The postcard above was printed during the third Home Rule Crisis ca. 1912-1914. It features the Albert Memorial Tower being pulled down and replaced by a statue of John Redmond (leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party) with crown and scepter, labeled ‘Redmond Rex Hibernia.” The gigantic Poor House Annex is “Full Up” and droves of people are crowded at the Protestant Emigration Office where they can buy “Tickets for New York or Anywhere” (sponsored by the Irish state, with the green harp flag flying above). One wing of the building is dedicated space for the “Office of the Molly Maguires.” The American influence over the new Irish government and “King Redmond” is further symbolized by the American flag and ship parked at the Customs Office. Meanwhile the formerly industrial Belfast is being overtaken by pigs, chickens, and goats. Continue reading
Canada’s 150th birthday is coming up in a few days! As part of my doctoral work at the University of Edinburgh, I looked at visits across the Atlantic by Ulster unionists who aimed to publicize their cause and to counter Irish nationalism during the Home Rule era. One of the more interesting stories involving Canadian history that I came across involved two of these Ulster unionists, who toured North America in 1886.
Reverend Dr. Richard Rutledge Kane and barrister George Hill Smith were commissioned by the Ulster Loyalist Anti-Repeal Union shortly after the defeat of the first Home Rule Bill to present the unionist cause to the North American public which they believed were blinded by a pro-nationalist press.
Kane was a fairly notorious figure within Belfast society as the rector of Christ Church, the Grand Master of Belfast’s Orange Order, and a prominent unionist speaker; he was accused of inciting the Belfast riots in 1886. Smith was a barrister from Armagh who spoke throughout England and Scotland on behalf of the Ulster Loyalist Anti-Repeal Union and other Irish unionist organizations.
Kane and Smith’s tour first took them to Canada and then to the United States. Speaking at gatherings of Irish immigrants and their descendants, and to Orangemen, they promoted the cause of Irish unionism and attempted to discredit Irish nationalists. But there was one particularly remarkable incident that stood out both to me and to Smith, who considered it one of the most extraordinary things to happen in his long speaking career. Continue reading
Since last week’s election, the Democratic Unionist Party has received more attention outside of Northern Ireland than it has in years, now holding the balance of power in the UK Parliament. While the DUP was founded by Ian Paisley in 1971, the separation of political parties in Northern Ireland from the main United Kingdom parties has roots in the late nineteenth century before and during the Home Rule era.
In the 1870s, sectarian strife in the north of Ireland was at a low ebb as both Catholics and Protestants united through Liberal Party politics. Continue reading
In the midst of the second Home Rule crisis in 1893, the most prominent Irish-American newspaper, the Irish World, published this political cartoon: “The Anti-Home Rule Orange Circus Over the Water.”
Here we see Edward Saunderson, MP and leader of the Ulster unionists in Parliament, beating the Orange drum. Reverend Richard Rutledge Kane, of Belfast’s Christ Church, rips and stomps the Home Rule bill. And in the background, Prime Minister William E. Gladstone is burned in effigy.
The Irish World described the scene: “More than 5,000 persons were present at the great Orange meeting here [in Belfast] to-day. Dr. Kane, who presided, said that Ulster was prepared to defend herself to the last against the proposals of the Home Rule Bill. The men of Ulster need not feel, however, that they would be alone and unaided in the fight for their liberties. They had the sympathies of Englishmen of all classes throughout the world.
“He had received letters from military and police officers in England and Ireland and telegrams from Canada and Australia promising co-operation with the men of Ulster if the latter resorted to arms to defend their liberties against the tyranny of their historic foes. A hundred thousand Orangemen were ready to resist to the death the Home Rule Bill.”
The Irish World‘s serious tone in reporting the event contrasts with the snarling and chaotic feel to the political cartoon, with the beating of the Orange drum an annoying “circus” and distraction from what Irish nationalists considered as the larger issues at stake with Home Rule.
In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, I’ve seen the idea of federalism to be applied to the United Kingdom come up several times. I thought it would be interesting to revisit the debate over federalism in an earlier era to see how it was addressed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The idea of federalism is especially interesting to me in thinking about how it might work with the structure of the United Kingdom, where powers have been devolved from the center to the national assembly and parliaments of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland – rather than the separate nations/states/provinces coming together to form the central government as happened in the formation of the United States and in Canada.
