Chapter 8

'The Irish Debates, 1816-1885' explore Cambridge student attitudes to Ireland before the first Home Rule Bill, incidentally arguing that opposition to Catholic Emancipation in the 1820s was less rigid than the political upheaval of 1829 might suggest.

8: THE IRISH DEBATES 1816-1885 



On 18 March 1816, the Cambridge Union resolved by 33 votes to 25 that "the present conduct of Government towards Ireland" accorded with the dictates of "Justice and Policy".1 In the absence of any account, the debate is hard to interpret. The result squares neither with the condemnations of British policy towards Ireland registered after 1821 nor with the equally firm endorsements of the union of 1801. The motion probably meant what it said in referring to "present conduct". The Irish executive was cracking down on dissent. The Catholic Committee had been forced out of existence in 1812. Following the Tipperary assizes in January 1816, the Chief Secretary, Robert Peel, insisted on "making a terrible but necessary example", hanging all those found guilty of capital offences. "We find convictions attended with so many difficulties that we are obliged to be very sparing in the extension of mercy."2  In one respect, the first Cambridge debate on Ireland was characteristic of the many that would follow: there was at least one speaker from Ireland, and he was on the losing side. Presumably Charles Brinsley Sheridan had inherited some of his playwright father's skill in the use of language: he was thought sufficiently persuasive to be included in the deputation to the Vice-Chancellor that protested against suppression of debates the following year. Not for the last time, first-hand testimony was insufficient to carry the day.

Young Cambridge was massively in favour of the union between Britain and Ireland. No vote was recorded in the debate of November 1816, on a motion that the union of 1801 had proved "advantageous" to Ireland, but the balance of speakers (four against two) suggests that the motion was carried. John Beresford, son of the bishop of Kilmore and Ardagh spoke against the motion: once again, an Irish voice was in the minority.3 It was nine years before the question arose again, and by December 1825 it was almost certainly entangled with the controversial question of Catholic Emancipation. This time only one speaker argued that Ireland had "been benefited by its Union with this Country", while five spoke against, including the Dublin-born Richard Chenevix Trench. The motion was rejected by 45 votes to 20.4 That this did not imply support for "a complete separation" between the two countries can be seen in the massive rejection of a motion to that effect in December 1828 by 95 votes to 23. Outright Repeal was dismissed even more brusquely in 1833 by 90 votes to 4. On that occasion, the majority may have been distorted: the debate had been adjourned to a second night, and it is likely that by the close of the proceedings, even the six speakers for Repeal had lost heart.5  One of them was Thomas Redington, who quickly abandoned his Repeal sympathies to become, in 1847, Lord John Russell's under-secretary for Ireland. Even during its retreat into otiose historical issues during the eighteen-thirties, the Cambridge Union remained firm in its belief that it was part of the natural order that Ireland should be subordinate to England. "Had William of Nassau any just claim to Sovereignty of Ireland before the surrender of Limerick?", the Union asked itself in 1837. Predictably it decided that he did, although only by eight votes to three.6

 However, Cambridge debaters were less sure about the effectiveness of the union of 1801. This can be seen in the vote on the composite motion of March 1830: "Was the Union with Ireland in 1800, a justifiable measure, or conducive to the welfare of that Country?" The margin of rejection, by 39 votes to 31, suggests that emphasis was placed on the second part of the motion.7 This interpretation of the vote would certainly be in line with a series of condemnations throughout the eighteen-twenties of British policy in Ireland, although as they were carefully wrapped within the rules forbidding discussion of current issues, interpretation is not always straightforward. For instance, in December 1821, a sizeable majority of 37 votes to 16 decided that "the conduct of the English Government with respect to Ireland, in the three years previous to the Rebellion in 1798" had been inconsistent with "sound policy". Presumably one element in the criticism was that the government had failed to prevent the uprisings of 1798, but the focus on the preceding three years may have been intended as an allusion to the founding of Maynooth in 1795. The motion may also have been intended to avoid the issue of Emancipation by excluding from the debate the decision of 1793 to admit Catholics to the Irish franchise.8 Majorities for Catholic Emancipation between 1822 and 1829 were consistent in a band between 54 and 61 percent. The 70 percent affirmative vote in the debate on 1798 suggested that it was easier to condemn past errors than to accept current reforms.

                At the height of the controversy over Catholic Emancipation, there was a hardening of the conviction that relations with Ireland had not been a success. In February 1823, a debate on "the conduct of England towards Ireland (up to the year 1800)" resulted in all fifty members present withholding their "approbation". Macaulay was one of a battery of Union luminaries who denounced the record, but oratory alone does not seem to have been the sole determinant. It was just one week later that Macaulay delivered the speech that entranced Bulwer Lytton but failed to persuade members to endorse the political character of Mirabeau. Similarly, in November 1824, one of the best attended debates of the year saw the Union vote by 94 votes to 17 that "the conduct of England towards Ireland, up to the year 1800" could not be "considered conducive to the happiness of the Inhabitants of the latter kingdom". It was notable, too, in that Richard Boylan, who spoke tenth out of eleven against the motion, it was the first time an Irish Catholic had addressed the Union on an Irish issue. Still carefully treading within the twenty-year rule, in May 1827 the Union condemned England's conduct towards Ireland prior to 1807 by 35 votes to 23.9 Among those critical of England was Richard Chenevix Trench, who as Archbishop of Dublin forty years later failed to prevent the disestablishment of the State Church which figured so largely among Irish grievances.

Catholic Emancipation "was of course the burning question of this period", Charles Merivale recalled of the Cambridge Union of the eighteen-twenties. It was debated eight times between May 1822 and March 1829.  The first seven motions spoke of "the Catholic claims" (or "the claims of the Roman Catholics"). Not until March 1829 was the more controversial term "emancipation" introduced. On five occasions, the issue produced the best attended debate of the term, and on three, the debate had to be adjourned to a second night (in 1825, even spanning two terms) to accommodate the numbers who wished to speak. The division of March 1829, in which 257 members voted, remained the largest in the Union's history until 1866. In accordance with the restrictions imposed by Vice-Chancellor Wordsworth, the motions debated in 1822 and 1824 referred to the failure of both the British and Irish parliaments to admit Catholics before 1800. Four of the remaining six debates used a formula "previous to" a date twenty years earlier. The exceptions were the debate of 1827, which specified "in 1807", and that of March 1829 which set the moment of decision "in 1808". It is possible that the first of these was intended to focus on George III's ousting of the Ministry of All the Talents by demanding an undertaking that they would never press him to allow Catholics to sit in parliament. The second may have been designed to refer to Henry Grattan's attempt in 1808 to trade the admission of Catholics to parliament against a government veto on Rome's appointment of bishops. If so, this was the only hint of qualified emancipation or safeguards, while such reports as survive suggest that some of the pro-Emancipation oratory was revolutionary in tone. Overall, it is unlikely that the date restrictions were taken seriously. "We might not speak directly of any event nearer to us than a floating period of twenty years back," Merivale recalled, "but it required no great ingenuity to evade this restriction, by resolving, for instance, that Catholic Emacipation should or should not have been carried so many years before the current year." If Emancipation was a matter of principle, then the timing of the concession was irrelevant, Merivale recalled "Kemble, being called to order by the President for thus dodging the law of our institution, eliciting thunders of applause by vociferating, I take my stand in the year '6'."10

 Table One demonstrates a remarkable degree of consistency in the division of opinion.   Support for Catholic Emancipation across the eight debates fell consistently within a very narrow band, from 54 to 61 percent. The pattern is all the more remarkable, given a fourfold range in the "turn-out", from a low of 62 in 1822 to a high of 257 in 1829. Nine speakers feature in more than one debate – Benjamin Hall Kennedy spoke four times between 1824 and 1827 – but the turnover of student generations means that few of those who voted in 1822 were still attending Union debates seven years later. The evidence points to the existence of a modest but firm majority for Catholic Emancipation among a privileged and Protestant social group throughout the eighteen-twenties. Those who sympathised with the Catholic cause presumably saw it primarily as a matter in which civil rights overrode sectarian identities. Thus in the immediate aftermath of Emancipation, in May 1829, the Union rejected by 52 to 18 the notion that the Jesuits had been "beneficial to mankind", while in February 1831 and December 1832, over eighty percent voted against the separation of Church and State.11

                The eight Cambridge Union debates on Catholic Emancipation also underline the disparity between oratory and argument on the one hand, and pre-conceived opinions on the other. The Catholic cause was supported by 51 speakers who delivered a total of 65 speeches. By contrast, there were only 22 speakers and 24 speeches against. In the eight divisions, there were 8.4 votes cast for every speech in favour of Emancipation, but 17.4 for every speech against. It is highly unlikely that the speeches against Emancipation were individually more cogent and convincing. Rather, a collective portrait indicates that the case for change virtually monopolised both the talent and the potential of young Cambridge.

