The Freeman's Journal was the oldest nationalist newspaper in Ireland. It was founded in 1763 by Charles Lucas and was identified with radical 18th-century Protestant patriot politicians Henry Grattan and Henry Flood. This changed from 1784 when it passed to Francis Higgins (better known as the "Sham Squire") and took a more pro-British and pro-administration view. In fact Francis Higgins is mentioned in the Secret Service Money Book as having betrayed Lord Edward FitzGerald. Higgins was paid £1,000 for information on FitzGerald's capture.
In the 19th century it became more nationalist in tone, particularly under the control and inspiration of Sir John Gray (1815–75).
The Journal, as it was widely known as, was the leading newspaper in Ireland throughout the 19th century. Contemporary sources record it being read to the largely illiterate population by priests and local teachers gathering in homes. It was mentioned in contemporary literature and was seen as symbolising Irish newspapers for most of its time. By the 1880s it had become the primary media supporter of Charles Stewart Parnell and the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP).
It was challenged on all sides by rivals. On the nationalist side some preferred The Nation founded by Thomas Davis while others, including radical supporters of Parnell, read the United Irishman. The Anglo-Irish establishment in contrast read the historically Irish unionist The Irish Times. With the split in the IPP over Parnell's relationship with Katherine O'Shea, its readership split too. While The Journal went with the majority in 1893 in opposing Parnell, a minority moved to read the Daily Irish Independent. It was also challenged from the turn of the century by William O'Brien's Irish People and the Cork Free Press. With Thomas Sexton becoming Chairman of the Board of Directors (1893–1911), the Journal languished under his spartanic management.
The collapse of the IPP in 1918, and the electoral success of Sinn Féin, saw a more radical nationalism appear that was out of step with the moderation of the Journal. It found itself overshadowed by the more aggressively marketed Irish Independent, the successor to the Daily Irish Independent. Just prior to the outbreak of the Irish Civil War in March 1922, the Freeman's Journal printing machinery was destroyed by Anti-Treaty IRA men under Rory O'Connor for its support of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. It did not resume publication until after the outbreak of civil war, when the Irish Free State re-asserted its authority over the country.
The Freeman's Journal ceased publication in 1924, when it was merged with the Irish Independent. Until the 1990s, the Irish Independent included the words 'Incorporating the Freeman's Journal' in its mast-head over its editorials.