By the Home Rule era, federalist ideas as applied to the Irish situation were not new: Daniel O’Connell had been tempted by the federalist plans of William Sharman Crawford in the 1840s, and Isaac Butt had originally started the Home Rule movement in the 1870s with ideas of a federal system in the United Kingdom that would help to address Irish grievances.
While not a part of the constitutional system of the United Kingdom, federalism was a frequent undercurrent in British political thought. As Michael Burgess points out, the United Kingdom became a major “exporter” of federal systems to other places in the world, including Australia, Canada, India, Nigeria, and Malaysia, as well as federalism playing an influential role in the unification of South Africa.
Throughout the Home Rule era, federalist ideas were promoted or suggested by many politicians of different stripes, either to illustrate parallels between federalist systems and the Home Rule bills or to work as alternatives to Home Rule. Another important element within federalist thought was imperial federation, which operated both within and outside of the Irish Home Rule context. At one time or another, Joseph Chamberlain, W.T. Stead, Lord Acton, J.R. Seeley, J.L. Garvin of the Observer, David Lloyd George, Walter Long, L.S. Amery, and Edward Carson all espoused federalist ideas. On the nationalist side, federalism found champions in Moreton Frewen, William O’Brian, and T.M. Healy.
Some Irish unionists viewed the Home Rule bills as introducing a federal-state dynamic into the relationship between Britain and Ireland. Carson questioned why the bills did not adhere more closely to the American system. In parliamentary discussions on the second Home Rule bill, Carson reasoned, “As in America, where they had a distinction between Federal matters and State matters, so under the Bill, where they had a distinction between Imperial matters and local matters, they would necessarily have disputes between the Irish Government and the Imperial Government.” Given the inevitability of future conflict, Carson wondered why the Home Rule bill failed to set up a court system similar to that of the United States. He hoped for a Supreme Court to settle potential disputes between the two governments.
In a later speech, Carson again emphasized the parallels with the American system of federalism. He questioned, “The only parallel they had for the Constitution they were now setting up in Ireland was the Constitution of America. It had been taken from the American Constitution, but why did not the Government follow the provision of the American Constitution, which set up a Federal Executive in each State?” Carson wished for greater adherence to the American federal system, including a federated state-style government, to ensure protections of unionist interests and preservation of the Union.
On the other hand, W.E.H. Lecky argued that the federal system would not matter in the slightest if the same Irish nationalists were in charge of the Home Rule parliament. He wrote, “It is this profound division of classes in Ireland that makes all arguments derived from the example of federal governments in Europe or America so utterly fallacious. The first question to be asked before setting up a local legislature is ‘Who are the men who are likely to control it?’” Lecky believed that the strong divisions in Ireland meant that unionists would not be represented in the new government no matter what system was in place.
J.A. Rentoul, MP for East Down, pointed out another inherent problem in the comparisons of federalism in the two countries. Ultimately, the United States presented an example that was the opposite of Home Rule. Rentoul argued,
There was no one of the United States of America that claimed to be a nation or that asked for national privileges. Each State of the United States gave up certain powers of its own, in order that it might be met by other States giving up those same powers to what I may term a supreme legislature which governed them all…. In the United States, then, it was not the case of a number of nations being restrained from exercising their proper rights and privileges, but of States voluntarily giving up to a Constitution, which they themselves had founded, certain of their rights, in order that they might assist in exercising similar rights over other States.
As Rentoul asserted, the federal system of government in the United States was not regulating a number of separate nations devolving power from a central government, as would be the case with Ireland under the Home Rule Bill. The United States represented the exact opposite: a number of states coming together into a voluntary union with each other when they would have otherwise been separate. It was apparent, therefore, that unity was enshrined in the American constitution.
By the time of the third Home Rule Bill, federal options were gaining more consideration. This was especially the case after the passage of the 1911 Parliament Act meant that it was increasingly likely that some form of Home Rule would be passed. By the end of the Home Rule period, the most important federalist thinkers were F.S. Oliver and the Earl of Selborne. With increased support for federalist options, unionists continued to criticize the Liberals for the system set up in the Home Rule Bill. Many of these criticisms were based on the idea that it was the Liberal Party’s intention to eventually implement a federal system for the whole United Kingdom.
