Ireland: politics & administration, 1870-1914

1. Origins of Home Rule

Before the Great Famine popular political movements in Ireland had moved between two different objectives: the repeal of the Act of Union, that is, the establishment of limited self-government for Ireland and the continuation of the Union. Legal, administrative, and political reforms, undertaken in Britain, were to be swiftly introduced into Ireland. The catastrophe of the Great Famine and the collapse of Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal Movement in the late 1840s changed the direction of Irish politics. More extreme nationalists in the Irish Republican Brotherhood (the Fenians) sought a republic completely separate from Britain. Moderate political movements in the 1850s and 1860s abandoned the objective of self-government in favour of reform. Typical of moderate reformist nationalists was Archbishop (later Cardinal) Paul Cullen (1803–78). Though quite anti-English and anti-Protestant in attitude, he was pragmatic enough to see that vital reforms, especially in education, could be won from Westminster. He therefore supported Ireland’s continued membership of the United Kingdom as the most likely means of speeding up the reform process, which was well advanced by the late 1860s.

The new demand for self-government in the 1870s, called Home Rule, came not from its traditional supporters in the moderate nationalist Catholic community but from within the ranks of its long-time opponents, Irish Protestants. The reason for this change was simple enough: Irish Protestants distrusted the reforming tendencies of successive United Kingdom governments, reforms that since the late 1820s had, in their view, threatened to undermine the Union and the political and religious safeguards, which it had given Irish Protestantism. A series of Acts beginning with the Emancipation Act in 1829, brought reform in local government, parliamentary representation, education, and land ownership. The Disestablishment Act of 1869 broke the legal connection between Church and State in Ireland and reduced the influence of the Protestant ascendancy.

2. Home Government Association

The response to this reforming process—‘too far, too fast’—was the formation in 1870 of a new political movement, the Home Government Association, by a small group of Irish Protestants. The principal persons involved were George F. Shaw, a prominent fellow of Trinity College, Dublin; Major Knox, editor and proprietor of the Irish Times (a Protestant and Conservative newspaper at that time); E. R. King Harman from a leading landlord family; and Isaac Butt, a prominent barrister and politician. They feared that the values, structures, and heritage consolidated by the Union, were being endangered by a weak-kneed United Kingdom parliament. The new association aimed to preserve this political heritage by establishing a determined Home Rule Protestant-led parliament in Dublin. Among its sixty early members were Protestants and Catholics, landlords and tenants, Conservatives, Liberals and Fenians.

But the Home Government Association did not want to see a return to the pre–1800 situation of a Protestant ascendancy. Its leaders recognised that the tide of reform was irreversible and that Irish Protestants must accommodate themselves to changing ideas and situations. Indeed, they saw in Home Rule the chance to reconcile Irish Protestantism with reform, and ensure the continued role of Irish Protestants in Irish political leadership. Among some of the Home Government Association’s leaders there was a real sympathy for those in the separatist republican Fenian movement who were most hostile to continued union with Britain.

Isaac Butt most clearly illustrated these complex and sometimes contradictory motivations within the leadership of the Home Government Association. In 1843 he had opposed Daniel O’Connell in a major debate in the Dublin Corporation on the issue of Repeal of the Union. O’Connell was impressed by the young Butt and he acknowledged Butt’s patriotism when he declared “there goes Orange Young Ireland”. From 1852 to 1868 he had sat in parliament as the Conservative representative of Youghal which, despite progressive extensions of the franchise, remained one of the safest strongholds of Protestantism and Conservatism among southern Irish boroughs. Why did Butt become a leading light in this new drive for ‘Home Government’? He certainly shared the unease felt by Irish Protestants at the direction taken by government reform in Ireland from the late 1860s onwards. Butt’s own financial mismanagement and gambling had left him insecure: he needed to participate in some sort of public activity to recoup his fortunes. What was equally important was that Butt (perhaps initially for financial reasons) had become involved in the defence of Fenian prisoners in the late 1860s and had come to believe quite sincerely that changes in the political position of Ireland were essential. Political reform might help stem the rising tide of militant separatism which had encouraged young (and not so young) men to become involved in the Fenian movement.

Fenian sympathisers began to give the Association guarded support and behind-the-scenes agreements between the two groups were made at election time. Then in 1873 the Home Government Association and the Catholic Church moved closer as the latter’s initial hostility to the largely Protestant make–up of the former gave way to the belief that the two sides needed one another politically. In November 1873 a meeting between the two sides (originally called for by Dr Keane, the Catholic bishop of Cloyne) was held in Dublin and from it emerged a new body to replace the old Home Government Association. This new organisation was the Home Rule League, a far larger body than its predecessor, and one with considerably more political clout.

