by Felix M. Larkin, vice-chair of the NLI Society and member of the NLI’s statutory Readers Advisory Committee. His book Terror and Discord: The Shemus Cartoons in the Freeman’s Journal, 1920–1924 was published by A&A Farmar in 2009

In December 2006 the National Library of Ireland acquired some 250 original drawings of the Shemus cartoons that appeared in the Freeman’s Journal between 1920 and 1924, the final years of that old and distinguished Irish newspaper. They have now been digitised and are available to view on the NLI’s online catalogue.

These cartoons are remarkably hard-hitting comments on the events of this bitterly contested period in Irish history. Up to the truce of July 1921, which led on to the Anglo-Irish Treaty in the following December, the main thrust of the cartoons was to react to the increasingly brutal nature of British rule in Ireland. Thereafter, they targeted principally the new government of Northern Ireland and the anti-Treaty elements in the new Irish Free State.

The cartoons complemented the Freeman’s editorial policy at that time, and the fact that the newspaper saw itself as an important player in the unfolding events is evident in the cartoons. For instance, the cartoon entitled ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ (published 3 April 1921) reflects the Freeman’s self-image as a bulwark against the British government and the excesses of the British military forces in Ireland during the War of Independence.

Under the Greenwood Tree by Shemus.

Under the Greenwood Tree by Shemus. NLI ref. PD 4309 TX 76

This cartoon depicts Lloyd George and Sir Hamar Greenwood, respectively the British prime minister and the chief secretary for Ireland. The title of the cartoon links Greenwood’s surname with a readily recognisable passage from Shakespeare’s As You Like It – ‘Under the greenwood tree, / Who loves to lie with me’. Greenwood is thus the tree against which Lloyd George lies, his left foot holding down a copy of the Freeman – and the message is that the Freeman’s fearless reporting is frustrating the efforts of both Lloyd George and Greenwood to cover up the truth about British policy in Ireland.

Shemus the cartoonist was Ernest Forbes (1879–1962), an Englishman who had come to Ireland to join the Freeman’s staff in 1920. He was later a noteworthy landscape artist and portrait painter in London and in his native Yorkshire. He used a number of pseudonyms in his long career, and even ‘Ernest Forbes’ was a contrivance: his full name was Ernest Forbes Holgate and he dropped the surname when signing his work. In 1927 he changed his name by deed poll to Ernest Forbes. The pseudonym ‘Shemus’ was exclusive to the Freeman’s Journal.

When Forbes joined the Freeman’s Journal in 1920, the paper’s principal proprietor was Martin Fitzgerald – a rambunctious figure, who had founded a firm of wine merchants in Dublin and was prominent in the commercial and sporting life of the city in the early years of the last century. His main sporting interest was horse-racing. An associate of his in horse-racing circles was R. Hamilton Edwards, a retired British journalist who had once worked with Lord Northcliffe in London but was now living in Ireland. Fitzgerald and Edwards jointly purchased the Freeman’s Journal in October 1919. It had been the semi-official organ of the Irish Party at Westminster since Parnell’s time. Accordingly, after the 1918 General Election and Sinn Fein’s triumph over that earlier nationalist tradition, it lost its raison d’être and was forced into liquidation some weeks before its purchase by Fitzgerald and Edwards.

It is likely that Hamilton Edwards, with his experience and connections in London, recruited Forbes to the Freeman – and the Shemus cartoons are broadly similar in style to cartoons that had been appearing in London newspapers such as the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail, both Northcliffe publications. Forbes retained an essentially British mindset throughout his sojourn in Ireland. His work for the Freeman during the War of Independence mirrored the British liberal critique of British policy in Ireland, a critique based principally on what British journalists were reporting from Ireland. He was at his best when treating of his Irish subject matter from the perspective of British politics and focusing on British politicians. A good example is the cartoon entitled ‘The Carson Kids’ (published 19 November 1920).

The Carson Kids.

The Carson Kids by Shemus. NLI ref. PD 4309 TX 52

This is one of only three Shemus cartoons in the National Library’s collection to have been finished in watercolour. Lloyd George and Greenwood are portrayed as children clutching Sir Edward Carson’s apron strings. The implication is that, with Lloyd George dependent on the support of the Conservative Party to continue in office, Carson can dictate British policy in Ireland.

Lloyd George, Greenwood and Carson also feature in the next cartoon reproduced here. It marks the introduction of partition under the Government of Ireland Act 1920, and is entitled ‘The Six Counties’ (published 28 May 1921). The first elections to the new parliament of Northern Ireland had just taken place. In the cartoon, the six counties of Northern Ireland are denoted by bubbles blown from Sir Edward Carson’s toy pipe. Sir James Craig, the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, is borne aloft on top of the bubbles, while Lloyd George and Greenwood look on from a distance.

The Six Counties.