Oliver was active in this criticism. In a series of letters to the Times, he questioned the tariff provisions within the Home Rule Bill. He wrote,
At what stage of the proceedings, for instance, was the tariff concession wrung from a Government pledged to the maintenance of Free Trade – a concession which will inevitably entail the erection of a Customs barrier between Ireland and Great Britain? Of all the farcical features in the Bill this perhaps is the most absurd. For it has been the aim hitherto of every confederation in the world to get rid of hindrances and restraints upon trade between its various members. This principle of freedom is the foundation upon which not only the unity but the prosperity of the United States is based.
Oliver argued that the United States, Canada, Australia, and South Africa had all fought and sacrificed to get rid of customs barriers. Oliver believed that unity could not be maintained with customs barriers cutting through the heart of the United Kingdom.
The Ulster Unionist Council saw the existence of customs barriers within the Home Rule Bill as creating a farce of the idea that the Liberal government ever intended to implement a wide-reaching federal system. In 1912, the UUC issued a resolution stating, “The hypocrisy of the pretence that the present Bill is the forerunner of a Federal Constitution for the United Kingdom is shown by the Customs barriers proposed to be set up between Great Britain and Ireland, an arrangement unknown in any existing Federal system.” This was again an example of unionists calling for the Home Rule Bill to adhere more closely to existing federal systems such as that in the United States.
- Duncan Bell, The Idea of a Greater Britain Empire and the Future of World Order, 1860-1900 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).
- Andrea Bosco, ed., The Federal Idea, Vol. I: The History of Federalism from the Enlightenment to 1945 (London: Lothian Foundation Press, 1991).
- George Boyce and J.O. Stubbs, “F.S. Oliver, Lord Selborne, and Federalism,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 5, no. 1 (Oct. 1976).
- Michael Burgess, “Federalism: A Dirty Word? Federalist Ideas and Practice in the British Political Tradition” (London: Federal Trust Working Papers, 1988).
- A. Kennedy, “Sharman Crawford’s Federal Scheme for Ireland,” in Essays in British and Irish History in Honour of James Eadie Todd, ed. H.A. Cronne, T.W. Moody, and D.B. Quinn (London: Muller, 1949).
- Lawrence J. McCaffrey, “Irish Federalism in the 1870s: A Study in Conservative Nationalism,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 52, no. 6 (1962).
- Alan J. Ward, “Frewen’s Anglo-American Campaign for Federalism, 1910-1921,” Irish Historical Studies 15, no. 59 (Mar 1967).
The American Civil War was one of the key historical points of comparison for Irish unionists as they fought against Home Rule in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Civil War itself was easily within living memory during the Home Rule period, ending only twenty years before the first Home Rule crisis. Joseph Hernon’s short article on the “Use of the American Civil War in the Debate over Irish Home Rule” shows how British politicians and intellectuals who had supported the Northern States later as Liberal Unionists used the Civil War example to oppose Irish Home Rule. Hernon writes that the principles of states’ rights in the Civil War, which helped to validate the Confederate standpoint, were used as examples by the Liberal Unionists. They feared that if Ireland was granted Home Rule the Irish nationalists would use states’ rights principles to demand complete separation.
Hernon rightly points out that there are limits to the logic of this parallel, because slavery as a moral issue played such a large role in the American situation. However, fear of states’ rights leading to Irish separation was not the only way that the Civil War example was employed in unionist rhetoric. The Civil War, considered the greatest war in living memory at the time, was frequently used to develop themes of legitimacy of the Ulster cause, the sense of betrayal by Britain because they would not fight to hold the Union together, and unity as part of the spirit of the age.
During the first Home Rule crisis, unionists used the Civil War to develop several themes in their rhetoric. With Gladstone’s conversion to Home Rule, many Ulster Liberals turned to an alliance with the Conservatives. As the Liberal Party was faced with schism during the first Home Rule Bill, T.W. Russell, MP for South Tyrone, defended the stance of Liberal Unionists. He stated in an 1886 Stirlingshire speech:
My alternative is – ‘Maintain the Union, be scrupulous to redress every Irish wrong, be even generous in view of the past, but govern the Country.’ I am told that Democracy will not consent to do this. Let us not be too sure of that…. The great Democracy of the United States answered to Abraham Lincoln, not to Jefferson Davis. And to maintain the Union there the cannon thundered in the valley of the Shenandoah, the musketry rattled on the heights of Fredericksburg, and Grant fought and conquered at Richmond. And the Union was maintained there, just as I firmly believe it will be maintained here.