                Of the 51 supporters of the Catholic claims, 18 became officers of the Union, 13 of them elected President. This was the golden age of the Cambridge Union, and no fewer than 21 gained entries in the Dictionary of National Biography. Those who went on to make their mark in public life included Edmond Beales, President of the Reform League in 1866, Alexander Cockburn, who became Lord Chief Justice and Edward Strutt, the first heir to a manufacturing fortune to enter the House of Lords. Careers in parliament also beckoned for Edward Ellice the younger, who was taken prisoner by Canadian rebels in 1838, while Charles Buller and William Hutt both supported colonisation projects and had rivers in New Zealand named in their honour. J.W. Blakesley, Charles Merivale, and R.C. Trench became influential figures in the Church. Benjamin Hall Kennedy and Henry Malden made their mark as classical scholars and J.M. Kemble, "energetic & fluent"12 on the issue in 1827, was a pioneer in archaeology. The list would probably be all the more impressive but for the early deaths of lively figures such as Buller, along with the poets William Mackworth Praed, Thomas Hankinson and John Sterling, the last of them commemorated in a celebrated biography by Carlyle.

 By contrast, only four of the 22 opponents of Catholic Emancipation were elected to Union office, and only one got into the Dictionary of National Biography. He was Peter Borthwick, briefly editor of the Morning Post, and indisputably a second-rank figure in public life. Few of those who spoke on either side seem to have close connections with Ireland. L.S. Orde of Queens', one of the few opponents of the Catholics to become President, was a nephew of the Orange champion, Lord Roden – but it is possible that there were others who had family links with Irish factions which cannot now be easily discovered. Overall, there can be little doubt that the balance of ability, as well as brute force of verbosity, favoured Catholic Emancipation, and it is unlikely that there was sufficient countervailing personal testimony on behalf of the Irish Ascendancy. Overall, it must be concluded that if two members in every five managed to resist the torrent of argument in favour of admitting Catholics to parliament, it can only be because they had already made up their minds to do so.

 Unusually for this early period, some reports survive that make it is possible to recover something of the atmosphere of Union debates on the Catholic question. Richard Monckton Milnes included several enthusiastic accounts in letters to his family. On the first occasion that he attended the Union, in November 1827, Milnes was not impressed by the level of argument. One speech was delivered in such a "strain of sarcasm & irony" that it provoked a demand to know which way the honourable member intended to vote. Some speakers not only ignored the notional limitation of the twenty-year rule, but widened the Catholic issue to a general onslaught on the status quo. Thus "a Mr. Sterling told us we were going to have a revolution", adding that he "didn't care if his hand should be the first to lead the way".13

                Milnes may have been the author of a report of a Union debate on Catholic Emancipation discovered in a contemporary periodical by Peter Allen when studying the Cambridge Apostles. This account not only disguises the names of speakers, but seems to have conflated the debates of 1828 and 1829. The proposer of a motion in favour of the Catholics, "my friend Williams", was probably William Merywether, who opened the debate in 1829. A member of the same college as Milnes, Merywether was an early Cambridge cricket Blue but – it would seem – a radical none the less. "Williams" was reported as saying that the Catholic question was not "commonly discussed elsewhere on the proper grounds". He defined the real issue as "a contest between the people and the aristocratic monopolies" and proceeded to flay the latter for half an hour.

 The motion was opposed by "Mr Billingsgate, a soft-voiced young gentleman of large fortune ... a fool" but "a favourite with the society". Billingsgate was probably based upon Lord Norreys, son of the Earl of Abingdon, whose family name of Bertie perhaps suggested the nickname by alliteration. At Eton, Norreys had pulled off the highly dangerous stunt of impersonating the headmaster, Keate, and taking a roll-call in front of the whole school. Perhaps surprisingly, he subsequently overcame some of his prejudices and followed Sir Robert Peel when the Conservatives split over free trade in 1846. Faithful to his nickname, "Billingsgate" denounced the "decidedly unconstitutional" speech of the proposer in an equally wide-ranging diatribe. The House of Commons, he insisted, "does fully and fairly represent the people", although his definition referred to "persons of birth, influence, fashion, and fortune" and excluded "the rabble". Britain's "glorious constitution" was "composed of three powers, all exactly equal to each other, and yet no two of them superior to the third". We cannot know whether this intriguing calculation was inspired by Cambridge's teaching of advanced mathematics or its commitment to higher theology, but it was enough for "Billingsgate" to denounce all thought of concessions to "the bloody papists".

 These were real issues treated in mock-serious manner. "An evening of this kind seldom terminates without a supper party."14 None the less, the debates were regarded by outsiders as evidence of the march of opinion. Palmerston, canvassing for the University seat in 1825, took comfort from the fact that "the Catholic Question has always been carried at the Union".15 The last debate in the series, that of 1829, was seen by both sides as an event of more than mere local importance. Ostensibly, a squabble in the Cambridge Union on the politics of 1808 might seem more than usually irrelevant. The debate began on 3 March when the bill for Catholic Relief was in its last stages at Westminster, and was adjourned to 10 March, by which time Emancipation had become law. However, the Cambridge debate took on a larger significance because it followed Peel's defeat in a by-election at Oxford. Peel had resigned as MP for Oxford University by way of apology to his high Anglican supporters for abandoning pledges to resist the admission of Catholics to parliament. In doing so, he not only endorsed the revolutionary principle that an MP was merely a delegate subject to recall by his constituents, but he made the tactical mistake of failing to foresee the practical implications of his decision. It quickly became apparent that there was considerable support for Emancipation at Oxford, and that Peel could not refuse to fight the by-election that he had brought about without seriously damaging his own cause.

The composition of the constituency made Oxford University an unpromising battle-ground for progress. As at Cambridge, the right to vote was conferred upon Masters of Arts, most of them resistant to novelty in all its forms. On 27 February 1829, Peel was forced to acknowledge defeat. The Oxford by-election was so unprecedented that it was followed by a frenzy of speculation about its significance. Upholders of the Catholic cause took comfort from the fact that the margin of defeat had been relatively narrow: 755 votes to 609. They argued that although Peel had been defeated in quantity, he had been easily victorious in the quality of support he had received. Analysis of the poll showed that he had received the support of the majority of resident members of the University but had been defeated by the non-resident backwoodsmen. In particular, Peel had been overwhelmingly backed by the ablest of Oxford's minds, whether measured by professors, graduates with First Class Honours, or the solid support of the most intellectually vigorous colleges. In the context of an argument over the meaning of the vote at Oxford, the debate among the young men of Cambridge took on a wider significance.

                Milnes had planned to speak in the adjourned debate on 10 March, "but the tumult grew so great about 10 o'clock – that it was impossible to make a word heard". The long, low debating room was so crowded that the division had to be taken outside, "a most noisy proceeding" punctuated by cheers and groans. On one side of the inn yard, Lord Norreys was "screaming out, 'three cheers for the Church & State'", while others urged three cheers for the highest of high Tories, Lord Eldon. On the other side, "little Wentworth" urged "3 for Ireland", and Augustus FitzRoy, cousin of the Duke of Grafton, was sufficiently carried away to urge three cheers for the Pope. "The tellers at last appeared at the windows & announced that the votes were, a majority of 10 against the Catholics". The rejoicing of Protestant zealots was short-lived, for "one of the tellers came forward & said that owing to the confusion, a mistake had been made & the votes were 46 in favour of the Catholics". The episode was hardly a tribute to the mathematical training provided by Cambridge University. Conscious, no doubt, of the difficulty of persuading some soi-disant members to disgorge their subscriptions, the officers decided upon a detailed scrutiny of the division. Some days later they announced a definitive vote of 143 against 114 in favour of Catholic Emancipation.16

Milnes hastily sent the news of victory to the Globe, a liberal evening paper in London, claiming that the margin of victory "marks the feeling of the rising generation" and so morally outweighed Peel's defeat at Oxford. Privately, he was disappointed that the majority was "so small".  (Thackeray, who also present at the debate and who opposed Emancipation, drew some comfort from the "very small majority".) According to Milnes, the Tories "had exerted all their influence in 'packing' members, and bandied about all the cant phrases of their faction as vigorously as their Seniors in the other place [Oxford]". The "late hour" of the division was also a factor: at least fifty supporters of Emancipation had departed "in full conviction of the success of their cause". Milnes insisted that the small majority should be set against the fact "that this question has uniformly passed in favour of the Catholics on all previous occasions". Thus the "Cambridge Union Debating Society" had demonstrated that "the feeling of all the intellectual men at Cambridge and at Oxford is the same". Milnes, at least, was in no doubt that Union debates were registers of opinion, although he was in fact wrong in assuming that the 1829 majority was proportionately smaller than in earlier years.17 However, the Union's Secretary promptly assured readers of the Globe that it "was by no means the case" that members had been discussing the bill before parliament: "such a proceeding would not only have been contrary to the laws of the Society, but to those of the University".18 No doubt he was right to keep the proctors in mind, for the question of Cambridge student attitudes continued to have political repercussions.

