Chapter 10

'Ireland in the New Century' traces the revival of Home Rule as a much less threatening issue in Edwardian times. John Dillon and Harold Macmillan appear.

10:  Ireland in the New Century




If the debates of 1897-98 represented a low point in the Cambridge Union's consideration of Irish issues, they were at least followed by a decade characterised by shifts in opinion towards more liberal attitudes. To some extent, moderating views may be attributable to revulsion against the jingo high tide of the Boer War. They are probably also related to continuing gradual broadening in the social composition of the undergraduate population. However, neither social change nor the extent to which opinions changed should be exaggerated. Debates on Ireland rarely drew large audiences throughout the Edwardian period. Yet in some respects, the movement of opinion was remarkable. Between May 1899 and January 1902 – almost exactly the span of the Boer War – the Union shifted from condemnation to endorsement of the idea of a Catholic university in Ireland. A recent scholar has suggested that "the university problem appeared to trouble British consciences more than it aroused nationalist feeling"1 but, even so, Protestant and traditional Cambridge is perhaps not the most obvious place to find those consciences stirring. One possibility is that the greater, although still slight, presence of Catholic students at Cambridge after the removal of the Church ban in 1895 helped dissipate prejudice against their faith, the more so since the cost of attending the University ensured that they were drawn from the same social groups as their Protestant contemporaries.

Back in October 1889, the Union had unsurprisingly disapproved "of any Government aid being given to Sectarian Education in Ireland", with E.W. MacBride from Belfast and Lord Corry from Fermanagh helping the motion to victory by 55 votes to 37. Although the Cambridge Review thought that "the subject was one which suited the society very well for debating purposes, since the usual party divisions were broken up", the 60 percent vote in favour was consistent with the majorities regularly registered in the late eighteen-eighties against concession in Ireland.2  Ten years later, in May 1899, the Union considered a proposal to "establish a University in Ireland to meet the special needs of Roman Catholics". The issue drew "an average May Term house" (summer term attendances were usually thin) and generated "a little better than average debate". The dedicated but histrionic Thomas McDonnell supported the motion, but he was opposed by, among others, by Cecil Persse. The "indignant Irishman" of the Financial Commission debate two years earlier did not on this occasion see any need to meet the requirements of the majority of the country's people. One reporter condemned the audience for being unusually supine, but a 58 percent vote against the motion (42 votes to 30) suggested that the opposition of the silent majority of Cambridge students to sectarian education in Ireland had barely moved in ten years.3

The consistency of attitudes shown in 1889 and 1899 makes all the more remarkable the debate of January 1902, when a motion sympathising "with the claims of the Irish Roman Catholics to a University" was passed after "a very long and interesting debate" which "created considerable interest". The speakers, who included a "strong Irish element", were congratulated on managing "to keep controversial theology at a distance", and one attack on the Catholic priesthood was condemned by the Granta as "in very bad taste" – although, it acknowledged, probably true. The usual negative stereotypes were aired. One young orator announced that "when the Irish had nothing to grumble at they would grumble at it purely for the love of grumbling". Another claimed that "the only business concerns which prospered in Ireland" were Guinness's brewery, Jameson's distillery and the priesthood. There is nothing surprising about such attitudes. What is remarkable is that, for once, they were rejected. Thomas McDonnell had graduated, but his younger brother, Michael, had succeeded him as champion of Irish causes. "Even if Ireland were priest-ridden, which he did not grant, it was better that the priesthood should be educated." The campaign for a Catholic university was endorsed by 66 votes to 48.4 It is true that a sympathetic Royal Commission was preparing the way for public recognition of Catholic claims in higher education. However, Union opinion had managed to resist the implications of the Financial Commission report five years earlier.

 This shift in attitudes was confirmed the following year, when a motion arguing that "the establishment of a University for Roman Catholics in Ireland would be for the best interests of that country" was passed even more emphatically, by 100 votes to 51. Opposition to the idea had fallen from 58 to 34 percent in four years, although the margin was probably partly to be explained by the presence of a popular guest speaker, Sir Horace Plunkett. The motion was proposed by the outgoing President, J.C. Arnold, an Irishman and a Liberal, who insisted on a continuing debt of honour. "The mere granting of a measure of land reform was not enough to make England even with Ireland." Plunkett, who received a magnificent ovation, made "a deep impression" with "the speech of the evening". The Granta commented that he was "not perhaps an eloquent speaker, but he has a great gift of earnestness and speaks from practical experience".5

The Catholic University was not the only issue to produce more open attitudes. In May 1902, Hugh Law, MP for West Donegal, found himself in the unprecedented position for a Nationalist visitor of being on the winning side. After "a memorable debate", the Union decided by 64 votes to 53 that it regretted "the action of the Government in returning to a system of coercion in Ireland". The motion was a touch overblown: Balfour's Chief Secretary, George Wyndham, was hardly engaged in a full-scale campaign of repression. However, the claim by opponents of the motion that his policy was "not true Coercion" provoked a histrionic response from J.C. Arnold. "'I tremble,' said Mr Arnold with tears in his voice, 'to think what true coercion would be!'" The strategy of the proposition was to make light of rural discontent in Ireland, stressing that "the peasantry had not resorted to crime". Michael McDonnell argued that boycotting was "precisely the system employed by lawyers and doctors" within their own professions. As for victims of social exclusion, a "pro-Boer was worse off in Birmingham!". (The pro-Boer David Lloyd George had narrowly escaped lynching at an anti-war meeting in Joseph Chamberlain's home city a few months earlier.) In any case, McDonnell claimed, only seven people in the whole of Ireland had been targeted by boycotters. Arnold scornfully rammed the point home. "If seven people out of five million got their groceries from the Royal Irish Constabulary, that was no reason for suspending the British Constitution."

The nature of Irish identity was a running theme throughout the debate. In "an admirable speech", Hugh Law rebutted the case for Coercion and cited examples of the injustices that it created. "To elegance, clearness, and evident sincerity, he added a charm of manner which contributed much to the great effect of his words." Law was a product of Oxford, someone who could present Irish nationalism in a manner that made it acceptable to a gathering of young English gentlemen. By contrast, when William Dobbs of Trinity "spoke as an Irishman opposed to the aims of the Nationalists", an attempt was made to deny his own self-definition. A supporter of the motion "called attention to the origin of Irishmen on the other side, and declared that the North could hardly be called Ireland". This was unfair on Dobbs who, despite the Ulster antecedence of his surname, hailed from Castlecomer in County Kilkenny. It was one of several indications in the Edwardian years that the Ascendancy, for so long regarded in Cambridge as the legitimate voice of the sister island, was becoming tarred with an Ulster brush and so marginalised, its claim to be Irish denied, and its demand to be simultaneously considered British increasingly dismissed. It was presumably Ulster particularism to which Edwin Montagu referred, in a "pleasant speech" in which he offered a "solution for the Irish question, in which a canal and a bridge played leading parts". Ulster Protestantism and by extension, unionism in general were in the process of being excluded from the Irish scene.

