The legendary Skibbereen Eagle newspaper was founded in 1857 in the small town in West Cork, Ireland from which it took its name. It was initially a monthly publication and then became weekly, grandiosely expounding its British imperialistic stance on local, national and international affairs as it was aimed squarely at its readership, the local Protestant land owning and merchant classes or as they were nicknamed by Irish Nationalists the “West Brits.” In the late 19th Century the town was not the sleepy and rather lovely tourist backwater it is today but a busy commercial hub with steamship services and two railways the Cork, Bandon and South Coast Railway and the narrow gauge Schull and Skibbereen Railway. The first copy of The Skibbereen Eagle was issued on May 6th 1857, by the Welsh-born Frederick Peel Eldon Potter and his two sons.
Perhaps the most famous moment, worldwide, for The Skibbereen Eagle was when it became embroiled in international relations with Russia in 1898 which became known as “keeping an eye on Russia”.
Rather grandly the editorial claimed: “It [The Eagle] will still keep its eye on the Emperor of Russia and all such despotic enemies – whether at home or abroad – of human progression and man’s natural rights which undoubtedly include a nation’s right to self-government. ‘Truth’, ‘Liberty’, ‘Justice’ and the ‘Land for the People’ are the solid foundations on which the Eagle’s policy is based.”
The intrepid editor and proprietor Frederick Potter used in his editorial a report on a secret treaty by Russia [the Eagle is keeping its eye on the Emperor] to expand its territory into Manchuria by leasing the Liaoning Peninsula and the ice free Port of Dalian which they provocatively renamed Port Arthur. Russia and Nicholas II were taken advantage of growing regional tensions between China and Japan after the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95. The Japanese saw Russia’s ultimate aim as annexing all of Manchuria with its natural resources of coal and iron. Ultimately Russia’s action led to the shock comprehensive military and naval defeats of Russia by Japan in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904/5. This in turn lead to the Japanese invasions of Manchuria and Korea and dealt a body blow exposing the archaic weakness of the Czarist Regime leading ultimately to the Russian Revolution in 1917. Indeed it set the scene for conflicts in World Wars 1 and Two and regional tensions in Asia which persist to this day.
An extract from his editorial on the 5th of September 1898 proclaims very grandly that the Eagle ‘will still keep its eye on the Emperor of Russia and all such despotic enemies – whether at home or abroad – of human progression and man’s natural right which, undoubtedly, include a nation’s right to self-government. “Truth”, “Liberty”, “Justice” and the “Land for the People” are the solid foundations on which the Eagle policy is based’.
This all arose when a rumour went out that the Emperor of China had been murdered in September 1898. Potter gave a bizarre description of the supposed murder in the Eagle by saying that ‘they commenced operations by burning his eyes and setting fire to his “pig tail”. Next they cut off his monkey nose; then removed his pearly teeth, pulled out his tongue, chopped off his ears, denailed his toes and cut his throat’. The only problem with this colourful report is that the Emperor had not been murdered at all!
A letter from John Redmond to T.P. O Connor printed in the Skibbereen Eagle in February 1910 referring to the Irish Nationalist vote in the British General Election and their successful efforts to thwart Unionist and House of Lords candidates. @skibbheritage #irishhistory pic.twitter.com/8hZAOqMP3T
— Màire Burke (@maireaburke) March 6, 2018
At the same time Russia launched attacks into the Muslim lands of the Caucus in a vicious campaign spearheaded by the Cossack Cavalry – the source of the bitter tension and Russian oppression which exists to this day in Chechnya, Dagestan, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. The Skibbereen Eagle as the weekly paper of the landed and merchant classes of West Cork identified with the British Imperial Project, then at its most feverish and the threat to British interests in India.
Frederick Potter’s scheme for The Skibbereen Eagle to punch above its weight by commenting on world affairs certainly garnered publicity and its influence can be seen to this day, no more so than on the Blogosphere. In truth as somebody who was British and pro-Unionist he was an outsider in West Cork and the World and the Empire’s not to mention the Emerald Isle were soon to be irrevocably changed by the Great War and the fight for Irish Independence. Skibbereen itself was no mere spectator to these struggles having been one of the places most hit by the Great Hunger / Famine of 1847-1852 as the 10,000 bodies in the infamous famine pits at Abbeystrewry just outside the town mutely testify. The son of a man who starved to death in the famine Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa was one of the founders in Skibbereen of the Phoenix Literary Society which became the Fenian Brotherhood. Patrick Pearse’s incendiary oration at his graveside in 1915 when the body of the dead Fenian was brought back from New York where he died in exile “They think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but the fools, the fools, the fools! — they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace” set the scene for the Easter Rising the following year.
As for Fred Potter he died in 1906 and soon found himself on the wrong side of history but history remembers him for keeping his Eye on the Czar of Russia and for showing journalism has no boundaries. The title passed to his son Eldon who had a thriving career as a barrister and didn’t take part in the management of the paper from its Bridge Street offices where the Southern Star is ensconced to this day serving the West Cork Community. The Eldon Hotel which still exists in Skibbereen is named after him.
Check out John O’Donovan’s paper, ‘Conservatism with a small ‘c’; Loyalism with a small ‘l’? The ‘Skibbereen Eagle’ and its turbulent hinterland 1900 – 1922’ given during our ‘Southern Loyalism in Context’ conference last July! https://t.co/do6yLixpR5
— DH @ Maynooth (@DigiHum_MU) February 9, 2018
The ‘eye on Russia’ phrase is now known world-wide and is often still quoted in the media. This phrase became famous over several decades causing at one point the embarrassed Irish Times to make an uncomplimentary reference to it in a somewhat disdainful fashion, though it later apologised, regretting “its hasty and inadvertent blunder”. By then, however, the bold little newspaper was famous for the “eye on Russia” saga.
— The Skibbereen Eagle (@theskibeagle) March 22, 2017
This newspaper was superseded by the Southern Star which took over the faltering Skibbereen Eagle and closed down the paper in 1929. The Southern Star was founded in 1889 to represent the Nationalist viewpoint in West Cork in opposition to the Eagle which was pro-Unionist. The Southern Star was founded in 1889 by two Skibbereen brothers, John and Florence O’Sullivan. One of the main reasons for establishing The Southern Star was to combat The Skibbereen Eagle as an organ of British imperialism and also as a paper very inimical to the Catholic Church. The Southern Star’s first editor was D.D. Sheehan, and it later included among its shareholders one Michael Collins.
E. Cobham Brewer 1810–1897. Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. 1898.
Now the Spirit of the Skibbereen Eagle has been revived on the internet with this successor casting a cold eye on the world and its comings and goings. Beware, beware, ye statesmen, emperors, Tories and thrones, for the Skibbereen Eagle still has its eye upon you!
Today, powered by its readers and contributors, from its cyber eyries in Ireland and the centres of the Irish Diaspora The Eagle casts its Cold Eye on Life and Death and much in between.