Two weeks after the debate, in an attempt to dispel the "stigma" of the allegation that "the young men of education in the country were in favour of concessions to the Catholics", the Bishop of Bath and Wells presented a petition to the House of Lords signed by "between six and seven hundred" Cambridge undergraduates opposed to Catholic Emancipation.  The bishop declared that in general he "was opposed to the introduction of political parties and clubs in the universities, and he was sorry to learn that such clubs were not only tolerated but allowed". This drew a rebuke from John Kaye, the Bishop of Lincoln, an impressive pluralist who doubled as Master of Christ's, and had served as Vice-Chancellor immediately before James Wood. Kaye accused his brother prelate of criticising the University of Cambridge "for not putting down a certain debating club" and roundly told him that he "should have taken more pains to acquaint himself with the reasons which had induced the heads of the university to tolerate its existence".  Charles Lloyd, the Bishop of Oxford, could not resist turning the knife in the Cambridge wound by claiming that "no toleration was given … to debating clubs" in his university. Given the open existence of the Oxford Union and the strong support it received in his own college, Christ Church, this was a foolhardy statement. Lloyd, who was Peel's former tutor, was one of the few bishops who accepted the need for concessions to O'Connell. He added the reminiscence that "twenty years ago, he belonged to a debating club in Oxford University; and that club had continued to exist, because, like the Catholic Association, it had been found impossible to put it down". The Marquess of Lansdowne, who had earlier claimed that Cambridge opinion was in favour of Emancipation, now turned to discrediting the credentials of the petitioners. "He could not perceive any thing in the course of study pursued by these young men, which particularly fitted them for judging of the tenets of the Romish church".  In any case, they represented only a minority of the student population of Cambridge, and there were 250 undergraduates at Trinity alone ready to sign a counter-petition. The Vice-Chancellor promptly banned any such demonstration. 19

It was unusual for the Union to have second thoughts on an issue that had been resolved, but several attempts were made in subsequent years to revive the Catholic question. While these generally attracted small houses, they undoubtedly reflect a continuing strength of feeling. In May 1829, the Union narrowly decided by 25 votes to 21, that it had been "just and expedient" to deprive Irish forty-shilling freeholders of their right to vote. Their disenfranchisement had been part of the price for the admission of Catholics to parliament, and the vote contrasted with the previous series of apparently unqualified support for Catholic political rights. However, overall interest had clearly waned. Whereas a year earlier, a third-term debate on the political character of Henry Grattan had drawn the largest attendance of the academic year, an Irish issue now drew barely one fifth of the number who had voted in the turbulent debate on the principle of Emancipation two months earlier.20

                Six years later, in December 1835, the Union decided by 22 votes to 17 that "the benefits which were expected from the Roman Catholic Emancipation" had not been realised. Since the Whigs had just clambered back into office thanks to the support of Daniel O'Connell and the Lichfield House Compact, the division seems a muted condemnation from a predominantly Conservative body. In 1840, during the Society's high Tory doldrums, a motion declaring Catholic Emancipation to have been "a measure of wisdom, justice, and expediency" was actually rejected by 18 votes to 9.21 It is likely that the motion claimed too much. That same year, William Whewell's friend Archdeacon Hare noted that "one hears perpetually among the country clergy" the charge that in carrying Emancipation, the Duke of Wellington "sacrificed principle to expediency". Although a long-time supporter of Catholic Emancipation himself, Whewell agreed in condemning the Duke's "manner of passing the Catholic Relief Bill" on the grounds that "the governors of a state are not to acknowledge that they act from fear of those who threaten to violate the laws".22 The attitude of the country clergy was no doubt shared among students many of whom were training to follow the same calling. In their defence, it should be noted that the following year the Union rejected by 15 votes to 3 the claim that "the Penal Laws passed against the Papists" were "beneficial".23

                Proceedings seem to have been more animated in 1842, when the Union considered a motion which condemned the penal laws as "in the highest degree unjustifiable", praised Emancipation as "a wise and expedient measure" and regretted that it had not been passed earlier. An amendment to limit the motion to the reference to Emancipation was rejected by 27 votes to 24, and the main motion carried by 25 votes to 24. The issue was again debated in November 1852, perhaps as a means of ventilating Protestant feelings aroused by the "Papal Aggression" dispute of 1851 and by perceived clerical interference in the 1852 general election. The concession of 1829 was again endorsed, by 28 votes to 23, almost identical to the division of opinion in 1842.24

The century after 1815 saw four major British concessions to Irish demands: Catholic Emancipation in 1829, the disestablishment of the Protestant Church in 1869, the recognition of tenant right under Gladstone and the funding of land purchase in the Salisbury years. In each case, a substantial section of Cambridge opinion concluded that accounts had been settled with Ireland, while others battled to prove that grievances remained. Thus, in November 1833, the Union agreed that "the conduct of the English Government towards Ireland" had not been "consistent with sound policy or justice", but only by 32 votes to 24. The vote was very similar to the 35-23 division on a similar motion six years earlier, but in 1824 a similar debate had resulted in an emphatic condemnation by 94 votes to 17.25

                In the aftermath of Catholic Emancipation, Irish issues still attracted controversy. Repeal was massively rejected in March 1833. Three debates in 1833-34 were adjourned to a second night to accommodate the members who wished to speak, although the interest could be fickle. In March 1834, the Union asked itself whether Ireland had been treated with "sound policy or justice ... from the time of the first invasion of the English on [sic] the latter country". The debate was adjourned not simply to a second night, but to the following term, when participation collapsed. Seven centuries of English policy in Ireland were condemned by just 8 votes to 3.26

                Two new issues appeared in November 1835. Lord John Russell's Irish Church resolutions were dismissed by 32 votes to 18 while the Union declined to condemn "the formation of Tory Political Unions commonly called Orange Lodges" in an unusually large division of 49 votes to 14.27 It may seem curious that, in a decade fascinated by ecclesiastical questions, the Protestant Established Church in Ireland should not have been the subject of debate until Russell's proposals for surgery put it on to the agenda. Perhaps the liberals of the eighteen-twenties had preferred to imply that Catholics could be admitted to full political rights without challenging the Protestant ascendancy. If so, by the following decade their opponents were alive to the threat of reform by instalments. By November 1836, a poorly attended debate could vote by 12 votes to 8 that "the past conduct of the Roman Catholics of Ireland" made it unlikely that "further concessions on the part of the Protestants of England will be productive of any beneficial result".28

                Technically, of course, the Act of Union had put an end to any such entity as a separate Irish Church. Like the parliament on College Green, the religious establishment had been merged with its English counterpart. "Does the existence of the Established Church of England and Ireland conduce to the moral happiness of the people?", the Union asked itself in February 1837, determining by 30 votes to 15 that it did. It was still possible in the eighteen-thirties to sustain such a paternalist opinion with reference to parts of rural England. "Nobody could deprive us of the Church [even] if they would", wrote Whewell in 1835, "for it has the affections of the people in its favour".29 To entertain such a sentiment in relation to Ireland involved an effort of will.

                In April 1837, the Union confronted the issue more specifically: "Is the maintenance of the Established Church in Ireland in its present condition, consistent with justice and good policy?" The debate was twice adjourned, suggesting that more students were interested in the topic than the final vote indicated. Unusually, the speakers who assailed Church establishment in Ireland included two Catholics, both of whom would go on to make a mark in British politics. Lord Edward Howard, son of the Duke of Norfolk, held minor office under Lord John Russell and later, as Lord Howard of Glossop, became a major figure in Catholic educational charities. John Ball was launched into a brief but promising parliamentary career by the Tenant Right League in 1852. Despite their pleas, the motion was eventually passed, although a majority of 13 votes to 11 fell short of a full-hearted endorsement.30 However, given the "present condition" of the Irish Church, the outcome was remarkable enough.