It is a measure of the change in the focus of Irish issues since 1893 that the 1902 debate on Coercion was not a surrogate discussion of Home Rule. Montagu, who opposed both Home Rule and Coercion, seems to have been one of the few speakers even to mention the issue. Even with a partial separation of the two issues, the condemnation of Coercion was in sharp contrast to the unwavering desire to crush Irish discontent manifested until the end of the Gladstonian years. Nor was it an accidental vote. "The number of members who remained in the House until nearly midnight, awaiting the division, is proof of the manner in which the interest was sustained." For the first time, the Cambridge Union had rejected Coercion as a response to agrarian unrest in Ireland.6

Even more remarkable was the vote in November 1902 in favour of a motion proclaiming that "the Abolition of Landlordism is the only remedy for agrarian discontent in Ireland", albeit by the narrow margin of 77 to 72. The Granta attributed the outcome in part to the "real typical eighteenth century Tory point of view" contributed by A.B. Geary, who insisted that there was "no real discontent which calls for sympathy". Yet it is unlikely that a single speech, however ill-judged, could have exercised so much influence on the outcome. Geary was the first opposition speaker in a debate of "record length", and the division did not take place until 11.45. The Granta thought the repetition of arguments made the debate "dull ... though illuminated by not infrequent flashes of interest", including "a masterly exhibition of debating skill" from Michael McDonnell. The Cambridge Review was more impressed by the quality of "reality" in the Union's Irish debates that was lacking in other topics:


When Irishmen talk of Ireland they do so with a knowledge of their subject which they have slowly been acquiring from childhood, and with a depth of interest and conviction which it is hard for those who speak on more academical subjects to reach.


We may smile at the thought of young men bringing to bear their life-experience of two whole decades on the insoluble Irish question, but the fact that so large a house remained to the very end (many of them must have been obliged to climb into college after midnight) suggests that they were captured by the issue. Geary's pastiche of Marie Antoinette can hardly have provided the sole reason for their tenacity.7

These signs of more open attitudes towards Catholic higher education and Irish land ownership seem to reflect, at least in part, shifts of opinion among a student body that was still predominantly Conservative in its politics. Even so, flexibility had its limits. An attempt in February 1903 to condemn the trial of Arthur Lynch, charged with treason for fighting on the side of the Boers, was thrown out by 118 votes to 30, an outcome that the Cambridge Review described as "rather a foregone conclusion". Indeed, the margin suggests that many Liberals joined the majority, despite J.C. Arnold's inspirational appeal.8 Overall, the Cambridge Union retained a Tory majority right down to the debacle of the 1906 election. A small house did take the unusual step in preferring the Liberals to the Conservative government in May 1902, by just 48 votes to 46, but the rejection of a no-confidence motion six months later by 116 votes to 77 more accurately reflected a continuing Tory tinge of the Cambridge Union. Between November 1902 and March 1906, Conservatives triumphed in eight of the nine divisions on straight party lines, winning the support of between 52 and 65 percent of those voting in houses ranging from 113 to 279, although with signs of declining support after March 1903, when Balfour's government was weakened by divisions over tariffs. At the remaining debate, in November 1904, 443 members turned out to hear Lloyd George – but even then, as Balfour's government staggered towards its fall, 44 percent of them resisted the charms of the Welsh Wizard to remain loyal to the Conservatives.9

For the brief period of the disintegration of the Balfour ministry, Irish issues perhaps ceased to be the touchstone of division between the parties. In the debate on Coercion in 1902, Edwin Montagu "spoke as a Liberal, but an opponent of Home Rule". It was another rising Liberal, Maynard Keynes, who in May 1903 moved the motion that the Union hoping "that Home Rule for Ireland is beyond the sphere of practical politics". Omitting to point out that it was five years since the last debate on the issue, the Cambridge Review described Home Rule as "a much discussed but ever interesting subject". The Granta rated the evening "the best we have had this term". (However, it was only the third meeting of the term, and the previous week had been devoted to the solemn subject of Temperance.) Keynes adopted a "well defined and uncompromising attitude" and a "quiet, fluent, logical" manner, warning that Ireland wanted not devolution but "to be given the status of Canada", a proposition no more attractive in 1903 than it had been when the Union had rejected it back in 1881. Although the prospect of "a display of first class Irish oratory" drew a large attendance for a summer term debate, Michael McDonnell proved a disappointment as the principal opposition speaker. "There is no other member who can crush an illogical or ineffective speaker with such concentrated scorn as Mr McDonnell, but unless he has some such opportunity he is not at his best". Keynes carried his motion, but only by the narrow margin of 57 votes to 51.10 In 1903, Liberal disenchantment confirmed that Home Rule was indeed beyond the sphere of practical politics, but it had ceased to be the bugbear of the previous decade.

In June 1904, Michael McDonnell marked his retirement from the Presidency with a visitor debate on the uncompromising motion that "the only solution of the Irish Question is to be found in the grant of self-government". Four years later he would publish a book on the subject, which John Redmond in an obliging preface would praise for its sober summary of the case for an Irish parliament. Now he argued his case with unaccustomed moderation, which "rendered it the more powerful", emphasising not so much the wrongs of Ireland as the advantages of Home Rule to England – "even from the lowest point of view – that of accelerating business at Westminster". McDonnell appealed to the successful introduction of elected local councils under the Act of 1898, challenging opponents of Home Rule to cite "a single instance where powers of local government had been abused" – an argument that was to become more controversial in the years ahead. However, the star of the night was his guest speaker, Hilaire Belloc, a former President of the Oxford Union in the process of establishing a reputation as a writer and Liberal party activist. "It is impossible to reproduce on paper the impression Mr Belloc left with the House." The motion was carried, by 68 votes to 49. For the first time, the Cambridge Union had accepted a motion that explicitly called for self-government in Ireland.11

The shift in attitudes towards Ireland went hand-in-hand with its demotion as a political priority. Between 1902 and 1905, the numbers voting at debates on Ireland were generally low. Irish issues attracted fewer members than Tariff Reform (which drew an unusually large house of 450 in November 1904), and issues such as the future of the public schools, compulsory Greek and the admission of women to degrees, all of them immediate to Cambridge undergraduates. By contrast, Ireland was remote. The debate on landlordism in November 1902 seems to have exhausted interest in the agrarian question: there was no debate on Wyndham's Land Act, perhaps the single most important piece of British legislation for Ireland since the recognition of tenant right in 1881. In May 1905, the Balfour government's handling of the controversy over Sir Antony MacDonnell's involvement in a devolution scheme was hailed as evidence that "our present system of Governing Ireland is radically unsound", but only by 41 votes to 37. The motion was proposed by C.R. Reddy, the first Indian to be elected an officer of the Union, who claimed that it "was not a Home Rule debate". Indeed, it was not obvious what issue was at stake, and the Granta reported that "at some times our representative was almost soothed to sleep". The motion lacked a clear focus, leaving it open to the principal opposing speaker to plead that MacDonnell's only shortcoming was that "he was not extreme enough for Nationalists or Orangemen". Consequently, it was easy to wander off the point: one speaker was congratulated by the Granta for his "brilliant remarks" but advised that "it might be a good thing if he studied relevancy a little more". There was a light touch from A.M. Faulkner of Caius, who admitted being an Orangeman but insisted that he "was neither a convict nor a lunatic". Predictably, Faulkner denied that there was anything wrong with the system of government in Ireland, a view contradicted by an avowed nationalist, J.C. Shannon of St John's.12

Its sweeping victory at the polls in January 1906 not only confirmed the new Liberal government in power, but seemed to promise a long period in office. The size of the majority meant that the Liberals did not have to rely upon Irish support in the House of Commons, and so – unlike Gladstone's minority administration in 1892 – they could postpone confronting the question of Home Rule.  In the event, the new government spent much of its first two years in government attempting to design a moderate form of devolution for Ireland that satisfied nobody.  None the less, a Dublin parliament was a good deal closer to the sphere of practical politics than it had been when denounced by Keynes four years earlier.