3. Home Rule League

What gave this new body its strength was its pragmatism. Although its main objective was the achievement of limited self-government for Ireland through the re-establishment of a parliament in Dublin, its leaders realised that a more practical programme was needed if the widest possible popular support was to be gained. Thus, considerable emphasis was put on the demand for a Catholic University to parallel the largely Protestant Trinity College Dublin. This demand was geared particularly to win the support of the Catholic bishops who had been campaigning for this for over thirty years. It was also aimed at winning the support of the wealthy Catholic middle classes who had benefited politically from the reforms of the previous decades and who saw university education as a means of furthering their children’s advancement. But the Home Rule League also courted the farming classes by campaigning for agrarian reform, and it kept links open with the Fenians by continuing to support the movement for amnesty (or release) of Fenian prisoners. An attempt was made in 1878 to bring the three distinct but overlapping groups of Fenians, Home Rulers and campaigners for land reform together in a ‘New Departure’.

Butt’s political imagination and intuitive judgement were remarkable and they enabled him to identify Home Rule as a national objective. The majority of Irish people responded with clear enthusiasm to the idea of Home Rule and were to promote it as a solution to the Irish question for close on half a century. However, they had other pressing concerns. Isaac Butt, though politically astute, lacked the drive, organisation, and ruthlessness necessary to give the strong lead needed to turn a catch-all movement into an effective political machine. The average supporter, depending on social status, was interested in better employment, land reform, or a Catholic University. Besides, there were tensions between the constituent groups—tensions that threatened to wreck the fragile unity of the movement from time to time. The Catholic Church, for instance, still distrusted the Protestant element in the leadership. Urban working class supporters of Home Rule had little time for the farming element that appeared to be more interested in the practical issue of land reform. Above all, there were tensions between the Fenians on the one hand, and the Church and moderate Home Rulers on the other.

4. Obstructionism

The other main problem was leadership. Butt was challenged by prominent and up-coming members of the movement. Chief among these were the obstructionists led initially by Joseph Gillis Biggar, a Fenian and member of the Supreme Council of the IRB, and later by Charles Stewart Parnell. Obstructionism involved holding up parliamentary business by making very long speeches about minor issues, a technique that, as one historian put it, would hasten the advent of Home Rule by goading the London parliament into ‘wishing that the Irish had a parliament of their own’. Although obstructionism was considered a most ungentlemanly technique, it certainly succeeded in forcing the British public to take notice of Irish affairs and of the Home Rule Association’s demands, and parliament was convinced that there was an unresolved and bitter Irish question. It is said of Biggar that no member of parliament with such poor qualifications ever occupied more of the House’s time. It has also, however, been argued that Biggar’s obstructionist activity made constitutional politics acceptable to many physical force nationalists in Ireland.

The Obstructionists had their eyes on the leadership and began to criticise Butt’s style and tactics. On its own, this challenge might not have been serious, but coupled with the internal tensions and weaknesses in the movement it meant that by the end of the 1870s the Home Rule movement was about to shake off the old leadership and, much to the dismay of its founders, become a powerful popular movement with a new charismatic figure at its head.

5. Parnellism as Politics

Butt died 5 May 1879. His successor, William Shaw, a wealthy Protestant banker from Cork, was elected chairman of the party. He proved to be an undistinguished and short-term leader. The general election, March 1880, was a triumph for Charles Stewart Parnell. He contested and won three seats including Cork, which he chose to represent for the rest of his political career. On 26 April 1880 Parnell was elected leader defeating Shaw by twenty-three votes to eighteen. The displacement of Shaw led to a new stage in the development of the Home Rule Party. Parnell was a far more pragmatic politician than Butt and he was willing to use methods considered unacceptable by Butt.

In reality, Parnell’s leadership style was quite authoritarian. He saw himself as the ultimate authority in the party, he was frequently in conflict with local party activists and, despite his democratic style, his social attitude was elitist. Some historians argue that even his participation in Home Rule politics, frequently ascribed to an anti-Englishness inherited from his American mother and his own bad experiences in an English public school, was really due to his belief that his own landlord class should reclaim its rightful place in Irish political and social leadership.

Parnell’s undoubted social elitism was matched by his political shrewdness. He was pragmatic enough to make a most unlikely alliance for an Irish Protestant landlord with the land agitation emerging in the West of Ireland in late 1879 and which would spread rapidly through much of Ireland over the following two years.

Even more significant in showing the pragmatism and the organisational ability of Parnell was his formation of a highly centralised and disciplined party, bound by a pledge which ensured that the individual parliamentary representative was subject to the combined will of the party and its leader. The Irish National League, formed in 1882, prioritised Home Rule and put ‘land law reform’ in second place. The movement looked democratic, as if its policies were shaped by the wishes of the wider population. This impression was particularly cultivated in Parnell’s public speeches when he visited the different parts of the country. He used down-to-earth language; he tailored his words to appeal to all social groups; and he made sure to meet personally with representatives of different groups—farmers, trade unionists, and clergy—to hear their grievances and opinions.

His other unlikely and very beneficial alliance was with the Catholic clergy, a group for whom he had little natural liking. Both sides needed one another. Parnell needed the local leadership and political know-how of the Catholic clergy to spread the Home Rule organisation, particularly in the rural areas. He needed the approval of the Irish hierarchy to put the stamp of respectability on his politics. For their part, the Catholic clergy and hierarchy needed the support of an astute and pragmatic political leader who could push their demands in Westminster. This mutual need was best expressed in the mid-1880s when an understanding was reached between Parnell and the Irish Catholic bishops whereby the bishops agreed to back the Home Rule campaign as long as Parnell pushed in parliament for the establishment of a Catholic University as a counterbalance to the Queen’s Colleges (in existence since the middle of the century) to whose non-denominational character the bishops objected.

