Lucy Shelton Caswell
By Bill Eichenberger
Cartoonist Billy Ireland was a fixture at The Columbus Dispatch from the time the newspaper wooed him away from his hometown, Chillicothe, in 1898 until he died in 1935.
A self-taught artist (at 5, he was known for his drawings on the paving stones in front of the Ross County Courthouse in Chillicothe), Ireland loved nothing more than Ohio, Columbus and Chillicothe.
He was solicited by newspaper syndicates and certainly could have worked in New York or Chicago, but he never left his home state.
In her lavish book, Billy Ireland, cartoon researcher Lucy Shelton Caswell quotes Ireland friend and colleague Hugh Fullerton, who wrote a short biography of the beloved cartoonist.
"He ... once said to me, 'Hughie, did it ever occur to you that my object isn't to get to New York but to get back to Chillicothe?'"
In the 37 years Ireland served as a cartoonist for The Dispatch, he “never lost his pleasure in everyday events shared by ordinary people,” Caswell writes. “Roasting ears, strawberry shortcake, the first robin and the colors of autumn were all worth celebrating.”
Ireland's focus on central Ohio and his beloved surroundings might be one reason he isn't better remembered elsewhere.
Caswell recently spoke about Ireland and her new book.
Q: Why should we remember Billy Ireland?
A: Ireland was an important figure in the development of our community during the first third of the 20th century. By remembering him, we gain a better understanding of where we have come from and, perhaps, why certain things were done the way they were.
He also was one of the leading cartoonists in the nation, especially during the 1920s and '30s. Both ordinary and famous people (such as Will Rogers) bought the Sunday Dispatch to see what Billy had to say in (his weekly strip) The Passing Show.
Q: Are Ireland's cartoons of more lasting historical interest because he was so dedicated to capturing daily life in central Ohio?
A: The Passing Show pages comprise a wonderful history of Columbus and central Ohio and are a fun way to learn what life was like during the early 20th century.
James Thurber also wrote about life in Columbus, but his tone was usually less affectionate than Ireland's. An exception to this is, of course, the very touching memoir of Ireland that he wrote for The New Yorker, which is reprinted in the book.
Q. You say that Billy was more an “editorial cartoonist” than a “political cartoonist.” Why do you make that distinction and what are its implications?
A. I describe Ireland as an editorial cartoonist because his single panel cartoons that usually ran on the editorial page (occasionally they ran elsewhere, like the front page) covered politics and politicians, but much more.
For instance, he did cartoons about unsafe railroad crossings and clean streams, neither of which were “political” issues at the time. It was also common during that time for editorial cartoons to draw apolitical cartoons about the weather or seasonal changes.
Q: You say in your book that Ireland's style never really changed (at least not significantly) and that his early drawings are similar to the later drawings. Is that a criticism?
A: Ireland achieved his mature style at an early age, something that is rare. Even the schoolboy drawings at the Ross County Historical Society McKell Library are finished to an unusual degree for a child.
Q: Ireland was known for humor rather than savagery. Does that mean his cartoons were soft?
A: Ridicule is a powerful weapon, and Ireland used it skillfully — and carefully. He understood also that praise could sometimes accomplish things better than criticism.
Unlike some contemporaries such as Art Young, he was not an angry cartoonist, but that does not mean his work avoided controversial issues. He just preferred a different armory that included humor.
Q: Did the way Ireland executed The Passing Show make it unique?
A: The overwhelming feeling I have when reading The Passing Show is that Billy Ireland had fun drawing each and every page. I can picture him at his drawing board, chuckling over a silly picture. I also think he never lost the pleasure that cartooning gave to him, despite an astonishing workload that combined four to six editorial cartoons per week plus the Sunday The Passing Show pages.
I hope that readers will think about the complexity and variety of the Sunday pages. He did not follow a formula, even during the years when there were features that continued from week to week.
In some ways, the most amazing evidence of his creativity is the endless variations on the (Passing Show) title panel. He did not repeat himself despite the fact that the feature ran for more than 30 years.
Q: One of Billy's admirers wondered what he could have become with formal training but concluded that it might have “spoiled him entirely.” What do you think?
A: Most cartoonists of Ireland's generation were self-taught. It was the reality of the time. Talented cartoonists apprenticed by working at newspapers or magazines and worked their way up into full-time positions.
The owners of The Dispatch in 1898 recognized talent when they saw it and immediately hired Ireland into a full-time job.
I doubt that formal training would have “taken” on Ireland. He had a very secure notion of who and what he was. If that had not been the case, he wouldn't have declined syndication and the additional money that might have earned him.
Q. What is your favorite panel by Ireland and why do you admire it?
A. I don’t have a single favorite panel because there are so many that are fun. I can tell you that I never drive or walk down Civic Center Drive that I don’t remember Ireland and his role in making that such an attractive area.
Q. Why did Ireland stay put in Columbus?
A. He truly loved central Ohio. The fact that so much of his work dealt with local people and issues made him a truly beloved member of the community. The irony is that this fact means that he never won a Pulitzer Prize or other national recognition which might have kept his name in the spotlight longer.
He didn’t want to be syndicated because he wanted to draw about things that interested him and syndication would have required a more national focus. The particular was Ireland’s forte in the same sense that Garrison Keillor uses Lake Woebegon to tell his tales.
Q: Billy indulged in some of the stereotypes of the day, but he also drew cartoons in favor of women's suffrage, skewered the Ku Klux Klan and portrayed blacks in a favorable light.
A: Ireland was a man who enjoyed simple pleasures, but I don't think he was a simple man.
Q: What is your favorite Billy Ireland anecdote?
A: The one where he stuck his feet in ice cream after a long hike is pretty amazing.
Q. I was fascinated by Ireland’s “Club Men of Columbus” series of caricatures while at the same time being struck by how anachronistic that sort of thing is. Photographs are what we have today, right? But didn’t those caricatures in a way show a more detailed and maybe more “true” version of the subjects than any photo could?
A. A good caricature always reveals more than a photograph.