The Six Counties by Shemus. NLI ref. PD 4309 TX 80

The Freeman’s support for the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 was generally regarded, even on the pro-Treaty side, as unduly partisan. It was marked by intemperate editorials, the suppression of anti-Treaty manifestos and speeches, and a series of notably malevolent cartoons attacking the anti-Treatyites with all the venom previously directed against the British authorities. The most notorious of these cartoons ‘Giving him his lines’ (published 10 February 1922) caricatures Éamon de Valera as the somewhat demented mouthpiece of his close associate, Erskine Childers.

Giving him his lines.

Giving him his lines by Shemus. NLI ref. PD 4309 TX 104

This cartoon appeared shortly after the Treaty had been ratified and de Valera had resigned as President of the Dáil Éireann executive. In the cartoon, Dev is arrayed in the ermine-edged robe of a peer – implying a disdain for democracy. He also holds the French revolutionary ‘Liberty Cap’, the bonnet rouge. In the caption to the cartoon, Childers says to Dev: ‘That’s fine. They fit you as well as ever – all except the cap. Now, don’t forget to say it exactly as I told you’.

Ireland’s gradual descent into civil war later in 1922 occasioned what is probably the best of all the Shemus cartoons – for, in addition to the punch that it packs, it is a most accomplished and skilful piece of drawing. It was published on 26 April 1922, shortly after the occupation of the Four Courts in Dublin by armed anti-Treatyites – the prelude to the outbreak of the civil war. Entitled ‘It Means Nothing to Them’, the caption has one of the gunmen in the foreground asking ‘What’s all the noise?’ to which the second replies ‘Don’t worry. It’s only the voice of the unarmed people’. The ‘unarmed people’ can be seen in the bottom left-hand corner of the cartoon.

It Means Nothing to Them.

It Means Nothing to Them by Shemus. NLI ref. PD 4309 TX 118

The unambiguous message of this cartoon is that armed resistance to the Treaty, represented by the skilfully drawn gunmen, flouts majority opinion in Ireland. The building in the background is the Bank of Ireland in College Green, Dublin, the seat of the last Irish parliament before the Act of Union of 1800.

The Shemus cartoon that resonates most with us today is the one that appeared in the Freeman after the death of Michael Collins (published 24 August 1922). It shows the female figure of Erin – and she is prostrate with grief at his death. The broken column is a traditional symbol for a life cut short, and each column in the cartoon bears the name of an Irish leader whose aims were not realised because of his untimely death. Collins is the latest in a line that includes Arthur Griffith, Charles Stewart Parnell, Daniel O’Connell and others. Their broken columns mark out  ‘Ireland’s Via Dolorosa’, which is the title of the cartoon.

Via Dolorosa

Via Dolorosa by Shemus. NLI ref. PD 4309 TX 145

The Shemus cartoons continued to appear in the Freeman until it ceased publication in December 1924. Forbes then returned to London, where he worked on the London Evening News and also contributed caricatures to the Illustrated London News. He moved back to Yorkshire in the 1930s, and wrote a long series of pictorial articles for the Yorkshire Post on the cities, towns and villages of Yorkshire and the ordinary people of the county – using his own drawings. To quote his obituarist in the Yorkshire Post, in these articles Forbes ‘proved himself as much an artist in words as with the pencil’. With the success of this series, he was able to give up work for newspapers and concentrate on oil painting, particularly landscapes. Bizarrely, in 1946 he suffered severe head injuries and fractured ribs when attacked by a bull while painting in a field. He died in February 1962, aged 82.

In 1923 the Freeman’s Journal boasted that the Shemus cartoons ‘will not easily fade from public memory … [and] are amongst the most notable productions in the history of the cartoonist’s art’. That may be an extravagant claim, but the cartoons certainly did light up the pages of the Freeman between 1920 and 1924. With the National Library’s digitisation of the original drawings of these cartoons in its collection, it is likely that they will again become well known – deservedly so, for they are eminently suitable for use as illustrations in academic and other studies of the period. To quote Hamlet, they are ‘abstracts and brief chronicles of the time’.


Last October, the Labour Party donated its archive to us here at the National Library. This fascinating collection reaches right back to the Party’s foundation in 1912. Project archivist, Ross Higgins, is currently working on this important archive and will be posting about items he finds…

by Ross Higgins, Project Archivist

The More Things Change…

Dick Spring for Taoiseach

Dick Spring for Taoiseach from the Labour Party Archive

Here’s a Labour Party lapel sticker from the 1992 general election. During the campaign Dick Spring TD (who was then leader of the Labour Party) was hoping for Labour to make a breakthrough and become one of the two largest parties in the Dáil. In the course of that campaign they adopted the slogan ‘Dick Spring for Taoiseach’ shown on this sticker, with the Labour Party emblem of the rose. Eamon Gilmore TD and Labour leader used this same slogan in the 2011 General Election.

