The narrative that follows is by far the fullest internet account of this legendary episode, and of Frederick Peel Eldon Potter (1839 – 4 Sep 1906), the founder, proprietor and editor of the Skibbereen Eagle (later absorbed into the Southern Star, which in 1914 told Kaiser Wilhelm II that the Southern Star had its eye on him too – but to no avail).
How the Skibbereen Eagle kept a watchful eye on the Czar of Russia
...how one moment can change everything.
...how a small town blow-in took on one of the world’s
most powerful [autocrats] in a daring plea for attention.
It was the spring of 1898, and Fred Potter was under pressure.
He sat in his office in Bridge Street, Skibbereen considering the future of his newspaper — the Skibbereen Eagle. He had been publishing the paper for 40 years and now he was forced to do something to stand out from the crowd. For decades Potter, and his Skibbereen Eagle newspaper, had the local West Cork market to itself. That was until 1889 when a second newspaper – the Southern Star – had opened in the town.
The long-standing Skibbereen Eagle was at war with the fresh-faced Southern Star over column inches and lucrative contracts. They also had differing political stances; the Eagle aired on the anti-nationalist side while the Southern Star was strongly nationalist.
So who was Fred Potter? And what did he do?
Fred was born in 1839 in Dublin. He was the third son of John William Potter, a native of South Wales. Fred’s father came to live in Ireland in 1828, and moved to Skibbereen in the 1830’s, where he established himself as a printer.
The Potter family were enterprising and were prominent in politics and journalism in South Wales. Changes in the law fuelled a boom in the Irish newspaper industry, and in 1857 Fred joined his father and brother in establishing a local newspaper for West Cork — the Skibbereen and West Carberry Eagle.
On the masthead — an eagle descending with its message to the world. The Skibbereen Eagle continued to spread its wings for over 30 years, despite Fred Potter being the complete opposite of the Irish cultural identity of the time, he was Protestant not Catholic, English not Irish, and urban not rural. As the West Cork war of the rags continued, the Southern Star began to dominate, and Fred Potter realised he had to act.
He took action and did something so bizarre that it would become a reference point to this very day. He decided to write editorials in the Skibbereen Eagle about global political affairs.
Fred Potter was about to make national news and become embroiled in international relations with Russia.
So what was happening in Russia that Potter was watching so closely?
In 1898, 30 year-old Nicholas the Second had been Czar of Russia for just four years. Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, the privileged young Nicholas was more interested in ballet or opera than the affairs of state. He ascended to the throne on the untimely death of his father, and those around him saw him as weak and ineffective.
By the late 19th century the imperialist march of Europe was catching the public’s attention. There was a great deal of interest in the ‘scramble for Africa’ as European countries grabbed power throughout the continent. Great tensions existed between Britain which viewed itself as a force for good and democracy, and Russia seen as a reactionary, tyrannical military force.
As well as this, all was not well between Russia and China, and Nicholas the Second was on a mission.
Russia used mounting tensions in the region between Japan and China to sign a deal leasing a strategic port in the peninsula, which they provocatively renamed as Port Arthur [it was actually named after a British naval officer]. They also won permission to build a railway line linking the port to the Trans Siberian Railway. With the world watching Russia’s manoeuvre looked like a land grab. It was a push for power that could see Czar Nicholas the Second annex all of Manchuria away from China and into Russia.
Potter had a particular interest in the movements of Czar Nicholas the Second in China. And on September 5th 1899 — he penned an editorial that would change his life forever, and create a moment that would became a reference point for all journalists to this very day, which became known as “keeping an eye on Russia”.
Rather grandly the editorial claimed: “It [the Eagle] will still keep its eye on the Emperor of Russia and all such despotic enemies — whether at home or abroad — of human progression and man’s natural rights which undoubtedly include a nation’s right to self-government. ‘Truth’, ‘Liberty’, ‘Justice’ and the ‘Land for the People’ are the solid foundations on which the Eagle’s policy is based.”
The very notion that the Skibbereen Eagle was keeping its eye on the Czar of Russia instantly struck a chord, and in that moment Fred Potter changed everything.
His words became a clarion call for anyone who wanted to put the oppressive actions of others under scrutiny. The episode brought Potter and the Skibbereen Eagle undying fame, and he dined out on it for the rest of his life. Long before broadcast media, and many lifetimes before the internet, he realised the power of a lone independent voice to hold the world to account.
Although the Eagle no longer resides in Skibbereen, it is still publishing news from London. However the Southern Star holds a place for the Skibbereen Eagle on the masthead of the paper every week, keeping a watchful eye on the world.