 In October 1906, a motion favouring "the creation of an Irish Representative Assembly with full powers of Self Government" was rejected by 106 votes to 81, the 57 percent vote against Home Rule suggesting a swing back to levels of opposition during the Gladstone years. The Cambridge Review regarded it as "an excellent debate all through". To the Granta, the outcome was an assertion of normality: "For the nth time Home Rule was discussed, and the champions of the Emerald Isle retreated before the stubborn phalanx of Cambridge Toryism." The motion was proposed by E.G. Selwyn of King's, a brilliant Etonian whose "political creed is Tory Home Rule".13 Selwyn argued his case with the enthusiasm of a convert. "We must not lay too much stress on the Fenian outrages", he insisted. "If Ireland really desired separation we had no right to stand in their way." He was opposed by F.D. Livingstone, the committed anti-Home Ruler who would verbally pulverise John Dillon in 1909. "The ignorance of the people, fostered and encouraged by priestcraft, had long been the curse of Ireland" he claimed, insisting that the only way forward was to treat the country "as a unit in the Imperial scheme". The Granta thought him "unnecessarily bitter", although the Cambridge Review credited him with "a lucid sketch of the barbarous state of the Irish people".14

 Attitudes to Home Rule remained fluid and fairly evenly balanced during the Campbell-Bannerman years. Like Michael McDonnell, whom he invited to speak, Selwyn chose Ireland as the subject for his retirement debate from the Presidency in March 1907, making a "brilliant speech" in support of "the early introduction of a measure giving Home Rule to Ireland". Selwyn argued that Home Rule was necessary because of "the difference between the Anglo-Saxon and the Celt", a line of argument that had more often been employed to support the claim that the former should rule the latter. Given the racial basis of his analysis, there was an element of ambiguity in his confidence that Ulster Protestants "could rely upon their fellow Irishmen for justice". Selwyn's Toryism shone through in his assertion that "the granting of Home Rule would not lead to the dismemberment of the Empire". Presumably he had in mind the recent concession of responsible government to the Transvaal when he insisted that "self-government was the essence of Imperialism".

 Selwyn's speech was countered by a display of oratorical fireworks from another ex-President, J.G. Gordon, who somewhat unsportingly claimed that Grattan's parliament had passed 54 Coercion acts in its eighteen-year history. The guest speakers were Stephen Gwynn, an Oxford graduate and Nationalist MP for Galway, who delivered "a most interesting speech", and Viscount Castlereagh, an Irish Conservative who represented the English constituency of Maidstone. In 1915, Castlereagh became seventh Marquess of Londonderry. He served in the first cabinet of Northern Ireland, but is mainly remembered for his alleged partiality to the Nazis. "Lord Castlereagh made a most vigorous and emphatic speech from the Ulster standpoint", arguing that its people "contributed one third of the revenue in Ireland, and ought not to be handed over to the mercies of their foes the Nationalists". He denied Selwyn's implication that Ireland was a colony and rejected imperial analogies as irrelevant to an integral part of the United Kingdom. The debate was top-heavy with set-piece speeches and, as the evening wore on, members were "too tired" to appreciate the final contribution to the debate, a "convincing speech" from Michael McDonnell. Evidently, it was not convincing enough, for Home Rule was narrowly rejected, by 142 votes to 138.15 By comparison, as Table Six demonstrates, seven straight party divisions between November 1905 and December 1909 recording Conservative support at between 51 and 54 percent. The occasional maverick might break ranks, but overall Home Rule once again triggered divisions on party lines. Although Liberals at Westminster were not rushing to create an Irish parliament, their grass-roots undergraduate supporters seem to have swallowed their doubts and once again accepted Home Rule as an article of faith.

 Indeed, when the subject was next discussed in October 1908, a certain sense of fatalism can be detected. "We have heard Home Rule discussed before this," commented the Granta in tones of desperation, "and until it is finally given it will be discussed again and again; but never have we been so completely and unutterably bored." It seems that the topic itself was not wholly to blame. G.S. Shaw of Trinity proposed the motion that "Home Rule would be no solution of the Irish problem" in a speech "crammed full of rather disconnected arguments which we have heard before". Worse still, he spoke "with the rise and fall of a parish priest who has lived in the same parish for forty years and … cannot be ejected". The principal opposing speaker, "Comrade Hugh" Dalton, was also dull. In a small enough attendance for the October term, the motion was carried by 77 votes to 65.16 The 54 percent who voted against Home Rule in the tedious debate of 1908 hardly varied from the 51 percent opposition vote registered in the livelier exchanges of the previous year.

 By contrast, the return of John Dillon in June 1909 produced "the largest house that had been seen for some years". The Irish veteran "was given a magnificent reception", itself perhaps a measure of the extent to which Nationalist politicians were no longer regarded as a threat. Dillon dismissed claims that Home Rule had been killed by British kindness: remedial legislation "had been extorted by the Nationalists literally at sword's point". He scorned the argument that devolution was unnecessary because improvements in communications were bringing the two islands steadily closer. "On that analogy we might justify the rule of London over Berlin." The demand for Home Rule "had not yielded to coercion or repression because it was based on a people's will". Young Cambridge was impressed. "Mr Dillon was all that we expected; his eloquence and sincerity made a deep impression". 

 How far that impression translated into votes cannot be easily measured. As a rough rule of thumb, a distinguished visitor could expect a "swing" of about ten percent to his cause. In this case, the baseline was uncertain, since attitudes to Home Rule had been fluid since the issue had reappeared on the Union agenda in 1903. If hostile majorities of 53 percent and 57 percent registered in 1906 and 1908 represented the starting point, then the impact of Dillon should have been sufficient to carry the motion that "the only effective remedy for the Irish difficulty" was the creation of "a Legislature, with an Executive responsible to it, for the management of purely Irish Affairs". But Dillon did not have the field to himself. He was followed by Hugh Barrie, an Ulster MP born in Scotland, who was one of a group of Irish unionists engaged in putting their case on English platforms. "It was a difficult task to follow Mr Dillon; and Mr Barrie discharged it admirably by his clear and logical speech." However, the performance of the evening came from F.D. Livingstone, the young ex-President who was fervent in his opposition to Home Rule. "An abstract does no justice to Mr Livingstone," reported the Cambridge Review, which felt that "the reply he made to the arguments of the other side must have won back the votes of many waverers". Dillon himself called it "the best anti-Home Rule speech he had heard since the early Nineties". No fewer than 368 members took part in a massive division, producing the unusual outcome of a tie, with 184 votes on each side. "The voting was sensational".17

 The inconclusive general elections of 1910 brought Ireland back into practical politics, but does not seem to have altered attitudes. A debate in May 1910 on a motion welcoming "a recent improvement in the outlook of the Irish Home Rule Party" was "unusually brisk and enlivening; there was much real humour and a good deal of cogent argument". The motion was proposed by J.F. Roxburgh who, at the age of 34, would not only become a headmaster but be entrusted with the task of turning one of England's greatest mansions, Stowe, into its last major public school. "Urbane, overflowing with knowledge, possessing the most exquisite sense of humour, he delighted the house whenever he spoke." It was in keeping with the subsequent legend of an autumnal golden age that, years later, Roxburgh should have looked back on his Home Rule debate as "a perfectly gorgeous evening". A contemporary felt that he "never made a wittier speech" than on this May evening, as he objected to the Conservative stereotype of an Irishman as "a cross between a criminal and a lunatic, with violet eyes, and a desire to kill landlords". One by one, Roxburgh denounced a "sturdy brood of Home Rule bogeys", terming them the priest-bogey, the wedge bogey and "the biggest, best-fed, and stupidest bogey" of them all, the claim that Home Rule would lead to separation. A decade of elected local government in Ireland was beginning to produce ammunition for those who doubted Irish capacities to manage their own affairs: "some people won't have Home Rule because the Irish County Councils were broken up by the throwing of ink-pots". Roxburgh brilliantly satirised these doubts under the heading of the ink-pot bogey. "Ink-pots with some races lubricated self-government." The audience was entranced. "One never gets tired of Mr. Roxburgh". But members were not necessarily persuaded by him.

