History

Edward Carson speaking at a Unionist rally in Belfast (Public Record Office Northern Ireland)

Edward Carson

Edward Carson, one of the most famous barristers of the Edwardian era, is remembered as the granite faced champion of Ulster Unionism at the height of its resistance to Home Rule for Ireland.


Although at heart a believer in the union of the entire island of Ireland with Britain, Carson came to be recognised as the chief architect and creator of the state of Northern Ireland and a hero to Ulster Unionists.


Photo: Edward Carson speaking at a Unionist rally in Belfast (Public Record Office Northern Ireland)

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Ulster Covenant
Ulster Covenant

More information about: Edward Carson

Ulster Covenant

Edward Carson was the first man to sign 'Ulster's Solemn League and Covenant' on 28 September 1912. The Covenant was a pledge by Carson and hundreds of thousands of others to reject devolved 'Home Rule' for Ireland and retain the Union with Great Britain.

Upwardly mobile

Carson's family embodied Protestant social mobility in 19th century Dublin. His grandfather had been a general merchant and his father was a civil engineer. Carson continued the tradition of advancement by reading classics at Trinity College, Dublin.

An average student, he gained only a pass degree in 1876. He went on to study law at the King's Inns in Dublin and was called to the Irish Bar the following year. Carson clearly found his vocation in the law. By 1889, aged just 35, he became the youngest king's counsel (KC) in Ireland.

The law of the land

Carson's legal career began in the rural Irish province of Leinster in 1878. At this time, centuries of conquest and colonisation in Ireland had established a class of largely absentee English and Scottish landlords ruling over impoverished Irish tenants.

He initially defended tenant farmers by using legislation which aimed to grant them fair treatment. His success impressed the Irish attorney-general who nominated Carson to be his crown counsel in 1886.

Carson now switched sides. He acted for landlords in cases where tenant farmers refused to pay rents they felt were too high. Although sympathetic to the disadvantaged throughout his life, Carson believed such lawlessness must be faced down. Many nationalists subsequently demonised him for abandoning the tenants' cause.

Politics

Carson was elected Liberal Unionist MP for Trinity College, Dublin in 1892 and took his seat at Westminster. His star rose in tandem with his spectacular career in the English courts. He was at one time considered a potential leader of the Conservative Party.

Oscar Wilde

Carson had been a contemporary of the playwright and wit Oscar Wilde at Trinity. In 1895, Wilde brought an ill-advised libel case against the Marquess of Queensberry. Incensed at Wilde's relationship with his son, the marquess accused the playwright of being homosexual. Wilde sued.

Representing the marquess, Carson cross-examined Wilde in court. A reporter wrote:

"It was a duel of thrilling interest. Mr Carson's wig throws his white, thin, clever face into sharp relief. When he is angry it assumes the immovability of a death mask."

Wilde lost his libel case, and Carson's skilful cross examination laid bare lurid details of his private life. He was subsequently arrested and tried for gross indecency. Carson refused to take any part in the prosecution that saw Wilde imprisoned. He appealed to the solicitor general to show mercy to a man already disgraced and bankrupt.

Home Rule

In February 1910, he accepted an invitation from the prominent Ulster politician James Craig to lead the Ulster Unionist Party's fight against 'Home Rule' - the establishment of a devolved Irish parliament in Dublin.

The idea of Home Rule was abhorrent to a staunch Ulster Unionist like Carson, who feared that it would serve the interests of the rural, Catholic south and threaten those of the industrial, Protestant north.

In April 1911 British Prime Minister HH Asquith introduced the third Home Rule bill. There had been two general elections in 1910, both resulting in a hung parliament. Asquith was only able to form a government in coalition with the Irish Parliamentary Party, whose leader, John Redmond, demanded a Home Rule bill in return.

The voice of Ulster Unionism

In September 1911, at a massive outdoor demonstration, Carson addressed 50,000 unionists from across Ulster: "With the help of God, you and I joined together ... will yet defeat the most nefarious conspiracy that has ever been hatched against a free people ... We must be prepared ... the morning Home Rule passes, ourselves to become responsible for the government of the Protestant province of Ulster."

The following year, on 28 September 1912, nearly half a million people signed the Ulster Covenant – a pledge to defend their way of life from the growing threat of Home Rule.

The brink of civil war

By 1914, Home Rule seemed inevitable. Carson's deputy, James Craig, convinced his colleagues that the Ulster Volunteers – a militia formed for Unionist resistance – should be armed. Carson accepted the plan for a gun-running expedition, telling one UVF regiment: "I rely on you to keep your arms with a view to keeping the peace."

Meanwhile the Irish National Volunteers, an unofficial army formed by nationalists in the south of Ireland, were openly drilling and ready to fight for Home Rule. Ireland was on the brink of civil war.

World War One

The outbreak of war with Germany in August 1914 halted plans to enact the Home Rule bill. Unionists and nationalists fighting over the internal issue of Home Rule postponed their differences in the face of a shared external enemy.

Carson joined HH Asquith's coalition government as attorney general. His focus moved away from Northern Ireland during the conflict. He was also a member of the War Cabinet and First Lord of the Admiralty.

During the war, to the displeasure of many supporters, he spoke in favour of all-Ireland political institutions and structures.

Partition

The 1920 Government of Ireland Act was intended to establish separate Home Rule parliaments in the south of Ireland and the north of Ireland.

Carson had no desire to be prime minster of Northern Ireland. He pleaded ill health and stepped down as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party in favour of James Craig. In farewell, he urged his followers to ensure that "the Catholic minority have nothing to fear from the Protestant majority".

The man behind the granite face

Carson's public charisma and Herculean capacity for hard work brought him success, but also exhaustion and worry. Long periods of labour were followed by weeks of physical and nervous collapse. He would often retreat to a German spa town to recuperate.

Carson's doctors categorised him as a 'neurasthenic'. The label was typically applied to those in the upper and professional classes who displayed symptoms of fatigue, anxiety, headaches and depression.

Final years

Carson moved to England in 1921. The man who had once sanctioned gun smuggling into Ulster became a Lord of Appeal and peer of the Empire.

While still a hero to many in the new state of Northern Ireland, he remained detached from the region's politics. He died of leukaemia in 1935 at his home in Kent.

His body was brought to Belfast by warship for a state funeral. Thousands of workers at the Harland and Wolff shipyard, home of RMS Titanic, bowed their heads as the ship bore Carson’s coffin, draped in the Union Flag, along Belfast Lough.