Parnell’s political career spanned the period from the late 1870s to 1890 and he succeeded in weaving together the twin causes of land reform and Home Rule. He also kept the support of more hard-line nationalists in the Irish Republican Brotherhood who had little time for either Home Rule or land reform, but aimed ultimately to make Ireland a republic completely separate from England. While Parnell did not necessarily agree with their aims, he respected many of their leaders and, just as in his pragmatic relationship with the land agitators and the Catholic clergy, he made sure not to alienate any of them by condemning their methods or their objectives. In one of his first speeches in Westminster in 1876 he defended the Fenian ‘Manchester Martyrs’ and declared ‘I do not believe, and never shall believe, that any murder was committed at Manchester’. Parnell distanced himself from the Fenians after the Phoenix Park murders and as a result their influence waned and they became a spent force for over twenty years.

6. Parnell’s Fall

Parnell’s ability to keep so many unlikely allies on side explains to some extent why he lasted so long as leader of the Home Rule Party. However, Parnell’s private life brought about his ultimate downfall. He had a longstanding affair with Katharine O’Shea, a married woman, with whom he was deeply in love and with whom he had a family. The affair was not completely secret, but neither was it common knowledge in the broadest sense. It might have continued undisturbed had not Katharine O’Shea’s aunt died, leaving her a considerable legacy from which her husband was excluded. It was only at this point that her husband, Captain William Henry O’Shea (possibly realising that he would get nothing from continuing to turn a blind eye to the affair) made the matter public.

First, a large number of Liberal voters in England (whose party had, despite internal conflict, supported Home Rule in 1886) demanded that the Liberal leadership cut the links with the Home Rule Party unless Parnell stepped down as leader. Realising that refusal could lead to a loss of vital votes in the next election, the Liberal Party pressed Parnell to resign. Finally, the Catholic Church and the majority of Parnell’s own Home Rule Party now saw Parnell as a political liability whose continued leadership of the Party might actually impede the achievement of Home Rule. They called for his resignation. Parnell refused, and the Home Rule Party and its supporters throughout Ireland split into two hostile groups, those who wished to keep Parnell as leader, and those who condemned him for betraying the Party, the country, and the cause of Home Rule. Parnell’s affair with a married woman was most often cited as the cause of public disillusionment, but equally important was Parnell’s refusal to resign as leader. This refusal threatened to put his personal emotions and ambitions before the objective of winning Home Rule.

Parnell died on 6 October 1891 in the middle of an electoral campaign. His immediate legacy was a combination of romantic legend and bitter political discord. An aura of tragic romance soon came to surround his memory. He was presented by those who supported him at the time, and later by those who came to came to despise the infighting in Irish politics in succeeding decades, as a hero betrayed. The anniversary of his death was known as Ivy Day, when solemn and emotive commemorative ceremonies took place. The sense of tragedy, understandably exaggerated in the emotive atmosphere of the time, entered the literature. The most notable examples are found in the writings of Joyce and Yeats, where the legend of the betrayed ‘Chief’ greatly simplified the complex realities, and added Parnell’s name to a long of list of perceived nationalist martyrs.

7. The Maturing of Irish Unionism

The word ‘forever’ appears several times in the 1800 Act of Union which guaranteed permanent union between Ireland and Great Britain. Irish loyalists, however, soon realised that lip service to permanency was very different from reality. Most Irish loyalists had been very dubious about any tampering with the Act of Union, and the almost immediate takeover of the Home Rule movement by Catholics and nationalists confirmed their fears. But it was in 1886 that their worst fears were realised when the First Home Rule Bill came before parliament. This happened not only because the movement in Ireland had become much more forceful under Parnell’s leadership, but also because of two other developments.

Firstly, the changing of constituency boundaries and voting requirements in 1884–5 resulted in a major expansion of the Irish electorate. It was obvious that supporters of the new popular Home Rule movement were in control of practically every constituency outside north-east Ulster. In the election of 1885 it was only in the university constituency of Trinity College Dublin and in the constituencies of north-east Ulster that anti-Home Rule candidates were returned. Everywhere else fell to Home Rule candidates, indicating long before the official partitioning of the island in 1921–2 that there was a clear distinction between the anti-Home Rule counties of north-east Ulster on the one hand and the rest of the island on the other.

Secondly—and more importantly—Home Rule by the mid-1880s was supported not only by a broad popular movement in Ireland, but also by important elements within the United Kingdom parliament in London. These included the Irish Home Rule representatives, the Liberal Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone, and a large section of the Liberal party. For twenty-six years after 1886, a series of consecutive Home Rule Bills (1886, 1892 and 1912) threatened the Union. This was the first time that such a sustained challenge had been faced, and it was significant that it was over this period that Irish loyalists came to refer to themselves as ‘Unionists’, supporters of the Act of Union in the face of threats from both popular and parliamentary attack.