 The motion was bleakly opposed by Humphrey Burton, who was on his way to a comfortable career in a Lincolnshire vicarage. Burton insisted that "the outcome of Home Rule must be independence" and argued that in any case a Dublin parliament "was impossible owing to the religious, racial and traditional divisions between the two sections of the Irish people". He did not get much effective support. One young orator "dogmatised benevolently" as he demanded that the Irish be "drilled into loyalty" by firm government. Another demanded a royal commission for some unrecorded purpose "and split four infinitives". Only one speaker "confessed himself an Irishman". He was Ronald Ross of Trinity, who had followed Hugh Dalton in the 1908 debate on Home Rule. Ross replied to a denunciation of Dublin Castle as "the most corrupt and useless bureaucracy in Europe" delivered in a "good fighting speech" by W.A.C. Brooke who, like his elder brother, the legendary poet Rupert, was destined to die in the War. Ross "charmed every one" with his defence of Castle rule, blaming Dublin's Nationalist council for constantly digging up the streets of Ireland's capital and forcing up the local rates. As already noted, the motives of Ulster opponents of Home Rule were increasingly denigrated: in 1906 they had been denounced as "Grand Dukes of Repression and Coercion". Ross, at least, could claim that his loyalty was genuine. He served in the North Irish Horse in the First World War and commanded the regiment on active service in the Second. In 1929 he was elected as Westminster MP for Londonderry, holding his seat until 1951, when he was appointed official representative of the Northern Ireland government in London. He retired in 1957 – a career that began in Edwardian times and stretched to within a decade of the Northern Ireland Troubles.18

 The result of the May 1910 debate exactly mirrored that of the previous year: the division resulted in a tie, with 56 votes on each side. One reporter thought this "a curious coincidence"19 and no doubt there was an element of chance in the exact dead-heat. None the less, the fact of identical divisions among 368 young men in 1909 and 112 of them in 1910 (not to mention the very similar split registered in a house of  280 in 1907) confirms that Cambridge Union debates constitute records of elite opinion and were not merely impulsive gusts in response to clever orations.

 It is tempting to attribute the shift of opinion towards the Home Rule cause between 1911 and 1913 to the polarisation of attitudes caused by the second general election over the Lloyd George budget and the issue of the powers of the upper house at the end of 1910. However, this would conflict with the attitudes expressed in two well-attended debates during the election campaign, in which the Union refused by 105 votes to 100 "to identify itself with the cause of Democracy as against the claims of the House of Peers" and then hoped for a Conservative victory by 190 votes to 153.20 Contemporary accounts imply that persuasive speeches by visiting notables helped Home Rule to victory in the years that followed. All that can be said is that the Union had been relatively unmoved by the oratory of such distinguished outsiders at the time of the First and Second Home Rule Bills. As Table Seven shows, for a brief moment between June 1911 and June 1912, the Conservatives lost their seemingly eternal majority in the Union, falling back to the bedrock of the support of between 42 and 46 percent of its members. This drop in Conservative support might in turn be accounted for by the combination of extremism and ineptitude shown by the party's leadership during the latter stages of the Parliament Act crisis. However, it is striking that this temporary revolt seems to have translated itself into increased enthusiasm for the Liberal policy of Home Rule. Indeed, it appeared within two months of the declarations of support for Balfour and the peers during the election campaign. 

 In January 1911, Stephen Gwynn returned to argue for "the immediate granting to Ireland of the control of Irish affairs". A Dublin Protestant with an Oxford education, Gwynn represented the acceptable face of nationalism, a rare instance of an Irish MP representing a rational contrast with the extremism of English Tories. Unusually, too, he was the sole visiting speaker, and clearly outgunned all opposition. In "a full and attentive House", he was thought to have made many converts. Since the debate also registered the Union's lowest-ever level of opposition to Home Rule, at 41 percent, it merits detailed consideration.

 The motion was proposed by an undergraduate Liberal, P.J. Baker of King's, who later metamorphosed himself into a Labour politician with the more impressive surname of Noel-Baker. He accepted that the question of Home Rule was complicated by Ireland's "geographical position" but argued that the notion that devolution would lead to complete independence was "a Tory bogey". Complete separation was not desired by the Nationalists and in any case could easily be prevented by a written constitution. He claimed that the working of the Irish Local Government Act of 1898 was "evidence of the capacity of Irishmen to govern themselves". The problem of sectarian divisions he dealt with by simple denial, insisting that Liberals had a duty "to disarm religious bigotry by aiding Ireland to achieve her national destiny".

  Opening for the opposition, L.P. Napier made a "plucky" speech, contrasting "prosperous disloyal Ulster" with "the poor disloyal Catholics". "The only real grievance" had been tackled by the 1903 Land Act, and when land purchase took full effect, "imaginary political grievances could disappear". Napier attempted to neutralise Gwynn, alternately warning against his delusive eloquence, and courteously portraying him as a moderate under whose eventual leadership of the Nationalists, Home Rule might become a risk worth taking.

  Gwynn cleverly turned the compliment. If he was a respectable figure in his own country, it was largely because his grandfather had been sentenced to death for leading a rebellion. (He did not mention that that same grandfather, Smith O'Brien, had been President of the Cambridge Union.) "In Ireland if you wished the law to be changed you had first to break it". Supporters of the union "boasted" about the legislation that Westminster had passed to tackle Irish problems, but reforms "had been conceded only in response to violence, and not as a result of argument". Gwynn boldly took his case into the camp of the "Imperialists", the people who regarded Canada as the great success story of self-government in a troublesome dependency. In a clever allusion to Ulster, he called the Dominion "a three-hundred-year-old plantation", inhabited by a mixed population. "Ireland is a nation, and would be welded together by Home Rule like Canada." Indeed, Ireland was "a national civilisation many times as old ... a nationality as distinct as that of the Jewish race." He also confronted the claim that Nationalist agitation in Ireland was an artificial creation funded by "American dollars". "They had only appealed to America when it was clear that their opponents' money would be raised in England." Again, he turned a negative argument inside out. "Home Rule would make Ireland a link instead of a barrier between England and America."

  A Conservative politician of equal seniority might well have dented Gwynn's impact, but he was followed by a twenty-year-old undergraduate, whom one reporter found "pleasant and fluent" but another reproved for engaging in "platform oratory". Like Roxburgh, Humfrey Grose-Hodge was destined to become headmaster of a major independent school, although in his case by way of a brief career in the Indian Civil Service. Unlike Roxburgh, he had not emancipated himself from negative stereotypes, and not just those relating to Ireland:


Three classes wanted Home Rule – the priests, the women, and agitators. The women did not know what they wanted, the agitators did not wish to lose their pay, and the priests were the tools of Rome.


 Another opponent of the motion launched into a defence of Irish landlords during the Famine, hardly a relevant consideration in a debate on Home Rule two-thirds of a century later.

