Ulster Unionist Political Propaganda Postcards

Postcard - Belfast Under Home Rule

Anti-Home Rule Postcard – Source Credit: Linen Hall Library/Postcards Ireland

The postcard above was printed during the third Home Rule Crisis ca. 1912-1914. It features the Albert Memorial Tower being pulled down and replaced by a statue of John Redmond (leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party) with crown and scepter, labeled ‘Redmond Rex Hibernia.”  The gigantic Poor House Annex is “Full Up” and droves of people are crowded at the Protestant Emigration Office where they can buy “Tickets for New York or Anywhere” (sponsored by the Irish state, with the green harp flag flying above).  One wing of the building is dedicated space for the “Office of the Molly Maguires.” The American influence over the new Irish government and “King Redmond” is further symbolized by the American flag and ship parked at the Customs Office.  Meanwhile the formerly industrial Belfast is being overtaken by pigs, chickens, and goats.

Such messages were common in the rhetoric of Ulster unionists during the third Home Rule crisis, and I am particularly interested in this card because it is consistent with their portrayals of American influence over Irish nationalists during the Home Rule era.

This postcard is only one of a large number of political postcards published by both unionists and nationalists during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The picture postcard was invented in the 1860s and became extremely popular in the 1890s, just as the Irish political situation was facing renewed turmoil in the debates over Home Rule.

Political postcards commonly condemned or commended politicians, policies, and reforms, often combining these views with humor. As John Killen writes, these political postcards were direct descendants of political cartoons – and indeed were sometimes reprints of political cartoons from magazines or newspapers. The nationalist Dungannon Club was the first political organization in Ulster to use political postcards extensively.

Postcards were also used to promote candidates for office on election campaigns, providing a summary of positions on issues. Other postcards were photographs of events with little or no written interpretation, such as scenes from the 1907 Belfast strike.  At first these postcards were printed by printing companies from Belfast, Dublin, and sometimes further afield; but later private individuals began to produce their own pictorial cards.

After the third Home Rule crisis, the use and publication of political postcards fell into decline until the 1960s and 1970s, when the Troubles stimulated the production of postcards to express a wide variety of viewpoints on the situation in Northern Ireland and its relationship with Great Britain.

Political postcards can reveal the sequence of events in a historic period, elements social history, the range of people impacted in different situations depicted, political history, military history, reactions to military and police presence, labor movements, and the presence of the photographer. And of course they can help us to discover how different political movements portrayed themselves, the issues that were important to them, and attempted to counter their adversaries.

See Also

Postcards Ireland website from Linen Hall Library – a fascinating digital collection of all categories of postcards (not just political)

John Killen, John Bull’s Famous Circus: Ulster History through the Postcard, 1905-1985 (Dublin: O’Brien Press, 1985).

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