After Parnell’s fall, the Home Rule campaign continued and, though divisions inside and outside parliament did the movement little good, this did not prevent a second Home Rule Bill coming before parliament in 1892. It was indicative of the growing acceptance of Home rule by United Kingdom politicians that this time the Bill passed the Commons. It was rejected, however, by the House of Lords (whose approval had to be given to any new law) and this prevented it becoming law. The Liberal Party, which had promoted the Bill, had by now come to regret its involvement with Home Rule, not only because long and troublesome parliamentary manoeuvring had ended in defeat, but because the party itself was seriously split on the issue of Home Rule.

Indeed, the movement proved something of a poisoned chalice for any party, individual, or administrator who took it up. This was clear again in the first decade of the new century with the Devolution proposal of 1904 and that of the Irish Council Bill in 1907. The idea behind these two proposals was to reconcile Unionist and Home Rule demands by the establishment of a new Irish assembly. It was hoped that this assembly would satisfy Home Rulers by offering some degree of autonomy, but would reduce Unionist fears since this autonomy would be far less extensive than that offered by Home Rule. Needless to say, these measures, precisely because they were compromises, pleased nobody. The London parliament was faced, as it had been all through the nineteenth century, with the hopeless task of solving the seemingly insoluble Irish problem, fulfilling demands for independence while at the same time reassuring Irish Unionists that the Union would be maintained.

In 1912, the last attempt was made to solve the problem before the outbreak of the Great War threw all Europe into disarray. This was the Third Home Rule Bill, which abandoned the compromises of 1904 and 1907 and returned again to the idea of a Dublin-based parliament with extensive internal powers. This time, the Bill not only passed the House of Commons but, following rejection by the Lords as in 1892, it finally passed into law due to the provisions of the Parliament Act of 1911. This Act had finally broken the control of the Lords over legislation by stipulating that any Bill which passed the Commons in three consecutive sessions would automatically become law even if rejected by the House of Lords. Irish Unionists were horrified: Home Rulers were euphoric. But then the war broke out, and the application of the Home Rule legislation was deferred until peace should return.

8. Militant Unionism

Unionists were a minority outside Ulster, and there was a sense in which they gave up the struggle early on. Undermined by land reform and without the backing of a large Protestant population and political supporters, they could not campaign as effectively against Home Rule as Unionists in north-east Ulster. There was a widening gulf between them and the Ulster Unionists who, from the start of the Home Rule threat, formed a united front to maintain the Union. In 1892 they staged a major demonstration in Belfast, the Ulster Unionist Convention, allowing all classes to voice their opposition to Home Rule. Following this Convention, a network of Ulster Unionist Clubs was established to keep up the momentum, while in 1905 the Ulster Unionist Council further centralised its efforts. The very titles of these organisations show how Ulster-based they were. Even at this early stage the Unionists in the rest of the island were not only being undermined by the Home Rule tendencies of the United Kingdom parliament, but were also being abandoned by their fellow Unionists in north-east Ulster.

A vital feature of Ulster Unionism during this anti-Home Rule period was the way in which social and economic divisions were bridged by the common commitment to defend the Union. This happened only in Ulster. In the other three provinces Unionist farmers and workers had always been in a minority and their numbers fell in the course of the nineteenth century. Thus most Unionists were upper and middle class in the other three provinces. Ulster was different. Here Unionism crossed the class divide: it included people from all classes of society, landlords, substantial farmers, businessmen, agricultural labourers, and urban manual workers.

The most determined action of the Ulster Unionists came with the Third Home Rule Bill of 1912. Not only did the traditional organising and speech-making take place, but there was a new emphasis on military organisation. An Ulster Volunteer force was set up to fight Home Rule should the Bill become law. Arms were imported, volunteer companies drilled regularly, ambulance corps were organised by women, and there was even a threat to withhold taxes should Home Rule become law. Much of this activity was of dubious legality, particularly the arms importation and the threat of non-payment of taxes. It seems ironic that a community priding itself on its loyalty should treat the law so casually, but this in itself showed how disillusioned Ulster Unionists had become with the London parliament which had, they believed, betrayed them by supporting Home Rule. Their loyalty was now ‘conditional’. They remained loyal on the condition the Government supported the Union.

This conditional nature of their loyalty became clearer as a result of the great public gesture staged in 1912 to underline Irish Unionist opposition to Home Rule, the signing of the Solemn League and Covenant. This Solemn League and Covenant was supported by Unionists from all over the country, but most especially in Ulster. Men from the Unionist community, beginning with the Ulster Unionist leaders, Edward Carson and James Craig, lined up publicly and put their names to a pledge against Home Rule. The signing of the Covenant had a four-fold significance. First, its main focus was on the feelings of Ulster Unionists, emphasising that the Unionists in other parts of Ireland (though they also signed the Covenant) were being slowly pushed aside. Second, it stressed that Unionists believed that their community was being betrayed by the parliament in London that should support them. Third, it was well organised and the signing was orderly. In this way the discipline and determination of Ulster Unionists were deliberately paraded before their opponents throughout Ireland and Britain. Fourth, it emphasised the religious crusading spirit that had always been part of Unionism. This increased the determination of Ulster Unionists and raised their campaign to a higher plane than mere politics. Ulster Unionists saw themselves as defenders not only of the Union of 1800 but also of the integrity of the entire British Empire. The outbreak of the Great War in 1914 turned their minds temporarily to European matters, and despite their long-standing resentment of what they saw as Britain’s betrayal of their community, they flocked enthusiastically to the war effort.