                "Does England really owe a great debt of justice to Ireland?", was the slightly testy wording of a motion debated in February 1839. In the best attended debate of the term, the Union was persuaded, by 31 votes to 12 that the debt of justice still remained. The proposer was the Welshman Rowland Williams, described by the Dictionary of National Biography as bold and uncompromising in controversy. Like other notable Cambridge minds of the century, he could read German and was influenced by new currents of thought from the continent. In his contribution to Essays and Reviews in 1860, Williams identified himself with the new Biblical criticism of the Prussian intellectuals. Perhaps this was a case where Cambridge Union experience could be counterproductive: Williams was censured for applying sarcasm to the study of Scripture, and had great difficulty in fending off a condemnation for heresy. Whatever grounds he adduced to persuade his contemporaries that Ireland was owed a debt of justice, it is unlikely that this Welsh Anglican laid much emphasis on the scandal of an endowed Church that failed to inspire the confidence of the people it was supposed to serve. Williams made his first excursion into the public sphere in 1843 as an opponent of a scheme to amalgamate the miniature Welsh bishoprics of Bangor and St Asaph.31

When the American Charles Bristed was thrown into gloom by the Democratic victory in the Presidential election of 1844, one of his Cambridge friends commented: "I am sure I wouldn't annoy myself if O'Connell were premier tomorrow".32 It was a back-handed compliment. The Cambridge Union was obsessed by Daniel O'Connell. From 1836 until the ogre was outfaced at Clontarf seven years later, it debated his political character on four occasions, and we can be reasonably confident that the spirit of the Liberator hovered over at least four more debates on Ireland in those years.

                The measure of hostility may be gauged from the terms of the motion debated in February 1836, which asked whether "the character and actions of Daniel O'Connell up to the year 1835 bear any resemblance to those of Maximillian [sic] Robespierre up to 1789?" This was taking a mere Irish agitator too seriously, and he was acquitted of revolutionary intentions by 25 votes to 17. In December 1836, the Union unsurprisingly denied, by 62 votes to 18 that O'Connell was a benefactor to his country, a view underlined in March 1839 by 21 votes to 9 with the verdict that he did not deserve "the gratitude of the Irish people". O'Connell was unsuccessfully championed by John Ball, whose father was one of the first Catholics to be appointed to the bench after Emancipation. This persistent hostility to O'Connell was in sharp contrast to the overwhelming vote of 1828 in favour of Henry Grattan. However, this was not simply an example of the English view that in Ireland, a statesman is a dead politician. In 1834 Thomas Redington failed to persuade the Union that the character of Lord Edward Fitzgerald was "entitled to approbation". The rebel and suicide was condemned by 18 votes to 3.33

                The extent of the Union's phobia about O'Connell was demonstrated in April 1838, in an episode which even the diarist Charles Greville, no woolly progressive, thought unequalled for the "quantity of folly crammed into a short space of time". Speaking at a public meeting, O'Connell had accused Conservatives of perjuring themselves before committees investigating disputed elections. "To recommend moderate language to O'Connell would ... be about as reasonable as to advise him to drop his brogue", Greville thought. O'Connell's defiant rejection of complaints about his language provoked an opposition motion of censure in the House of Commons, culminating in a parliamentary uproar which "appears to have been something like that which a meeting of Bedlam or Billingsgate might produce". No less than five weeks later, when cooler counsels might have wished to forget the episode, the Cambridge Union pronounced by 36 votes to 10 that the parliamentary reprimand had been both "justifiable" and "expedient". This followed hard on the heels of the passage of a motion approving of "the political conduct of the king of Hanover since his accession" by a similar margin of 41 votes to 8.34 The Duke of Cumberland, now metamorphosed into King Ernest, had shown considerably less respect for parliamentary institutions than Daniel O'Connell. The first act of his reign had been to suspend them altogether.

                Government policy towards Ireland came to be measured according to the degree of resistance offered to O'Connell. A motion describing Whig policy to Ireland as "beneficial" was rejected by 28 votes to 10 in March 1838, and the Melbourne ministry's handling of Irish affairs condemned as "unworthy of our confidence" in November 1840 by 39 votes to 11. The appointment of Lord Normanby as Home Secretary was pronounced "unwise and mischievous" by 60 votes to 22 in December 1839.35 This hostility to a nobleman who had, after all, been the President of the Union back in 1816, is probably to be explained by Normanby's identification with O'Connell during his term as lord-lieutenant from 1835 to the beginning of 1839.

                Not surprisingly, the Cambridge Union preferred the firm hand of Sir Robert Peel's Conservative government, which took office in 1841. In May 1843, Peel stated that he would prefer civil war to Repeal, and in October the government not only forced O'Connell to cancel the Clontarf meeting but followed up its success by prosecuting him for conspiracy.36 A month after the cancellation of Clontarf, a hardy minority argued that "the proceedings of the present Government towards Ireland, are disgraceful to it as an executive, and absurd in policy". The debate ran into a second evening, and attempts were made to extend it to a third. On this occasion, the Union was not satisfied with mere rejection of an unpopular proposition, but rather decided to amend it by inserting the word "not" in front of the two provocative adjectives. This was done by 120 votes to 10, a very large turn-out indeed for a third-term debate.37

In contrast to its obsession with O'Connell, the Cambridge Union responded in relatively muted fashion to the political and social crisis of the eighteen-forties. In April 1845, the Maynooth grant drew a house of 133 – the third largest of the decade. The debate was adjourned to a second night, when members rejected by 92 votes to 41 a claim that "the plan of the Government for the Endowment of Maynooth is unconstitutional and dangerous to the Country". Loyalty to Peel's government may have been a factor in the vote, and the motion could no doubt be faulted for overlooking the inconvenient fact that Maynooth had been founded by the British government and in receipt of a state grant for fifty years. Perhaps this was a rare case where oratory made a difference: the Dictionary of National Biography recorded that Henry Hallam the younger "especially distinguished himself in defence of the Maynooth grant".38

 Overall, however, it is noteworthy that Maynooth, so explosive an episode in national politics, does not appear to have been an inflammatory issue in the Union, not least because it marked the beginning of the disintegration of the Young England party that had its roots in Cambridge. This may have been deliberate policy, since Maynooth involved controversial theological issues: it was probably in defence of his faith that the young Catholic aristocrat, Lord Bernard Howard, addressed the Union when he spoke in the debate, but avoided direct reference to the motion. However, when Maynooth was discussed again, six years later in November 1851, a small house of 27 voted to adjourn to a second night, where hardy survivors voted by 6 to 4 that the grant was "neither wise nor conciliatory". In the backwash of the row over "Papal Aggression", this was close to apathy.39

                By contrast, there seems to have been an element of flexibility in the mood of 1845. In May – just three weeks after the Maynooth debate – a much smaller house resolved by 17 votes to 11 that "a suitable provision for the Irish Roman Catholic Priesthood ought to be made by the State". The topic had been put forward by a Scots aristocrat, William Campbell, who would enjoy the unusual distinction of inheriting peerages from both his parents, eventually becoming Lord Stratheden and Campbell. Campbell's connection with Ireland was slight and hardly one to boast about. His father had been appointed Lord Chancellor of Ireland six weeks before the fall of the Whig ministry in 1841, a blatant piece of jobbery which caused "the greatest disgust". Campbell senior was obliged to forego the £4,000-a-year pension to which his brief tenure of office entitled him, and no subsequent attempts were made to impose an outsider in the post. In the circumstances, his son's opposition to the idea of State funding for the Catholic priesthood stood in embarrassing contrast to the attempt by the Campbell clan to secure their own private endowment at the expense of the Irish taxpayer. However, although William Campbell was on his way to becoming President of the Union and MP for the borough of Cambridge, he was unable to attend his own debate, and it seems that his motion was hijacked by the persuasive Hallam. Campbell had his revenge in November 1846, when he lectured the house for the whole evening on the theme that "our present knowledge of Ireland would not justify the Endowment ... of the Roman Catholic Religion in that Country". The debate was adjourned to a second evening, and the motion was passed by 48 to 10.40

                The abrupt change of opinion is something of a mystery, and it is a rare example of two closely consecutive Union votes registering very different attitudes to an issue. The wording of the 1846 motion is puzzling if it implied some link between the priesthood and the unfolding catastrophe of the Famine, for even the most zealous Protestant could hardly deny that the Catholic Church was proving itself to be close to the Irish people. Perhaps Hallam was indeed unusually persuasive. The vote against a State-endowed Catholic priesthood in Ireland was in any case repeated in November 1848, when William Harcourt and Fitzjames Stephen argued unavailingly that "it is alike our duty and interest to pay the Roman Catholic Clergy of Ireland". The debate was adjourned and was unusual in attracting a larger attendance on the second night: 71 had voted on the adjournment, but the motion was eventually thrown out by 72 votes to 24 – roughly the same balance of opinion as two years earlier.41

