DERRY JOURNAL 250: First editor George Douglas’ ‘Journal’ reported on a time of revolutionary ferment

George Douglas worked at a printing house in Dublin before coming to Derry.

By Kevin Mullan
Monday, 30th May 2022, 3:51 pm

On the lookout for an opportunity to establish a paper of his own he took an office in James Blythe’s book shop in The Diamond and the ‘Journal’ was born under its original masthead - ‘The Londonderry Journal and General Advertiser’ on June 3, 1772.

The paper appeared, as it still does, on a biweekly basis. Set as a four page tabloid it sold for a penny. Douglas charged subscriptions at six shillings (6s.) and six pennies (6d.) for readers in Derry, 7s. and 7d. for those within 15 miles of the city, 8s. and 8d. for those within 25 miles and 9s. and 9d. for those living up to 40 miles away.

The foundation of the paper occurred at a heady time in politics nationally and internationally. The ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 and Siege of Derry were as close in time to readers in 1772 as the outbreak of World War II is to readers today.

On June 3, 1772, George Douglas set out his stall as a member of the liberal Protestant intelligentsia.

John Gamble, a writer who visited Derry in 1812, is quoted by the Dublin-based historian David Dickson, in his new book of last year, ‘The First Irish Cities: An Eighteenth Century Transformation’:

“The wars of William and James, in Ireland, where accounts of them have been handed down from father to son are as fresh as if the events had only occurred yesterday, and the Siege of Londonderry is talked of with much less reference to distance of time than the Siege of Boston in England.”

The late 1700s were a time of revolutionary flux and ferment. The ‘Boston Tea Party’, when American colonists rebelled against ‘taxation without representation’, took place the year after the first edition of this paper was published. Paul Revere mounted his famous midnight ride and sparked the American War of Independence in 1775.

As the 1770s progressed the new American ideals were making themselves felt in Ireland. Events in revolutionary America would have been followed hungrily by Douglas and his readers.

These weren’t distant affairs. Irish Presbyterians from Derry and its hinterland had established an important presence in the American colonies, particularly in Philadelphia, prior to the war.

John Dunlap, from Strabane, printed the first copies of the American Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776.

Several signatories of the declaration, founding fathers of the United States, had left Ireland from Derry.

One of them, Matthew Thornton, was born on a farm about one mile from the city, according to Charles Thornton Adams’ biography ‘Matthew Thornton of New Hampshire: a patriot of the American Revolution’ (1901).

When the Anglo-French war broke out in 1778, the Volunteer movement in Ireland, a collection of independent military companies, ostensibly raised against the threat of invasion from France, took on an overly political role, inspired by the American example, and called for an end to restrictions on Irish trade and legislative independence for the Irish parliament.

The liberal Earl Bishop Frederick Augustus Hervey, a supporter of Catholic emancipation, was among their number and would have been well-known to Douglas.

In that first edition of June 3, 1772, Douglas set out his stall as a member of the liberal Protestant intelligentsia.

“In a county where the Protestant religion is universally established, and the understanding of its inhabitants, consequently, so much enlightened, it is presumed, that every attempt tending to satisfy a laudable curiosity, to enliven true pleasure and promote real interest, will be warmly received by them; and as a NEWS-PAPER (when properly conducted) in a great degree conduces to those ends, by exposing flagrant grievances, and conveying pleasing, instructing and interesting intelligence it is hoped that such a one will meet with proper encouragement, especially when no pains or expense shall be wanting to render it useful and agreeable to every class of people.”

After the Bastille was stormed on July 14, 1789, Thomas Paine’s radical democratic treatise ‘The Rights of Man’ - a defence of the French revolution - was published in 1791 by Douglas before it had been published in Belfast or Dublin.

According to Dickson: “He helped develop a lively public sphere: he championed the celebration of the siege in 1788-89 and was almost certainly the printer of an early edition of ‘The Rights of Man, Part I’; he was also involved in the annual Bastille Day celebrations and in the temporary revival of Volunteering. He helped cultivate a distinctly emollient attitude towards Catholic political relief among many city freemen.”

In October 1791 the republican Society of United Irishmen was established in Belfast with its advanced democratic ideas and by 1796 there were estimated to be approximately 10,000 United Irishmen in county Derry, a huge number.

Some of Douglas’ friends would become members but the ‘Journal’ editor saw fit to criticise the society’s paper, the ‘Northern Star’, in 1792.

