been growing from the mid-1870s and especially in the early 1880s,
shaped by enthusiasm for self-government and further strengthened by
revulsion against coercion.
Like Chartism, popular liberalism had always been, above all, about
democracy,4 and many of its spokesmen were not the least embarrassed
by the clash between parliamentary and popular sovereignty which the
Home Rule agitation engendered. Indeed, the radical understanding of
freedom was rooted in what Skinner calls â€˜neo-romanâ€™ liberty.5 â€˜Self-
governmentâ€™ implied more than a set of elected local authorities deriving
their legitimacy from Bills passed by the imperial Parliament. It also
implied that the legitimacy of Parliament itself depended on popular
support and if the latter were to be permanently withdrawn, the former
would collapse and government degenerate into despotism. This was the
case in Ireland: the Union had to be amended because the overwhelming
majority of the people rejected it. Moreover, from 1887 the notion that
Home Rule was the only alternative to continuous coercion further
reinforced the view that self-government was liberty. Without it there
was only â€˜servitudeâ€™ and â€˜tsaristâ€™ repression, which, if allowed to continue
unchecked, would eventually corrupt not only the nature of government
in Ireland, but also the whole fabric of the British constitution.6
Indeed Heyck has pointed out that a number of prominent Radicals
were converted to Home Rule in 1881â€“2, when it appeared that not even a
Liberal government could operate the Dublin Castle system without intro-
ducing special repressive legislation.7 Although this was an important
turning point, Heyckâ€™s chronology is questionable, because some of the
J. Chamberlain to T. Gee, 26 Apr. 1886, NLW, T. Gee MSS, 8305D, 15a.
Biagini, Liberty, retrenchment and reform (1992).
Q. Skinner, Liberty before liberalism (Cambridge, 1998). See E. F. Biagini, â€˜Liberalism and
direct democracy: J. S. Mill and the model of ancient Athensâ€™, in Biagini (ed.) Citizenship
and community (Cambridge, 1996), 21â€“44; and â€˜Neo-roman liberalismâ€™.
M. Matikkala, â€˜Anti-imperialism, Englishness and empireâ€™; K. O. Morgan, Keir Hardie,
radical and socialist (1984), 73.
Heyck, Dimensions, 95. Cf. H. Labouchere, â€˜Radicals and Whigsâ€™, Fortnightly Review, 206
(Feb. 1884), 222â€“4; H. George, â€˜England and Ireland: an American viewâ€™, Fortnightly
Review, 186 (June 1882), 780â€“94; rep., â€˜East Leeds. Mr Lawrence Ganeâ€™s candidatureâ€™,
The Leeds Mercury, 23 Nov. 1885.
52 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
MPs whom he identifies as 1882 converts to Home Rule had actually
spoken in support of the cause as early as 1872â€“4, in response to Isaac
Buttâ€™s first campaign. Moreover, many of the early converts to Home
Rule â€“ including Joseph Cowen, Patrick Lloyd Jones, A. J. Mundella
and the editors of Reynoldsâ€™s Newspaper â€“ had been involved in Chartism
in the 1840s, when the restoration of an Irish Parliament in Dublin was
first debated in radical circles. Thus in 1842 a pamphlet proclaimed that
â€˜SE L F - LE G I S L A T I O N [sic] is the object of [both] Chartists and Repealers â€“
in this consists their identity. Both stand up for the management of their
own affairs.â€™8 The idea was particularly popular in W. J. Lintonâ€™s circle,
which at one stage included liberals such as James Stansfeld and
P. A. Taylor. To some of them, Ireland was an oppressed nation, like Italy
or Poland,9 and England was, like Russia, a â€˜great stronghold of despotismâ€™.10
