The Champion and Sligo News or The Sligo Champion, as it became, was first published in 1836, and is still published today. The paper offers a fascinating insight into life in the north-west of Ireland in the nineteenth century.
A typical nineteenth century weekly paper The Sligo Champion was initially published on Saturdays at a price of 7 pence. By the 1850s the paper had expanded to eight pages and the price had dropped to 6d. At twice the size of most other newspapers of the day it offered relative value for money (6d was half a day’s wage for a farm labourer). A typical edition carried an array of news stories from around the world as well as extensive local news. The paper offered entertainment alongside serious news including poetry, serialised novels and even jokes. In a time of low literacy (in rural areas up to half the population could not read or write) the newspaper would be passed around many houses and read aloud for those who could not read it for themselves.
Our earliest edition is the first edition published on 4 June 1836 and, as might be expected from a paper printed a hundred and seventy-seven years ago, it shows some signs of wear and tear. Digitisation is helping to preserve these fragile objects and is bringing them to a global audience. These stories from the first edition give a real flavour of life a decade before The Great Famine.
Not unsurprisingly as a newly established publication the first edition of The Sligo Champion is a little light on advertisements and ordinary news but passionate in its politics. Parliamentary debates are published, the first edition of the paper features O'Connell calling for a reform of the House of Lords.
The layout of early newspapers can seem a little odd to the modern reader. The text is small and cramped and not separated with ‘headlines’ or even spaces between stories. A snippet about unusual vegetables can suddenly turn into a tip about preventing creaking shoes which in turn leads into an announcement about a judicial appointment, which is then followed by a report on a ‘hostile meeting’ (which turns out to be a duel, one of those involved is 'shot very slightly' and the other 'severely but not dangerously'!) and finally a story of the court-martial of a soldier. It can leave the reader a bit breathless!
Eighteen thirty-six was the year the national police force was inaugurated in Ireland. Previously policing was organised at a local or regional level and their structures and uniforms (where they existed) had a military overtone. The numbers of police, about 7,500, for a population of approximately eight million was roughly half of what it is today (about 14,000) for a population of about five million, not counting the horses! This may come as a surprise given the amount of cases heard at the Petty Sessions the millions of cases heard in those courts would make you think the police were out rounding up people for the slightest infraction day and night, but the lower courts did not always involve the police. In the nineteenth century the responsibility of bringing a case to court, and the cost of it, often lay with the complainant. Defendants were not always in police custody before the court date, which may go some way to explaining the great number of 'non-appearances' of defendants.
The newspaper has stories from all over the country and includes this one about a gala fete held at Dublin Zoo which had opened just five years previously. Admission to the Zoo was 6d. Four years after this article appeared (in 1840) that the Zoo made the ground-breaking decision to charge 1d on Sundays allowing many more people to enjoy the sights and sounds of the exotic animals it housed, animals that the people would have never have seen before, not even in ‘picture books’.
Among the notices one caught our attention was a public declaration of the insolvency of one Edward Casey. With the loss of records relating to insolvents & debtors in the explosion at the Four Courts in 1922 notices such as this one are invaluable for piecing together parts of our ancestors’ lives that would otherwise be forgotten.
The newspapers continue to offer up amazing genealogical gems and incredible insights into life in nineteenth century Ireland. Join us next week when we peruse the pages of The Dublin Evening Mail from January 1849.