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When you’re researching your family history you might not think of looking in the newspapers. Up until recently it would have been unthinkable to use 18th or 19th century newspapers for anything other than background colour, unless your ancestor had been involved in a huge news story of the day. Thanks to digitisation, all that’s changing and now those papers form a valuable part of your search.

Findmypast currently has 72 Irish newspapers available to search and they go as far back as 1748 and right up to 1924. By searching with names and keywords you can find out all kinds of things about your Irish ancestors. Say your ancestor was a publican. You might be able to find them in the court reports, when they went to get their licence from the judge. Perhaps they went bankrupt, if so you’ll be able to find them listed as an insolvent debtor. You can find lists of people who gave to various charitable causes or those that were on various committees. Most of these lists and mentions would not be available anywhere else. They are lost in time but preserved in the newspapers.

But this post isn’t about what a great resource the newspapers are, although they are. What this post is about is understanding more about the papers themselves. Just as today’s media present the news from a variety of different viewpoints and talk to different audiences so did newspapers then. Just as different stories might get the front page in the Washington Post or the New York Post or USA Today, Irish newspapers throughout history have had different readerships who would demand different news. It’s worth bearing these differences in mind when you’re looking for something on Findmypast as it can really help narrow down your search.

In the 18th century and early 19th century it was very difficult for newspapers to take an independent or overtly nationalist stance. Stamp duty brought in by Dublin Castle meant that newspapers had to buy special paper that had been pre stamped if they wanted to send a paper by post. Since most newspapers relied on subscriptions for their readership among a widespread population this could be problematic, especially when the Castle refused to sell the special paper to any publication that didn’t toe the line. Things began to change and by the 1840s the press was much freer than it had been. Stamp duty was abolished and newspaper prices dropped and the number of newspapers grew rapidly.

One of the most famous papers of the late 18th and 19th century was the Freeman’s Journal. Once the top paper in Ireland the Freeman’s was always liberal, backing Catholic Emancipation and the repeal of the Union, but later became a fully-fledged Nationalist paper, taken over by the Irish Parliamentary Party in 1891.

Another major 19th century paper would have been the conservative Saunders Newsletter which was far less likely to rock the boat. The protestant Dublin Evening Mail was the Ascendancy paper of choice. Founded specifically to oppose Catholic Emancipation it was known for its rather scandal mongering approach. The Evening Post on the other hand, was known as a Castle Catholic paper. It was liberal and had supported Catholic Emancipation but wasn’t always a friend of Daniel O’Connell.

One of the most interesting Dublin papers in the early 19th century was the Dublin Morning Register. Founded by former editor of the Freeman’s Journal Michael Staunton, the paper was one of the first to hire journalists to concentrate on local and national news, rather than simply reprinting whatever the London papers ran with. Staunton was called the “father of Irish Journalism” by his peers and he gave jobs to Young Irelanders Charles Gavan Duffy and John Blake Dillon, who were two of the founders of the Nation newspaper.

Outside Dublin you can often tell a newspapers political stance by their title. The Tipperary Free Press, for example, was known as a radical paper while the Drogheda Conservative was just that. Papers with Examiner in the title, like the Cork Examiner or the Limerick and Clare Examiner tended to be liberal and usually nationalist.

Broadly speaking conservative, protestant papers were less interested in the plight of the rural poor, while liberal and nationalist papers covered lots of evictions and emigration stories. Bankruptcies were listed in the Dublin Mercantile Advertiser and Weekly Price Courant among others and most papers carried court stories as a handy source of local news.

Newspapers can add such depth to your family story and you can find plenty of nuggets of information that simply can’t be found anywhere else. They’re well worth a fresh look.

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