By Sarah Donoghue
The Irish Independent – Ireland’s most popular news website, trailblazing platform for local news, and sponsor of a category for the 2024 SMEDIAS Awards. The Irish Independent is a household name in Ireland, it’s the go-to place for all things Irish news. Along with the ‘Irish Independent’, ‘Sunday Independent’, ‘The Herald’, and the ‘Sunday World’ newspapers, Independent News and Media – the name of their production company – produces 12 local newspapers from all across the island of Ireland. From the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ to the ‘Enniscorthy Guardian’, the Irish Independent has immense reach across Ireland but not many people know the origins of the coveted news organisation. Despite this, the history of this legendary newspaper is one for the ages.
As many independently established Irish newspapers do, the Irish Independent has its roots in republicanism and the fight for Irish independence. This story begins with a split in the Irish Parliamentary Party. In the late 1800s, the party that represented Ireland in Westminster was split into two groups, those who supported Charles Parnell – the Parnellites, and those who did not – the Anti-Parnellites. At the time, there was one main newspaper in Dublin, the ‘Freemans Journal’. However, in 1881, Charles Parnell launched the ‘United Ireland’. The Freeman’s Journal was worried that United Ireland would cut into their readership, so they began campaigning for Parnell to grab the support of the Parnellites.
Disaster struck in the 1890s, when the Irish Parliamentary Party officially split in two. The Freeman’s Journal decided to convert to gain the support of the Anti-Parnellites. This left Charles Parnell without a daily newspaper supporting him as the United Ireland was only a weekly paper. Parnell knew the power of a newspaper, so he began to set up his own paper. He worked tirelessly to establish his paper; however, he passed away in 1891 of pneumonia. He was only 45 years old, and he passed away less than two months before the scheduled launch of his new paper. Still, the first edition of the paper – called the ‘Irish Daily Independent’ – was launched on December 18, 1891.
Miraculously, in 1900 John Redmond, a barrister and politician from Kilrane, managed to reunite the Irish Parliamentary Party. William Martin Murphy, a member of the Irish Parliamentary Party and ironically, a very passionate Anti-Parnellite, bought the newspaper. Murphy continued to run the paper in the same style it had been before. It was highly political and highly partisan. The paper was heavily biased and, in effect, acted as a platform for the party’s politicians. Murphy reportedly got bored with continuously reporting just the politics of the party and not much else. So, after 5 years, he decided to rebrand!
On January 2, 1905, the paper was relaunched to immediate success and appraisal. The relaunching was accompanied by the setting up of the company Independent News and Media. William Martin Murphy decided to take inspiration from the Daily Mail, a newspaper that was taking all of Britain by storm. Murphy has renamed it to just the ‘Independent’, it cost only a halfpenny – which was half of what most other newspapers cost – and it focused less on politics and more on news and popular topics like the arts (1900s pop culture). When they did report politics, it was far less biased than it was in the past.
The Independent was a hit. It was flying off the shelves and readers could not wait to get their hands on the next edition. In just ten years, its sales rose from just 25 thousand copies per year to 100 thousand copies per year. It was a major factor in the bankruptcy and closure of its main competition, the Freemans Journal, in 1924. The Independent decided to merge with the newspaper, they followed this trend of merging with smaller papers for years to come.
From there, their journey was smooth sailing. Murphy got into some trouble with the IRA during the 1913 strike and lockouts for being one of the main business owners involved in the lockout. He ultimately died in 1919, but his family took over the business and continued to run it until 1973. It began acquiring regional newspapers from across Ireland and bought the ‘People Newspaper’ franchise. It became a haven for local papers and provided them with the opportunity to modernise and digitise.
In 1973, businessman Tony O’Reilly bought the media company and began running the paper. He ran the paper successfully for many years until 2012 when Denis O’Brien took over because he became the majority shareholder in Independent News and Media. At this point, the newspaper was running the same way it had been for many years – until 2019. In 2019, the company was taken over by a media company from Belgium called Mediahuis, (pronounced Media House). The company’s aim was to modernise the papers and bring new digital epapers while keeping the traditional physical papers. The company was modernised, the website was revamped, and the website was put behind a paywall. Hence, breathing new life into the legendary newspaper which acts as living, breathing Irish history.