                There was little debate on the circumstances of the Famine. Hunger as such did not lend itself to adversarial discussion, but it is striking that there was so little controversy over relief policy. The sole motion which came before the Union related as much to domestic party politics. Early in 1847, the Protectionist leader, Lord George Bentinck, put forward a plan for state aid, in the form of subsidised loans for the construction of railways in Ireland. This was resisted by Russell's ministry, partly because Bentinck's proposal took the form of a vote of censure, but also because a major banking crisis had created an unfavourable financial situation. In any case, railway construction was unlikely to provide direct help to people who were starving, since it required able-bodied skilled labour, which was usually provided by gangs of navvies who moved from project to project. In its sole discussion of a scheme for Famine relief, the Union decided by 28 votes to 14 that the government had been right.42

                The winter of 1847-48 was one of the most terrible in Ireland's history. "Never in my life could I have imagined such distress could exist in a Christian country", reported an army officer from Leitrim. On the streets of Galway, children were "mere animated skeletons ... screaming for food".43 As a former President, Smith O'Brien, was planning a national uprising, well-nourished young gentlemen at Cambridge gathered in March 1848 to consider the Protestant Established Church in of Ireland. By 34 votes to 18, they dismissed the claim that its status was "unjust and impolitic; and requires immediate and extensive alterations". It is not surprising that the defenders of the Irish Church establishment should have included a future Anglican bishop. More surprising is that among those speaking against the motion was Hugh Childers, who twenty years later would be a member of the cabinet that carried disestablishment.44  Perhaps most remarkable of all was the fact that the Cambridge Union, which had strongly endorsed Orangeism in 1835, should in April 1850 have expressed support for the dismissal of Lord Roden from the magistracy after the Dolly's Brae riots in County Down. The division, of 10 votes to 8, does not suggest that Ireland was in the forefront of the Cambridge mind.45

Sixteen years elapsed between the debate on the Irish Church in March 1848 and the re-emergence of the issue in the different atmosphere of the eighteen-sixties. During that time, the Cambridge Union turned its attention to Ireland on just four occasions. Three of these debates, on Dolly's Brae, Emancipation and Maynooth, took place between 1850 and 1852 and, as already noted, registered minuscule divisions. There followed seven years in which Ireland was ignored altogether, the longest blank period in the record. The Union was moving away from its earlier practice of leavening politics with historical and literary subjects. Yet the attention of the young men of Cambridge turned to an Irish issue only when it was forced upon them. The fourth debate that punctuated these years of indifference took place in February 1859 in response to the Phoenix trials in County Cork, which marked the first stirrings of Fenianism. Not surprisingly, the Union voted by 34 votes to 5 to approve "the stringent measures adopted by Government with reference to the Seditious Societies lately discovered in Ireland".46 The motion was proposed by a recent ex-President, Cecil Raikes, "a clever and ingenious debater",47 whose political career culminated in minor office under Lord Salisbury. Another supporter of the motion was a young Trinity graduate, Sir George Young, who had inherited a baronetcy in childhood. Young was on his way to the Bar by way of the Presidency of the Union and a college fellowship. In 1880, he served as secretary to the Bessborough Commission and became an authority on Irish land questions. Two years later, when Lord Frederick Cavendish was appointed Chief Secretary, he asked Young to become his private secretary, with the prospect of succeeding T.H. Burke as permanent under-secretary. It was said that Young's telegram of acceptance was found in Cavendish's pocket on the day of his murder. In 1859, the Cambridge Union reflected a familiar British pattern: Irish problems were only noticed under threat of revolution, at which time suppression was put before reform. The inexorable road that led from the Phoenix trials to Phoenix Park suggested that repression was not enough.

The long silence on matters Irish was broken by nine debates in the six years between  1864 and 1870, although it was only for a brief period early in 1868 that divisions on  Irish issues attracted as many members of the Union as Church or party questions. In the eighteen-sixties, the University was growing in size, and the Union becoming more secular and political in its interests, so that it becomes much simpler to assess comparative levels of interest in specific issues. In March 1864, members  rejected by 50 votes to 24 the claim "that the English Church, as established in Ireland, is an injustice to the Irish people".48 On the face of it, the 68 percent support suggested that opinions had barely changed since the 77 percent endorsement of 1848. However, there are indications that a shift in attitudes to the Irish Church was taking place. When the issue recurred in March 1865, opinion was more closely divided. In a debate adjourned to a second week, two future Liberal ministers, Dilke and Lord Edmond Fitzmaurice, were among those who opposed the motion that "the Established Church in Ireland ought to be maintained as an endowed establishment". An unsuccessful amendment argued that "it is the duty of our Government to show strict impartiality towards all religious communities within its jurisdiction; and especially in Ireland". The hint of a wider attack on the Church of England was too much for the Union to swallow, but the main motion scraped home by just a single vote in a division of 109.49  Since the seconder of the motion was Henry Lowry-Corry, son of the Earl of Belmore and future Conservative MP for Tyrone, it is unlikely that the case for the Establishment went by default.50 The Irish Church, it would seem, was already losing support before the Fenian campaign of the mid-sixties.

                This steady movement of opinion was further illustrated in February 1867 when, in an almost identical house of 106, a motion that "the maintenance of the Irish Established Church on its present footing, is an injustice to the people of that country" actually passed by six votes.51 The slight shift since the debate of 1865 might be explained by the moderate terms of the motion, which implied reform rather than disestablishment, but opinion had moved a long way since 1864, when two thirds of the house had dismissed the notion that a privileged Protestant Church was an injustice to the Irish.

                It is just possible that personalities played a part in tipping the outcome of the 1867 debate. The first speaker in defence of the Irish Church was R.E. Verdon of St John's, an exception to the general pattern that the most brilliant Union minds argued for reform. Verdon had already taken an outstanding degree in mathematics, and was heading for a First in Moral Sciences. However, his communication skills may not have matched his intellect. Soon afterwards, he "became very odd", and took to announcing "that certain mental processes could not be described in words, and that he was writing a book on them".52 Perhaps, by 1867, this was the only kind of mindset that could detect any merit in the Irish Church. It is noticeable that in 1869, as the Establishment met its doom, even its Cambridge defenders declined to fight the battle head-on. A sudden subterranean change had taken place in educated opinion: after all, as late as the summer of 1865, Gladstone had privately commented that the question of disestablishment in Ireland was "remote and apparently out of all bearing on the practical politics of the day".53 Moreover, the debate of February 1867, the first indication that the Cambridge Union was prepared to ditch the Irish Church, came four weeks before the attempted Fenian rising, and so cannot be written off as a concession to crisis.

                It is unlikely that an explanation for the changing balance of opinion is to be found in the arrival of Nonconformists at Cambridge. The Anglican grip on the BA degree had been broken in 1856, but remained in place for most other degrees and for college fellowships until 1872. Thus Cambridge had not become entirely open to Nonconformists, although they probably formed one element in the rising admissions of the eighteen-sixties. So far as Union debates are concerned, the evidence points less to modification of the overall constituency as to changes in the opinions of individuals. If Nonconformists had been responsible for the decreasing popularity of the Irish Church, then we should expect to see an equally large dent appearing in support for Anglican supremacy. In fact, the shift in opinion regarding the Irish Church may be compared with two debates on the issue of disestablishment in England, in 1865 and 1869, in which the link between Church and State was upheld by majorities of 78 and 74 percent – majorities which remained characteristic of such debates until the eighteen-eighties. In December 1865, a motion condemning the link between Church and State as "wrong in point of morality and public policy" stung Anglican partisans into imposing an intemperate amendment, professing "horror and aversion" at the thought of robbing the established Church "of one jot or tittle of its property, privileges, or prerogatives". In 1869, a more neutrally worded motion for the disestablishment of the Church of England was defeated by 101 votes to 35.54 A handful of speakers defended the privileges of both churches, but it seems that in this case, the Union's silent majority drew two distinctions between England and Ireland. Attendance figures in Table Two suggest that they found the latter cause less interesting, while division records show that they also found it less compelling.

                Doubts about the validity of Church Establishment in Ireland were accompanied by a measure of ambivalence about the causes of the country's problems. In October 1865, the Union rejected by 74 votes to 26 a motion which stated that "while this House condemns the recent Fenian Conspiracy, it nevertheless considers that the disaffection in Ireland has been produced by English mis-government". Lord Edmond Fitzmaurice, son of one of the largest Kerry landowners, was among those denouncing the proposition. It might have been expected that when the Fenians actually struck, in March 1867, opinion would have hardened. In fact, the reverse was the case, despite the bold claim of the motion that "the present Irish Rebellion, though ill-considered, is by no means dishonourable to the Irish people". Two attempts were made to amend the motion. One stated that "every loyal subject of this Realm must consider any attempt to subvert the existing Government of this Kingdom as dishonourable; and deserving the utmost rigour of the Law". The other condemned the insurrection as "utterly mistaken in its objects" but described it as "the result of past misgovernment, and of substantial grievances which ought to be redressed". This more moderate amendment was put forward by N.E. Hartog, who had arrived in Cambridge after a career of unprecedented brilliance at London University. Hartog was on his way to become the first Jew to head the Mathematics Tripos, yet another example of the relationship between intellect and reform causes in Ireland that was one of the hallmarks of the nineteenth-century Cambridge Union. Remarkably, members rejected the conventional demand for law-and-order and carried Hartog's amendment instead. Then, by 36 votes to 30, members perversely rejected the motion that they had just amended. Perhaps the procedural squabble accounts for the relatively small number of members who stayed to vote. The previous month, more than twice as many had expressed a view on the question of repression in Jamaica.55

None the less, in just eighteen months, the proportion of a Cambridge Union audience prepared to blame English misgovernment for Irish insurrection had risen from a quarter to almost one half.

