News Analysis

Friday 22 August 2014

Carson: unlikely goals of a hurler on the plinth

Published 14/10/2012 | 05:00

  • Share

The Dublin barrister who became a leader of the Covenant campaign was not a British toady, writes Ulick O'Connor

  • Share
  • Go To

ASTATUE which is being restored for a centenary will be unveiled outside Stormont Buildings this year.

It is of Dublin barrister Edward Carson whose memory was commemorated last week in connection with the 100th anniversary of the Ulster Covenant, which is for unionists what the 1916 Proclamation is to Irish nationalists.

What was this Covenant, you may ask? It was a proclamation by the Ulster unionists in 1912 which implied that if they didn't get their way, they would rise against the government in London.

For this purpose they had armed and trained, and were to import huge shipments of German guns and ammunition for Carson's army of 100,000 to confront the British military if Home Rule became law.

Edward Carson, KC, was the leader of this campaign, but the Great War had begun before it got off the ground.

The Ulster unionists were hot for British rule -- as long as it legislated in a way that suited them. When an anguished Asquith, the British prime minister, told Carson his illegal army was beyond the law, this is the reply he got.

"I am a loyal subject of the His Majesty the King. So much I value this birthright that I was even prepared to rebel in order to defend it."

Rather an Irish reply, saying everything and meaning little?

The Ulster rebellion spread to the British army whose headquarters were at the Curragh Camp in Kildare. Most of the officers there said they would resign if they were sent up to Ulster to confront Carson's illegal army. It looked like civil war was on the cards.

Carson had even gone to Germany to sweet talk the Kaiser into supporting him. But war broke out on July 28, 1914 before anything could happen. The Home Rule Bill was passed -- but its enactment was postponed until after the war. By then, over 40,000 nationalists had died fighting in British uniform.

As soon as the war had begun, Carson had used his head and galloped back into the establishment. In 1917, he was made First Lord of the Admiralty.

After the Great War ended in 1918, a new conflict broke out between Britain and Ireland resulting in a guerrilla war between the two countries. In 1922, the Irish Free State came into being with six of the northern counties remaining with Britain.

Carson retired from the Westminster parliament in that year and took a seat in the House of Lords.

What has not been properly dealt with, except in an extended essay by Francis Byrne titled Eoin MacNeill, The Scholar Revolutionary 1867-1945, is the key role of a certain group who took over in 1925 when the Boundary Commission defined the positioning of Northern Ireland in relation to the 26 counties.

The Commission was composed of Eoin MacNeill (professor of Gaelic literature and ex-Irish Volunteer leader), Judge Feetham (a judge of the South African courts) and JR Fisher (a unionist newspaper editor). MacNeill resigned when he realised that other forces were at work undermining the position he had been assigned. Thus Northern Ireland came into being under an arrangement by a South African judge and a unionist newspaper editor.

What does not seem to have been adverted to is this. Feetham was a member of a sinister group known as the Round Table movement which specialised in controlling the affairs of empire, the founder of which was Viscount Alfred Milner, an arch conspirator of German birth.

Having ensured that no concessions would be made, the two handed over their recommendations to the British government. The new Irish Free State leaders were horrified -- but were too exhausted after the Civil War to do anything except agree.

An argument can be made that the 1916 Rising might not have taken place had Carson not pursued his illegal plan to abort the Home Rule Bill. Also it is unlikely that there would have been civil war in the south, an event that in nine months would set us back for the following 50 years.

It should be remembered though that Edward Carson was not a British toady. He was an energetic and brilliant Irishman who believed that Ireland's future lay with Britain and not as an independent republic.

Edward Carson was born at No 9, Harcourt Street in Dublin city -- the son of an architect who had designed Palmerston and Morehampton Roads. At Trinity College he had been a stalwart on the college hurling team, and it had not been uncommon for him to refer to Cromwell as "a murderer".

After an early career in Ireland, he had moved to London and in a few years had become a leader of the Bar. He had that rich Dublin accent cultivated by the Protestant middle class in Dublin, and the wit of a Moore Street shawlie.

(It was Carson who prosecuted Oscar Wilde, fellow Trinity student, for indecency. It was Wilde however, the greatest talker of his time, who was worsted in the game, after he had tried every trick from his repertoire, but failed to convince the jury that he was innocent. The pair represented two aspects of Ireland, one believing that our future lay with England, and the other, whose mother Jane Elgee had supported the 1848 Rebellion, on the side of a new Ireland.)

One wonders how Edward Carson would have looked on Northern Ireland today with its government made up of ministers from the nationalist and unionist communities. I think he would have approved. After all, he had once been a champion hurler and, knew how to carry the sliotar on his hurl when he saw an opening for a goal. And winning played a big part in his life. Yes, power-sharing is something I think Ned Carson would have approved of.

Ulick O'Connor wrote 'A Trinity of Two', a play about Edward Carson and Oscar Wilde which premiered at the Abbey and then played in London and Belfast

Sunday Independent

Read More

Don't Miss

Editor's Choice