The Damnable Question

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

“You will never get to the bottom of this most perplexing and damnable country,” wrote Prime Minister Asquith to his wife soon after the Easter Rising in Ireland in 1916. The revolt of the Irish was most shocking to Asquith and his government, coming, as it did, in the midst of the war against Germany. Britain was fighting for her survival and the “damnable Irish,” probably with German encouragement, had risen in rebellion. The Rising was quickly suppressed by British forces. But Asquith, presumably still perplexed as to how to handle the Irish, was himself forced out of office a few months later. His successor, Lloyd George, proved more successful in understanding and bringing about a resolution of the Irish problem.

George Dangerfield takes the quoted complaint of Asquith as the epigraph for The Damnable Question, and endeavors to get to the bottom of the Irish-English difficulties in the early part of the twentieth century. First, he traces Anglo-Irish relations in the nineteenth century. It is a familiar and most unhappy narrative. Beginning with the Act of Union of 1800, which abolished the Irish parliament and permitted Irish representatives to take seats at Westminster, the English tried to reconcile the Irish to English ascendancy. But Ireland remained a quasi-colony ruled by English administrators in Dublin Castle, owned by absentee English landlords, and forced to support the unwanted Anglican Church of Ireland.

In the middle years of the nineteenth century, Ireland suffered grievously through the Great Famine. Thousands died of starvation; thousands more left the island in despair, emigrating mostly to America. English authorities made sincere efforts to relieve the suffering caused by the famine, but their attempts were generally inadequate or misplaced. Irish hatred for English dominance burned more deeply than ever.

That hostility expressed itself in a variety of ways: violently through such organizations as the Fenians, formed in America and dedicated to the total overthrow of the English ascendancy; more temperately through persuasion and parliamentary procedures by the Irish Party at Westminster. All efforts were aimed, however, at achieving greater political, economic, and religious freedom in Ireland. Partially linked to and augmenting the activities of the Irish nationalist organizations were two cultural movements that emerged in the middle and later nineteenth century. The first was the “Devotional Revolution,” which swept through Catholic Ireland and brought a resurgence of religiosity and piety among the laity, coupled with a doctrinal and ecclesiastical reform of the Irish Catholic clergy. So pervasive was the Devotional Revolution that, within a short time, the terms “Irish” and “Catholic” became virtually interchangeable, and larger numbers of Irish Catholics associated themselves with the Irish national independence struggle.

The other influential movement was the Gaelic Renaissance. Irish scholars and Irish patriots took a renewed interest in the study and use of the old Gaelic language, with the intention of “deanglicizing” Ireland. And the Gaels also stimulated a revival of admiration for the heroes of Irish history, particularly those who had fought for Irish freedom in the remote past.

Gradually and piecemeal, the Irish nationalists achieved some of their goals during the nineteenth century. The Anglican Church of Ireland was disestablished in 1869. In 1870, the first of several Irish agrarian laws was passed by the Parliament; those land laws would eventually take nearly all Irish land from the landlords and bring the soil under the ownership of the native Irish.

By the latter part of the nineteenth century, the chief issue in Anglo-Irish relations had become autonomy, or Home Rule, for Ireland. A Home Government Association was founded in Dublin in 1870, and about the same time, the Protestant Irish landlord, Charles Stewart Parnell, assumed leadership of the Irish Party in Parliament. Using a combination of organized obstruction of parliamentary business with organized resistance in Ireland, Parnell forced the Commons to give its almost undivided attention to Home Rule. Eventually the Liberal leader, William Gladstone, for political and moral reasons was persuaded of the necessity of Home Rule and made it a major issue in British politics for the next several decades. In 1881 and again in 1893, the Liberals put forth bills to grant a degree of self-government to the Irish. But on each of those occasions, Home Rule was turned down by the Parliament.

The most outspoken and determined opponents of Home Rule were the Irish Protestants, the Orangemen of Ulster, who feared that if Ireland were granted autonomy, the Catholics of the south would suppress the Protestant churches, and further, that the privileged economic position of Ulster in the British empire would be damaged. The most prominent spokesman for the Ulster Protestants was the Conservative politician Sir Edward Carson. With the death of Parnell, leadership of the Irish Party passed to John Redmond, who was more dignified and temperate than Parnell, but no less dedicated to the cause of Home Rule. Carson and Redmond represented the divergence that Irish opinion had taken by the later years of the nineteenth century: retention of the Union versus Home Rule.

By the early twentieth century, the Irish problem was fully politicized, and was tearing both Ireland and England apart. Redmond’s party often held the balance of power in Parliament between the closely matched Liberal Party, still implicitly committed to Home Rule, and the Conservative-Unionist Party. In 1910, during a very close election, Redmond threatened that the Liberals would lose every Irish...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

America. CXXXV, November 13, 1976, p. 328.

Best Sellers. XXXVI, November, 1976, p. 262.

Christian Science Monitor. LXVIII, August 10, 1976, p. 26.

Nation. CCXXIII, November 20, 1976, p. 533.

National Review. XXVII, November 12, 1976, p. 1244.

Progressive. XL, November, 1976, p. 58.