100 Years A-Waiting

Labour Party Annual Reports

100 years of Labour Party Annual Reports

Ever wondered what a hundred years of annual reports looks like? Don’t answer that! – Have a look at 100 years of the Labour Party’s Annual Reports stacked in my office at the National Library of Ireland. Unusually among Irish political parties, Labour produced these reports to put before its conferences each year, thus keeping up a tradition the party had inherited from the Irish Congress of Trades Unions (ICTU). The reports run from 1914 to 2011 and will provide a wealth of information to researchers interested in aspects of Labour history including minutes of conferences and meetings; Labour’s stance during the Irish Civil War and World War Two; along with details of scores of individuals involved in the Labour movement in Ireland.

Small records often start big things…

Nomination Form

2007 nomination form for deputy leadership of the Labour Party

Here’s a copy of Joan Burton’s (current Minister for Social Protection) nomination form to become Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. The election took place in September 2007 where she ran against the current Minister of State for Housing Jan O’Sullivan TD. We can see from the form she was nominated by fellow TDs Brian O’Shea from Waterford and Joanna Tuffy, who represents the Dublin Mid-West constituency.


by Élodie Lévêque, Project Conservator

An extraordinary manuscript collection; the Ormond Collection has been called the ‘most important Anglo-Norman family archive in Ireland’. It encompasses almost 700 years of Irish history, from the first influx of Norman settlers, to the workings of the feudal system, and the Butler family lordship of almost half of Ireland. A project to conserve and re-house the early 13th century deeds from this collection generously supported by The Ireland Funds and the NLI Trust is under way.

These deeds are legal manuscripts that detail the transfer of land ownership from one person to another. Most are handwritten in Latin on parchment (sheep) and many have wax seals – the 13th century ‘rubber stamp’ – verifying their legal status. The project began with assessing the condition of the parchments: many had mould damage, persistent folds and tears, and the original wax seals were broken or had significant losses.

Before treatment

An Ormond Deed creased and curling before treatment

Parchment is made from limed animal skin; including calfskin, sheepskin or goatskin. Before the widespread use of paper, parchment was the most common material for writing for over a thousand years. Parchment making isn’t something you come across every day, so this BBC documentary clip might interest those who’d like to know more. It is an incredibly strong and smooth support, so why had these parchments suffered so? The answer is the damp Irish weather!

Mould on parchment

Mould has stained this deed, making a black and blotchy pattern on the parchment

Much like our own skin, parchment is incredibly sensitive to moisture and consistently absorbs and releases it. In fact parchment contains 14% water molecules, twice that of average paper. The moisture is held in organic tissues by adsorptive forces and lubricates the collagen fibres making the parchment flexible. This means that if parchment is folded up and put in a dry space, it loses moisture and ‘dries’ into the folded shape, making it very difficult to unfold and read. Equally, if placed somewhere very humid for some time, it will absorb and hold this moisture, creating a damp organic substrate – perfect conditions for mould!

Magnified close-up of collagen fibres

Conservation treatments were undertaken to flatten and re-house some of the deeds – but removing the creases can be a tricky affair! Full-blown exposure to liquid water can permanently destroy the parchment altogether. It causes gelatinisation of the fibre structure, which makes the parchment translucent and brittle.

Controlled humidification techniques were used to introduce water vapour to slowly relax the collagen fibres in the parchment. The original parchment makers would have stretched the parchment in a frame, drying it like a drum. While not quite so dramatic, light tensioning methods, incorporating the use of magnets and elastics were also used for these fragile items. The deeds were then left to dry very slowly under controlled weight.

Tension repairing

A repaired deed is dried under tension - the black elastics have some ''give''

For the mould-damaged deeds, interventive treatment stabilised confetti-like areas of parchment where the mould enzymes had consumed the protein and fat tissues in the skin. The mould also released chromophores (molecular groupings which cause a characteristic colour) which permanently stain the parchment with irregular grey, black and even pink blotches!

Text visible

After treatment, the text of the deed is now clearly visible

Any conservation treatment aims to use the least interventive means of stabilising the object by using reversible and sympathetic materials – fixing like with like. A second support of ‘goldbeater’s skin’, a very thin parchment made of the outer membrane of calf’s intestine, was applied with tepid gelatine solution to these areas and along tears. Missing areas of the deeds were infilled with a specially sourced thin lamb parchment to match the original skin which is incredibly almost 0.3mm thin!

New storage

Parchment in new storage with Mylar strip holders

Integral to the original function of the deeds, the wax seals also needed conservation as the beeswax had essentially dried out and fragmented. The broken seals were put back together or consolidated with soft beeswax repairs, toned with pigments to match the original colours.

Ormond Deed

After treatment, one of the Ormond Deeds in its new purpose-fit housing

Once conserved, scholars can now easily access previously hidden text by viewing digital images of the objects. This removes any damaging consequences from direct handling. A new housing system made of archival quality materials was also designed for the whole collection. This helps protect the fragile wax seals with custom protective cushioning while Mylar strips help keep the parchment tensioned – reducing the natural urge of the skins to curl back into a sheep!

A detailed transcription calendar of these Ormond deeds up to the seventeenth century was published in five volumes by the Irish Manuscripts Commission between 1932 and 1943, and is also available online.

The Ireland Funds

This conservation project has been generously support by The Ireland Funds