9. More Assertive Nationalism, 1870–1914

Home Rule envisaged the winning of a Dublin-based parliament with limited powers, and the maintenance of Irish loyalty to the Crown. But just as Home Rule was becoming more organised under Parnell’s leadership, more fundamental questions began to be asked about what it meant to be Irish. Was limited independence enough for those who believed Ireland capable of self-government? Was more needed to prove Ireland’s distinctness from England? Different answers to the question came from different sectors of the island’s population and from different interest groups. During the nineteenth century, for instance, the Catholic Church and a great proportion of the population believed that to be truly Irish one must be Catholic—a belief expressed in the support given to the campaign for a Catholic University and echoing an Irish Catholic identity formed in crises of the seventeenth century. Irish Unionists, on the other hand, especially those in Ulster, were convinced that true Irishness involved maintenance of the Act of Union. By the 1880s, however, new voices had joined the debate, most coming from the increasingly well-educated lower middle class, men and women whose interest in cultural and sporting pursuits was facilitated by rising pay, shorter working hours, and the consequent development of leisure time. These were well-educated young people who found their way to advancement blocked by the somewhat stagnant social and economic structures of the Ireland of their day—young clerks and shop assistants, caught in moderately paid but dead-end jobs; national teachers forced to toe the line by the local priest; and, above all, a new breed emerging in the late nineteenth century, the junior civil servant who frequently spent time in London and through this absence from home became more conscious of an Irish identity. This was the social spectrum, which provided the main personnel for the ‘new nationalism’ of the late nineteenth century.

People like these were instrumental in establishing and supporting new organisations like the Gaelic Athletic Association (1884) to develop Gaelic sports; the Gaelic League (1893) to foster the use of the Irish language; and Sinn Féin (1905) which stressed economic self-reliance and political self-sufficiency. Each in its own way, these new organisations stressed that Irishness depended on cultural and economic distinctiveness from England. They were not the first to put forward such a view. Forty years earlier, Thomas Davis and the Young Ireland movement had promoted such ideas, stressing the importance of self-reliance, praising the traditional pastimes of ordinary Irish people, and urging the preservation of the already dying Irish language. But Davis’s nationalism was balanced by the fact that he was a Protestant, and his definition of Irishness was actually quite broad, including all religious denominations and cultural groups in the island. On the other hand, the form of Irishness propounded by the late nineteenth-century movements was quite exclusive. Their main purpose was to shape (or even invent) a national identity based on cultural characteristics. The stress, as we have seen, was on all things Gaelic. Hence the titles Gaelic Athletic Association and Gaelic League. If national identity was essentially Gaelic, where did that leave the Anglo-Irish and anglicised elements in the population? If one did not play Gaelic games, dance Irish dances, sing Irish songs, speak the Irish language, was one really Irish? If the answer to this question was ‘no’, then obviously the emergent sense of Irishness was both exclusive and excluding.

10. Protestantism & Irishness

This was the point at which Protestant Ireland (or at least some sections of it) began to fight back, protesting that Irishness was not based exclusively on any one religion or culture, and claiming that they had as much right to be considered Irish as had any Gaelic games enthusiast or Irish language revivalist. They stressed, instead, the common sense of Irishness based on a shared past—often a very remote one in which figures like Cúchulainn, Meadhbh and Fionn mac Cumhaill loomed large. They also tried to identify Irishness in the simple, unvarnished life style of rural Ireland—an Ireland that they studied in depth and with which, at one level, they were very familiar, but from which they were separated by a wide cultural gulf. Lady Gregory, for instance, though she knew, loved, and wrote about the country people around her estate at Coole, really belonged to a different world, that of the intelligentsia and the landlord class. Similarly, when Synge wrote his controversial plays, including the Playboy of the Western World and In the Shadow of the Glen, he was meticulously careful to transmit the language and attitudes of the people to the page. Probably even more importantly in terms of their impact on contemporary society, these Irish Protestant writers found themselves at odds with those who objected to their sometimes rather unflattering pictures of Irish life. Dublin audiences, for instance, were outraged at parts of the Playboy, seeing it (wrongly) as an attempt to ridicule Irish life. Too much realism did not go down well at a time when many were trying to glorify and romanticise Irish culture and values.

Some of the writers of Protestant Ireland, however, were themselves drawn to this romanticisation of Ireland’s Gaelic culture and its past. In these early years Yeats, who later cast a much more critical eye on Irish society, set great store by Ireland’s mythological past, and by its nationalist heroes. He recalled not only the glories of Meadhbh, Oisín and Oscar, but also what he saw as the tragic heroism of Fenian leaders, contrasting these qualities with the hard-nosed materialism of his own day.

