I love the slowly peeling signage of Ardiff Mahon Printers on Yarnhall Street, a street just off Bolton Street. I would often use the street as a shortcut to Henrietta Street on a walking tour, but never really gave it much thought beyond convenience. While the aging Mahon signage is a great example of the kind disappearing rapidly across the city in favour of printed alternatives, Mahon Printers themselves have a great history, as a printer of republican newspapers and propaganda during the revolutionary period.
Every revolutionary movement requires its printing presses of course. I find it quite remarkable that the man who printed the 1916 Proclamation, Christopher Brady, was ultimately turned down for a 1916 medal or pension when he applied decades later – surely his contribution warranted one? Propaganda and communication is central to any radical movement, and printers are a key component of both.
In the years before the 1916 Rising and indeed the turbulent period after it, there existed a vibrant ‘Mosquito Press’ in Ireland, which battled against the oppressive Defence of the Realm Act to produce political publications that challenged the authorities. Separatist newspapers of just about every variety encountered great difficulty. The Dublin Metropolitan Police ‘Movement of Extremist’ files not only monitored who was going where, but also who was printing what. Copies of many newspapers like Irish Freedom, The Workers’ Republic and the Irish language Na Bac Léis were scrutinised by the police.
The Mahon printing firm of Yarnhall Street was one of the most commonly used by radicals a century ago, which was unsurprising given that the Mahon’s were themselves radicals. Ross Mahon, a compositor with the family business, found himself interned in the Ballykinlar Camp in 1920, while Patrick Mahon was also arrested by the authorities in that same year. The family could claim to be ‘out’ in 1916, while their business premises endured great hardship during the War of Independence years owing to intimidation.
One newspaper which the authorities found particularly troubling was Irish Freedom, which sought to advance and promote the political aspirations of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), and which was edited by Seán Mac Diarmada. The first issue of the paper in 1911 laid out its ideology plain and simple for readers: “The Irish attitude to England is war yesterday, war today, war tomorrow. Peace after the final battle.”
It was not a voice of moderation or reformism; on the eve of a Royal Visit in 1911, Mac Diarmada argued that “Ireland wants no concession from England. We want what is ours; that is our country, and by the Lord we mean to have it, come what may.” Irish Freedom was printed by Mahon’s, and the eventual suppression of the paper in December 1914 was hardly surprising to anyone – that the paper lasted as long as it did was perhaps more surprising. At a public meeting following the suppression of the paper and others like it, Francis Sheehy Skeffington condemned the “cowardice” of the authorities in going after the printers of publications they found politically criminal. Indeed, printing newspapers like Irish Freedom brought great risks to Mahon’s and other businesses; as Seán T. O’Kelly recalled, it was normal procedure that when a printing premises was raided by the loathed ‘G Division’ of the DMP, “essential parts of the printing presses were seized and taken away, presumably to Dublin Castle.”
In the aftermath of the outlawing of publications like Irish Freedom, the newspaper Scissors and Paste was born, with its name derived from the fact this paper was made up almost exclusively of excerpts and cutouts from British papers and ‘neutral sources’, making it a headache for the authorities. Still, it too had its moment of judgement, and the offices of Mahon’s were raided on 2 March 1915, with British military authorities forced employees to help them dismantle printing equipment.
One of Mahon’s most important undertakings was the printing of the souvenir programme of the funeral of Fenian leader Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, which took place in Dublin on 1 August 1915. In a political show of strength, tens of thousands lined the streets of the capital for the veteran separatist, who was buried in Glasnevin cemetery. The graveside oration by Patrick Pearse concluded with the defining words that “Ireland unfree shall never at peace”, while a volley of shots rang out over the cemetery. The funeral souvenir programme included articles by James Connolly and Thomas MacDonagh, as well as the speech of Pearse. In reading Connolly’s piece today, it seems clear he was looking towards insurrection:
The Irish Citizen Army in its constitution pledges its members to fight for a Republican Freedom for Ireland. Its members are, therefore, of the number who believe that at the call of duty they may have to lay down their lives for Ireland, and have so trained themselves that at the worst the laying down of their lives shall constitute the starting point of another glorious tradition – a tradition that will keep alive the soul of the nation.
Paddy Mahon, son of the printer of the same name, took part in the drama of Easter Week, positioned opposite the GPO in the Imperial Hotel. Volunteer Seamus Daly remembered him as “the merriest out of the whole lot”, even as it became clear their position was untenable. He was later deported to Stafford Jail and interned in Frongoch, until his release at Christmas 1916. A brother, Thomas Mahon, arrived at the GPO on Easter Monday and was permitted into the Garrison despite not being a member of the Volunteers or the Citizen Army, perhaps indicative of the respect for the family. Owing to his youth, Thomas Mahon was released after a week.
Patrick Mahon Senior was arrested after the Rising and charged with the printing of The Irish Volunteer newspaper, a ‘crime’ which ultimately landed him in Mountjoy until November. Mahon was an elected Councillor of the Dublin Corporation, and his incarceration for printing a newspaper was raised in Westminster.
In the aftermath of the Rising, Mahon’s remained an important republican print works, though it was occasionally raided by the authorities, on one occasion twice in the same day. The family themselves remained politically active too; Ross Mahon, the youngest of the siblings, was active in F. Company the IRA’s 1st Battalion in Dublin. Mahon’s were responsible for the printing of Peadar Kearney’s The Soldier’s Song in December 1916, today known as Amhrán na bhFiann. The song had been sung on the barricades by the rebels during Easter Week, and would surpass even the hugely popular God Save Ireland in the months that followed.
Mahon’s didn’t only print publications that were sympathetic to the cause of the IRA, they also printed the IRA’s own publication, An t-Óglach. IRA Volunteer John Shouldice recalled:
In 1919 the pressure of the Crown Forces became stronger…’Irish Ireland’ papers were suppressed.Raids on printing offices became frequent, but all managed to carry on in one way or another. The IRA paper An t-Óglach was very much sought after by the G Men. It was seized in shops that kept it for sale, railway stations etc., and the printing of it became more onerous and difficult.Mahon’s of Yarnhall Street had been printing it at the time and unsuccessful raids were made by Castle Detectives. I remember one night a number of us were mobilised to defend Mahon’s where the IRA paper was being printed.
In the aftermath of the Anglo-Irish Treaty divide, Ross Mahon joined the Free State army, and the Mahon’s served as printers of the Free State army publication An t-Óglach, which brought negative attention from republicans. On one occasion, the premises “were almost completely destroyed by mine explosion carried out by armed men.”
James Ardiff would come to manage the printing company, and today the words ‘Ardiff Mahon Printers’ remain. In the history of the unconquerable ‘Mosquito Press’ of revolutionary Ireland, the name Mahon is greatly important and deserves to be remembered.