Chapter 9

'Gladstonian Home Rule, 1886-1898' reviews the decade in which Irish Home Rule first became the touchstone of the divide between Liberals and Conservatives and then appeared to subside as a major question. The impact of the first visiting speakers is discussed.

9:      GLADSTONIAN HOME RULE 1886-1898



Gladstone's conversion to Home Rule meant that the idea of a parliament on College Green was no longer a mere debating society mirage. Between January 1886 and October 1887, Ireland was undoubtedly the dominant political question at the Cambridge Union, with seven debates in less than two years, two of them adjourned to a second night. In five of the six terms in which it was discussed, Home Rule drew the largest attendance. The exception was the January term of 1886, when it was probably the fact that the debate was adjourned to a second night that pushed it into second place. The Union chose to discuss Home Rule before Gladstone's plan had been fully revealed, and members presumably decided that in doing so, they had closed the issue for the term. None the less, it is bizarre to find that young Cambridge was arguing over the existence of ghosts while the United Kingdom trembled in the balance. Overall, however, six of the seven best-attended debates in 1886-87 were on Home Rule, while the seventh endorsed Coercion. The sudden centrality of Ireland was typical of Britain as a whole: in London, Leslie Stephen in May 1886 commented that he had "never found any subject so all-pervading".1

                        Although there is some evidence of boredom, Home Rule continued to draw large attendances until the time of the Second Home Rule bill in 1893, but there was an increasing sense that it had become a debating society issue rather than a real threat to the unity of the United Kingdom. Indeed, the Gladstonian phase of the question whimpered to a conclusion by 1898. After 1886, as before, majorities against any form of devolution in Ireland were remarkably consistent.

Given the disastrous split in the Liberal party at national level, it is perhaps surprising to find that once Home Rule became a practical issue in 1886, it gained slightly in acceptability. Between 1877 and 1883, opposition to Home Rule had not only been overwhelming – peaking on one occasion at almost ninety percent – but had even exceeded the general level of support for the Conservative party. During the period of the first Home Rule crisis itself, the level of opposition actually fell, varying between 56 and 69 percent. At national level, Cambridge graduates were prominent Liberal Unionists, such as Hartington, Leonard Courtney and Austen Chamberlain, the last of them a former Vice-President of the Union who had left Cambridge as recently as 1885. Yet no indication can be found in the division records of the Union of the existence of a substantial body of Liberal Unionist opinion in the undergraduate population. Among dons, Henry Sisgwick was a fervent Liberal Unionist. An attempt  was made to start a "Women's Liberal Unionist League" in 1889. Although disapproving on gender grounds, the Granta accepted it as "a dull thing enough in all conscience".2 There is no evidence of young men in Cambridge yearning for Mr Gladstone to abandon his flirtation with Ireland and return to office at the head of a reunited Liberal party. Nor did the Union ever debate Joseph Chamberlain's proposal – if his various hints may be so termed – to restructure the United Kingdom as a federation. By contrast, if Wilfrid Blunt is to be believed, the Cambridge undergraduate population even included a handful of Conservative Home Rulers.

                From the late eighteen-eighties, reports in the Cambridge Review and the Granta provide some evidence of the flavour and sometimes even of the content of debates. The completion of an extension to the Union building in 1886, itself a response to the growing student population, attracted more members, most of them silent participants who attended debates as consumers rather than as participants. Home Rule spawned a new practice, of inviting politicians to address the Union, and occasionally even to dent entrenched prejudices. Indeed, by the early twentieth century, debates would demonstrate a slow but steady shift in opinion towards more liberal attitudes on Irish issues. However, down to 1898, majority opinion in the Cambridge Union continued to be not only hostile to Home Rule but unsympathetic towards Ireland in general and nationalist concerns in particular. By the middle of the eighteen-nineties, Ireland had once again ceased to be a threat. Indeed, during a final, unpleasant phase in 1897-98 before the Union mercifully lost interest altogether, Ireland became a joke.