The Great Famine (1845â€“9) devastated the fabric of Irish society at the
time when Chartism was finally defeated and ceased to be a national force
in Britain. Moreover, mass emigration exported many of the discontents
from both countries to North America and Australia. Not surprisingly
after 1848 the cause languished in both Britain and Ireland, but, as
G. K. Peatling has argued, it was gradually revived from the late 1860s.
Peatling has focused on the Positivists, a group of intellectuals who played
an important role in labour law reform and who championed many other
radical causes at the time. Consistent anti-imperialists and proponents of
international arbitration, they even defended the Paris Commune of 1871
as a legitimate democratic experiment.11 Ireland had a stronger case than
Paris, and from as early as 1866, men like Henry Crompton, Richard
Congreve, Frederic Harrison, J. H. Bridges and E. S. Beesly voiced sup-
port for Irish self-government.12 In 1868 Bridges was the first to argue
that a separate Irish legislature would bring about a real â€˜unionâ€™ between
the two countries â€“ a view later championed by Gladstone himself.13
Bridgesâ€™ argument relied on the Canadian precedent, but it is also
[Anon.], Chartism and Repeal. An address to the Repealers of Ireland, by a Member of the Irish
Universal Suffrage Association (1842), in Mitchell Library, Glagow, 14.
William Bridges Adams to W. J. Linton, 31 Jan. 1847, in Archivio Linton, Biblioteca
Feltrinelli, Milan, II-1.
I. S. Varian from Cork, to W. J. Linton, Mar. 1848, ibid., IV-45. Thirty-six years later
Linton, who had emigrated to America, retained his views, although the surviving corres-
pondence contains only one reference to the Home Rule crisis. It appears in a letter to his
son: â€˜So Gladstone is defeated. All right. Home Rule will come, and something better than
[sic] GOMâ€™s muddlement.â€™ (W. J. Linton to Will Linton, 14 June 1886, ibid., I-25.) This
piece of evidence has been neglected by F. B. Smith, who argued that Linton became an
unreconstructed Unionist: Radical artisan: William James Linton, 1812â€“97 (1973), 209.
R. Harrison, The English defence of the Commune (1871) (1971), 29â€“130.
Peatling, British opinion and Irish self-government, 18.
J. H. Bridges, Irish disaffection: four letters addressed to the editor of the â€˜Bradford Reviewâ€™ (1868).
Home Rule in context 53
interesting that he accepted the Chartist assumption that Ireland was a
nation struggling to be free (he went as far as comparing the Fenians to
Peatling has argued that the Positivists failed to influence the organized
labour movement.14 However, there is evidence that views similar to
those which they propounded were widely echoed in popular radical
circles. In 1869, in the context of the debate surrounding Gladstoneâ€™s
disestablishment of the Episcopal Church of Ireland, the London-based
Weekly Times advocated the creation of an Irish Parliament subordinated
to Westminster and similar to a state legislature in the USA. In 1871 the
republican and secularist National Reformer hosted a discussion of Isaac
Buttâ€™s Home Rule proposal, although Bradlaugh and other republican
leaders were opposed to complete Irish separation. In 1872 the then
influential trade union organ, The Bee Hive, came out in support of the
principle of Home Rule.15 In 1873, a number of prominent labour leaders
followed suit. It was then that Joseph Arch was allegedly â€˜convertedâ€™ to
Home Rule, a cause which he supported for the rest of his life.16 More
significantly, that same year the two leading Lib-lab parliamentary can-
didates â€“ Alexander McDonald (Stafford) and Thomas Burt (Morpeth) â€“
successfully campaigned on platforms which included Irish Home
Rule.17 Recalling his early support for the cause in 1886, Burt said that
by Home Rule he meant â€˜the establishment upon Irish soil of a Parliament
to manage purely Irish affairs . . . I voted for Mr Butt [in 1874] and I voted
for Mr Shaw and others who brought forward this question in the House
of Commons.â€™18 The 1874 debate on Home Rule was not a turning point,
but the Irish party was pleased with the vote, which entailed fifty-three
Irish MPs and ten British Liberals, including Sir Wilfred Lawson and Sir
Charles Dilke, voting with them.19
Peatling, British opinion, 33.
E. Royle, Radicals, secularists and republicans (1980), 208; l.a., â€˜Home Ruleâ€™, The Bee Hive,
17 Feb. 1872, 10.
J. Arch, The Autobiography of Joseph Arch, ed. J. G. Oâ€™Leavy (1966), 174, 362â€“3, 371â€“2.
Horn has shown that Archâ€™s first involvement with Home Rule was based on a misunder-
standing during a visit to Ireland: P. Horn, â€˜The National Agricultural Labourersâ€™ Union
in Ireland, 1873â€“9â€™, Irish Historical Studies, 17, 67 (1971), 340â€“52. His electoral platform
did not include Home Rule until 1886, though in 1885 he did campaign for what he
described as â€˜comprehensive measuresâ€™ of local government for the whole of the United
Kingdom: Horn, Joseph Arch (1826â€“1919): the farm workersâ€™ leader (1971), 234.