One event, which helped to spread the myth of heroic tragedy outside the confines of literary society and among the wider population, was the 1898 centenary of the 1798 rebellion. The original rebellion, which had been a complex mixture of sectarian hatreds, imported French republican ideals, and local power-struggles, was now portrayed as simple patriotic heroism in the face of unbearable oppression. A rash of patriotic celebrations spread across the island, particularly in those places (Wexford, Mayo and Antrim-Down) where the rebellion had occurred a century earlier. Monuments were erected to honour the rebels; old songs were re-written and new ones composed to show the rebels off in their best colours; and new periodicals like the Shan Van Vocht (published in Belfast) exhorted the people of 1898 to honour the memory of their forebears. The many local and regional committees established to organise the celebrations represented a wide spectrum of Irish society—trade unionists, Home Rule supporters, local politicians, Catholic clergy and, very importantly, underground republican activists and sympathisers who continued the Fenian/IRB tradition.

These latter-day republicans were disillusioned with the evident futility of the Home Rule movement, in existence since 1870 but apparently as far as ever from its goal almost thirty years later. They were also motivated by the belief that political action (parliamentary debates, elections, and the wheeling and dealing of political parties) was not only pointless but also spineless. They saw the limited objective of Home Rule as being not worth the effort, and in their quest for a separate republican Ireland they glorified military action as the only courageous way ahead. In this they were characteristic of the Europe of their day, where militaristic methods were lauded in pursuit of both national and sectional objectives, from the imperial programme of post-Bismarckian Germany to the Women’s Suffrage movement in Britain and Ireland, to the Ulster Unionist campaign against Home Rule.

11. The Suffrage Movement in Ireland, 1870–1914

Until the 1860s, a woman in the United Kingdom had very few rights. Irish women, like their counterparts elsewhere in Britain, were classified politically with ‘lunatics and criminals’ and were not allowed vote in parliamentary elections or hold public office. A single woman could own property but this passed to her husband upon marriage. Even her wages were considered his and he alone had control over their children. Access to higher education was extremely limited. A husband could also divorce his wife more easily than a wife could divorce her husband.

The first Irish women’s suffrage association was the Dublin Women’s Suffrage Society, founded in 1875. It later became the Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association (IWSLGA). The organisation was founded by two Quakers (a religion which had never differentiated between the rights of men and women), Thomas Haslam (1825–1917) and Anna Haslam (1829–1922), two of the most active feminists in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Ireland. The IWSLGA was a non–militant association but was to keep close links with the more militant suffrage organisations during the high point of suffrage agitation in 1910–12.

About the same time a campaign to get better education for women began. One of the leaders of the movement was Anne Jellico, born in Laois in 1823, and a Quaker like many of the early campaigners for women’s rights. In 1861 she set up a Dublin branch of the British–based Society for Promoting the Employment of Women to help working-class women train for jobs. In 1866 she set up Alexandra College to train governesses and Alexandra School in 1873 to give girls a decent secondary education. It was pressure from Jellico and from Scots–born suffragist and campaigner for women’s education, Isabella Tod (1836–96), among others, which led the Government to include girls’ education in the Intermediate Education Act (1878). Girls’ colleges were set up to give women a university education and from the early 1880s women graduated from the Royal University. In 1904 Trinity admitted women to its degrees and in 1908, when the National University and Queen’s University Belfast were set up, women entered on equal terms with men.

Better education gave women the confidence to become involved in politics. When the Land League was banned, the Ladies’ Land League continued its work. Anna Parnell, Charles’s sister, founded the Ladies’ League in January 1881. With 300 branches nationwide, the it organised resistance to evictions and financial help for evicted tenants. The Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Cardinal McCabe, condemned the Ladies’ Land League for taking women out of their proper place in the home. Several of the women were arrested and sent to jail.

In 1896 women were allowed to become Poor Law Guardians for the first time. Women were given the vote for local government elections in 1898. In 1899 eighty–five women were elected as Poor Law Guardians and thirty-five were elected to district councils. These victories further aroused women’s political awareness.

In 1900, when the aged Queen Victoria paid her last visit to Ireland, a group of women led by the wealthy nationalist, Maud Gonne, and the Dublin business woman, Jennie Wyse–Power, organised a counter–demonstration. They followed this up by forming Inghinidhe na hÉireann (‘Daughters of Ireland’), a nationalist organisation for women. They ran ‘buy Irish’ campaigns, held free classes for children in Irish, history and music, organised céilís and put on small plays. The organisation was republican in outlook but by 1914 it had faded away and was replaced by Cumann na mBan (‘the League of Women’).

In 1908 Hannah Sheehy Skeffington and her husband Francis set up the Irish Women’s Franchise League to campaign more vigorously than the IWSLGA had done. The Franchise League held public meetings and demonstrations, lobbied MPs and heckled political leaders, such as Dillon and Redmond, who were determined that women should have no vote in elections for a Home Rule parliament. Dillon argued that ‘women’s suffrage will, I believe, be the ruin of our western civilisation’. Thirty-five Irish women were imprisoned between 1912 and 1914 and several went on hunger strike. When the Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, visited Dublin in 1912, two English suffragists threw a hatchet at him.

