any State’.

There are many similarities between the Irish Press cartoons and those of the Catholic paper, the Cross and the Plough.

Further to this it was stressed that ‘the family has at least equal rights with the State in the choice and pursuit of the things needful to its preservation and its just liberty’.[17] Given the importance of the family unit in Catholic teaching, any depiction of the infliction of harm to that unit would likely evoke strong emotions among the Catholic readership of both publications.

The Cross and the Plough featured many articles on the importance of the family to society.  One such article stated: ‘Scientific discovery, material prosperity, intellectual achievement, all these things are important, but the family is more important. A civilisation in which it is difficult for your people to marry, and still more difficult for young parents to raise a family, is a decadent civilisation however magnificent its achievement’.[18]

These sentiments were echoed numerous times within the pages of the Irish Press, which ran articles on the family as essential to the ‘Christian system’.[19] It would also publish articles on the family and a ‘living wage’, giving international examples.[20]

The two illustrations which exemplify the harm the prevailing economic system did to the family unit appeared in the Irish Press on 29 September 1931, and the Cross and the Plough in 1946.  In both examples the family are trapped in a financial system which is unfavourable to their needs, both materially and spiritually.  The Irish Press cartoon came early in the paper’s existence, and before Fianna Fáil came to power. Powerful images like this, which accompanied written articles helped to make the Irish Press a powerful tool in ushering the party in to government the following year.[21]

plenty [22]

ends meet[23]

An early cartoon which appeared on the front page of the Press a mere two weeks into its run in September 1931, lays the blame of Irish unemployment on the free trade ideology which McDowell argues was a feature of the Cosgrave government.  Fianna Fáil’s vision of small ownership clashed with this free trade ideology.  Like all of its editorial illustrations, it hoped to appeal to the worker and small farmer who they saw as suffering under such an arrangement.

C_d9R-JXgAAN0te [24]


The cartoon below, from a 1936 edition of the Cross and the Plough carried the same message as the Irish Press illustration of September 1931, that cheap foreign imports were destroying native agriculture.

While the ‘Press’ illustration depicts foreign imports physically crushing the unemployed Irish man (perhaps in indicator of what was to come in the 1937 Constitution with a woman’s place being in the home), the Cross and the Plough’s offering chooses a more shocking depiction of the industrialist standing over the virginal female figure, clad in white, lying with covered face beside an upturned bowl of native agricultural produce at her feet.  The man, clad in black in this case is termed a ‘Moneylender’.  This is no doubt a reference to Jesus clearing the temple of the moneylenders (Matthew 21:12-13).

C_d7TFAXcAAjAN8Images of the unemployed man, the family, and the struggle against unscrupulous, uncaring business and foreign interests were employed by both publications to great effect.

While they bear similarities to other editorial cartoons of the period, specifically in relation to victims of the economic crash and great depression, the examples above are in keeping with the ideals of papal teachings in dealing with the effects of the economic and social upheaval of the period, particularly in Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno.

Both publications would use their platform to publicise and discuss the teachings contained within the encyclicals for an audience which were in the eye of the storm in terms of the effects of the great depression.

In the Irish Free State there was a growing appetite for the messages contained within the social encyclicals, and this was reflected within the pages of the Irish Press newspaper.  This proved enormously popular with its readership.  Outside of this, the growing Catholicity of the Free State in the wake of the Eucharistic Congress of 1932 would prove attractive for those in Britain who were attached to the Catholic Land Movement.  This is evident from the tours to ‘Catholic Ireland’ which the founders and leaders of the movement undertook during the 1930s.

The Catholic worker which Ireland, under de Valera’s Fianna Fáil held as an idealised example to the world proved attractive to G.K. Chesterton, Eric Gill and others who wished the same for their co-religionists.  This image would work its way into the illustrations of both publications in trying to symbolise their struggles. While there is no suggestion that the artists behind the cartoons were directly inspired by the work of the other, the common sources of inspiration make for interesting comparisons.




[1] Thomas Milton Kemnitz, ‘The cartoon as a historical source’ in The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, iv, no. 1 (1973), pp 84-5.

[2] Irish Press, 11 Dec. 1931.

[3] Irish Press, 19 Dec. 1931.

[4] Michael McDowell, ‘The Questionable Value of Catholic Socio Economic Theory’ in An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 80, No. 319 (Autumn, 1991), pp. 253-258

[5] Ibid, p. 253.

[6] D. Keogh, ‘The Catholic Church and the writing of the 1937 constitution’ in History Ireland Issue 3 (May/Jun 2005), Volume 13

[7] J. Busteed, The World Economic Crisis and “Rerum Novarum”, in An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 20, No. 77 (Mar., 1931), p. 20.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Valerie Flessati ‘PAX: The history of a Catholic peace society in Britain 1936-1971’ (PhD Thesis, University of Bradford, 1991), p. 147.

[10] G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy Day on Economics:Neither Socialism nor Capitalism (Distributism)

[11] Patrick Maume, Anti‐Machiavel: Three Ulster nationalists of the age of

de Valera , Irish Political Studies, 14:1, (1999) pp 43-63

[12] Irish Press, 25 Jan, 1934.

Fiona MacCarthy, ‘Eric Gill’ (1990), p. 267.

[13] Fergus Campbell and Tony Varley (eds.), Land Questions in Modern Ireland (Manchester, 2013), p. 58.

[14] Irish Press, 10 Nov. 1932.

[15] The Cross & the Plough, V. 10, N. 3, 1944.

[16] Valerie Flessati, The Catholic Land Movement in Catholic Life Magazine (Jan, 2003).

[17] Rerum Novarum, 12, 13,

[18] The Cross & the Plough, V. 2, No. 4, 1936.

[19] Irish Press, 8 Oct 1932.

[20] Irish Press 11 Dec 1931.

[21] Dermot Keogh, Twentieth Century Ireland: Revolution and State Building, (Dublin, 2005), p 60.

[22] Irish Press, 29 Sept 1931.

[23] The Cross & the Plough, V. 12, No. 3, 1946

[24] Irish Press 19 Sept. 1931

[25] The Cross & the Plough, V. 2, No. 4, 1936.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: