Tales from Irish History - Alice Birkhead

Home Rule for Ireland

The greatest movement of Irish history came from a very humble attempt to do something to better the state of affairs in Ireland. The Fenian Brotherhood had been crushed, its members scattered. A quiet interval was expected by the English Government, so lately visited by panic. In 1870, a meeting was held in Dublin attended by Irishmen of almost all classes, and, at that meeting, the claim for Home Rule was first uttered.

"Repeal" was the old cry of O'Connell, and his followers. The men, now considering the interests of Ireland, were unwilling to adopt this same cry, because they knew it would alarm the Government. Home Rule sounded so reasonable and innocent that it was used instead and soon became extremely well known in politics.

Isaac Butt, a Dublin barrister, made a brilliant speech at this meeting of 1870, urging all Irishmen to unite for the sake of winning self-government, for Ireland. He thought it was the only way to prevent perpetual rebellion, and could bring no harm to England. The proposals he made were certainly moderate. He did not want Ireland to break off all connection with England, but he thought that affairs strictly Irish should be left to Irish statesmen, who really understood them. There was still to be a loyal alliance between the two countries, and they were still to be regarded as one Empire. The English Parliament was to decide Imperial questions and to leave Ireland the control of her own domestic affairs. Ireland was to be governed, in fact, very much as if she were one of the United States of America, free to settle local business, but always under the control of a strong central government.

The resolution, passed unanimously at this meeting, came much before the public afterwards. Such a Government was carried on peacefully in Australia on a large scale and in the Isle of Man in miniature. Nobody had ever thought it was dangerous to let either of these nations manage their own concerns, but nearly everybody had some objection to the scheme of Home Rule for Ireland.

Irish approval was shown by the return of Home Rule members in the General Election of 1874. Some sixty members, known as Home Rulers, took their seats in the new Parliament. They formed a party who intended to do all they could for their own nation. For the most part they were quiet and orderly till they were joined in 1875 by a member who did not object to violent methods as much as did the leader, Mr Isaac Butt.

Charles Stewart Parnell first entered politics as M.P. for Meath. He was described as "a nice gentlemanly fellow who would be an ornament but no use," and men who heard his first attempts at public speaking thought he would never be of much account in Parliament. By degrees, he began to make a change in the usual way of treating Irish questions. In 1877, he objected to the custom of bringing in important business late at night, or rather early in the morning, when members were too weary to give their minds to discussion. He had a steady way of sticking to his point, which was hard to baffle. The polite habit of howling down unpopular members of the House was tried most unsuccessfully with Mr Parnell. His party took up the policy of "obstruction." They hindered business in every possible way till attention was paid to their demands. On one occasion they kept the House sitting for no less than twenty-six hours, because they were determined to oppose a Bill on the South African question. In this case, the Bill was passed in spite of opposition, but more success crowned their efforts to improve a very important Bill on Prisons.

Mr Butt did not like the obstruction policy, which led to scenes of wild disorder. He died in 1879, and his place was supposed to be taken by a member known as "Sensible Shaw," but, in reality, Mr Parnell ruled the Irish party ever after. A wealthy Ulsterman, Mr Joseph Biggar, went even further than Mr Parnell in the same policy. He was neither learned nor eloquent, had scant respect for English constitutions, and was indeed "without manners and without fear," yet he managed to get what he wanted by exasperating hi$ opponents till they gave way. Both Mr Parnell and Mr Biggar thought the position of Irish members humiliating to the last degree, because they had to beg for favours that should have been granted as rights.

In 1880, there was another General Election. Lord Beaconsfield had resolved to appeal to the country to discover if they approved of his policy, which was anti-Irish. He declared the Home Rule movement to be "scarcely less dangerous than pestilence or famine," and hinted that the Liberals, who approved of it, were trying "to destroy the Imperial character of England." The Irish naturally tried to throw the Tory party out of office and managed to secure the return of Liberals. Mr Parnell was offered three constituencies, but took his seat as M.P. for Cork. A split now followed between the parties of Mr Shaw and Mr Parnell. The latter refused to sit on the ministerial benches, and took their places among the opposition of the new Parliament. This meant that they would not support the Liberals, unless they thought it would be to the advantage of Ireland. Henceforward, they were fighting for their own land. In this party were many men destined to become well-known—Mr T. P. O'Connor, Mr Tim Healy, and Mr Justin M'Carthy.

Between 1880-5 there was a breach between the Liberals and the Nationalists. The latter thought that more attention should be paid to the Land Question of Ireland, for evictions were much on the increase. There were other points of disagreement also.

In 1886, the Liberals took office again under Mr Gladstone. They began by expressing strong sympathy with Ireland, whose claims had been treated so cavalierly by the late Conservative Government. It became known that a Bill for Home Rule was in preparation. On April 26th, the House met for the first reading of the Bill.

It was a time of vital importance to the whole Irish nation. Mr Gladstone was the foremost statesman of his age, and, by recognising the right of the Irish to rule Ireland, he drew more serious attention to their cause than it had ever before received. No member of the House, who was present on the occasion of the first reading of the Home Rule Bill, is ever likely to forget the day. People came as early as six o'clock in the morning to secure places. At the time the speech was to begin, there was not room for a single other person in the House. For the first time on record, chairs had to be brought into the House to seat members. Ambassadors and other dignitaries filled the lobbies.

Nobody had been suffered to learn the secrets of the Bill in preparation. When the Prime Minister entered to explain its clauses, it seemed as though the whole audience rose to greet that frail old man of seventy-six. Mr Gladstone's speech was one of the greatest speeches of the century—it occupied three hours and twenty-five minutes. There was not a trace of passion in the speaker's manner, though he was skilled in all the arts that move an audience. Clear steady argument set before the House the elaborate scheme of the Home Rule Bill.

The first reading passed without a division, but an amendment was moved to the second reading. The debate on the two stages occupied sixteen nights, while London was "hot with political passion."

On June 8th, 1886, Mr Parnell spoke eloquently for Home Rule, and then Mr Gladstone made the last of his five speeches. He appealed to English statesmen to make amends to Ireland for the grievous injury of centuries, to act at once in such a way that the past might be forgotten. He pointed out that the Irish tradition was the only one that could reflect no glory on his nation. "What we want to do is to stand by the traditions of which we are the heirs in all matters, except our relations with Ireland, to make our relations with Ireland to conform to the other traditions of our country. So we treat our traditions, so we hail the demand of Ireland for what I call the blessed oblivion of the past. She asks also a boon for the future; and that boon for the future, unless we are much mistaken, will be a boon to us in respect of honour, no less than a boon to her in respect of happiness, prosperity, and peace. Such, sir, is her prayer. Think, I beseech you, think wisely, think not for the moment, but for the years that are to come, before you reject this Bill."

The eloquence of the grand old English statesman was not successful in its immediate results. The division was taken, and the Home Rule Bill rejected in the House of Commons by thirty votes.