“A Loyal Song Against Home Rule”


"I'm an Irishman born in loyal Belfast." Ireland "would be ruined for ever if Home Rule was passed." Gladstone "has got no idea of the blood it would spill ... don't let old Gladstone get you in a snare ... It's time long ago he was upon the shelf"


William Ewart Gladstone became British prime minister in 1868 and supported Home Rule for Ireland. He introduced his first Home Rule Bill, which was defeated, in 1885. His second Home Rule Bill was defeated in 1893. (source: "Home Rule" on the Irelandseye site) - BS

For the sources cited in what follows, see the Bibliography at the end of this note.

Gradually during the nineteenth century, the restrictions on Catholics in Ireland were lifted. But the memory remained -- and most of the land was still in Protestant hands.

Gladstone devoted much of his energy as Prime Minister to improving conditions in Ireland, disestablishing the Church (see, e.g., "The Downfall of Heresy") and granting increased tenant rights (see especially "The Bold Tenant Farmer," though the need for land reform inspired many songs).

Gladstone apparently thought initially that ordinary reforms would be enough to satisfy Ireland (see "Home Rule for Ireland"; also Kee, p. 58: Gladstone seems at first to have imagined that he could solve the problem of Ireland forever by two measures: first, By disestablishing the Irish Protestant Church and, second, legislating to compensate a tenant financially on conviction).

The success of the Land League and the rise of Charles Stewart Parnell eventually forced him to see otherwise (for Parnell, see e.g. "The Blackbird of Avondale (The Arrest of Parnell)"; also "We Won't Let Our Leader Run Down?).

For most of the nineteenth century, the Irish had given their support primarily to the Liberals, who were more sympathetic to their cause. But Parnell, who by 1882 was the dominant force in Irish politics, wasn't willing to settle for that. In 1885, he urged his supporters to vote Conservative just to try to shake things up.

The result as an election in which the Liberals held 335 seats in parliament, the Conservatives 249 -- and Parnell controlled 86 seats and the balance of power (Kee, p. 89).

Prime Minister Gladstone tried to improve the situation with his proposal for Home Rule (partial internal autonomy for Ireland). Gladstone's 1886 Home Rule proposal was limited -- the British would still control foreign and trade policy, for instance. But internal affairs would largely be in Irish hands.

Unfortunately, his own party was not united on the issue. A handful of members openly went over to the Conservatives; a larger block, headed by Joseph Chamberlain, remained devoted to other liberal reforms, but simply would not support Home Rule (see Kee, pp. 89-90; Massie, pp. 235-238).

The government fell, and Home Rule was shelved for seven years.

The second attempt was no more successful. According to Kee, p. 124, the 1893 Home Rule bill "occupied more parliamentary time than any other bill in the history of the century." You have to wonder why the Ulster Unionists -- who, as we shall see, went into conniptions -- were so worried; some wit quipped that Gladstone had no more power to pass Home Rule (through the Lords) than he did to install waterworks on the moon. The Lords not only rejected it, they rejected it 419-41 (Kee, p. 125).

That was about the end for Gladstone. It wasn't good for the Liberals, either; for fifteen years Parliament was split into four groups: Conservatives, classic Liberals, residual Parnellites (now led by John Redmond insofar as they had a leader; in the election of 1892, nearly 90% of the Irish MPs claimed to be anti-Parnellite, but that faded over time), and Liberal Unionists (Chamberlainites). For the most part, it was gridlock, though the Chamberlainites occasionally managed to extract liberal reforms from the Conservatives. But there was no possibility of serious legislation for Ireland.

Still, Home Rule naturally concerned the Irish Protestants, who would inevitably find Catholics in charge of a Home Rule Ireland. In most of Ireland, they were too few to really resist. But in Ulster, or at least in parts of it, they were the majority. And they didn't want the Catholics doing unto them as they had done unto the Catholics. (They knew what it was like: Unlike the Anglicans in the rest of Ireland, the Ulstermen *had* been subjected to religious persecution -- see Kee, pp. 96-97.)

