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Column ‘A bit of a genius’ – remembering Jim Larkin’s gunned down cartoonist

The radical newspaper cartoonist Ernest Kavanagh was shot dead on the front steps of Liberty Hall in 1916. A friend said “the poverty and wretchedness of the Dublin workers weighed heavily upon his heart,” writes James Curry.

ON THE MORNING of Tuesday 25 April 1916 Ernest Kavanagh was shot dead on the front steps of Liberty Hall, the headquarters of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) where he was employed as a clerk. One of several hundred civilians to be killed during the Easter Rising, the Dubliner was 32 years old at the time of his death.

Despite what was described in an obituary piece as an ‘inherent antipathy to discipline’ and the fact he never held a gun in his life, the strongly nationalist Kavanagh had seemingly called to Liberty Hall in order to offer his services to the rebels due to feeling guilty for not joining the Rising at its commencement the day before. He was gunned down before getting a chance to join the fighting, with the shots that killed him most likely coming from a British sniper stationed at the nearby Custom House.

Hard-hitting illustrations

Kavanagh was not just a clerk at Liberty Hall. By the time of his death he had successfully established himself as a radical newspaper cartoonist, having contributed dozens of hard-hitting illustrations to Irish labour, nationalist and suffrage papers under the monogram “E.K.” during the previous four years.

The majority of Kavanagh’s cartoons were published in the Irish Worker, the popular official weekly paper of the ITGWU which was edited by Jim Larkin. Kavanagh was apparently a good personal friend of Larkin, with whom he was said to have gotten on very well.

Captain Robert Monteith, another well-known friend of his, later described Kavanagh as follows:

Poor E.K., an artist of promise whose art was ever at the service of his class and country without thought of reward… The poverty and wretchedness of the Dublin workers weighed heavily upon his heart, enshrouding him in pessimism when it did not half madden him.

I have seen the blood surge in a crimson wave over his usually pale face at the sight of a shivering half starved child whilst his hand went to his pocket for his last few coppers.

It was not unusual for E.K. to dispose of his week’s salary to the waifs and strays of Dublin within five hundred yards of Liberty Hall, where he was employed as a clerk in the Insurance Section of the Transport Workers’ Union, leaving himself penniless for a week to come, and necessitating his walking to and from his home in Ranelagh.

imageThe only known surviving photograph of Ernest Kavanagh, taken four days before his death, courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

A potent propaganda weapon

In his first few months contributing to the Irish Worker Kavanagh mainly offered up visual representations of comic poems by the paper’s sub-editor Andrew Patrick Wilson, a Scottish actor who would later become the General Manager of the Abbey Theatre. Yet upon the outbreak of the Dublin Lockout in late August 1913 Kavanagh’s role immediately increased, and he emerged as a far more independent voice whose front page cartoons were now valued on their own merits as a potent propaganda weapon.

During the Lockout he viciously attacked William Martin Murphy and the Dublin police on a regular basis. The latter were frequently portrayed as brutish, bloodthirsty, drunken tyrants who were controlled by politicians and employers and all too ready to administer a beating to the city’s working class population with their batons, especially if the unfortunate recipient happened to be a woman or child.

Murphy was the recipient of equally ferocious treatment. At various times Dublin’s most eminent businessman was attacked in a series of notorious illustrations that became synonymous with the Irish Worker and its hard-hitting journalistic style.

Although Kavanagh had depicted Murphy as a murderous tyrant almost a full year before the outbreak of the Lockout, it was his cartoons attacking the leader of the Dublin Employers’ Federation in late 1913 that were destined to have the most lasting impact.

imageImage courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Front page, 6th September 1913

His infamous depiction of Murphy as a bloodthirsty vulture was published on the front page of the Irish Worker one hundred years ago, on 6th September 1913. Lying prostrate in a pool of blood outside the locked front gates of Murphy’s Rathmines mansion lay the body of a Dublin worker, the implication clearly being that Murphy had blood on his hands and was responsible for the murder of several workers on Dublin’s streets at the hand of the police during the previous weekend’s city centre rioting.

At the Askwith Inquiry set up by the British Government in early October 1913 to try and secure a resolution to the Lockout, Murphy’s lawyer brandished the 6th September issue of the Irish Worker featuring this front-page cartoon as evidence of the persecution that his client regularly faced in Larkin’s newspaper. In the same court session Murphy added his personal belief that the Irish Worker was an ‘incitement to murder’.

He relentlessly fought for women’s rights

On 6th September 1913 Kavanagh also had a cartoon appear on the front page of the Irish Citizen, a Dublin-based newspaper that relentlessly fought for women’s rights. In this powerful yet subtle illustration two decrepit and idiotic looking men are shown to convince themselves that women should not be allowed to vote because they are ‘physically and mentally’ inferior beings.

He may have died while still a young man, but “E.K.” lived long enough to leave behind a fascinating pictorial record of an Ireland filled with protest and social unrest during the years leading up to the Easter Rising that would claim his life. He was subsequently remembered by Constance Markievicz, a friend of the Kavanagh family, as ‘a bit of a genius’.

James Curry is a Digital Humanities Doctoral Scholar in Modern Irish History at the Moore Institute, NUI Galway, and author of Artist of the Revolution, The Cartoons of Ernest Kavanagh (Mercier Press, 2012).

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