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Irish Catholic magazine and monthly asylum for neglected biography: plates from 1807-1815

  • V.k.69-76
Rights statement
  • Copyright The Board of Trinity College Dublin. Images are available for single-use academic application only. Publication, transmission or display is prohibited without formal written approval of the Library of Trinity College, Dublin.
Copyright status
Publisher location
  • Ireland
  • Dublin
Date Created
  • end -12-1815
  • start -01-1807
  • Is there anything remaining to be said about the 1798 Rebellion, and its impact on Irish political culture? In the years surrounding the bicentennial commemorations in 1998, a wave of new publications appeared at both national and local levels. These added considerably to our understanding of the rising, its background and its enduring importance in Irish collective memory. Many nuggets were uncovered. But by general admission, the bicentennial moment was more important in generating new questions that demanded further research, than in resolving older controversies. One rich, varied, but notorious publication that appeared in the post-rebellion years has remained somewhat neglected by historians. This is the Irish Magazine (IM), the most successful monthly periodical of the early decades of the nineteenth century. It was edited and published from 1807 to 1815 by the infamous and elusive Walter or ‘Watty’ Cox (ca. 1770-1837). Historians and picture researchers looking for demotic images of revolutionary violence have indeed made use of some of the prints that appeared in the IM, but the full gallery of plates has never been examined systematically, or indeed recognized for the remarkable source that it is. There are 94 prints in all: usually one accompanied each issue of the magazine. Apart from a few recurring images they have been overlooked in modern work, yet taken together they provide compelling visual evidence of the IM’s role in shaping and representing anti-establishment and specifically Catholic opinion during this period. Some of the prints were only rough wood-cuts, but others displayed impressive workmanship, and the vast majority took the form of satirical cartoons of a kind never previously published in Ireland. Watty [Walter] Cox was the owner and editor of, and at times probably chief contributor to, the Irish Magazine. Most issues contained an eclectic mix of political and social comment, natural history and science, cultural reflection and biography, and articles ranged from mathematics and the topographical descriptions of Irish landscapes to Gaelic poetry and travel narrative. However most essays and features were largely satirical in tone, at times captivatingly so, and often highly scurrilous. That said, its bitter anti-establishment editorial position was regularly articulated with shrill and erratic incoherence. The crudity and rawness of much of the writing is perhaps one reason why scholars have paid the IM so little close attention. Cox’s dubious personal history has not helped either: though his name is associated with extreme radicalism from the mid-1790s it is uncertain whether he ever became a sworn member of the Society of United Irishmen. Having trained as a gunsmith, he may have first approached the revolutionary movement in that capacity, but it was as a printer of subversive materials that he came to the notice of the authorities. When the inflammatory pro-United Irish newspaper, the Union Star, appeared in 1797 (published without the Society’s approval), Dublin Castle offered a reward of £700 for information leading to the arrest of its author and publisher. Cox supposedly presented himself to the authorities as a potential informant, successfully negotiated his exile to America, and only then identified himself as the actual culprit. Upon his return from America, he seems to have continued to inform on the disaffected – or at least to pretend to be so doing - and it was this ambiguous and wily character that launched the IM in 1807, printing it at his premises at 150 Abbey Street. By an ironic twist of fate, a generation later the far more respectable Nation was published nearby, and much later again the Irish Independent set down its roots there. Ninety-seven issues of Cox’s Magazine were produced, and in all but four issues (September, November and December 1809, and January 1810) an individual engraving accompanied the opening article. This was indeed common practice for magazines of the period. However in subject matter Cox’s illustrations differed from normal conventions. Only three of the IM’s 94 prints depicted antiquarian views, and less than ten were historical scenes or portraits, subjects which would have accounted for a large proportion of the engravings in any other contemporary magazine. Admittedly from the late 1770s, and particularly in the late 1790s, the commercially popular Walker’s Hibernian Magazine (1771-1812) included political cartoons, but its editors refrained from the type of slanderous lampooning pioneered by Cox. Anthologia Hibernica (1793-95) included prints of a technically very high quality, but these focused on Irish subjects of topographical, historical or archaeological interest, part of its mission to celebrate Irish cultural achievement. During the first two years of publication (1807-9), many of the IM’s prints were dignified portraits of prominent Irish Catholics, itself a relatively uncommon choice for this genre of publication. The IM’s subtitle was indeed the Monthly asylum for neglected biography, so its early range of illustrations was fulfilling its commitment in that regard. Oddly, only once – in the January 1808 issue - was the title altered to Irish Catholic Magazine to reflect this interest. However, also portrayed in early issues were four leading Protestant United Irishmen (see plates 9, 11, 12 and 14). These were of course already immensely popular figures of heroic stature, in no way identified with Protestant politics or with the establishment. However the high proportion of political lampoons published in the IM from 1810 onwards were different in character, and their often graphic depictions of brutal incidents believed to have occurred during the 1798 Rebellion could not but have provoked the authorities. Following the publication of an incoherent and ranting article entitled ‘The Painter Cut. A Vision’ (July 1810, pp 293-295), Cox was convicted for libel. The piece had named prominent members of the post-Union Protestant political élite, both liberals and ultra-loyalists such as Sir Jonah Barrington, Claudius Beresford, Major Henry Charles Sirr (Dublin’s police chief) and John Giffard, the leading city Orangeman of the day. Among Cox’s legal team was the young counsel Daniel O’Connell, but despite such support he was found guilty and sentenced to imprisonment. Cox boldly publicized his plight in the amusing cartoon accompanying the April 1811 issue. It