Russell defended the Liberal Unionists’ choice to break from Gladstone, committing them to maintain Liberal social policies in Ireland while supporting the Union. When faced with the question of whether Home Rule was inevitable, the Civil War provided an example of a people willing to commit everything to maintaining unity rather than separation. Many Liberal Unionists maintained that they were willing to give every consideration to bettering the condition of Ireland other than destruction of the Union.
Ulster’s Liberal Unionists used the American Civil War example to condemn Gladstone’s Home Rule stance. Belfast Reverend R.J. Lynd wrote,
Mr. Gladstone is not infallible. Had he his will, the United States of America would now be cut into two kingdoms, and slavery would still retain its grim hold on the kingdom of the South without any control from the North. To us Irish Liberals, who loved him and followed him with a devotion and personal veneration seldom equalled, but never surpassed, there could not be a more melancholy spectacle under the sun than Mr. Gladstone as a Liberal leader presents now.
The former supporters of Gladstone identified a pattern in his support of the Confederacy and his promotion of Irish Home Rule. As implied by Lynd, an immoral cause would have a hold over a helpless minority in each case.
Ulster unionists used the American Civil War as an historical example in many other cases. They cited the partition of West Virginia from Virginia as precedent for the protection of a significant loyal minority from a disloyal majority. They used the Civil War to deny Irish nationalists the right to compel the Westminster Parliament to change the relationship between Ireland and Great Britain within the Union. For example, they claimed that even if, like the South during the Civil War, Irish nationalists might technically be acting within constitutional bounds by demanding Home Rule, Parliament should not grant Home Rule if it would lead to greater dangers. In the United States, Civil War was preferable to the North than allowing the South to legally secede from the Union. The threat of an independent Confederacy to the North was similar to that of a Home Rule Ireland to Britain, because of the dangers of total separation.
Unionists used the Civil War example to show that attempting to use Home Rule to pacify Irish nationalists would be futile. They claimed that the North had refused to pacify the South during the Civil War; therefore the British government should refuse to pacify Irish nationalists with Home Rule. If Home Rule was granted to the disloyal Parnellites, total separation from the Union would be an even greater threat. This threat was also used to justify Ulster unionist militancy against the British government in an attempt to prevent the implementation of Home Rule – even if this militancy led to the outbreak of Civil War in Ireland.
Like the United States, Ulster unionists were faced with demands for Home Rule. They felt that the British government was not making any effort to combat these demands but simply accommodated them despite the threat of the destruction of the Union. Ulster unionists observed the extreme measures taken by the Northern States to prevent the implementation of Home Rule. They resented being painted as bigots and fools by British Liberals and Irish nationalists because they wanted to do the same thing in their country. Unionists developed themes of legitimacy of the unionist cause because of the perceived similarities with the Northern states, and betrayal by the British who were unwilling to stand up to the nationalists’ Home Rule demands. Moreover, the British government was going against the worldwide trend toward unity as exemplified by Italy, Germany, and the American Civil War. The American Civil War symbolized the power of the Union to endure threats of separation and disconnection if only there were people willing to fight for it.
Belfast City Hall was planned in response to Queen Victoria’s grant of city status to Belfast in 1888. Architect Sir Alfred Brumwell Thomas designed the building in the Baroque Revival style, with the exterior constructed out of Portland stone. The building took eight years to complete.
Belfast City Hall was the site of the signing of the Ulster Covenant in opposition to Home Rule on Ulster Day, September 28, 1912. Ulster Unionist leader Edward Carson led a military procession to the hall, where he was the first person to sign the covenant pledging to use “all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland.”
“My dear Willie, You seem to have escaped the obsession of this war – I cannot; night & day I think about it uselessly. I cannot work, I cannot read, I cannot sleep. I am torn in two, my love of France on one side, my love of Ireland on the other.”
Maud Gonne, Irish nationalist, women’s rights activist, actress, and eternal muse to William Butler Yeats, wrote these words to Yeats on 26 August 1914, about a month after the outbreak of the Great War in Europe.
Gonne, born in England and educated in France, came to Ireland in 1882 and emerged in 1888 as the first woman to be publicly associated with the Irish nationalist movement since the demise of the Ladies’ Land League. Her parents were unionists, but she was determined to devote her life to working for Ireland and Irish nationalism.