 Overall, Home Rule seemed to have the better of the argument. One speaker took the ethical high ground, condemning Britain's treatment of Ireland as "a blot on our national morality", in stark contradiction to an honourable tradition of support for "aspiring races" in Greece and Hungary and Finland. "England would long ago have rebelled at the treatment she has meted out to a sister people." Another managed the unusual achievement of making "a refreshingly original contribution" to a Union debate, arguing that it was Ireland's union with Britain that "was retarding the natural rise of the people against the priests". This was an "interesting point of view" – although arguably it would take a good half-century of independence before the prophecy began to bear fruit. The motion was passed by an unusually large majority, 137 votes to 97. A contemporary reporter drew the obvious conclusion that Gwynn's speech had "rather weighted the scale".21 However, the Home Rule debate the following year suggests that the vote was part of a continuing trend.

 In March 1912, no fewer four MPs took part in the discussion of Home Rule, two on each side. Despite the balance of oratory on this occasion, the percentage of a very large house of 427 agreeing that they were "strongly opposed to the prospective passing of a Home Rule Bill", at 43 percent, was very close to the 41 percent who had resisted Gwynn's sweetly reasoned presentation fourteen months earlier. At that stage, there was no Bill to debate. The King's speech four weeks earlier had baldly referred to "a measure for the better Government of Ireland". Thus it was Home Rule in principle not Home Rule in detail that was supported by J.P. Boland, Nationalist MP for South Kerry, and a young Liberal MP, W.G.C. Gladstone. Grandson of the Grand Old Man and, like him, a former President of the Oxford Union, young Gladstone delivered a "thoughtful and eloquent" speech that suggested a dazzling career in prospect. This would be cut short on the Western Front just two years later. Boland seems to have been a last-minute substitute: only a week earlier, the Granta had confidently announced that the guest speaker would be Joe Devlin, "the Ulster Nationalist". None the less, Boland "made a sincere and most effective appeal", denying any wish for outright separation between the two countries. The Irish were not "foolish enough to think they could afford to organise a national defence strong enough to repel an English invader". He pointed to an inconsistency in the case against Home Rule:


Thirty years ago Unionists said that Home Rule could not be granted because Ireland was seething with crime and disorder: today they say that Ireland is so happy and prosperous that Home Rule is unnecessary. They cannot have it both ways.


 The case against Home Rule was argued by two Conservative MPs, Hayes Fisher and Captain George Sandys. Fisher was a workaday politician who had regained his London suburban seat in January 1910 after defeat at the 1906 election had seemingly put an end to a moderately distinguished twenty-year career. The wartime coalition later gave him a belated chance of office, and he even managed to get into the cabinet in 1917. His Cambridge speech "was amusing and convincing at the same time, and argued with breadth and cogency". On the other hand, Captain Sandys, father of a later Conservative cabinet minister, was "very charming, but he managed to stir up some very genuine hostility on the other side".22

 At first sight, it is difficult to square this emphatic majority, of 243 votes against 184, with the fact that a motion expressing "approval of Mr. Asquith's Home Rule Bill" was narrowly defeated in May 1912, just two months later. One explanation may lie in the relative turn-outs. "We have rarely seen the House so comfortably empty", said the Granta of the second debate: perhaps at the hardcore of undergraduate politics, fervent critics of Home Rule outnumbered its convinced supporters. A more likely explanation may be found in the difference between a debate on the principle of Home Rule and one on the detail of Asquith's Bill, especially after the proposed legislation had undergone several weeks of parliamentary battering. Alan O'Day has identified "ten significant flaws" in the machinery designed by the Home Rule Bill of 1912. The opening speaker for the opposition, Gordon Butler, baldly summarised its shortcomings. "There was something to be said for Colonial Home Rule; and there was something to be said for Federal Home Rule" but "Mr Asquith's absurd attempt to compromise between them was bound to prove unworkable". Butler's categories suggest that he had read Erskine Childers, who used the same terminology in The Framework of Home Rule. Moreover, there was the emerging and massive issue of the fate of the Protestant North, which enabled the opposition to argue for the seductive diversion of "a wide system of Home Rule all round, with self-government for Ulster". Others invoked once again the broader arguments, of enlightened liberalism against realpolitik, "the success of the experiment in the Transvaal" against the blunt truth that "self-preservation had compelled Britain to bring about the Union; and self-preservation required its continuance".23  The motion was defeated by 38 votes to 35, by far the smallest attendance during any of the three Home Rule Bill controversies.

 However, political controversy was about to crackle into flame. Speaking at Blenheim Palace, in July 1912, Bonar Law dramatically announced that there was "no length of resistance to which Ulster can go in which I should not be prepared to support them". Home Rule, for so long a revolutionary challenge, was now subsumed within the larger issue of constitutional government. In October, a "crowded and truculent" Union condemned Bonar Law's "unconditional support" for "the seditious character of the recent proceedings in Ulster" by 138 votes to 109. Four months later, a motion supporting the Conservative leader's call for a revival of the use of the royal veto was rejected by 85 votes to 47.24 It seems that some Conservatives felt distaste for their party's tack towards extremism.

 In March 1913, Home Rule was the subject of another visitor debate. The motion, specifically endorsing the Bill "passed by the House of Commons last Session", was a direct challenge to the previous summer's vote against the details of Asquith's scheme. The guest speaker on the Home Rule side was Jeremiah MacVeagh, MP for the Nationalist area of County Down. For the first time in almost a century of debates on Ireland, the Cambridge Union heard from a spokesman for the Catholics of Ulster. MacVeagh was on the winning side but, in a social sense, his visit to Cambridge was not wholly successful. Stephen Gwynn, Hugh Law and Swift MacNeill were Oxford men who slipped naturally into the Cambridge environment. Although Dillon and Redmond were Catholics and Nationalists, they came from the higher professional classes and were instinctively recognised as gentlemen, even by the snobbish Monty Rhodes James.25 MacVeagh's education had terminated at St Malachy's College in Belfast, and he began his speech by drawing attention to the fact "that he had not had a University career". Reporters were too well-mannered to complain that the guest managed to miss the gentlemanly wavelength of the Cambridge Union, but it seems that his speech was ill-judged. MacVeagh's allegations that a Jewish financier was backing the Ulster campaign against Home Rule produced outraged protests from speakers on the other side, more reminiscent of the House of Commons in an angry mood than of the student society that had been charmed and persuaded by Roxburgh's wit two years earlier. Emerging from this "fierce battle of persiflage and repartee", he thundered ahead in platform manner. "Ireland's soul is being starved. ... The whole civilised world was clamouring for Home Rule." The Cambridge Review patronised MacVeagh with very faint praise. "Whatever fault might be found with his logic, no one could resist the power and sincerity of his appeal."

 MacVeagh was countered by an Irish loyalist and ex-President of the Oxford Union, Richard Dawson, in a "fine fighting speech, whose genuine arguments were embellished by a well-chosen vocabulary and a true Irish humour". Hugh Dalton, now reading for the Bar in London, also contributed "an extremely good and well-phrased speech" in support of Home Rule although, as he was "sometimes inaudible", its effectiveness must be doubted.