Anna Haslam was also co–founder of the Women’s Liberal Unionist Association, but worked side by side with nationalist and Catholic suffragists in the early twentieth century. The IWSLGA and smaller local suffrage societies were absorbed by Louie Bennett (1870–1956) and Helen Chenevix in 1911 into the Irish Women’s Suffrage Federation. As secretary of the Irish Women Worker’s Union, Bennett believed that a strong trade union movement was essential for a thriving Labour Party. It was set up as a sister organisation to the Irish Transport and General Workers Union with Delia Larkin as its first general secretary. Presidents of the Federation included Mary Hayden (1862–1942), while George Russell (Æ) (1867–1935) was one of its vice–presidents. When the National University of Ireland was founded, Hayden became the only woman on the Senate (1909–24). She was also closely associated with the Gaelic League.

The Home Rule crisis of 1912–14 did great damage to the movement working for female suffrage. Some women felt that winning Home Rule or preserving the Union was much more important than winning the vote. Other women believed that winning the vote was more important than either Home Rule or the Union. As a result, the movement split and thereby lost much of its force and energy. The outbreak of World War I changed everything. As the armies recruited ever-increasing numbers of men, women had to take up jobs outside the home and it was soon recognised that women’s work was vital if victory was to be achieved.

Cumann na mBan was founded on 5 April 1914 as an auxiliary to the Irish Volunteers. Unlike the Citizen Army, which accepted both sexes into its ranks, Cumann na mBan’s role was strictly subordinate to that of the Volunteers. They were to act as nurses, cooks, messengers, and fund raisers but there was no question of their taking part in any fighting ‘except in the last extremity’. Finally, under the Representation of the People Act, 1918, women over the age of thirty received the vote. Among the first women to exercise the franchise was Anna Haslam at the age of eighty–nine.

12. The First Sinn Féin Party

Arthur Griffith provided the inspiration, the ideas, and the leadership for Sinn Féin (‘We Ourselves’), a radical nationalist movement that developed between 1905 and 1908. Under the direction of Arthur Griffith and Bulmer Hobson, it absorbed varied small groups of nationalists, radicals, feminists, and the politically discontented—the Dungannon Clubs (an advanced nationalist group founded by Bulmer Hobson in 1905), the National Council (formed by Griffith and Maud Gonne in 1903 to protest against Edward VII’s visit to Dublin), Inghinidhe na hÉireann, Fenians, disillusioned Home Rulers, and Griffith’s earlier organisation, Cumann na nGaedheal, founded in 1900. Sinn Féin was the first Irish political party to admit women as full members. The title, which was not new and was frequently mistranslated as ‘Ourselves Alone’, was suggested to Griffith by Mary Lambert Butler (Máire de Buitléir), a cousin of Edward Carson. The first president was John Sweetman while Griffith and Hobson were vice–presidents. Other prominent members included W.T. Cosgrave, Seán Mac Diarmada, Countess Markievicz, and Seán T. O’Kelly. Sinn Féin’s original concept of Irish independence was that of Dual Monarchy as suggested by Griffith in his Resurrection of Hungary: a parallel for Ireland (1904). Griffith hoped to win Unionists by keeping the King of England as King of Ireland. This idea was based on the Hungarian solution within the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the Ausgleich of 1867. This was very like the system that existed in Ireland before the Union. In essence, Griffith cited Grattan’s Parliament (1782–1800), which he idealised, as an model of Ireland’s legislative independence.

The movement had a newspaper, Sinn Féin, edited by Griffith from 1906 until its suppression in 1914. The Sinn Féin economic policy of 1908 was largely influenced by the theories of Friedrich List who argued that nationalism was essential for economic growth. Griffith’s policies included the

‘establishment of protection for Irish industry and commerce by combined action of the County Councils and Local Boards; development of … mineral resources; creation of a national civil service; national control and management of transport and of waste lands; reform of education; non-consumption as far as possible of articles requiring duty to the British Exchequer; non-recognition of the British parliament’.
His main political proposal, which was not original, was that Irish MPs should withdraw from the British Parliament, as the Hungarian MPs withdrew from Vienna.

In Griffith’s words:

‘Our declared object was to make England take one hand from Ireland’s throat and the other out of Ireland’s pocket’.

These policies, however, had little initial impact as was shown by the North Leitrim by–election of 21 February 1908 when Charles J. Dolan, having resigned his membership of the Irish Parliamentary Party, contested the seat for Sinn Féin and got only one–third of the total poll. However, Sinn Féin provided a focal point for fringe movements, and had a disproportionate influence on political thinking, particularly through the writings of Griffith. By 1908 the party had 100 branches throughout the country.