See the reports â€˜The representation of Stafford. Speech by Mr McDonaldâ€™, Potteries
Examiner, 28 June 1873, 6; and â€˜Home Rule in the Potteriesâ€™, ibid., 26 July 1873, 3;
â€˜Representation of Morpeth. Mr Thos. Burt at Blythâ€™, NW, 14 Nov. 1873, 3.
T. Burt cited in The Northern Echo, 31 May 1886, 4.
J. Martin to G. C. Mahon, 7 July 1874, NLI, MS 22, 203.
54 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
In January 1874, A. J. Mundella and Joseph Chamberlain in Sheffield
and Joseph Cowen in Newcastle threw their weight behind the cause of
Home Rule in the form then advocated by Isaac Butt. They all cam-
paigned in constituencies where working-class radicalism was strong and
included an Irish dimension. Though Cowen stressed that he did not
support full Irish â€˜separationâ€™20 and Chamberlain was unclear about the
retention of Irish MPs at Westminster, both politicians supported the
establishment of a Parliament in Ireland to deal with purely Irish affairs.
Whatever Chamberlain may have thought in private, his public stance
at the Sheffield election of 1874 was emphatically â€˜in F A V O U R O F H O M E
R U L E â€™, one of his slogans being â€˜H O M E R U L E A N D C H A M B E R L A I N â€™.
The other Liberal candidate, A. J. Mundella, agreed, stating that â€˜he
was an ardent supporter of Local Government and could see no reason
why the Irish people should not have control of the internal affairs of
Ireland . . . he would support by his vote the scheme propounded by Isaac
Butt of Home Rule for Irelandâ€™,22 a point which he again stressed the
following evening (29 January) during a meeting which he and
Chamberlain addressed together.
There is no reason to question the sincerity of their claims, especially in
view of their repeated attempts to conciliate Buttâ€™s party in the late 1870s.
However, their zeal in 1873â€“4 may have been partly inspired by their
apprehension that in the forthcoming general election the Liberal party
would be penalized by the Irish electors protesting against Gladstoneâ€™s
half-hearted 1870 Land Act.23 At least as far as Irish constituencies were
concerned, this preoccupation was well founded: in Ireland the Liberal
party lost about sixty seats to the Home Rulers in February 1874.
In England, Irish abstention may have been instrumental in securing
Conservative victories in marginal constituencies. In Sheffield, Mundella
won one of the seats, but Chamberlain was defeated in the other, perhaps
Reps., â€˜Address by Mr Cowenâ€™, NW, 3 Jan. 1874, 3; and â€˜Representation of Newcastle â€“
Mr Cowenâ€™s meetingsâ€™, NW, 10 Jan. 1874, 2.
Electoral leaflet addressed to the â€˜Irishmen of Sheffieldâ€™, 1874, in Sheffield Archives,
H. J. Wilson Letters and Papers, 5926.
â€˜Our candidates on Irelandâ€™, electoral leaflet, 1874, in Sheffield Archives, H. J. Wilson
Letters and Papers, 5927. In 1886 the Irish represented about 10 per cent of the
electorate in Sheffield: J. Skinner to H. J. Wilson, 1 June 1886, in Wilson Papers,
Sheffield University Library, 37P/21/8/iâ€“ii.
This was also the case with Chamberlain personally, to whom Charles Dilke wrote: â€˜I
think that with Home Rule you could carry the Irish â€“ & if you did you c[oul]d win the
seat.â€™ C. Dilke to J. Chamberlain, n.d. but from context likely to be l874 rather than
1880, the date suggested by the Archivist (J. Chamberlain Papers, 5/24/12). In 1886
Chamberlain glossed his Home Ruler past as part of his support for the principle of
â€˜Federationâ€™ (Chamberlain to Dilke, 3 May 1886, JC 5/24/485). For Chamberlainâ€™s
conciliatory attitude in the late 1870s see Heyck, Dimensions, 39â€“40.