While the spirit of conciliation was gaining ground, the process was by no means one-way. The execution of the "Manchester Martyrs" was resoundingly approved by 110 votes to 18 in February 1868. The strength of feeling was remarkable, since the debate came ten weeks after the hangings, when passions might have cooled. Even more remarkable, just three weeks later the Union rejected a general motion in favour of the abolition of capital punishment by a much smaller margin of two to one (78 votes to 39). This is one of the episodes that challenge the idea of rational, integrated opinion among Cambridge students: if precisely the same people attended both debates, we should be forced to conclude that more than half of those who opposed the death penalty on principle managed to support the hanging of Allen, Larkin and O'Brien.56 The most that can be said by way of explanation is that the mid-Victorians were mercifully less accustomed to political murder than their twentieth-century descendants, and that there was genuine horror at what had happened in Manchester. This was probably mixed with a less elevated sentiment, also detectable in the more recent Ulster Troubles, that was prepared to romanticise Irish violence so long as it was confined to Irish soil, but which drew the line at its intrusion upon the streets of English cities.

                However, the mood of revenge was short-lived. Six weeks later, a two-night debate beginning on St Patrick's Day 1868, showed that the view that discontent stemmed from injustice, which had attracted almost one half of a moderately attended debate a year earlier, was now endorsed by two-thirds of a very large house in one of the best-attended debates of the decade. By 115 votes to 57, the Union agreed that "the state of Ireland justifies the use of extra-ordinary conciliatory measures". In addition to the shift in opinion and the clearly implied link between revolt and reform, the debate has two other interesting features. One was an unsuccessful amendment arguing that "the state of Ireland shows that the only permanent measure of conciliation would be her establishment as an independent country".57 It seems unlikely that the amendment was put forward as a wrecking tactic, since its proposer had the previous year moved the motion denying that the Fenian uprising was dishonourable to the Irish people. It may also have been easier to vote for "extra-ordinary measures of conciliation" (which implied generosity) rather than for motions which blamed previous misgovernment (which implied guilt).

                Unfortunately, it proved easier to support conciliatory measures in principle than to define them in practice. In May 1869, a well-attended third-term debate went into a second night to end with a vote of 56 to 19 that "the settlement of the Land Question in Ireland is of far greater importance than any measure in connexion with the Church". In the absence of any report of the debate, it is difficult to determine whether supporters of the motion genuinely sought to shift the focus of policy towards the land question, or simply wished to divert attention from the Church. The proposer, Arthur Coote, had been reared in England and schooled at Eton, but he was in line to succeed as premier baronet of Ireland, and inherit an estate in Queen's County (Laois). While waiting for his inheritance, he worked as secretary to the British and Foreign Bible Society. It seems that the Union found his views on this world more persuasive than his beliefs about the next: the previous month, he had failed to secure majority support for the claim that "the increase in convents in this Country requires some immediate check".58

                The debate of May 1869 was unusual in the number of speakers who seem to have had connections with Ireland. J.D. Fitzgerald of Christ's, who had defended the Manchester martyrs, now tried the equally unpromising ploy of amending the motion into an anodyne endorsement of Gladstone's Irish policy. Also critical of the motion was Arthur O'Neill, who was about to leave Cambridge without a degree and head for the Irish Bar. There was even a visiting undergraduate from Trinity College Dublin, who spoke for the motion.59 The debate was also remarkable in constituting the sole attempt at a defence of the Irish Church in the year of its disestablishment. The three-quarters majority in favour of Coote's motion was probably the result of a junction between social radicals and diehard defenders of ecclesiastical privilege It is noteworthy that the latter were unwilling to argue their case on its own terms.

                The coalition did not translate into support for specific action. In February 1870, just one week before Gladstone unveiled his Irish Land Bill, a Union vote of 52 to 16 strongly condemned any measure "which in the least degree violated the rights of existing proprietors". An unsuccessful amendment called for "a Royal Commission empowered to deal with large Irish estate proprietors for the purchase of land". 60 How the land question could be settled without either affecting the rights of landlords or attempting to buy them out was left unexplained: fortunately, undergraduate debaters were not expected to be consistent. There was nothing amazing about the Cambridge Union supporting private ownership of land. What is surprising is that so few bothered to vote.

In November 1873, a debating team from Oxford introduced the Cambridge Union to a new issue, one which it would continue to discuss for forty years. The Oxford visitors were led by an Irishman, the 24 year-old J.G.S. MacNeill from that most fashionable of all colleges, Christ Church. On the verge of a distinguished career at the Bar, Swift MacNeill urged the Cambridge Union to resolve that "'Home Rule' is absolutely necessary for the welfare of Ireland". MacNeill remembered an "animated" debate with "brilliant contributions" from two rising Cambridge lawyers, C.S. Kenny and Perceval Laurence. Indeed, proceedings had to be adjourned to a second night, by which time MacNeill had departed. In due course, "the news came to me in Ireland, to my great gratification and somewhat I must confess to my surprise, that the Home Rule motion had been carried". MacNeill was right to be surprised. In reality, nine of the ten speakers from Cambridge had opposed the motion. The tenth, Kenny, had moved an amendment to replace the phrase "Home Rule" with "some measure for securing local legislation on local affairs". It was this inoffensive proposition that was carried, in a very small house, by 36 votes to 17.

It is tempting to see this episode as a repetition of the tentative response to the question of State payment of the Irish priesthood thirty years earlier: a proposal which seemed meritorious as a relatively abstract issue soon became anathema as practical politics. However, even this would probably be reading too much into a stray vote that may have been simply a forced courtesy to the odd notions of the Oxford visitors. The propounder of the compromise certainly exaggerated its significance. In 1885, Kenny began a brief career as a Liberal MP. Two years later, MacNeill followed him into the Commons as MP for South Donegal. By 1887, the outlook for the Liberal-Parnellite alliance was bleak, and any straw of encouragement was eagerly embraced. The two men reminisced about the half-remembered debate in their student days, and Kenny assured MacNeill "that so far as he was aware this was the first Home Rule motion ever carried at any meeting at which the vast majority of those present were not Irish but British".61 Oddly enough, the misunderstanding (if not outright distortion) became self-fulfilling, since MacNeill decided to celebrate the fortieth anniversary in 1913 by re- enacting the debate – at a time when Cambridge opinion had eventually if only marginally swung into the Home Rule column. One can only hope that Gladstonian strategy after 1886 was not founded upon Kenny's amnesiac enthusiasm.

                Any notion that MacNeill had planted a new cult of Irish devolution on the banks of the Cam is further undermined by the fact that more than three years elapsed before Home Rule was discussed again. Indeed, no other Irish issues appeared on the Union's order paper. Ireland, it seems, had once again dropped below the English horizon, and it took Parnell's campaign of obstruction to drag it back into view. When it returned to the agenda, it asserted its priority. In six years from February 1877, no fewer than seven debates took place, in which Home Rule was massively and consistently rejected. True, the overwhelming majorities of 85 and 90 percent registered in 1877 fell back to the 72 to 75 percent band between 1880 and 1882, the years when debates on Irish issues were among the best attended topics. In October 1882, when there was heady talk of granting Ireland some measure of local autonomy, opposition even dipped below 68 percent. However, by May 1883, the proportion opposed to Home Rule had bounced back above eighty percent. Moreover, at that point, the series came to a halt, underlining the extent to which the Home Rule crisis of 1886 was something that was forced upon the British political agenda from without.

Comparison with the now regular party political debates also suggests that hostility was not confined to Conservatives. Indeed, Gladstone's second ministry seems to have enjoyed something close to a "honeymoon period" in the early eighteen-eighties, at a time when opposition to Home Rule remained strong. Assuming some relationship between those voting on Home Rule and those taking part in debates on the Conservative party, it would seem that at least one-third of Cambridge Liberals were opposed to Irish devolution in the first half of the eighteen-eighties. Table Three demonstrates that in the decade before the first Home Rule Bill, opposition considerably exceeded support for the Conservative Party.

