Political lives remembered

Patrick Maume, co-editor of the Royal Irish Academy's Ulster Political Lives 1886-1921, provides an overview of its latest contribution to the Decade of Centenaries commemoration

The ubiquity of poet and separatist Alice Milligan in the culture and politics of this period highlights the growing involvement of women in public life
Patrick Maume

BETWEEN 1885 and 1925 the political life of Ulster formed into the moulds which shaped it until very recently. The emergence of Parnell’s Home Rule party and the extension of elected local government in 1899 confirmed nationalist political dominance in the south and west of the nine-county province.

The Liberal Party, which had seriously challenged traditional Conservative dominance in Ulster, lost most of its Catholic support to Parnell and then saw most of its remaining Ulster supporters such as the tenant advocate TW Russell and the suffragette Isabella Tod become Liberal Unionists in reaction to Gladstone’s conversion to Home Rule.

This new volume from the Royal Irish Academy, its latest contribution to the 'Decade of Centenaries' commemoration, explores this period of history through a selection of short Ulster Lives taken from the RIA’s Dictionary of Irish Biography.

It draws on a great body of recent scholarship, with contributions from some of its foremost figures, including Alvin Jackson, Eamon Phoenix, Marie Coleman and Ferghal McGarry.

These lives cover the nine-county province – from Peadar O’Donnell’s impoverished rural Donegal to the Downpatrick conviviality of Colonel Robert Wallace and his South Down Militia; from the Belfast of the cross-channel business empires of Lord Pirrie and George Clark to the embattled working-class Independent Orangeism of Thomas Sloan; and from the rival labour politics of William Walker and Winifred Carney to the new-wave republicanism of Denis McCullough.

It also features the attempt of Joseph Devlin (the first great political leader of modern Irish nationalism in Ulster) to mobilise his followers behind the nationwide nationalist political party through a combination of social reformism and Catholic machine politics.

The role of the growing regional newspaper industry in promoting cultural and political identities is represented by such figures as Thomas MacKnight, the Liberal Unionist editor of the Belfast Northern Whig, who loved Gladstone much but the Union more; Timothy McCarthy, Devlin’s faithful spokesman as editor of The Irish News; and William Copeland Trimble, the flamboyant editor of the Enniskillen Impartial Reporter.

The unionist alliance – mobilised around Orangeism and existing networks, and initially led by aristocrats such as Lord Londonderry and the Duke of Abercorn, and by south Ulster gentry such as Edward Saunderson who provided the traditional leadership of Ulster conservatism – began to fragment once the Parnellite threat receded.

Its obvious class tensions found expression in the revival of a Presbyterian tenant-farmer liberalism led by Russell as a challenge to official unionism and the ultra-Protestant protest politics of Sloan and Lindsay Crawford, and led to nationalist predictions that unionism would collapse from its own contradictions.

The Ulster version of the Irish cultural revival, led by such figures as the antiquarian FJ Bigger, brought to some young intellectuals such as Bulmer Hobson and Patrick McCartan a sense of possible alternatives to what they saw as a drab provincial society.

For some such as the poet and separatist Alice Milligan – whose sheer ubiquity in the culture and politics of the time is only now being mapped out, and whose residual influence was detectable well into the 1980s both in physical-force republicanism and in a strain of self-consciously Protestant liberal nationalism – the cultural revival seemed to promise a new shared identity combining the pre-Christian Gaelic tradition with the non-sectarianism of the United Irishmen.

Milligan also represents the growing involvement of women in the public life of the period, represented by figures as diverse as the educationalist Margaret Byers, the trade unionist Mary Galway, and Milligan’s short-lived collaborator Ethna Carbery.

Expectations of a major realignment proved illusory. The revival of Liberal government and of the Irish Parliamentary Party after 1906, the relative neutralisation of the land issue after the 1903 Wyndham land act, and Devlin’s rise to national political prominence, were met by a new unionist consolidation in which the gentry took second place to the business and professional classes of east Ulster.

These were led by such figures as James Craig and underpinned by a new generation of localist and populist activists based in Unionist-controlled local authorities and represented in the Ulster Unionist Council (founded 1905). This reorganisation combined with traditional hierarchical and paramilitary networks in the pre-war Carson campaign to resist Home Rule.

War, revolution and partition left these divisions in place. Devlin was reduced from a national leader to an embattled city boss, while west and south Ulster nationalists who had rallied to Sinn Féin after 1916 in opposition to partition found themselves beginning new careers south of the border (as with Frank Aiken and Sean MacEntee), or reduced to political impotence under the Stormont regime (as with Cahir Healy and Alice Milligan).

For Edward Carson and other believers in all-Ireland unionism, the creation of Northern Ireland was also a defeat disguised as victory. The new state was permanently diminished by the post-1920 decline of the industries of the 'Irish Sea triangle' defined by the Lagan, the Clyde and the Mersey, and by the constrictive nature of political life under the later regimes of Craigavon (1921–40) and Brookeborough (1943–63).

:: Ulster Political Lives 1886-1921 by James Quinn & Patrick Maume is available now, published by Royal Irish Academy. Buy online via

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