The Cambridge Union turned its attention to Ireland on 26 January 1886, the evening on which Lord Salisbury's minority administration faced defeat at Westminster. The motion for debate strongly condemned "any scheme of Home Rule which would lead to the establishment of an Irish Parliament in Dublin" although a sub-clause approved "concessions to Ireland in the way of local self-government". The proposer insisted that Home Rule was not a step towards Repeal. "Of course the precise manner in which local self-government would be submitted would depend upon the events of the next few days." Two of the five speakers were Protestant Irishmen, one on each side. Arthur Cane, Dublin-born, resident of Westmeath and a member of the Apostles, attacked Home Rule, which was defended by C.V. Barrington, from Cashel in Tipperary. Shortly after ten o'clock, the debate was adjourned for one week, even though there was still plenty of time to accommodate other speakers. Three hours later, Salisbury's government was defeated on an amendment to the address proposed by Jesse Collings, the advocate of "three acres and a cow". It suited politicians at Westminster to avoid immediate confrontation over Ireland. Like the student debaters at Cambridge, they wanted to know what Gladstone intended to propose.

                When the debate resumed on 2 February, the picture remained opaque but, none the less, a week had proved to be a long time in politics. Gladstone was now in the process of forming a ministry, and the lack of enthusiasm for Home Rule among some of his leading party associates was increasingly obvious. Twelve years earlier, in November 1873, C.S. Kenny had saved a Home Rule motion by substituting an anodyne reference to local self-government for the dangerous phrase itself. This time, the process was reversed. The harmless sub-clause was deleted by 70 votes to 57 and the main motion, now unambiguous in its rejection of constitutional change, endorsed by 65 votes to 43. It is unlikely that there was any significance in the fact that 55 percent opposed any form of local self-government as against 60 percent who disapproved of Home Rule: it was more likely that those who had failed to sustain the more moderate part of the motion had not bothered to stay to be defeated on the main issue. The Union evidently agreed with the speaker who had insisted  that "they could not separate the two questions of local self-government and home rule".3 None the less, opposition to Home Rule was less pronounced than it had been in 1882, when 68 percent had rejected the idea of an Irish parliament, and much reduced from the level of 1877, when 85 percent had voted against any form of local self-government.

                Opposition had hardened slightly by May 1886, when the Union pronounced its "severest condemnation" of Home Rule, by 96 votes to 49, 66 percent voting against. Gladstone had unveiled his scheme for Ireland almost a month earlier, and it is not altogether surprising that its various novelties and inconsistencies had failed to inspire. More to the point, on the day of the Union debate, 4 May, English newspapers published the prime minister's fiery manifesto to his Midlothian constituents. In this, he had denounced the opponents of Home Rule as a "formidable enemy", consisting of "class and the dependants of class", who at every great political crisis in the previous sixty years had "fought uniformily on the wrong side, and have uniformily been defeated ... by the upright sense of the nation".4 In the circumstances, a lukewarm response was to be expected from the young men of Cambridge University. The Union, of course, had not fought "on the wrong side" in the two great issues of Catholic Emancipation and the Irish Church. Fundamentally, they simply did not share Gladstone's interpretation of the nature of the Home Rule crisis. Recent historical writing has stressed the integral relationship between Home Rule and land purchase, as Gladstone himself had made clear in April 1886, but none of the seven debates of 1886-87 appeared to link the two issues. Indeed, in January 1887, a life member of the Union, B.R. Balfour, asserted that "the land question had really no connection with Home Rule".5 Balfour owned an estate near Drogheda but apparently practised as a barrister in London. Eleven years later he turned up in the Union again, offering his own unnecessary touch of immoderation in the suggestion that male undergraduates should refuse to graduate if degrees were conceded to women.

                One month later, on 7 June, the Home Rule bill was rejected in the House of Commons by 341 votes to 311, and the United Kingdom embarked on its second general election within eight months. Since the Commons vote cut across party lines, and the election was in large measure a referendum on Home Rule, it is possible to make some comparison between Cambridge Union opinion and the attitudes of politicians and voters. At first sight, anti-Home Rule margins in the Union were larger than the 52 percent opposition registered in the lobbies of the House of Commons on 7 June 1886. However, for comparative purposes, we should subtract the Parnellites, who represented an element almost totally absent from Cambridge, if not Irish MPs of all shades. Among members of parliament representing constituencies in Great Britain, the proportion against the bill was about 58 percent. If we further bear in mind that Scotland was heavily Gladstonian, and recall that Scots were not especially numerous in Cambridge, then the division of opinion in the Cambridge Union looks remarkably close to that among MPs from England.