She was in Arrens, in the Pyrenees, with her twenty-year-old daughter Iseult, ten-year-old son Seán, and a houseguest, Helena Moloney (also an Irish nationalist/actress), when she wrote to Yeats in August 1914. In her wartime letters to Yeats and John Quinn (an American supporter of Irish nationalism and cultural revival), Gonne revealed the internal turmoil she went through while in France, dealing with violence and destruction, and attempting to follow along with the momentous turn of events in Ireland.
In her 26 August letter to Yeats, she condemned the decision made by Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Redmond to pledge support for the war effort, leading the majority of Irish Volunteers to back Britain. She worried for the future of Ireland, wondering if the opportunity for the implementation of Home Rule had been squandered. She wrote to Quinn in July 1915, “In Ireland things seem to be going very badly. The English-made Ulster revolt is quite triumphant in the Coalition Government, and Home Rule is again far away. Once again Ireland has been deceived and cheated.” It was difficult to receive newspapers and letters from Ireland in wartime, and as she noted to Yeats, “Want of Irish news makes me very restless.”
Meanwhile, she pondered the war itself, unable to understand its purpose. “This war is an inconceivable madness which has taken hold of Europe,” she wrote to Yeats. “It is unlike any other war that has ever been. It has no great idea behind it.”
Though she feared that European civilization might be swept away by the war, she volunteered with the Red Cross as a nurse, along with Iseult and Helena. She went first to nearby Argelès-Gazost, then after three months traveled to Paris. Helena returned to Ireland while Gonne continued nursing duties at Paris-Plage. She and Iseult gained the rank of lieutenant from the French, which enabled them to travel with the army so that they could nurse where they were most needed.
She wrote to Yeats in November 1914, “I am nursing the wounded from 6 in the morning till 8 at night & trying in material work to drown the sorrow & disappointment of it all – & in my heart growing up a wild hatred of the war machine which is grinding the life out of these great natures & reducing their population to helpless slavery & ruin.” She felt that nursing soldiers to go back again to the front was useless. “I have no military enthusiasm & can see nothing but misery in this present war – a wind of folly & fatality is driving Germany & France to their ruin,” she wrote in December 1914.
She felt keenly the destruction of the landscape in France, as well as expressing a sense of hopelessness and futility at the loss of life. Poignantly, she wrote to Yeats in January 1915, “When you hate the war even ambulance work is rather encouraging it, & yet & yet, one cannot remain with hands folded before suffering –”
The war experience left her with hatred for the waste of war itself and for violence. She declared that all she wanted to do was work for peace, but didn’t know how to go about doing it.
And then, while on holiday with her family in Normandy over Easter in 1916, she received news of the outbreak of the Easter Rising in Dublin. She wrote to Yeats, “I am ill with sorrow – so many of my best & noblest friends gone – I envy them for this world does not seem a place to live in when such crimes can go unpunished. The shelling & destruction of an open town like Dublin seem to me one of the greatest crimes of this awful war – It has disgusted every French person I have spoken to, though with the alliance the French press cannot voice this disgust.”
As well as being heartbroken by the loss of life in the Rising (including complicated emotions over the execution of her estranged husband, John MacBride), Gonne blamed the British for the destruction of the landscape itself, the destruction in Dublin. To Quinn, she described the Irish participants in the rising as completely justified through the betrayal by the British, appalling taxation, looming famine, the government gifting a place of power to Irish unionists, and other provocations.
She was soon determined to get back to Ireland, but was prevented by the British government after she made it over to England in October 1917. She snuck back into Ireland in 1918. Gonne’s attitudes toward World War I, her love of France, and her care for soldiers while despising the war itself, all the while supporting Irish nationalist efforts, show how intertwined these transnational events were, and emphasize once again that there is no straightforward way to generalize about Irish nationalist experiences of World War I.
Londraville, Janis, and Richard Londraville, eds. Too Long a Sacrifice: The Letters of Maud Gonne and John Quinn. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 1999.
Ward, Margaret. Maud Gonne: Ireland’s Joan of Arc. London: Pandora, 1990.
Ward, Margaret, ed. In Their Own Voice: Women and Irish Nationalism. Cork: Attic, 1995.
White, Anna MacBride, and A. Norman Jeffares, eds. The Gonne-Yeats Letters 1893-1938. New York: W.W. Norton, 1992.