The newspaper boys of the capital have entered its folklore, remembered as the lovable, shoeless, cheeky gurriers of a time past.
In reality, the newsboys of Dublin were once a sizeable precarious working class presence in the capital who, on various occasions in Dublin’s past, found themselves the focus of charitable and political organisations, who saw them as a potentially dangerous underclass in some cases, or as youths in need of guidance.
From the paintings of Jack B.Yeats to the writings of James Joyce and Sean O’Casey, the newsboy of the early twentieth century often featured in depictions of life in the capital at the time. Yet while the streets of Dublin were their workplace, they enjoyed little job security in life, which could bring them into direct confrontation with newspaper owners.
In August 1911, newsboys in the capital went on strike in opposition to the terms on which the Evening Herald was provided to them by the management of that paper. It was reported in the media that a crowd of boys gathered outside the offices of the paper on Middle Abbey Street, and “as several vans were about to drive off with papers for the city newsagents shops, the boys surrounded them, threw stones and other missiles at the drivers, and then swarmed up the sides and pulled down the papers, which were ripped to shreds.”
During the dispute there were reports of bundles of the Herald being thrown into the Liffey by youngsters in protest, and of the newsboys even organising their own rally at Beresford Place, in the style of trade union rallies common at the location. The Irish Times reported that following a meeting of several hundred youths there, the boys marched towards the offices of the Evening Herald, and that at the head of this procession was “an imposing squad of youngsters decked out in the manner of Red Indians as they appear in lurid pictures illustrating tales of the Wild West.”
The newsboys enjoyed a good working relationship with the trade union movement at this point, and as Padraig Yeates has noted in his study of the 1913 Lockout, Jim Larkin had mobilised them. By organising these newsboys, Larkin had established a distribution network for the publications of the labour movement in the city, crucially important during the events of 1913. Yeates has noted that boys took a higher commission from sales of the union paper than they did from the Irish Independent, controlled by William Martin Murphy.
A sizeable number of Dublin newsboys would appear before the courts in 1913 on charges of intimidation against strike breakers, with tough sentences dealt out against the youths in many cases. The early 20th century was a miserable period in Dublin’s history and, as Joseph V. O’Brien noted in the classic Dear, Dirty Dublin, at a time when a third of the city lived in slum conditions the pneumonia wards of Dublin’s hospitals held more than their fair share of newsboys and street traders. Their “miserable physiques and ill-clad bodies” stood little chance against the elements.
It’s ironic given the newsboys’ role in that great showdown between Jim Larkin and William Martin Murphy that it would be a son of Murphy’s, William Lombard Murphy, who would be among those attempting to reach out to the boys through charitable means. The Belvedere Newsboys’ Club was to serve as a charitable organisation, which by 1928 was operating out of a location on Pearse Street. It had been founded a decade prior by former students of Belvedere College with the aim of helping young newsboys in the area. At the opening of their Pearse Street premises, Murphy remarked that:
“Everyone who knows the Dublin newsboy knows what good qualities are to be found in him. He might not possess the greater civic virtues such as thrift and order and regularity, but he had immense loyalty to parents and an innate and essential decency of mind.” The Belvedere Newsboys’ Club has evolved into today’s Belvedere Youth Club, which boasts over 350 members. Gerry Walsh’s excellent book How’ya Doc?, a study of the Newsboy’s Club, is a great insight into a forgotten bit of working class Dublin history. The initial ‘Animal Gang’ of the 1930s emerged out of a dispute between the newsboys of the capital and republicans, who clashed over the wholesale cost of An Phoblacht during a 1934 printers strike. Demanding a cheaper rate, Garda reports note that dozens of newsboys attacked the distribution offices of the newspaper.
They also attacked the offices of the Republican Congress organisation, again seeking a cheaper wholesale rate, and Gardaí noted that following their assault on Frank Ryan, who would later lead Irishmen to Spain to fight Franco, he informed them they were “little better than animals”. This is the Garda theory put forward for the origins of the term ‘Animal Gang’ among young newsboys in Dublin.
Interestingly, when the IRA sought out the newsboys responsible for attacking An Phoblacht, they went to a social hall where they were known to gather, which was the Ardee Hall on Talbot Street. It is clear from Garda reports there was a belief that a ‘certain type’ of youngster attended this club. It is evident that a sizeable percentage of young newsboys wished to mingle away from the influence of political and charitable organisations.
Today’s labour laws of course mean that the newspaper boy of old is no longer to be seen on Dublin’s streets. It is evidently clear from oral histories of the past that those who made their living on the streets held no romantic view of their past. The difficult lives these children faced was perhaps best captured in the pages of The Irish Times in 1911 when the paper noted of the newsboy: “He lives from day to day, and his failures and successes are reckoned ruthlessly in terms of food and lodging, or their absence.”