No attempt to massage the wording of a motion seems to have made much difference to the vehemence of opposition. In February 1877, the Union was invited to agree that "a system of government, which, reserving for the Imperial Parliament the consideration of affairs of Imperial importance, should give local self-government to the Irish nation, would be beneficial both to Ireland and the Empire". The motion, debated on the very evening that Parnell and Biggar launched their campaign of systematic obstruction in the House of Commons, was defeated by 90 votes to 16 – more sweeping even than the rejection the previous week of the disendowment and disestablishment of the Church of England.62 There was a certain John Bull-ish pomposity about the claim in December 1877 that Home Rule would be "detrimental to the interests" of Ireland "and of the English Empire", a phrase that perhaps suggests the influence of J.R. Seeley in the Chair of Modern History. Absurd or not, the motion passed by 69 votes to 8.63 In February 1880, the Union refused – by 125 votes to 42 – to accept that Home Rule "would not be incompatible with the integrity of the United Kingdom". Two weeks earlier the Union had shown more sympathy for the Afghans.64

                Attractive packaging made no difference. A motion in March 1881, arguing that "the present condition of Ireland" would justify "granting self-government to that country, similar to that enjoyed by the Canadians" was rejected almost as decisively, by 241 votes to 94.65 In February 1882, proponents tried again, arguing that "the provisions of the Land Act, are not likely to prove the means of restoring prosperity to Ireland" and proposing instead "a scheme of compensation for Irish landowners, and the establishment of self-government for the Irish people in all but Imperial affairs". The Union did not like the 1881 Land Act, but refused by 99 votes to 36 to accept its condemnation as a Trojan horse for Home Rule.66 In October 1882, it dismissed by 98 votes to 47 the notion that "no permanent satisfactory settlement of Ireland can be hoped for without the re-establishment of an Irish Parliament".67 In May 1883, there was even less sympathy for the bald claim that "Ireland ought to be governed by the Irish", which was rejected by 94 votes to 19.68 The only faint hint of flexibility came in March 1884, when a relatively small house voted by 37 to 27 to "welcome the formation of a close federal union between Great Britain, Ireland and the English Colonies".69 Although proposed by the same member who had moved the Home Rule motion of May 1883, its modest acceptability owed more to the popularity of Imperial Federation than to any swing of opinion towards Irish Home Rule.

                As C.S. Kenny had noted of the 1873 debate, these were discussions dominated by young Englishmen. A few surnames suggest an echo of Ireland, but it cannot always be proved that their owners saw themselves as Irishmen. Since these were the years in which the Catholic Church placed the greatest obstacles to study at Cambridge, Irish voices were likely to be Protestant – and it was already evident that the Parnells and the MacNeills were atypical in their nationalism. One exception was J.H. Monahan, the son of a Dublin lawyer who had come to Cambridge by way of an English Catholic School, the Oratory at Birmingham. He spoke twice on the Home Rule side, but left the University after his freshman year. Others were evidently Irish Protestants, even if they bore surnames of Gaelic origin. Robert Donovan of Trinity, who opposed Home Rule, had come to Cambridge from Ferns in County Wexford by way of an English public school, and went on to a career at the Irish Bar. In two other cases, the links with Ireland were tenuous. The example of Henry Lynch, who moved the composite motion of February 1882, was cited in Chapter Five. His father was from Ireland, his uncle retained the family estate in Mayo, but young Lynch had been reared in London and sent to school at Eton. Another opponent of Home Rule was A.H. Leahy of Pembroke. Leahy's father, born in Killarney, was part of the Irish professional diaspora that sustained the British empire. An officer in the Royal Engineers, he had a distinguished record in the Crimean War and died a victim of the appalling conditions of the garrison at Gibraltar. The son came to Cambridge from Trinity College Dublin but, unlike Donovan, he did not return. This, however, may not have affected his self-identification, since he combined the Chair of Mathematics at the University of Sheffield with authorship of a book on Heroic Romances of Ireland. Irish identity was a complex quantity which did not always generate predictable responses to political issues.

It is worth noting that one young Englishman did not pronounce upon Home Rule. Austen Chamberlain threw himself into Union debates soon after his arrival in Cambridge in October 1882. Twice he denounced the cabinet in which his father was a member for imposing Coercion upon Ireland.  In the Political Society, founded by Oscar Browning in emulation of the Apostles, Austen Chamberlain supported the proposition that "an Irish Parliament would be a rebel Parliament". The Political Society was limited to twelve members, each of whom was obliged to record an opinion on the subjects discussed. Young Chamberlain's silence on Home Rule in the more public forum of the Union tends to compound the enigma of "Joe's" attitude to Irish devolution.70

                It might be easier to accept the implacability of opposition to Home Rule had Cambridge opinion shown any accompanying willingness to solve Irish problems within the existing framework of the United Kingdom. A measure of the extent to which the University itself was becoming more serious-minded could be found in the increasing numbers of undergraduates in residence during the summer, and from 1880 Long Vacation debates became a regular part of the Union calendar. In August of that year, an attempt was made to deplore as "impolitic and unjust" the rejection by the House of Lords of the Compensation for Disturbance Bill, the first attempt by the incoming Liberal ministry to appease agrarian discontent in Ireland. The motion was rejected by 39 votes to 27.71 However, an element of ambivalence was suggested in November of that year when the Union voted by 58 votes to 53 "that the present state of Ireland is due to the misguided policy of English Statesmen in the past".72 The motion was so broad as to be almost without value, and admission of past misgovernment did not translate into practical support for conciliation. In February 1881, a motion condemning Coercion and urging that "such a measure ought to be preceded by Remedial Legislation" was rejected by a massive margin of 291 votes to 27.73 In contrast to the more open response to the Fenian challenge a dozen years earlier, agrarian outrage brought Irish problems to English attention, but ruled out their solution. In May 1881, the Union disapproved of the Land Bill "both with regard to its principle and probable effect" by 86 votes to 72, the historian J.R. Tanner forming part of a surprisingly large minority.74 However, a Long Vacation debate in August refused by 43 to 26 to regard Lords interference in the legislation as an argument for abolition of the upper house.75 In October, the first debate of the new academic year returned to the question, with a motion that the Land Bill was "utterly inadequate to settle Irish grievances" and favouring "the establishment of peasant proprietorship in Ireland, with a view to the permanent pacification of that Country".76 Land purchase had been mentioned in the unsuccessful amendment proposed during the 1870 debate. It remained a radical proposition in 1881, although one which would become orthodox Conservative policy within a decade. The motion was rejected by 194 votes to 80.77 In February 1882, the Union once again refused to condemn the House of Lords, this time by 151 votes to 101. Their Lordships' alleged offence lay in planning to establish a committee to investigate the operation of the Land Act, a move which the motion described as "injurious to the interests of Ireland, and deserving of the strongest censure".78

                All concessions to the Irish seemed equally objectionable. Thus when in February 1882, the Union was invited to support a land purchase scheme coupled with Home Rule, the vote of 73 percent against (99 votes to 36) was only slightly higher than the 71 percent rejecting land purchase alone four months earlier.79 However, the debates of May 1881 and February 1882 specifically on Gladstone's land legislation saw the opposition to reform falling to 54 and 60 percent.80 Support for Coercion ran at roughly the same levels as opposition to Home Rule. The Union rejected a motion expressing "indignation" at "the administration of the Crimes Act in Ireland" by 113 votes to 48 in January 1883, and the proportions remained the same when in May 1885, the Union supported the renewal of the Crimes Act by 43 votes to 20 – 32 percent opposing on both occasions.81  A debate in February 1884 on a motion of "no confidence in the Irish administration of Her Majesty's Government" was complicated by the party issue involved. The motion was passed by 124 votes to 83. The 60 percent level of support was higher than the 51 percent who had voted "no confidence" in the government as a whole in October 1883, but almost identical to the vote of 135 to 90 that rejected Austen Chamberlain's claim that "the Tory Party does not in any way possess the confidence of the Country" in March 1884.82

                On the other hand, two debates on the eve of the Home Rule crisis suggest an intriguing element of ambivalence. By 1885, the Union had lost interest in the Irish land question, as shown by the small numbers voting on Coercion in May 1885. However,  it decided by 70 votes to 54 that "the condition of the Scotch Crofters calls for instant and radical reform of the rights possessed by landed proprietors"83 – an interesting contrast to its "no concessions" approach in 1880-82. While the Union did not specifically debate the Third Reform Act, it did reject two motions condemning the House of Lords for interfering in its passage. It was thus the more remarkable that a motion in June 1884 disapproving of "the extension of the Franchise Bill to Ireland" should have been rejected by 94 votes to 79.84 Politically, at least, the Cambridge Union was prepared to admit the Irish masses to the benefits of full citizenship within the United Kingdom. Presumably they did not foresee that the newly enfranchised voters would enable Parnell to sweep Ireland at the general election of 1885 and force the hated concept of Home Rule back on the agenda.