 It was symbolic of the tragedy of a dividing Ireland that both guest speakers soon found themselves on the losing side of its politics. The following year, it fell to MacVeagh to persuade the Nationalists of Ulster to accept that their corner of Ireland was to be excluded from the jurisdiction of a Dublin parliament. During the Troubles, Dawson ran the London office of the Irish Unionist Alliance, energetically organising alliances against Lloyd George, but with little success. In March 1913, MacVeagh's sincerity seemed to triumph over Dawson's cogent humour, by 125 votes to 110, with opposition to Asquith's form of Home Rule running at 47 percent.26

 In the decade since Keynes had broken five years of silence to revive the issue, the Union had undoubtedly see-sawed in its attitude to Home Rule. Overall,  the trend had been towards a narrow margin of acceptance, punctuated by occasional expressions of doubt. Opinion was still almost evenly divided, but there had been a long-term shift away from the overwhelming levels of opposition recorded in the late eighteen-seventies and early eighties: it is perhaps surprising, but the prospect of Home Rule seems to have aroused less opposition, and, at times, less interest, decade by decade. Familiarity had bred a degree of resigned acceptance. However, the underlying trend was barely detectable at the time. Nobody seems to have thought of analysing the votes of the Cambridge Union in terms of percentages and turn-outs; the coining of the term "psephology" lay four decades in the future, and even then it was "intended as no more than an academic jest".27 Hence Swift MacNeill continued to cherish the belief that he had successfully argued the Cambridge Union into accepting a Home Rule motion back in 1873. Forty years later, he was "inspired by a sentimental desire" to repeat his imagined triumph.

 The terms of the motion debated on 4 November 1913 were alone enough to indicate just how far the issue had developed since the days of Isaac Butt. The motion welcomed the prospect of "an Irish Parliament with an Irish Executive responsible thereto" and dismissed as "unjustifiable the present attitude of Ulster Unionists". The Oxford-educated MacNeill was treated with greater reverence than the thinly patronised MacVeagh. "The remarkable coincidence of his two appearances in the Cambridge Union lent a special interest and charm to the occasion." Naturally, the veteran fully exploited this sentiment, opening his speech by recounting "that on that same spot forty years ago, on the same date – the fourth of November – at exactly the same hour", he had spoken on the very same subject. This long-term perspective enabled him to emphasise "the remarkable progress and improvement" which had taken place in Ireland in the interval.

 Disguised within the reverie of nostalgia, Swift MacNeill unleashed a fierce attack on Ulster unionism. Pointing out that he was the longest-serving MP from the province, and a Protestant representing "the most Catholic constituency in the Empire", MacNeill "very much objected to Ulster having the name of rebel". The proposer of the motion had already described Ulster opponents of Home Rule as "spoilt children". MacNeill threw an elder statesman's gravitas behind a similar burst of abuse:


 The loyalty of the Orangeman was one of the greatest myths in history. With them it was purely a matter of £.s.d. It was various nice fat jobs they were after.


 Although MacNeill insisted that "he had not made a speech, but given a historical lecture from the heart", the Cambridge Review congratulated him on "one of the finest perorations in recent memory".

 As a further compliment to MacNeill, the young men of Cambridge had invited a delegation from the Oxford Union, including its President who, like MacNeill himself, was a Christ Church man. Gilbert Talbot was the son of the bishop of Winchester, a glamorous Etonian with a ferocious interest in politics and "the air of being a coming leader of the Tories". A little over a year later, Talbot was killed leading his men on the Western Front. He was commemorated in the establishment of a rest centre for troops as they came out of the trenches. Talbot House was quickly translated through signallers' shorthand to become Toc H, the soldiers' religious and welfare movement. Talbot's death was one of the casualties of the First World War that left survivors feeling permanently overshadowed by the unfulfilled potential of those who had been lost.

 Ironically, on that evening in November 1913, the Cambridge Union was indeed listening to a future leader of the Conservative Party. Cambridge could be forgiven its prophetic myopia. The young Etonian from Balliol who was about to be elected Secretary of the Oxford Union acknowledged that his politics at the time were "confused", describing himself as "a Liberal-Radical, a Tory-Democrat, and a Fabian Socialist". In a poorly crafted (and slightly absurd) sentence, the Granta reported that he "combined both the Oxford charm with the logicality of Cambridge". The Cambridge Review felt that the visitor's "philosophic calm and dulcet tones in no way distracted from, though at first they almost seemed to conceal, the subtle and telling attacks he delivered upon his opponents". In this case, the undergraduate was father to the statesman. M.H. Macmillan of Balliol went on to become the "Supermac" of post-Second World War British politics.

 In a curious sense, representatives of two very different worlds sat side-by-side on the front bench of the Cambridge Union that night. MacNeill was "an old fashioned Victorian gentleman", revelling in the nostalgia of forty years earlier. Alongside him, Macmillan was embarking on a career in which he would act the part of the last of the Edwardians, and which would end with his resignation as prime minister in October 1963, almost exactly half a century later. In one respect, their careers were artistically linked. It had been Parnell, whom he repudiated during the divorce case in 1891, who had put MacNeill into parliament, and it would be the Profumo sex scandal that effectively tipped Macmillan out of office. As a Conservative, Macmillan was capable of drawing upon some elements of the radical beliefs of his youth, accepting the welfare state and hurrying Britain's African empire to its downfall. In 1913, he described the Home Rule crisis as "the critical hour when it was for England to decide whether or not a small Protestant ascendancy should rule over the whole of Ireland". His six years as prime minister coincided with the sterile violence of the IRA Border Campaign, but in retrospect his failure to force Northern Ireland to confront its underlying problems looks like an opportunity complacently squandered. He had been clear enough in 1913 in his definition of what was wrong in the Ulster Protestant psychology:


The attitude of the Unionists is, that disorder is only disorder when directed against Toryism, and religious indignation only righteous when based upon anti-Popery.


As prime minister, Macmillan unleashed the Winds of Change in tropical Africa, but no breeze of reform touched the outlying ramparts of the United Kingdom during his term of office.

 "I am glad to be able to say," MacNeill recorded of his visit to Cambridge in 1913, "that this Home Rule motion, like its predecessor of that day forty years before, was carried." He did not add that it passed by just three votes out of 389, the largest division of the academic year. If he had been better briefed about the outcome of his visit in 1873, he might have drawn some encouragement from the long-term direction of Cambridge opinion. In the last debate on Home Rule before the outbreak of war, the Union had pronounced in its favour, by a very narrow margin that echoed the shifting attitudes of the previous decades.28

 There was to be just one other Irish debate before the war: in April 1914, the Union refused by 60 votes to 52 to condemn the "provocative action of the Government" during the Curragh crisis. As so often when the Union turned its attention from the general to the specific, the debate did not take fire. The proposition denounced the "military plot to coerce Ulster" as the latest ministerial crime, while the opposition cried treason and condemned Bonar Law as an "agent provocateur". To the Cambridge Review, the evening was just another episode in the eternal discussion of familiar issues. "Next Tuesday, the Welsh Church Bill."29


"The War of 1914-18 brought an abrupt ending to this Age of Gold," wrote a Cambridge don in 1926.30 Three-quarters of a century later, it is still tempting to look back on Cambridge in the summer of 1914 as Paradise about to be plunged into Hell. Undergraduates emerged from examination halls where "for six clammy hours a days, for six loathesome days of the week", they had "spoilt foolscap with scrawlings" and threw themselves into the annual round of boat races and garden parties.31 With typical English perversity, "May Week" always fell at the beginning of June. At the far end of Europe, Austrian officials in the little-known Balkan town of Sarajevo were preparing for the visit of an Archduke. In Cambridge, an influx of relatives took the opportunity to sample student life: "so many sisters and cousins and aunts, to say nothing of mothers and occasional fathers, can hardly have been seen in Cambridge in any one previous May Week". For the young men, these end-of-term celebrations cloaked a gilded mating ritual. "It is by no means an ungrateful task to dance with other people's sisters", especially when to the pleasure of female society was added the music of a German band. For those about to graduate, the atmosphere was heavy was nostalgia. "Many of us have had our last May Week", wrote the correspondent of the Cambridge Review.32 It was a comment that could be made every year, but in 1914 it was to prove brutally accurate in a way that nobody could guess.