He wrote that to read it one would think ‘that the moon that shines in their parish, shines better than in the next.’ Clearly a healthy Derry-Belfast rivalry existed even then.

Notwithstanding this gripe against Belfast navel-gazing the radical ideas of the United Irishmen were beginning to have an influence.

Dickson writes: “By 1796 there were some in Douglas’ circle of friends who had moved from being patriot Volunteers to republican democrats, their plans being to seize control of the city. Derry became the dynamo encouraging the spread of United organisation across the more prosperous parts of the north-west, and the depth of support across both Presbyterian and Catholic districts was sufficiently great to alarm government allies.”

In 1796 a report in the ‘Journal’ of toasts given after a Volunteer demonstration called to celebrate anniversary of the Relief of Derry on August 1 (Julian calendar) gives a sense of the ideological melting pot of ideas swaying the body politic.

“They fired three vollies [sic] in the Diamond and entertained their officers and a number of gentleman at dinner in the Town Hall. The following with many other toasts were drunk: ‘The Day;’ ‘The 7th of December, 1688;’ ‘The Memory of the brave Defenders of Derry;’ ‘The Volunteers;’ ‘The Whig Club and the Whig Interest Everywhere;’ ‘May the Walls of the Inquisition be speedily levelled, with those of the Bastille;’ ‘American Success to French Effort;’ President Washington and the United States;’ ‘The Glorious Memory; ‘The Apprentice Boys of Derry;’ &c., &c.” Reverence for the ‘Glorious Revolution’ and the Apprentice Boys sat easily with the radical democracy of America and France.

Douglas published a collection of papers about the Siege, entitled ‘Derriana’ in 1794 but would soon stand down as editor after 24 years at the helm.

According to John Hempton’s ‘The siege and history of Londonderry’, published in 1861. he ‘resigned the “Londonderry Journal” in April 26, 1796, to John Buchanan and William McCorkell, and on August 1, was presented with three silver cups, on his leaving for America’.

Dickson notes ‘Douglas sold his paper to a government supporter’ at a time when war with France and the sanguinary turn of events there had dampened some of the enthusiasm for radical democracy.

“When news of the French armada reached the city at the end of 1796, the Corporation set about repairing and re-hanging the gates (although the professional military view was that the city could not be defended against French cannon).

“Once again the gates were closed during the hours of darkness. A small group of radicals within the city still had plans for a northern insurrection during 1797 but the national leadership kept the brakes on.

“The local leadership was subsequently penetrated by informers, then stripped of their civic freedom, imprisoned, bounced out of the city. Most went to the United States but the retribution meted out by Crown Forces on their many foot soldiers in the countryside was far more brutal,” Dickson observes.

Douglas, apparently in America by this time, may have met some of the exiled leadership. Though Derry wasn’t out in 1798 the north west played a number of significant cameos.

When French naval commander Jean-Baptiste-François Bompart attempted to land 3,000 soldiers at Lough Swilly in October 1798 he was defeated by John Borlase Warren at the Battle of Tory. Wolfe Tone was taken prisoner at Buncrana when the ship on which he had travelled with the French, the Hoche, eventually surrendered. He was held briefly in Derry before being taken to Dublin where he died in custody at the age of 35 on November 19, 1798.

Oliver Bond, from St. Johnston, a key figure within the United Irishmen in Dublin, had a sentence of death for treason commuted but died in custody on September 6, 1798, aged 36. And Napper Tandy was famously imprisoned at Lifford for his revolutionary activities in the years after the rebellion.

After Warren’s success the Mayor of Derry John Darcus summoned a meeting of the Common Council of the Corporation on October 17, 1798, and awarded “the freedom of this City to the several captains who fought under him and defeated the French Fleet the 12th October 1798.”

Buchanan and McCorkell’s ‘Journal’ was on the same page.

On Tuesday, October 23, 1798, it reported: “To describe the enthusiastic joy that animated all descriptions of people on receiving the glad tidings is utterly impossible; never have we witnessed such general or such hearty expressions of gratitude; the city was superbly illuminated, and that and the following evening were devoted to loyalty and exultation. On Wednesday, a Common Council was held at which the Freedom of the City was unanimously voted to Sir J.B. Warren in a Gold Box, and the several Captains of his squadron were at the same time complimented with their Freedom.”