So the Presbyterians strenuously opposed Home Rule. The old Orange Society, which had been banned in 1836, was revived in 1845 in Enniskillen (Kee, p. 100), and a Protestant Defence Association came into being in 1867-1868 (Kee, p. 101-102) in response to the Land League and the British government's relatively mild reaction (Kee, p. 103). By 1884, Kee reports that 20,000 Orangemen were demonstrating on the anniversary of the Boyne.

If Zimmermann's 1893 date is reliable, the probable inspiration for this song (apart from Gladstone's 1893 attempt at a Home Rule bill) was the great Ulster Unionist Convention of 1892 (Kee, p. 122); some 12,000 were said to have attended; resolutions stated that Ulster was an integral part of the United Kingdom, rejected an Irish parliament, and declared against Home Rule. One speaker declared that Ulster would defend itself if threatened with rule from Dublin.

Finally, in 1904, came the foundation of the Ulster Unionist Council. (Which was, ironically, to help divide the Unioninist movement; as Townshend notes, p. 32, Unionists in southern Ireland were a small enough minority that their only hope was to retain Union. The Ulster Unionists had a fallback position: Partition. The two groups thus ended up pursuing different ends.)

Even before the founding of the UUC, the Unionists had had a spokesman in Edward Carson (1854-1935). He was denouncing Home Rule in the government by the 1890s, and helped along the split in the Liberal Party that made Home Rule impossible. Eventually he managed to take Ulster out of Ireland. The irony in this is that he wasn't an Ulsterman -- and on issues other than Union, he was even relatively liberal (Kee, p. 169-170). But he openly declared that would support anarchy rather than Home Rule (O'Connor, p. 45).

By 1911, Ulstermen were rallying and marching -- with compliant Justices of the Peace being more than willing to grant them permits to drill (Kee, p. 171; Townshend, p. 35). Nearly 450,000 would sign a "Solemn League and Covenant" to oppose Home Rule, some with their own blood (Kee, p. 180). 20,000 signed on the first day alone (O'Conor, p. 46). They were pledged to "Stand by one another in using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament and in the even of such a Parliament being forced upon us, we further solemnly pledge ourseves to refuse to recognize its authority" (O'Connor, pp. 45-46).

Starting in 1913, the Ulster Unionist Council formed a provisional government (O'Connor, p. 46) and started raising a private army which woul eventually reach 100,000 men (Kee, p. 182; O'Connor, p. 46, credits them with 50,000 men withing three months of their foundation), though at first few had weapons (Townshend, p. 33); they practiced with wooden mock-ups. They would raise a million-pound insurance fund (Townshend, p. 42).

Members of the British government called it treason (O'Connor, p. 46). That didn't even slow them down.

Home Rule finally came back in 1910, long after Gladstone was dead. The Liberal government of H. H. Asquith, which needed the Irish votes controlled by Redmond (Dangerfield, pp. 52-53), passed Home Rule -- only to have the Lords block it again.

Asquith finally hit upon the radical solution of limiting the veto power of the House of Lords -- in effect setting up a system where the Lords could block a measure for two years, but have to give in if the Commons kept passing it. Asquith won a narrow parliamentary victory on this point (for an intensely detailed description of how all this came about, see Massie, pp. 640-662 -- the chapter entited "The Budget and the House of Lords"; for something shorter, see the notes to "My Father's a Hedger and Ditcher (Nobody Coming to Marry Me)").

With the Lords rendered relatively powerless, a preliminary Home Rule bill eventually passed in 1913 (see Cronin, pp. 177-179). But English opinion had not really been tested on the matter (Kee, p. 176, notes that "Only some 94 of the 272 successful Liberal candidates... had actually mentioned Home Rule at all in their election addresses" -- and that the Prime Minister was one of the many cabinet officials who did not mention the subject).

