Edward Carson, ‘No one on earth is so clearly the “typical Irishman”‘


Edward Carson rose in the Lords on December 3 1929 and made a number of points about the Irish Free State and the Privy Council, the legal forum the young Irish state was seeking to do away with. Interestingly, he called the Anglo-Irish Treaty the “Treaty of surrender and betrayal”. 

On the matter of his identity, he said:

“I am very proud as an Irishman to be a member of the British Empire.”

He also said:

“I was born and bred an Irishman and I’ll always be one. The happiest days of my life were in Trinity College, Dublin and at the Irish Bar.”

On February 11 1914 the House of Commons debated the Government of Ireland Bill and the proposed Amendment (10th February), Edward Carson rose and spoke about the Unionists of what is now the Republic of Ireland: 

“Ulster looms very largely in this controversy, simply because Ulster has a strong right arm, but there are Unionists in the South and West who loath the Bill just as much as we Ulster people loath it, whose difficulties are far greater, and who would willingly fight, as Ulster would fight, if they had the numbers. Nobody knows the difficulties of these men better than I do. Why, it was only the other day some of thorn ventured to put forward as a business proposition that this Bill would be financial ruin to their businesses, saying no more, and immediately they were boycotted, and resolutions were passed, and they were told that they ought to understand as Protestants that they ought to be thankful and grateful for being allowed to live in peace among the people who are there. Yes, we can never support the Bill which hands these people over to the tender mercies of those who have always been their bitterest enemies. We must go on whatever happens, opposing the Bill to the end. That we are entitled to do; that we are bound to do.”

Carson said in 1914:

“We’re both [Tom Kettle, Home Rule nationalist] Irishmen, and that is what matters.”

Carson’s contemporary and political adversary, the famous Irish Parliamentary Party politician Tim Healy, said:

“Although a Unionist, [Edward Carson] was never un-Irish.”

Edward Carson said in a speech in Torquay, January 30 1921:

“There is no one in the world who would be more pleased to see an absolute unity in Ireland than I would, and it could be purchased tomorrow, at what does not seem to me a very big price. If the South and West of Ireland came forward tomorrow to Ulster and said – “Look here, we have to run our old island, and we have to run her together, and we will give up all this everlasting teaching of hatred of England, and we will shake hands with you, and you and we together, within the Empire, doing our best for ourselves and the United Kingdom, and for all His Majesty’s Dominion will join together”, I will undertake that we would accept the handshake.”

Carson and others wrote in their open letter to Woodrow Wilson:

“To us as Irishmen it is a matter of poignant regret that the conduct of the Nationalist leaders in refusing to lay aside matters of domestic dispute, in order to put forth the whole strength of the country against Germany should have cast a stain on the good name of Ireland.”

Carson inverted the tradition republican proverb:

“England’s difficulty is not Ulster’s opportunity, England’s difficulty is our difficulty.”

John Redmond said in the House of Commons, July 31 1916:

“I think that I am not doing the smallest injustice when I say that his [Edward Carson’s] desire, just as much as my desire, is to see in the future a united Ireland. The difference, however, in arriving at that goal which exists between us is largely one of method. But that difference is one which, in my opinion, is not only capable, but is certain one of these days of a peaceful settlement.”

In a letter to The Irish Statesman, January 10 1920, George Bernard Shaw wrote:

“England has gone too far this time. She has done what I thought impossible. She has rallied me to the side of Ulster. Now I suppose I shall be shot; but I cannot help that. Am I not a Protestant to the very marrow of my bones? Is not Carson my fellow townsman? Are not the men of Ulster my countrymen?”