                However, since MPs were the product of a less-than-perfect electoral system, it is not safe to conclude that they represented a cross-section of public opinion either. Analysis of the popular vote in nineteenth-century general elections is complicated by the vagaries of two-member constituencies, in which voters sometimes crossed party lines or used only one of their votes for tactical reasons. Voting statistics cited by John Morley, who was a Liberal campaign manager, point to a popular vote in Great Britain of about 52 percent against Home Rule. A modern calculation gives 53.9 percent in Great Britain, rising to 54.9 percent in England alone.6 However, the 1886 election saw an unusually large number of unopposed returns: in England, 21 of the Liberal seats contested in 1885 produced unopposed returns in 1886, while in 101 constituencies, Conservative or Liberal Unionist candidates were returned without opposition. How these constituencies might have polled is a matter for guesswork. Liberals secured a clear run mainly in industrial areas in Yorkshire and the north-east, where it may be assumed that there were local Irish communities who had heeded Parnell's call to vote Conservative in 1885 but would have switched sides in 1886. Across wide areas of suburban and rural southern England, Liberal organisers evidently assumed that their support had collapsed: about one-third of all English Conservative and Liberal Unionist MPs were returned unopposed. Thus the fact that there were five times as many uncontested Conservative as Liberal seats in England strongly suggests that the "real" level of voter resistance to Home Rule was above sixty percent, an estimate that makes the division of opinion in the Cambridge Union look relatively typical. Yet even that may not give the full picture. The mass electorate as extended by the Reform Act of 1884 contained two notable elements favourable to the Liberals. One was the agricultural labour force, and the other consisted of Irish migrant communities in the English towns and cities. Neither element was well represented among Cambridge undergraduates, and both were almost certainly invisible among members of the Union. Therefore, remarkable though it may seem, members of the Cambridge Union may have been more favourable towards Home Rule than the generality of the social group from which they came.

                It was unusual for the Cambridge Union to discuss the same issue twice in a single term, and it was perennially difficult to arouse enthusiasm for debates of any kind in May and June. Confirmation that the Home Rule crisis of 1886 was an abnormal episode may be found in the fact that the Irish debate that began on 8 June attracted a massive attendance at a time when Cambridge was normally throwing itself into party mode. Interest was high because the Home Rule bill had been thrown out by the House of Commons the previous day. The debate was ground-breaking in another respect. For the first time, the Union became the platform for a public figure unconnected with Cambridge. The debating chamber was packed, "extra accommodation being provided for members on the floor of the House, and the gallery thoroughly occupied by ladies and their friends".7 The attraction was a defence of Home Rule by John Dillon, recently elected to parliament for East Mayo but well-known for his part in the Land War. Dillon was supported by Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, a renegade English gentleman noted for his heretical view that the British had no right to rule over Egyptians and Indians. There was, too, a visiting speaker on the unionist side, but subsequent controversy suggests that George Dames Burtchaell was a straw man invited to create a bogus pretence of balance. Burtchaell was a Dublin barrister and enthusiastic genealogist. He was not in the same league as John Dillon. 

The invitation to Dillon appears to have come about almost by accident, as a by-product of an intrigue between Blunt and a couple of undergraduate politicians. Indeed, if the Union had formally decided to adopt a policy of inviting distinguished public figures to its debates, it is unlikely that it would have started with an Irish nationalist. In 1886, no fewer than six former Presidents were prominent in Westminster politics. It is probable that both the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Harcourt, and the Home Secretary, Childers, would have felt it beneath their dignity to have accepted invitations to speak, while G.O. Trevelyan, who had resigned from Gladstone's cabinet along with Chamberlain, would no doubt have preferred to state his position to a more predictable audience of his Edinburgh constituents. However, one former Union luminary might have been approachable: Charles Dilke had been obliged to withdraw to the political sidelines after being named in a divorce case the previous year, and was believed to be using the Home Rule crisis as a means of working his passage back into acceptable society.8 On the Conservative side, Richard Cross was already too much of an elder statesman, but an approach might have been to Cecil Raikes, while Sir John Gorst did indeed deliver an assault on Home Rule at the Union in 1887. Other Cambridge men at the heart of the Home Rule crisis included Hartington, Labouchere, Lord John Manners and Parnell himself, although of these, only Manners had affectionate memories of the Union. How, then, was it that the unlikely duo of Dillon and Blunt came to initiate the tradition of "big-name" visiting speakers?