Worse, the army was not prepared to enforce the law; a number of officers resigned rather than prepare to suppress Ulster loyalists -- the so-called "Curragh Mutiny" (see Kee, p. 192). In trying to calm the mutiny, the British government made it effectively impossible to control Ulster loyalists. Indeed, future Conservative prime minister Andrew Bonar Law stood with Carson at a rally against Home Rule in Belfast (O'Connor, p. 45)

Then came World War I, which caused the law to be suspended (the Home Rule bill had been unravelling over the Ulster problem anyway). Kee reports that Prime Minister Asquith, after consultation with the main parties, "agreed... that Home Rule should become law and be placed on the statute book, but simultaneously with a Suspensory Act which would prevent it coming into force until a new Amending Bill could be introduced" (which, in practice, meant "until after the War").

Still, the bill formally passed and gained the King?s assent in 1914. There was celebration in the streets of Ireland (Kee, p. 222)

And then came the Easter Rising of 1916 -- something that real Home Rule might have prevented (Townshend, p. 30, believes that the passage of full home rule, including Ulster, would have turned many Irish nationalists, including rebellion leader Paidraig Pearse and perhaps Sinn Fein founder Arthur Griffith, away from rebellion. O'Connor, p. 41, makes the same argument, noting that Pearse gave a speech, in Irish, applauding Home Rule when it came. I have to add, though, that Pearse in the same speech rejected the notion of even nominal obedience to the crown.)

But the rebellion meant that Home Rule never did really come into effect -- in part because of British brutality in the aftermath of the Easter Rising, and partly because Ulster simply wouldn't accept it. Plus, of course, many of the more moderate Irish had joined the British army, and had died in droves in Flanders. The more militant nationalists had refused to serve. Thus, after the war, nationalist feeling was much stronger, and pro-British Irishmen fewer. Plus John Redmond, the man who had fought -- and compromised -- to win Home Rule had died in 1918, leaving Sinn Fein as the strongest political element.

When the pressure on Britain became intolerable, they gave Ireland the Free State and Partition rather than Home Rule in its initial form. In some ways, the Free State *was* Home Rule -- but it felt different, and opened the door for Eamon de Valera to make separation (and partition) complete.

We should note incidentally that the Orangemen did not really represent any particular segment of society; theirs was the minority no matter how you sliced the demographics. In the parliamentary election after Gladstone's Home Rule attempt, they lost even in Ulster (Kee, p. 106, reports that they won 16 seats, to 17 for their opponents). In Ulster as a whole, the population is said to have been 52% Protestant, 49% Catholic -- but a large share of those Protestants were Anglican, whereas the Orangemen were Presbyterian. Thus Catholics were the plurality in the nine counties of Ulster (three of which, to be sure, would end up in Ireland rather than Northern Ireland). And the Ulstermen didn't represent the majority of Ireland's Protestants, either; although Anglicans were everywhere else a small minority, there were enough of them that they outnumbered the Ulster Presbyterians.

For more on how all this played out, see especially the notes to "The Irish Free State." - RBW


In writing this summary, in addition to standard references such as the _Oxford Companions_ to British and Irish history, I have consulted the following works, cited by author's name above:

Cronin: Mike Cronin, _A History of Ireland_ (Palgrave, 2001(

Dangerfield: George Dangerfield, _The Damnable Question: One Hundred and Twenty Years of Anglo-Irish Conflict_ (Atlantic Little Brown, 1976)

Kee: Robert Kee, _The Bold Fenian Men_, being Volume II of _The Green Flag_ (Penguin, 1972)

Massie: Robert K. Massie, _Dreadnought_ (Random House, 1991)

O'Connor: Ulick O'Connor, _Michael Collins & the Troubles: The Struggle for Irish Freedon 1912-1922_ (1975, 1996; first American edition published as _The Troubles_; I used the 1996 Norton edition)

Townshend: Charles Townshend, _Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion_ (Ivan R. Dee, 2006) - RBW

Cross references


  1. Zimmermann 100, "A New Loyal Song Against Home Rule" (1 text)
  2. BI, Zimm100


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1893 (Zimmermann)