Abbreviations are listed at the close of the Preface.


1. 18/3/16. Records were admitted to be defective as early as 1818 (Statement, p. xii) because a page had been accidentally ripped from the now-lost first Minute Book. However, the University was closed for much of the summer of 1815 on health grounds, and in later years debates rarely began before November. Thus the debate on Ireland in February 1816 was probably the first.

2. Gash, Mr Secretary Peel, p. 175.

3. 25/11/16.

4. 6/12/25.

5. 9/12/28; 19-26/3/33.

6. 14/2/37.

7. 15/3/30.

8. 4/12/21.

9. 11/2/23; 23/11/24; 1/5/27.

10. "The so-called Catholic Emancipation" as Charles Merivale remembered it, Merivale, p. 65. Debates and votes were as follows: 7/5/22 (36-26); 6/4/24 (63-41); 26/4-3/5/25 (54-47); 14/2/26 (52-40); 13-20/2/27 (61-50); 6/11/27 (68-44); 4/3/28 (85-55); 3-10/3/29 (143-114).

11. 26/5/29; 8/2/31; 4/12/31. Cf. Chapter Four, note 47 for the 1829 debate. The Jesuits were again condemned (by 30 votes to 5) on 3/12/44.

12. Milnes, i, p. 50, wrongly printed as "Campbell".

13. Houghton MSS 35/88, family letter of 7 Nov. 1827.

14. Allen, Cambridge Apostles, pp. 43-4, from The Athenaeum, 14 June 1829. The author was given as "E.B. of Christ's". But no member of Christ's spoke on the Catholic issue. For Norreys, see Hollis, Eton, p. 217.

15. Palmerston-Sulivan Letters, p. 177.

16. Gash, Mr Secretary Peel, pp. 556-63; Houghton MSS, 35/100, family letter of 10 March 1829; MB5, fos 64, 69. The result as announced on the night was 157 votes to 121.

17. Globe, 11, 12 March 1829; Houghton MSS 35/100; Thackeray, p. 38.

18. Globe, 13 March 1829. The Secretary, P.H. Crutchley of Magdalene, tried without success to make it "illegal for any member to take upon himself to publish the proceedings of the Society" although officers would retain "the power of contradicting any statements which might appear, whenever they might think it necessary to do so". MB5, fo. 71, 21 March 1829.

19. Parliamentary Debates, 20, 24 March 1829, cols. 1413-17; Thackeray, pp.  47-50. George Law was the brother of the High Tory politician, Lord Ellenborough.

20. 5/5/29; 22/4/28. Thackeray (p. 70) missed the debate on the Irish forty-shilling freeholders because he mistook the date. Thus poor organisation may partly explain the low turn-out.

21. 8/12/35; 7/4/40; Corrie, p. 73.

22. Whewell, pp. 213, 214-15. Julius Hare had spoken in the Union in 1816, opposing Latin American independence.

23. 16/11/41.                                      

24. 8/11/42; 16/11/52.

25. 5-12/11/33; 1/5/27; 23/11/24.

26. 19-26/3/33; 5-12/11/33; 18/3-25/4/35.

27. 17/11/35.                                      

28. 8/11/36.

29. 28/2/37; Whewell, p. 173.

30. 25/4-2, 5/5/37.                              

31. 12/2/39.

32. Bristed, p. 245.

33. 9/2/36; 6-13/12/36; 5/3/39; 22/4/28; 11/3/34.

34. 3/4/38; 19/2/38. Charles Greville, ed. Henry Reeve, A Journal of the Reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1852 (3 vols, 1885), i, pp. 67-8.

35. 6-13/12/36; 17/11/40; 3/12/39. Cf George Corrie, then a tutor at St Catharine's, in 1837: "who can suppose that Ireland will not be thrown into the hands of the Papists, as to secure a permanent majority in the House of Commons efficient only for mischief?" (Corrie, p. 73).

36. N. Gash, The Life of Sir Robert Peel after 1830 (1972), pp. 404-9.

37. 7-14/11/43.

38. 22-23/4/45; DNB, "Hallam, Henry".          

39. 1/11/51.

40. 13/5/45; 3-10/11/46. Reeve, ed., Greville Journal 1837-1852, ii, p. 41. The son was seen as the mouthpiece for the father, iii, p. 89.

41. 21-28/11/48.                                 

42. 16/3/47.

43. C. Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849 (1962), p. 336. Large sums were collected in Cambridge churches in January 1847, the Nonconformists outstripping the Anglicans. Fellows of Trinity were among those who contributed generously to the appeal for Ireland: Whewell gave £50. Cambridge also marked the national day of humiliation for the Famine in March 1847, although at least one local cleric used the occasion to preach against the Maynooth grant. Rom2, pp. 191, 203. Less pleasant is the "conundrum" later recorded by Romilly: Q: "What is the cause of the potato disease?" A: "The rot-tatory motion of the earth." The sole plea in mitigation is that Romilly, who delighted in puns, did not encounter this one until 1856. Rom3, p. 235.

44. 28/3/48. It was almost certainly this debate which is referred to in Sketches of Cantabs, p.p. 37-8, in which a "Unionic" orator is portrayed asking a friend for a crash course in Irish history since "of course it won't do for me to be deficient in the minutest particular".

45. 16/4/50.                                                    

46. 8/2/59.

47. DNB, "Raikes, Henry Cecil".                     

48. 8/3/64.

49. 14-21/3/65. Lowry-Corry was MP for Tyrone from 1873 to 1880, surviving a  [Protestant] tenants' revolt when he contested the county in 1874. J. Bardon, A History of Ulster (1994 ed.), pp. 357-8.

50. 5/2/67. The motion was carried by 56 votes to 50.

51. J.A. Venn, Alumni Cantabrigienses, part ii, ii, p. 284.

52. Quoted  Shannon, Gladstone, i, p. 538.

53. 4/12/65; 30/11/69 and Table 2.                 

54. 31/10/65; 19/3/67.

55. 156 members voted on the Jamaica issue on 28/1/67.

56. 4/2/68; 25/2/68.

57. 17-18/3/68.

58. 18-19/5/69. The motion against the convents was defeated by 42 votes to 16 on 27/4/69.

59. He was A.P. Graves, Scholar of the University of Dublin 1868 and BA 1872.

60. 8/2/70.

61. 4-11/11/73. J.G. Swift MacNeill, What I Have Seen and Heard (1925), p. 99, and see Table 3.

62. 13/2/77. The Church of England had been upheld by 246 votes to 70, a 78 percent majority, on 6/2/77.

63. 4/12/77.

64. 17/2/80. British policy towards Afghanistan was condemned on 3/1/80 by 103 votes to 72.

65. 1/3/81.                                                      

66. 7/2/81.

67. 3/10/82.

68. 1/5/83.

69. 18/3/84.

70. Austen Chamberlain spoke against Coercion on 30/1/83 and 26/5/85. For the Political Society, I. Anstruther, Oscar Browning: A Biography (1983), pp. 85-87 and A. Chamberlain, Politics from Inside: An Epistolatory Chronicle 1906-1914 (1936  ), p. 116. Chamberlain was reminded of the episode on being shown a record of the meeting when revisiting Cambridge in 1908. Lowes Dickinson, a fellow member of the Political Society, recalled Austen Chamberlain as "friendly and honourable" but "perhaps not the most intelligent of men". E.M Forster, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson (1934). P. 31. For his father's attitude to Irish devolution before 1886, C.H.D. Howard, "Joseph Chamberlain, Parnell and the Irish 'central board' scheme, 1884-5", Irish Historical Studies, 8, 1953, pp. 324-61.

71. 24/8/80. Long Vacation meetings were rarely well attended. This, and the 1881 debate, produced an unusually good turn-out.

72. 2/11/80.                                                    

73. 8/2/81.

74. 3/5/81.

75. 23/8/81.

76. 25/10/81.

77. 25/10/81.

78. 28/2/82.

79. 7/2/82.

80. 3/5/81; 28/2/82.

81. 30/1/83; 26/5/85.

82. 19/2/84; 16/10/84; 11/3/84 and see Table 3.

83. 3/2/85. Only 63 members voted on Irish Coercion in May 1885 but "the Union always slacks off a good deal in the summer term", Oxf. Mag., 11 May 1893, pp. 350-1.

84. 21/10/84; 25/11/84; 3/6/84.


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