In ‘Sir Edward Carson and the Ulster Movement‘, St. John G. Ervine wrote in 1915:

“Sir Edward Carson is a stage Irishman… Sir Edward Carson is the last of the Broths of a Boy. He has a touch of Samuel Lover’s “Handy Andy ” in him. He is the most notable of the small band of Bedadderers and Be jabberers left in the world; the final Comic Irishman, leaping on to the music-hall stage or the political platform, twirling a blackthorn stick and shouting at the top of a thick, broguey voice (carefully preserved and cultivated for the benefit of English audiences): “Bedad, bejabers and begorra, is there e’er a man in all the town dare tread on the tail of my coat, bedad, bejabers and begorra!”

No other Irishman speaks with so deliberate a brogue or says “What” so obviously “Phwat!” No one on earth is so clearly the ” typical Irishman” (that is to say, the Irishman of the muddy imagination) as Sir Edward Carson is.”

Tomás O’Riordan said:

“Carson was an Irish patriot but not a nationalist.”

It was reported in the Irish Independent:

“In 1925, at Westminster, Carson argued against erecting a statue of Oliver Cromwell outside the mother of parliaments. He believed it was insensitive to his fellow Irishmen. (He lost the debate and the Lord Protector’s statue stands outside the Commons to this day.)”

Geoffrey Lewis wrote in his biography, ‘Carson: The Man Who Divided Ireland’:

“In 1886, [Edward] Carson knew next to nothing of the northern province of Ulster.”

Donal Fallon who writes on the social history of Dublin teaches with the Adult Education Department of University College Dublin and is a regular contributor to Newstalk and RTE Radio. He wrote that Carson was “the father of Irish loyalism” who “represents a great diversity of Irishness.”
Ian paisley said:

“Edward Carson was a life-long Irishman, as well as being a life-long unionist, and that made all the difference… On this 28th day of September [2012], 100 years after his pen touched parchment, we salute the man who taught us all how to be true Irishmen and women.”

Peter Robinson said in a 2012 speech to Iveagh House:

“Edward Carson was unquestionably an Irish unionist, and while the legacy of Edward Carson lives on, it may be regretted that the idea of ‘Irish unionism’ in any meaningful sense, as historically defined, does not…

Edward Carson would not be what in today’s terms could be considered a stereotypical unionist. 

Though he became the leader of Ulster Unionism his origins are, of course, in Dublin. He defined himself as a “liberal” unionist. He had a thick Dublin brogue. He had leading nationalists among his close friends. Though leading the cause of Ulster he was proud to call himself Irish. 

He wanted to keep Ireland united and within the Union and he repeatedly sought accommodation with his nationalist fellow-countrymen.”

Chris McGimpsey, UUP councillor, said:

“Carson knew exactly what he was, Edward Carson was Irish. He was an Irish unionist.”

Former Belfast Lord Mayor and historian Dr Ian Adamson described Carson as “an outstanding character in Ireland and the British Isles”:

“He was a politician in an Irish sense but also in a British sense and certainly was one of the most outstanding characters at the early part of the 20th century so I would have thought that would have been enough.”

Manchán Mangan presents the TG4 series, ‘Cé a chonaigh i mo theachsa?’, which looks at houses of Ireland with links to Irish fugues of historical fame. One episode feature Edward Carson who had a connection with Castle Ellen in Athenry. Mangan spoke with Gordon R.E. Lucy who said:

“The problem is that people in the south equate patriotism with nationalism. Carson was a patriot but he was not a nationalist. He was patriot with a sense that you could be simultaneously Irish and British. And I think that many people on this island that’s an idea that they cannot really get their heads around.”

Gordon also said:

“There’s a great irony about this. A lot of people see that [the Edward Carson statue at Stormont] as a symbol of triumphalism. Far from it. In many respects for Carson, his statue outside a Home Rule parliament was actually a symbol of defeat. After all what he wanted was one parliament for the whole United Kingdom.”

William Plum Smith said:

“I think he was an Irishman, ironically.”

Mr Justice Hardiman said

“Carson wanted the whole of Ireland to remain under British rule. His main aim was to have Ireland as part of the UK.”

