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World's first newspaper interview may have been with Irish woman during famine

Bridget was interviewed by one of the many journalists sent from London to find out if the famine was actually as bad as the Irish press was making out.

HER NAME WAS Bridget O’Donnel. In December of 1849 she has been cheated out of her crops, her 13-year-old son had died and she was worried she was going to lose her newborn baby too. The famine had destroyed her life.

Bridget’s story was just one of many who suffered great hardship during the Great Irish Famine, but hers was the first to travel across the Irish sea. It was the first to be read by Londoners who, before then, could not believe the horrors they heard about the famine in Ireland could possibly be true.

The picture above, of the young mother and her two children, appeared in an issue of the London Illustrated News, along with what is now believed to be the world’s first newspaper interview.

Iconic

Michael Foley, the author of a new folio on journalism and the Great Irish Famine, explained that at the beginning of the famine, there was a belief that a catastrophe of this scale could not possibly be taking place within the biggest empire in the world.

In England, there was also a general distrust of the Irish so a number of journalists were sent here to authenticate what had been coming out in the Irish press.

“The technology that allowed for Illustrated newspapers had just arrived and the London Illustrated News was relatively new,” Foley told TheJournal.ie.

The picture used was actually quite small but it became hugely iconic afterwards. An artist, who happened to be from Cork – James Mahony was his name – was sent to Ireland and he met her and drew the picture and she ended up being this human interest story.

At the time, the interview with the woman was not so much an attempt at a new style of journalism as it was a practical way of demonstrating to readers she was a real person by putting a story with a face. She told the artist about how the famine had impacted on her life, about the loss of her son and her concerns about the future for her other children.

It was thought, up until now, that the first ever newspaper interview was in 1859 in the US, with the founder of the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley. Foley believes Bridget’s story may have fallen through the cracks as she was an ordinary person.

Change

At the time, a slow revolution was beginning in the newspaper industry and views on poverty among those in the higher ranks of society were also changing.

“There were lots of changes happening. One was philosophical -people started to understand what they had in common and that the poor was not necessarily responsible for their own poverty. People started wanting to know more about the poor,” Foley said.

He said the terrible suffering journalists saw in Ireland during that time had a huge impact on them.

“They were probably the only middle class people, other than doctors and the like, who saw the famine and I think when we see later growth of the nationalist press in Ireland that was those same journalists.”

And the use of individual stories to highlight the wider issues is seen in modern news reports every day.

“If you look at the little boy whose body was found on the beach in Turkey – suddenly all the issues people had with refugees fell away and people said ‘we can take them’. IT was the same with Bridget. People couldn’t say ‘well you can’t trust the Irish because they’re always rising up and causing trouble’.

This woman and her children became an uncomplicated image of the famine.”

Foley’s folio, ‘Death in Every Paragraph: Journalism & the Great Irish Famine’, is one of four to be released by Cork University Press. 

PHOTOS: Tracing the footsteps of one of the Great Famine’s darkest chapters>

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