Although Dolan’s votes were probably a ‘thank you’ from former supporters rather than an endorsement of Sinn Féin policies, Griffith believed there was widespread support for his ideas and he decided to encourage them by turning his weekly newspaper, Sinn Féin, into a daily. The venture failed. Quarrels developed in the movement and its membership began to decline. The more radical members of the party accused Griffith of diluting the party’s nationalism in order to make it more acceptable to Unionists and Home Rulers. In 1910 the constitutional crisis in Britain made it seem as though Home Rule would soon be a reality. The Home Rule party was revitalised while Sinn Féin declined. Finally, the revival of the IRB made some of Griffith’s young followers impatient with his pacifism. They set up a rival newspaper, Irish Freedom, which took many of Griffith’s readers. All this left Griffith on the verge of bankruptcy.

However, the Third Home Rule Bill disappointed most nationalists and, when John Redmond showed that he was not able to deal with Unionists, there was some revival of interest in Sinn Féin but that interest was in the idea rather than the organisation. By this time, the Sinn Féin party had shrunk to a single unit, the Dublin Central branch. However, many nationalists began to describe themselves as ‘Sinn Féiners’ and the more nationalistic members of the Irish Volunteers called themselves ‘Sinn Féin Volunteers’. The organisation had almost disappeared by 1914 although Griffith still published Sinn Féin on an occasional basis. Over the next few years he would continue to preach his ideas to an apparently indifferent world.

13. The Irish Volunteers

The Irish Volunteers were founded on 25 November 1913 following the publication of an article by Eoin MacNeill in An Claideamh Soluis, the official organ of the Gaelic League. In that article of 1 November, entitled ‘The North Began’, MacNeill suggested that southern nationalists should form a volunteer movement on the lines of the Ulster Volunteer Force. MacNeill was then approached by Bulmer Hobson of the Irish Republican Brotherhood who organised a public meeting at the Rotunda where the new force was established. Thus, reacting to the establishment of the Ulster Volunteers in January 1913, Irish republicans joined with the more moderate supporters of Home Rule in open recourse to arms to establish the Irish Volunteers.

Although branches were set up throughout the country, the initial response was strongest in the North. It attracted followers of Sinn Féin and the Gaelic League as well as members of the IRB who, however, had their own views about the future of the new force. This heavy IRB involvement in its foundation made John Redmond hesitant to support it. By 1914 membership was around 80,000 and funds were collected through John Devoy and Clan na Gael in the USA and by Sir Roger Casement and Alice Stopford Green in England. In July 1914 Darrell Figgis and Robert Erskine Childers arranged for the purchase of guns in Germany. Some 1,500 rifles and 45,000 rounds of ammunition were shipped from Hamburg to Howth on board Childers’s yacht Asgard on 26 July. They were quickly distributed to waiting Volunteers who managed to escape with them before a force of police and troops arrived to intercept them. The event subsequently became known as the ‘Howth gun–running’.

There were now two armed volunteer armies in the country. The Ulster Volunteer Force had made clear its commitment to resist Home Rule at all costs, and had been given the support of Andrew Bonar Law and the Conservatives. John Redmond was fighting for Home Rule without partition at Westminster but he was concerned lest the Volunteers should prevent the passage of the (third) Home Rule Bill. To ensure control of them he demanded half of the seats on the Provisional Committee. As the alternative was to split the movement, his demands were conceded in June, much to the anger of the extremists in the IRB. The Home Rule Act was to become law on 14 September 1914.

However, the outbreak of war in August 1914 meant that the Home Rule Act was suspended for the duration of the war. There were now 180,000 Irish Volunteers. The British Government rejected Redmond’s offer that they should act as a defence force for Ireland. On 20 September, in the course of a speech at Woodenbridge, Co. Wicklow, Redmond urged Volunteers to support Britain in the war against Germany ‘for the freedom of small nations’. His call was answered by a majority who became known as the National Volunteers, leaving some 11,000 Irish Volunteers, who opposed involvement in the war. This minority reorganised in October 1914. Eoin MacNeill became Chief of Staff, Bulmer Hobson Quartermaster, and Michael Joseph O’Rahilly Director of Arms. Three key posts were in the hands of the IRB: Patrick Pearse was Director of Military Operations; Joseph Plunkett Director of Military Operations and Thomas Mac Donagh Director of Training. All three later became members of the secret IRB Military Council which organised, under the influence of Thomas J. Clarke, the Easter Rising of 1916. The huge number who followed Redmond is testament to the influence that he and Home Rule exerted over most Irish people.

Most of those who joined the Volunteer movement saw their primary objective not as the achievement of an Irish republic but the defence of Home Rule against Ulster opposition. Some accepted Ireland’s close relationship with Great Britain which, in the tense international atmosphere of the time, was seen as the defender of liberty. Many of the young men in the Volunteers were also attracted by the adventure and excitement of war and by the pay packages they would earn. Some historians have argued that Redmond was under great pressure from Volunteers to make the declaration he made at Woodenbridge and that he could not have prevented most of them from signing up for the war in any case. When the First World War broke out most Irish Volunteers flocked to the war effort as enthusiastically as did the Ulster Volunteers and were backed by the leaders of the Home Rule movement. Home Rule was shelved until peace should return, as it did in November 1918. By then the tenor of Irish politics had changed beyond recognition.

Maura Cronin (with contributions by Fidelma Maguire)