Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Original Muckraker? - Samuel Sidney McClure of Drumnaglea and New York (1857–1949)


Samuel Sidney McClure was born at Drumnaglea near Rasharkin. Generations of the family had lived there at the same farmstead. His father, Thomas McClure, took a job in the shipyards of Belfast and later Glasgow, where he tragically fell through an open trap door and later died in hospital.

Samuel was just nine, and he emigrated to the USA wih his mother and his three younger brothers. They went to Indiana, where two aunts and two uncles had already settled. They took a train from Glarryford to Londonderry where they caught the Mongolia, a ship sailing from Glasgow to Quebec.

His Autobiography, ghost written by Willa Cather, was originally published in 1914. It has some classic narrative material in it, told with the dramatic flair of a storyteller –

“… I WAS born in Ireland, fifty-six years ago. Antrim, the northeast county of the Province of Ulster, was my native county. My mother's maiden name was Elizabeth Gaston. Her people were descended from a French Huguenot family that came to Ireland after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and they still bore their French surname. My father's people, the McClures, were from Galloway, Scotland. The family had come across the North Channel about two hundred years ago and settled in Ulster.

After the battle of the Boyne, as for hundreds of years before, it was a common thing for the Protestant kings of England to make large grants of Irish land to Protestant colonists from England and Scotland. Ulster, lying across a narrow strip of water from the Scottish coast, was given over to colonists from the Lowlands until half her population was foreign. The injustice of this system of colonization, together with the fierce retaliation of the Irish, brought about the long list of reciprocal atrocities which are at the root of the Irish question to-day.

WITH such a dark historical background, the religious feeling on both sides was intense. There had been very few instances of intermarriage between the Scotch Protestant colonists and the Irish Catholics who were the original inhabitants of the Province of Ulster. Among both Protestants and Catholics the feeling against intermarriage was so strong that, when such a marriage occurred, even in my time, it was considered a terrible misfortune as well as a disgrace. This state of feeling had kept both races pure and unmodified, though they mingled together in the most friendly fashion in all the ordinary occupations of life. In Antrim the Scotch colonists had retained much of their Lowland speech. The dialect of Mr. Barrie's stories was familiar to my ears as a child …"

(Presumably he is referring here to the language and vocabulary used in the likes of Sentimental Tommy by JM Barrie, who is best known as the author of Peter Pan).

McClure's career was pretty impressive - from a childhood of poverty he set up the first newspaper syndicate which licensed novels to be serialised in newspapers. He then set up his own McClure’s Magazine in 1893. McClure made a return visit to Ulster, some photographs of him at the old homestead feature in his autobiography. 

In later life he became obsessed with politics and democracy, publishing a number of books on the subject such as Obstacles to Peace (1917), The Achievements of Liberty (1935), and What Freedom Means to Man (1938). He died in relative obscurity in New York in 1949 and was buried at Knox County, Illinois (grave details here).

His grandson wrote a biography in the 1970s which said that "McClure’s was “the most exciting, the liveliest, the best illustrated, the most handsomely dressed, the most interesting, and the most profitable” magazine of its day”. It has been described as "the premier muckraking magazine of its day”, exposing abuses of power in government, tackling the billionaire John D Rockefeller and his Standard Oil Company, and the scandal of urban slums in America. One of his young staff members said he was “an uncivilized, immoral, untutored natural man with enough canniness to keep himself out of jails and asylums.”

It is probably unfair to use the term ‘muckraker’ in the modern sense, McClure’s seems to be effective investigative journalism, with Ida Tarbell’s work on the Rockefeller story recently described as a ‘journalistic masterpiece’.

McClure said this of his Antrim upbringing:

"... We were poor, but we were of the well-to-do poor. We were always properly dressed on Sundays. We always had hats and shoes and stockings and warm clothes in winter. We had plenty of fuel, too ... Our food, like that of our neighbors, was extremely simple. Potatoes were the staple, with a sparing use of bacon and plenty of butter-milk. We did not use bread, but oat-cakes, made of oatmeal and baked on a griddle. These were very crisp and tasty when they were well made. My mother occasionally varied them with fadge, a dough made of wheat flour with an infusion of potatoes and baked like pan-cakes. Fresh meat we seldom had, but we sometimes ate dried or fresh herrings, broiling them on the tongs over the peat fire. I can remember when the use of white bread and tea began to be general among the people, and I recall hearing the old people deplore the change in food and its effect upon the teeth of the people, which at once deteriorated ..."

440px McCluresCoverJan1901