                Blunt visited Cambridge early in March 1886 to have lunch at Trinity with Herbert Vivian, secretary of the Cambridge University Carlton Club, the student Conservative association.9 During his confrontation with the party's "Old Guard" in 1884-85, Lord Randolph Churchill had flourished his connections with the Cambridge Carlton as a symbol of his claim to speak for youth.10 In the fluid and speculative atmosphere of 1885, it appears that Randolph had converted "half a dozen or so" young Cambridge Tories to the cause of Home Rule: Vivian himself assailed Gladstone in the Union, but was conspicuously silent on the Irish issue. Since Blunt had contested the 1885 general election as a Conservative Home Ruler, Vivian had been keen to include him among the speakers at a forthcoming party rally in the Cambridge Guildhall. Unfortunately, this was vetoed by the guest of honour, Ellis Ashmead Bartlett: Tory Home Rulers were being read out of the party, and the idealism of Randolph Churchill's young followers had become a distinct embarrassment. Hence the presence at lunch of Vivian's friend, Leopold Maxse, a Liberal who was on the verge of election to the Presidency of the Union.

                Blunt left Cambridge with the assurance that "these young fellows will arrange a separate meeting for me", but he does not seem to have been aware of the plan forming in Maxse's mind.11 Leo Maxse made a point of defying conventions.12 He passed his final examinations in 1886, but did not bother to take his degree. He claimed to be incapable of understanding why people wished to have letters after their names or titles before them. Of course, it helped to be rich, and in 1893 his father purchased the National Review so that Maxse would have his own political mouthpiece. Maxse had been elected President for the summer term, traditionally the quietest time of the Union year. It was in keeping with his personality to make a splash by inviting the controversial Blunt. Moreover, just a fortnight before the lunch at Trinity, the Union had inaugurated its extended premises. Initiatives to shake up debates could be justified if they attracted the new members needed to pay for the building programme.

                It seems to have been through Blunt that the Cambridge Union acquired John Dillon as a visiting speaker. Blunt's typically bombastic verdict that "it was a most fortunate idea bringing him with me"13 conveys an unduly casual impression of events, but it seems likely that the invitation resulted from the joint effort of two unconventional personalities, Maxse and Blunt. One of the implications of the election campaign into which they were suddenly plunged after the defeat of the Bill on 7 June was that Irish Nationalists suddenly had to reverse a decade's defiance of British opinion and start arguing their case to English voters. This was something that does not seem to have been foreseen: Parnell himself began a tour of southern England on 25 June, only a fortnight before the start of polling.14 It was no doubt in this context that John Dillon agreed to accompany Blunt to Cambridge on 10 June. (Blunt may have held heretical views about the British imperial mission, but he was amazed to discover that Dillon insisted on travelling second class.) Since few Cambridge undergraduates were old enough to vote, even if they possessed property in their own right, the excursion was not an obviously efficient use of Dillon's time.

                Opening the debate on 8 June, W.H. Wilkins of Clare proposed a motion strongly condemning "Mr. Gladstone's scheme of Home Rule for Ireland". Although Blunt characteristically dismissed him as "a fluent speaker but shallow enough", Wilkins evidently cared strongly about the subject. This was not the first time that he attacked Home Rule in the Union, and after graduating in 1887, he worked for a time as private secretary to the Earl of Dunraven, a prominent Irish unionist. The son of a Dorset farmer, Wilkins had come to Cambridge with the intention of taking orders in the Church of England, but emerged instead to become a pioneer of modern royal biography. Like many Union stars of the nineteenth century, he died young, at the age of 44, but not before he had revealed the full story of George IV's secret marriage in 1785 to his Catholic mistress, Mrs Fitzherbert. His strong opposition to Home Rule is a reminder that 1886 was not simply an Irish dispute.

                Naturally, Blunt believed that his personal account of the Irish land question attracted "attention and sympathy", but there was no doubt that it was Dillon who "created a wonderful impression" on the undergraduate audience. Although "quite two-thirds" of those present were instinctively opposed to Home Rule, Dillon's speech "carried all opposition before it".15 The Cambridge Review caught the combination of liberalism and reassurance in Dillon's peroration:


Let them trust the Irish people for once in their history, for England was strong enough not to be afraid if they then abused that privilege.16


Afterwards, Dillon confessed that "he had meant to deal in argument, but instead he narrated facts ... this was not at all what he had intended to say, and therein doubtless lay its merit". Blunt felt that it was the finest speech he had ever heard on Irish affairs, and he wished that Dillon had delivered it in the House of Commons. "It was not the speech of a rhetorician, but of a man profoundly convinced, and perfect master of his subject". Several undergraduates told Blunt that they were "converted". "The debate at the Union was an immense success for us." Indeed, the nationalist triumph later created a unionist backlash against visiting speakers.