depicted the bewildered but defiant editor of the magazine in the pillory outside what is today Dublin City Hall (plate 38). He certainly achieved notoriety by continuing to publish after his conviction and confinement in Newgate gaol, and was assisted in this by Thomas Finn (although the extent of the latter’s editorial involvement is unclear). The popular appeal of the IM was boosted by numerous lampoons of Major Sirr, and with a reported circulation of around 5,000 at this time its success surpassed all its Irish contemporaries. A marker of this success was that it seems to have reached a non-traditional readership, namely the poor and illiterate who were able to access it through public readings and by viewing its evocative images. Cox was released in 1814, and in the following year he ended publication of the IM, having accepted a government pension that was contingent on his immediate departure for America. It has not been possible to determine the identity of the artists or engravers retained by Cox, although according to specialist print scholars this is not unusual for the period. Attributions of some engravings to ‘Brocas’ throughout the literature are not borne out by any internal evidence; William Brocas sr. was the most prominent artist of the family, but several of his sons were also successful artists and teachers, but which if any were involved remains unclear. Clearly the artists drew inspiration from leading names of the genre such as Isaac Cruikshank, the inimitable James Gilray and the groundbreaking Goya. Given the controversial nature of the majority of the prints in the magazine, it is perhaps not surprising that they are unsigned. Other successful monthlies that included illustrations, such as Walker’s Hibernian Magazine (1771-1812), Anthologia Hibernica (1793-5), Moore’s Dublin Magazine (1799-1801) and the Cyclopaedian Magazine (1807-9), provided considerably more information on their artists, but the subjects of their prints were largely uncontroversial. It is clear that although Cox was held in disrepute in many quarters as a result of his associations in the 1790s he was successful in attracting competent artists for the magazine, men who ran considerable risks in becoming associated with him. In November 1808 the editorial expressed indignation that ‘some of our Enemies have succeeded in an unfair collusion with the Engraver’ to prevent the publication of the planned portrait of Robert Emmet. The ‘missing’ portrait (a bizarre echo of the young hero’s missing grave) was eventually published in February 1809, but the inference that pressure had been exerted on the engraver is noteworthy. In June 1809 the allegorical image Three Jacks at the Hunt of Erin (plate 16) appeared and it heralded the bitter venom that was to follow. Attacking the Anglo-Irish troika who had controlled Dublin Castle before 1798 was a predictable theme, but this image was an usually sharp visual statement of contempt for the political establishment. There followed three of the most controversial political plates in the IM’s history, published between January and April 1810 (plates 23, 24 and 26), yet despite their appearance Cox was allowed to continue with his enterprise. They depicted state-sanctioned displays of extreme violence by the military during the rebellion with singular starkness, practices which had fostered terror throughout the population. These included half-hangings, pitch-capping and flogging. Of all the IM images, these alone are well-known and have been widely used to illustrate histories of 1798. Astonishingly, Claudius Beresford was still alive when plate 26 was published in the April 1810 issue. The malicious pleasure attributed to him as he flogged his victim for information was powerfully captured by the artist. Yet ‘Watty’ and his magazine still avoided direct government attention.There followed an odd combination of mischievous and whimsical satires, many lampooning Major Sirr, the Methodists and the Protestant crusade in Ireland generally, as well as various movers and shakers of Dublin civic life. The cartoons depicting disturbances and outrages committed by a yeomanry corps heavily infiltrated by the Orange Order must be seen as a unique form of photo-reportage, informing on contemporary events rather than those relating to 1798. Though these incidents of sectarian tension were widely reported in the contemporary press they have not been the subject of modern scrutiny. Possibly because of the risks involved in accepting commissions from Cox, other less accomplished artists feature more and more, and this may account for the rushed style of some of the later political prints. But despite their somewhat unsophisticated execution the prints never fail to engage the reader. Not only do these cartoons predate by several decades the very famous prints by George Cruikshank which contributed to the success of Maxwell’s History of the Irish rebellion (published in 1845), they are unique in that they reverse the subject of loyalist caricatures. They are wholly sympathetic to Catholics and to the unarmed country people of Ireland who had been the victims of outrages, the very class later depicted with simian or porcine features in English cartoons. In the IM plates it is the slovenly soldiers representing the state who appear as ghoulish or half-witted villains. There were few public voices of political protest in the seemingly uneventful years between the Act of Union of 1801 and the emergence of the Catholic Association two decades later. But however controversial a character ‘Watty’ Cox may have been, he succeeded in publishing the largest circulation monthly periodical of the early nineteenth century and in attracting skilled artists and engravers who, beyond professional considerations, must have been committed to freedom of expression.Given the increasing interest in visual culture and in the pictorial representation of national identity, it is timely that the Irish Magazine prints can now become more widely known in all their raw extravagance. Sylvie Kleinman, Johanna Archbold, David Dickson.(Notes accompanying prints compiled by Sylvie Kleinman; the list of library holdings is not exhaustive, and only includes Dublin-based institutions). This phase of the project would not have been possible without the generous assistance of Anne Hodge, Curator of Prints and Drawings, and Adrian Le Harivel at the National Gallery of Ireland, We also wish to thank Tom Bartlett, Charles Benson, Fintan Cullen, David Dickson, John Gibney, Peter Harbison, Jacqueline Hill, Máire Kennedy, James Kelly, Dáire Keogh, Anthony Malcomson, Bill McCormack, James MacGuire, James Quinn, Brendan Rooney, Patrick Walsh, Kevin Whelan, Christopher Woods.
  • Trinity College (Dublin, Ireland). Dept. of Modern History
Resource type
  • ink
  • paper (fiber product)
  • Irish
Digital object identifier
  • CoxPlate_38
  • DCAT0120744



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