An ephemeral May Week magazine, Mandragora, satirised prominent Union luminaries by reporting an imaginary debate. Percival Smith of Caius, President the previous year, was on his way to becoming the identikit school-master: under "recreations", his Who's Who entry would list "any outdoor games". Smith was portrayed defending his prosaic surname. "Hundreds of Britishers at the present day were arming to the sound of that name." Of course, the humour lay in the inversion of reality, the absurdity of the notion of British people arming for any purpose at all. Mandragora also lampooned the serious manner of the outgoing President, Gordon Butler, who confessed himself "assailed by grave fears as to the future".33 In real life, Butler had been encouraged by the number of "excellent speeches ... by some of the younger members of the Society", and concluded that "the future is bright with hope".34 Two years later, he was dead.

The Cambridge Union neither expected nor wished for a European war. A motion condemning Sir Edward Grey's pacific foreign policy as "unworthy of British traditions and contrary to the interests of the Nation" had been defeated by 113 votes to 56 in October 1909. There was a similar outcome, by 86 votes to 47, in November 1913. While the entente with France was backed in February 1910 by a massive margin of 110 votes to 20, two-to-one majorities steadily and earnestly desired to remain on good terms with Germany. Although a small house had expressed its "apprehension" of German foreign policy in May 1906, by 28 votes to 20, five other debates in the decade before the War show a constant desire to keep the peace. The anti-German attitude of the British press had been condemned by 79 votes to 39 in November 1905. In February 1909, a motion branding the Kaiser a "constant source of danger to the peace of Europe" was rejected by 105 votes to 55. Norman Birkett, who opposed the motion, recalled his argument that "the days were past when any one man could affect the peace of Europe", ruefully adding that he "paid for that particular folly" by serving as a judge at the Nuremberg trials. In fact, the Union regarded the mercurial Winston Churchill as a greater threat to peace, in 1911 expressing by 88 votes to 75 the "utmost concern" at his appointment to the Admiralty "in view of the serious nature of Anglo-German Relations". In February 1913, a motion arguing that "a complete rapprochement with Germany is impractical in view of her Anti-British policy of the last fifteen years" was rejected by 104 votes to 47. Finally, on 26 May 1914, ten weeks before the outbreak of war, the Union voted by 66 votes to 21 to dismiss a motion that "the German Empire is a menace to the peace of Europe". More presciently, the previous week a thin house had disagreed by 27 votes to 13 with the proposition that "Western civilisation is likely to destroy itself through excessive humanitarianism".35 Prominent among the apologists for Germany on the eve of the War was W.A.J. von Lubtow of Christ's: the Cambridge Review urged him to "continue to promote friendly feelings between the two nations in his own inimitable way". He survived the War, to re-emerge in 1920 as plain "Mr Lubtow".36

Others were not so lucky. In the summer term, twenty-five candidates contested the Union's three offices and six committee places. Within months, twenty of them would be in uniform, most of them on active service. Their youth and social background marked them out as officer material, and it was as lieutenants and captains that they led their troops into battle. Nine of them were killed. W.B.W. Durrant of Magdalene had been accused of a tendency "to cultivate fluency at the expense of thought" when he denounced Asquith's handling of the Curragh crisis. He served in the Rifle Brigade and was killed in 1915. He was followed a year later by H.B. Barnard of Jesus, who had supported him on that April evening in 1914. H.U. Scrutton of King's, who had taken the other side, was to die of wounds in far-off Bulgaria. A.V. Hobbs of St John's, a die-hard defender of the Welsh Church, joined the Royal Flying Corps. His plane fell out of the sky over Valenciennes in December 1915. W.G. Woodroffe of Pembroke had warned unavailingly against the menace of the German Empire. He won the French Croix de Guerre, before being killed in 1916. Among the survivors, the President, J.H.B. Nihill of Emmanuel, a Home Ruler who served with the Royal Munster Fusiliers, was one of four of those 1914 candidates to win the Military Cross.37

We should not forget that one of the features of Victorian Cambridge was the frequency with which promising young men had been cut off in their prime. Even so, there had never been anything like the death toll of the First World War. Over two thousand members of the University of Cambridge were killed, the equivalent of two whole undergraduate years. The carnage was greatest among the younger men: one estimate claimed that one fifth of all undergraduates who had entered the University in the five years previous to 1914 were killed.38 But they were not the only casualties. It had been his personal qualities that had carried "Honest John" Allen to the Presidency in 1911. He had never been a great speaker, and when he returned to oppose votes for women in the set-piece May Week debate of 1914, the Granta had judged him "not very convincing".39 Allen's was the last peacetime speech in the Cambridge Union. Just over a year later, he was killed at Gallipoli. F.D. Livingstone, the terrifying scourge of John Dillon, was killed in France. So too was Cecil Persse, the "indignant Irishman" whose anger had been aroused by the findings of the Financial Commission back in 1897.

Cambridge had managed to radiate the impression of being untouched by so many of the changes of the previous hundred years, but it could not escape the impact of the War. In the autumn of 1913, 3,200 undergraduates had been in residence. The number halved the following year, and by the summer of 1916 dropped below 600. The sword replaced the pen; khaki uniforms ousted academic gowns. Colleges were excellent locations for training courses, cricket grounds could easily be turned into field hospitals. The first casualties, from the Marne, were actually accommodated in the open air under the cloisters of Trinity's Nevile's Court.

At first, the Union opted for "business as usual", but it became steadily harder to sustain the requisite atmosphere of gilded irresponsibility as attendances fell and debate after debate (none of them on Ireland) had to be prefaced with motions of condolence marking the deaths of members on active service. Plans to celebrate the Society's centenary in 1915 were abandoned. Deprived of membership income, the Union had to be kept afloat by a special subscription, but even supporters among senior members of the University criticised the policy of "continuing to hold debates and elections" through a time of national crisis. Eventually, in June 1916, normal activities were abandoned, and the management of the Union entrusted to a caretaker committee of dons. The final debate was abandoned at the last minute when news arrived of the death of Kitchener. It was "a sad event", wrote the Cambridge Review  that "the activities of the Union should be interrupted after a life of over a hundred years". The premises became a club for officers: even at a time of world crisis, elitism remained the order of the day.40 Back in the carefree summer of 1913, undergraduates had rejected a jovial proposal to turn the debating chamber into a swimming bath. In November 1916, it was found to be the ideal venue for a boxing match. "Now that the capabilities of the Debating Hall have been discovered," remarked the Cambridge Review, "it is to be hoped that this room will continue to be utilised for a purpose for which it is so well adapted." 41

Among the support services organised for wounded soldiers was the Cambridge Tipperary Club.42 Its title had nothing to do with Ireland, but was an echo of the song for ever associated with the rush to the colours at the outbreak of War. Just as the Union had slipped ninety years earlier into the subconscious assumption that Drogheda was in "England", so a popular lyric in 1914 could take for granted that a young Englishman might find the love of his life deep in rural Ireland. In August 1914, it had been a long way to Tipperary. By January 1919, when two policemen were killed at Soloheadbeg in the first act of Ireland's Troubles, the distance between the two countries had become unbridgeable by nineteenth-century solutions.