                The debate was adjourned to a second week, when a visiting team from the Oxford Union sought to redress the balance by attacking Home Rule. Even then, the motion was defeated by the relatively narrow margin of 150 votes to 118. A week after Dillon's speech, the impact still lingered, with the percentage against Home Rule falling a shade below 56 percent, a whole ten points below the debate of the previous month. Blunt had believed that "the feeling of the House was wholly with us".17 Was this simply the courteous response of Victorian young gentlemen, or might a division on the first night of the debate have produced a sensational endorsement of Home Rule? Blunt was a poor judge of other people's opinions, but it was a theme of Dillon's speeches throughout the 1886 election campaign, on both sides of the Irish Sea, that for once there was a reservoir of English goodwill towards the sister island.18

                "The defeat is a smash," Gladstone had commented as the results of the 1886 election started to flow in.19 Lord Salisbury was returned to office at the head of a Conservative ministry but, smash or no smash, his was still a minority government. In the depths of the Long Vacation, Maxse moved an unsuccessful motion declaring the return of Salisbury to be "a public calamity" but drawing "one crumb of comfort from Lord Hartington's refusal to join him".20 There was still a faint possibility that the shattered Liberals might reunite and find some other basis of alliance with the Parnellites that would return them to office. Thus, for a year or so, Home Rule could still be portrayed as a live issue, albeit with declining plausibility.

                The terms of the various motions debated suggested very small differences in the level of hostility to concession in Ireland. Invited in October 1886 to accept a mildly worded motion describing Home Rule as "the only hope of a permanent settlement in Ireland" and looking forward "to its extension in a thorough and liberal form", the Union demurred by 106 votes to 74, opposition still running just below sixty percent.21 In January 1887, the proposition that "the condition of Ireland demands the concession of Home Rule" was rejected by 102 votes to 50. The increase in the level of opposition to 67 percent suggests that there was no inclination to knuckle under to renewed agrarian disturbance. It was in this debate that C.V. Barrington announced that the Plan of Campaign had driven him out of the Home Rule camp.22 Two future cabinet ministers also took part in this debate, one on either side: Reginald McKenna served under Asquith at the time of the Third Home Rule Bill, while F.H. Maugham became Lord Chancellor under Neville Chamberlain. In June 1887, in the face of a motion advocated by Alfred Mond that merely described Home Rule as "desirable", opposition fell slightly to 58 percent (158 votes to 113). The debate was adjourned to a second week to enable an ex-President and Conservative MP, Sir John Gorst, to respond to Mond, but his contribution evidently made little difference to the division.23 Challenged, however, to agree in October 1887 that Home Rule had become "absolutely essential", opposition jumped to 69 percent, in a vote of 124 against 55.24 Reluctance to bow to constraint is also suggested by the rejection of a motion in May 1887 calling for the "severest censure" on Salisbury's ministry for the introduction of what opponents had called "perpetual" Coercion. After a one-week adjournment, the Union rejected the motion by 118 votes to 56.25 The 68 percent majority for Coercion was almost identical to the opposition registered against the two anti-Home Rule motions implying concession under constraint.

                Whether individually or collectively, undergraduates have a limited attention span. As the proposer of the motion for a Dublin parliament admitted in January 1887, "they had Home Rule dinned in their ears for a long time, and a great many hon. members no doubt thought it a rather worn out subject".26 To F.E. (Edmund) Garrett, the obvious answer was to repeat the triumph of the John Dillon debate by inviting more Parnellites, a solution he presumably found all the more attractive since he was already Vice-President of the Union and could expect shortly to succeed to its highest office. On 31 January, he persuaded a business meeting that "when questions of great interest are under debate, it is desirable that strangers distinguished as orators or politicians, who are entitled to speak with authority on such questions, should be invited to take part in debates". The initiative was not universally welcome, and  members insisted on advance consultation. After "prolonged discussion", Garrett managed to secure a decision that "should a suitable occasion occur during the next few months" to debate the Irish question, invitations should be sent to "a distinguished Unionist and Home Ruler".27 There the matter rested until Garrett, now President, raised it again with the Union Committee in May of 1887.

