Magee, John (c.1750–1809), journalist and bookseller, was born in Belfast, son of James Magee, bookseller; nothing is known of his mother. His brother William Magee (qv) also became a bookseller in Belfast, but John moved to Dublin, where by 1776 he had a lottery office (Magee & Hope) on Ormond Quay. In 1777 he established Magee's Weekly Packet and in late 1778 the Dublin Evening Post, both ‘opposition’ newspapers. A Patriot sympathiser, Magee criticised and lampooned the Dublin Castle administration and its employees. His papers joined the Patriot campaign for economic and political reform, which forced the crown to concede Irish legislative independence (albeit for an exclusively protestant parliament) in 1782. However, as Magee also berated those Patriots who appeared motivated by self-interest, he was feared as a maverick who might turn on friend and foe alike. He married (April 1777) Jane (d. 18 January 1787), daughter of James Stevenson, bookbinder, and step-daughter of William Gilbert, bookseller; they had two sons, John (below) and James. Her brother, James Stevenson junior (d. 1789), was Magee's business partner for some years until his death.
Unlike ‘Castle’ newspapers, which benefited financially from government advertising and proclamations, Magee's publications depended on circulation, although he also published a Miniature Almanack throughout the 1780s and sold stationery. In January 1784, for calumnies against the Irish administration he was sent to gaol for a month and lightly fined as a warning of worse to come. In April he foretold press censorship. Libel law was the government's weapon of choice in dealing with radical criticism. It inflicted stinging fines and gaol terms for outspoken proprietors, Magee being a prime example. He appears to have been in favour briefly in 1786 when the administration nodded its benevolence with some advertising, but this was short-lived and the Evening Post, now based at 11 Trinity St., soon went back on the offensive.
In March 1789 Magee's brother-in-law and partner James died, and in that month, owing to his newspaper war with the pro-government Freeman's Journal, Magee became the object of a celebrated case that exposed corruption in judiciary and high society. He published claims of low birth, gambling offences, and past conviction of fraud against the Freeman’s proprietor, Francis Higgins (qv), who was now a JP, and a member of the city commons (and on whom the judge in an earlier trial had conferred the uncomplimentary sobriquet of ‘sham squire’). Magee also derided Higgins's friend, the chief justice John Scott (qv) among others. Magee was arrested, imprisoned on failure to pay an arbitrary fiat of £7,800 bail and subsequently tried on 3 July 1789. Scott, newly created Viscount Clonmell, happened to be the trial judge who heard most press cases, and was determined to convict Magee, who had no counsel and remained in prison until his lordship was persuaded by court members to relent. This arbitrary treatment appeared highly unfair if not unconstitutional to some of the trial lawyers and to the whig opposition in parliament. Magee thus used this opportunity to protest at his experience, and then requested to be reincarcerated. He was convicted of publishing libel (even though Higgins admitted in part to the allegations) and released to await sentence. He refused financial assistance and continued to attack both Higgins and Clonmell in the Evening Post.
On 30 July 1789 one of Magee's original targets, Thomas Brennan of the Freeman's Journal, personally ransacked his house at 41 College Green but was acquitted. Magee, in a fit of revenge, advertised a festival for 1 August (Lammas day, which celebrates St Peter's deliverance from prison) next to Clonmell's suburban home at Neptune House, Temple Hill, Blackrock, with free alcohol and a ‘grand olympic pig hunt’ for all. The chaotic jamboree terrified Clonmell (thinking it was a rebellion), damaged his renowned gardens, and encouraged Magee to declare a further mass gathering for September. He was arrested 3 September, sent to Newgate and released 31 October on a further fiat of £4,000 bail. On 3 October his brother William tried in vain to have him declared seriously mentally ill for the sake of his children. John was reimprisoned twice in November–December 1789 pending resolution of his terms of bail, and in February 1790 received six months more in gaol and a further fine of £50 for contempt of court.
Ultimately (aided by his counsel, who refused to let the case lie), Magee was vindicated by the publicity and consequences of goading Higgins and Clonmell respectively to charge and arbitrarily convict him with outrageous fines and irregular imprisonment: Higgins, exposed as a fraud and gambling manager, was removed from the commission of the peace in 1793. The courts were compelled to curb gambling or be seen to try, and Clonmell was damaged in reputation, having applied the law at his whim. The entire administration of government was open to the kind of accusations which in France had started a revolution. The decision of the exhausted and barely solvent Magee to call off his crusade may have eased public anger, but the whigs and municipal radicals, notably James Napper Tandy (qv), were boosted by the political embarrassment of Dublin Castle, and the Dublin Society of United Irishmen published in Magee's paper in the early 1790s.
Magee subsequently succumbed to mental illness, leaving active control of the Evening Post to his stepfather-in-law William Gilbert in 1797. Gilbert was then gaoled and fined by Clonmell for falsely reporting parliamentary business; revenge on Magee by proxy. The paper became so cautious that it supported the administration throughout the 1798 rebellion and after, but opposed the union (1801). Although edited by H. B. Code (qv) (apparently in receipt of secret service payments) in 1801–3, the Evening Post remained in family ownership and then passed (with Gilbert's aid until c.1810) to Magee's eldest son John junior, no less a controversialist than his father, who died in November 1809.
John Magee junior (c.1780–c.1822) was born in Dublin and became proprietor in 1803 of the Evening Post and in 1805 of the Evening Herald, which took an anti-government position and added catholic emancipation to its stable of popular causes. Magee himself was convicted in 1812 and 1813 respectively of libels in the Evening Post against the Dublin police and the duke of Richmond (qv), who had just vacated his office as lord-lieutenant of Ireland. Magee, like his father, exposed the viceregal administration's arbitrary reaction to criticism. By extension he secured a public platform for Daniel O'Connell (qv), Magee's defence counsel, to launch an uncensored attack on the chief secretary, Robert Peel (qv) for his opposition to catholic emancipation, and on the prosecuting attorney general William Saurin (qv) and his anti-catholic jury; in effect, a public assault on the administration of Ireland. It was reported verbatim in the international press. Magee was convicted (27 July) and sentenced (29 November 1813) to two years’ imprisonment with a £500 fine and sureties for good behaviour for seven years. He was convicted again (3 February 1814) for publishing libellous catholic resolutions in August 1813, and sentenced (4 August) to a further six months and a fine of £1,000. Peel made every effort to undermine or destroy Magee's newspapers, even withholding foreign news dispatches normally circulated to the press by the post office. About 1814 Magee's younger brother James, a merchant, took control of the Evening Post and the Evening Herald. After initial prosecution for libel, he became compliant to the administration with the result that he lost O'Connellite support. He appears to have recouped some of his brother's earlier fines. John Magee junior died about 1822 and by a certain irony James became a police magistrate, dying in September 1866. The Dublin Evening Post survived until August 1875.