Manchán Mangan who had suggested that Carson was “anti-Irish”, with study and consideration had a conversion. Mangan said himself:

“A divided Ireland may not have been what he wanted… I’m beginning to think that Carson loved Ireland more than the Union. And that it broke his heart that the country was divided. If he were alive today would he still support the Union? Or would he want a United Ireland?”

He later said:

“The most significant thing about this is Edward Carson. My understanding of him is that we don’t fully understand him here in Ireland. He loved Irish culture. We often think of him as a bête noir or an enemy. He loved Irish sport and its spirit. The most interesting thing is that he brought hurling to Trinity College. It’s not that he had no interest in Ireland.”

Michael Keaney who owns Castle Ellen in Athenry said:

“In some ways he was like the Normans who came to Ireland. They became more Irish than the irish themselves. They say in Athenry that Carson was “a sound man”. He was fair and straight with everyone.”

On the Union in his own words Carson wrote in 1912:

“It is not possible for the living needs of two prosperous countries to be bound indefinitely by the “dead hand” of an ancient statute, but we maintain that geographical and economic reasons make a legislative Union between Great Britain and Ireland necessary for the interests of both. We see, as Irish Ministers saw in 1800, that there can be no permanent resting place between complete Union and total separation.”

He later wrote:

“I fought to keep Ulster part of the United Kingdom, but Stormont is turning her into a second-class Dominion.”

Peter Cottrell wrote in ‘The Irish Civil War 1922-23’:

“That is not to say that all Ulster Unionists were content with partition. Many would have preferred to remain Irish unionists within the United Kingdom.”

Iain E. Johnston wrote as a PhD student at the University of Cambridge that Carson “spoke with a southern Irish brogue”, and with more detail wrote:

“There was for Carson, however, no reason why an Irishman, Catholic or Protestant, should not also be British (he was, after all) and therefore display the same dual identity as a proud British Scotsman. Unlike many of his peers, Carson defended the Catholic cause on several occasions, for instance over the right to education. Moreover, his opposition to nationalism was based on the union and little more; his opposition to Home Rule was not motivated by racial or religious factors.”

He continued:

“The evidence suggests that maintaining the union for a united Ireland remained his first hope—but the impossibility of that target, a position only exacerbated by the post-war loss of British Conservative support and the outrage caused by the Easter Rising, meant that Carson did what he could for Ulster and simultaneously preserved what he could of the union. He believed that this was the best thing he could do for his Ulster unionist movement and for his country, and therefore perhaps Carson was the most unlikely figure of all—Ulster unionist and Irish patriot.”

Declan Healy, history teacher said:

“There were other ways of looking at maybe the same thing. I always remember giving an essay, ‘Carson, Irish patriot.’ I remember on boy came to say, ‘Sir, that doesn’t make any sense.’ I said, ‘How do you mean it doesn’t make any sense?’ I said ‘Carson wanted the Union of Ireland and Britain he wanted, for him, what was the best thing for Ireland. Now can you say he’s not a patriot because he doesn’t agree with you?”

David Murphy (BA(Hons), BSC (Hons), MA) wrote:

“As an admirer of Pitts’bIrish Policy Carson declared himself to be a Unionist and British Irish.”

He also said:

“The minute books of the Historical Society further illustrate Carson’s range of debating subjects. He denounced the memory of Cromwell, argued for the French Revolution and supported the rights of women. Carson as a student strikes me as a free thinker with liberal even radical views as some ardent students have today.”

The Irish Times’ obituary for Carson in 1935 read:

“He was a Southern Irishman in every fibre of his being. To the end of his days he preserved a rich Dublin brogue, and in many ways he was typical of the South; yet he is being buried in Belfast.”

C. D. C. Armstrong wrote:

“Edward Carson was a Protestant Phineas Finn.”

Interestingly, in spite of Carson’s clearly and unambiguously avowed Irishness, his stoutest successors don’t share his self-identification as Irish.

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