The chapter title derives from the amusing and insightful book by Sir Horace Plunkett, published in 1904.

Abbreviations are listed at the close of the Preface.


1. E. O'Halpin, The Decline of the Union: British Government in Ireland 1892-1920 (1987), p. 35.

2. 15/10/89. CR, 17 Oct. 1889.  Cf. Chapter Four, note 35 for the false report that the motion had been passed.

3. 16/5/99; CR, 18 May 1899, p. 342.

4. 25/1/02; CR, 30 Jan. 1902, p. 155; Gr, 1 Feb. 1902, pp. 166-8.

5. 1/12/03; Gr, 5 Dec. 1903; CR, 3 Dec. 1903, pp. 121-2.

6. 13/05/02; Gr, 17 May 1902, pp. 311-12.

7. 11/11/02; CR, 13 Nov. 1902, pp. 72-3; Gr, 15 Nov. 1902, pp. 69-70.

8. 10/2/03; CR, 12 Feb. 1903, p. 185. Arnold's speech is discussed in Chapter Seven. Lynch's sentence had already commuted to life imprisonment. He was pardoned in 1907 and re-elected to parliament as a Nationalist in 1909. During the First World War, he recruited for the Allied cause in Ireland and became a Colonel in the British army. In 1923 he published a textbook on psychology which he predicted would remain an intellectual beacon "when the British Empire itself is forgotten". The Dictionary of National Biography adds: "This judgement has not received general endorsement." DNB 1931-1940 (1949), pp. 551-2.

9. See Table 6.

10. 12/5/03. Gr, 17 May 1902. p. 313; CR, 14 May 1903, pp. 297-8; Gr, 16 May 1903, pp. 294-5.

11. 31/5/04. Of Belloc, CR, 2 June 1904, p. 343: "it is some time since the Union has listened to so delightful a speaker". McDonnell described Home Rule as "that ideal which of all political ideals is dearest to him", Gr, 4 June 1904, pp. 342-3. Cf. M.F.J. McDonnell, Ireland and the Home Rule Movement (1908).

12. 9/5/05; CR, 11 May 1905, pp. 296-7; Gr, 13 May 1905, pp. 261-2.

13. Gr, 20 Jan. 1907, p. 160. Selwyn later became a noted Anglo-Catholic theologian. A.R. Vidler, The Church in an Age of Revolution: 1789 to the Present Day (1971 ed.), p. 198.

14. 16/10/06; CR, 18 Oct. 1906, p. 12; Gr, 20 Oct. 1906, pp. 21-2.

15. 12/3/07; CR, 14 March 1907, pp. 327-8. In June 1891, the Union had dismissed by 64 votes to 20 a motion claiming that it was "the function of the Celt to rule the Saxon". On 28/1/08, the Union condemned "the administration of the Government in Ireland" by 88 votes to 47. The focus of the debate is not wholly clear from reports. The proposer of the motion "belched forth terrific adjectives", denounced the Liberals for failing to invoke Coercion and generally warned that clouds were gathering and floodgates opened. CR, 30 Jan. 1908, pp. 199-200.

16. 27/10/08. Gr, 31 Oct. 1908, pp. 36-7; CR, 29 Oct. 1908, pp. 43-4.

17. 8/06/09. CR, 17 June 1909, pp. 483-4. Dillon's comment in Cradock, p. 93 (McNair). Unluckily there is no Granta report for this debate.

18. 3/5/10; Gr, 7 May 1910, pp. 348-9; Gownsman, pp. 5-9. In contrast to the Granta, the Gownsman thought it "a dull debate ...enlivened by a few bright speeches". For Roxburgh, see Birkett in Cradock, p. 101 and N. Annan, Roxburgh of Stowe (1965), p. 28. For the "Grand Dukes", CR, 18 Oct. 1906, p. 12.

19. Gr, 7 May 1909, p. 349.               

20. 22/11/10; 29/11/10.

21. 24/1/11; Gr, 28 Jan. 1911, pp. 188-9; Gownsman, pp. 67-75. Gwynn's impact is discussed in Chapter Seven.

22. 12/3/12; CR, 14 March 1912, pp. 357-8 and cf. Gr, 12 March 1912, pp. 296-7.

23. 21/5/12; Gr, 25 May 1912, pp. 402-3; CR, 23 May 1912, p. 464. Alan O'Day, Irish Home Rule 1867-1921 (1998), pp. 249-50; Childers, Framework of Home Rule, pp. 198-203.

24. 22/10/12; 11/2/13; Gr, 26 Oct. 1913, p. 24. R.Blake, The Unknown Prime Minister: The Life and Times of Andrew Bonar Law 1858-1923 (1955), p. 130.

25. James placed Dillon in the elusive category of gentleman, but saw him as "an honest man but a fanatic". Cox, M.R. James, p. 107.

26. 4/3/13; CR, 6 March 1913, pp. 353-4; Gr, 7 March 1913, pp. 253-4.

27. D.E. Butler, The British General Election of 1955 (1955), p. 1.

28. 4/11/13; Gr, 8 Nov. 1913, pp. 56-7; CR, 6 Nov. 1913, pp. 84-5; MacNeill, What I Have Seen and Heard, pp. 99-100; H. Macmillan, Winds of Change 1914-1939 (1966), p. 44. For Swift MacNeill as a Victorian, see M. Manning, James Dillon: A Biography (1999), p. 21. (He denounced the 1916 rebels as "rascals", apologising for the vehemence of his language.) O'Connor, Memoirs of an Old Parliamentarian, ii, pp. 45-53 gives a portrait of his eccentricities.

29. 28/4/14; CR, 29 April 1914, p. 391; Gr, 2 May 1914, pp. 278-9.

30. A. Gray, Cambridge University: An Episodical History (1926), p. 297.

31. Mandragora (Cambridge), May Week 1914, p. 34.

32. CR, 17 June 1914, p. 544.            

33. Mandragora, pp. 38-42.                          

34. VPR L 1914

35. 26/10/09; 25/11/13; 15/2/10; 15/5/06; 14/11/05; 2/2/09 (and cf Birkett in Cradock, pp. 95-6); 31/10/11; 4/2/13; 26/5/14; 19/5/14. "The threat of German aggression had hardly been realized", McNair recalled, adding that "a straight debate on a question of Foreign Policy would have attracted only a small house". (Cradock, p. 92).

36. CR, 27 May 1914, p. 469. I am grateful to Dr Elisabeth Leedham-Green for information on von Lubtow.

37. For the list of candidates, CR, 10 June 1914, p. 512, and for Durrant, CR, 29 April 1914, p. 391. Casualties are recorded in G.V. Carey, ed., The War List of the University of Cambridge 1914-1918 (1921). 

38. Gray, Cambridge University: An Episodical History, pp. 297-8. Cf. Brooke, pp. 331-40 and Howarth, p. 16.

39. Gr, May Week 1914, pp. 37-8; Birkett in Cradock, pp. 96, 101-2. Allen was killed on 21 June 1915.

40. CR, 7 June 1916, p. 352 and cf. 20 Jan. 1915, pp. 136-7; 1 Dec. 1915, p. 132; 23 Feb. 1916, p. 223; Heitland, After Many Years, p. 214; Historical Register of the University of Cambridge Supplement 1911-1920, p. 200.

41. CR, 29 Nov. 1916, p. 124.

42. M.R. James addressed the Tipperary Club in 1915. Pfaff, Montague Rhodes James, p. 245.



Copyright © 2021 Ged Martin. All Rights Reserved.
Joomla! is Free Software released under the GNU General Public License.