Home Rule in context 55
because of his hostility to Catholic and Anglican demands for denomina-
tional education.24 Partly because of the clash over education, after the
election Mundella became more prudent about Home Rule.25 In any
case, it is significant that these Radicals adopted the cause at such an early
stage and when it was not clear whether doing so would gain or lose them
votes. In fact the anti-Catholic reaction among Protestant electors could
outweigh the Liberal/Home Rule vote even in constituencies with large
Irish communities such as Liverpool, as Lord Ramsay discovered to his
cost in 1880.26
If electoral opportunism is not in itself an adequate explanation for this
early spate of conversions to Home Rule, we should further explore the
first of Chamberlainâ€™s â€˜powerful influencesâ€™ â€“ namely, the proposalâ€™s
ideological consistency both with the principles of local government and
decentralization and with the radicalsâ€™ hostility towards heavy-handed
bureaucracy, of which Dublin Castle was the most notorious example. As
Hind has shown, considerations of this kind were crucial in shaping
Henry Labouchereâ€™s support for Home Rule from the autumn of
1880.27 As already noted, early English Home Rulers seem to have
been influenced by Isaac Butt: in fact some of his early pamphlets were
printed in Sheffield and copies have been preserved in the papers of
H. J. Wilson, a leading Sheffield radical Nonconformist and himself an
early convert to Home Rule. Buttâ€™s approach was pragmatic. He empha-
sized the practical benefits of Home Rule as a system of government within
the United Kingdom, to relieve pressure on Westminster and deliver
more effective, better informed and more accountable government.28
Crucial to the plausibility of his scheme was that it made provision for
continued Irish representation in the imperial Parliament, so that there
would be no question of â€˜taxation without representationâ€™ for Ireland
(though Irish MPs would not be allowed to discuss or vote on questions
pertaining solely to England, Scotland and Wales).
R. Quinault, â€˜Joseph Chamberlain: a reassessmentâ€™, in T. R. Gourvish and A. Oâ€™Day
(eds.), Later Victorian Britain, 1867â€“1900 (1988), 79â€“80.
Mundella to Leader, 4 Aug. 1874, in Leader papers, Sheffield Univ. Library.
See reports, â€˜The Liverpool electionâ€™, The Leeds Mercury, 6 Feb. 1880, 8 and 7 Feb. 1880,
2; cf. J. P. Rossi, â€˜Home Rule and the Liverpool by-election of 1880â€™, Irish Historical
Studies, 19, 74 (1974), 156â€“68.
R. J. Hind, Henry Labouchere and the empire, 1880â€“1905 (1972), 59â€“60.
The Principles of Home Rule as explained by Isaac Butt, Esq., MP. Is it reasonable & what
practical advantages are expected from it? By John G. MacCarthy, Esq. (1873); see also Rules
of the Sheffield Branch of the Irish Home Government Association (1873), both in
H. J. Wilson Papers, Sheffield University Library. On H. J. Wilson see M. Anderson,
Henry Joseph Wilson: fighter for freedom (1953), and W. S. Fowler, A study in Radicalism
and Dissent: the life and times of Henry Joseph Wilson, 1833â€“1914 (1961).
56 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
The Liberal defeat of 1874 and the Tory ascendancy thereafter delayed
the issue from becoming one of practical politics for a few years.
However, the Home Rule agitation continued to attract English advo-
cates.29 In 1875 â€˜Gracchusâ€™ of Reynoldsâ€™s Newspaper, attacked John Bright
as a â€˜traitorâ€™ who had sold out to the Whigs, because he had â€˜daredâ€™ to
denounce Home Rule as a â€˜mischievous dreamâ€™.30 It was vintage
Reynoldsâ€™s hyperbole, but was in tune with the anti-imperialist line that
the weekly paper had so consistently championed over the years. For
â€˜Gracchusâ€™ Home Rule was about democracy and against â€˜autocracyâ€™ and
was comparable to the Italian Risorgimento or the Bulgarian agitation. In
1879 â€˜Ironsideâ€™ (alias W. E. Adams, another ex-Chartist) wrote from
Newcastle that there was little difference between the lot of the Irish
under British rule and that of the Poles under the Russians, except that
England â€“ unlike Russia â€“ was in the process of being democratized. He
prophesied that soon illegitimate arrests of nationalist leaders and wide-