                Edmund Garrett is another of the brilliant young men of the Cambridge Union whose lives were cut short by ill health. A struggle with tuberculolis sent him on the familiar path to the warm, dry climate of South Africa, but even so, he died at the age of 41. Yet, stripped of the aura of the lost imperial hero, Garrett does not come across as a pleasant personality. In 1895, despite persistent ill-health, he took over the editorship of the Cape Times, the most influential newspaper in South Africa, and used it to fan the flames of conflict with the Afrikaner republics. An ally of Rhodes, an apologist for the Jameson raid and a confidant of Milner, Garrett had some share in the responsibility for the Boer War. The prominent Cape liberal, J.X. Merriman, a shrewd if rarely a charitable judge of character, called him "a beastly fellow".28

                Perhaps this could have been forgiven on the grounds that the British empire was a mighty cause, a noble end that justified promotion by sordid means. However, as he headed for his Third in Classics, the undergraduate Garrett projected a much more flexible attitude to issues of principle. On 15 June 1886, he spoke in favour of the Union motion strongly condemning Home Rule. Almost immediately, Garrett threw himself into Oscar Browning's hopeless campaign to persuade a south London "villa constituency" to elect him as their Liberal MP, with impassioned street-corner harangues that prompted delighted crowds to hail him as a future prime minister. Untrammelled by consistency, Garrett returned to Cambridge ready to urge the Union in October 1886 to accept Home Rule as the miracle solution to Irish difficulties. In the whole sweep of Cambridge Union debates on Irish issues, Garrett comes across as the sole example of an undergraduate orator for whom self-advancement seems to have taken precedence over intellectual consistency.

                Oscar Browning had come to know Garrett because the "O.B." was one of the senior members of the University who served on the Union Committee. Their presence was valuable in providing continuity and support for its young officers: even the olympian M.R. James briefly held the office of Librarian. "We were at that time intimate friends," Browning wrote of Garrett, "having been brought together by the Cambridge Union."29 (Browning's frequent use of the term "intimate" was intentionally provocative as well as faintly salacious.) Another senior member of the Committee was evidently less impressed by Edmund Garrett. Charles Villiers Stanford had been organist at Trinity since 1873, and was about to become Professor of Music. Stanford was a notable figure in English music, not least in his own estimation. He helped popularise Brahms – the first British performance of a Brahms symphony was at Cambridge in 1877 – and, until the unexpected rise of Edward Elgar from provincial obscurity a decade later, he was the main rival to Arthur Sullivan as Britain's leading composer. More to the point, Stanford was an Irish Protestant who kept in touch with his roots, and worried about the threat of terrorism to his friends in Dublin. "During the troublous years of the early eighties which came to a climax in the Phoenix Park murders, I paid a few visits to Ireland," he later recalled. "The developments which followed that crime came very near home to me".30 Young Edmund Garrett might regard Home Rule as a convenient lever for self-advancement, but to Stanford it was literally a life and death issue.

                On 5 May 1887, the Union Committee agreed to invite Penrose Fitzgerald, the Conservative MP for the borough of Cambridge who was also a prominent Cork unionist and active in resisting the Plan of Campaign. From the point of view of Home Rule supporters, the notion of inviting Fitzgerald may have seemed the line of least resistance; perhaps their opponents fastened upon such a readily available politician to test the sincerity behind the arguments for inviting outside speakers. In the event, Penrose Fitzgerald continued to sit for Cambridge until 1906, but he never addressed the Union. The Committee also agreed that visitor debates on Home Rule should be adjourned to a second week so that guest speakers could be heard on both sides of the issue, the implication being that a direct clash of opinions should be avoided. Stanford was present at the meeting and succeeded in carrying a further proviso: invitations should only be extended to members of the Cambridge Union or its affiliated societies.31 Since the chief affiliated societies were the Oxford Union and the Literary and Historical Society at Trinity College Dublin, Stanford's amendment effectively closed the door on the Parnellites, most of whom hailed from very different educational and religious backgrounds.

                When the Union Committee next met, on 30 May 1887, Stanford was absent, probably in London, where he also taught at the Royal College of Music. Pressed by two active Liberals, the Committee decided that to set aside his ban on outside speakers in order to invite Thomas Sexton, a noted Nationalist orator whose formal education had terminated when he had escaped from the mercies of the Christian Brothers. The rest of the story sounds like a cross between Tammany Hall and Byzantium. The proposed invitation was referred to a hastily convened business meeting two days later, where it narrowly failed to secure the required three-quarters majority. Garrett then successfully demanded a poll, a referendum of all members of the Union, on a motion to invite Sexton along with Edward Saunderson, the Ulster scourge of the Home Rulers. On grounds of simple efficiency, it made sense for the poll to take place at the same time as the termly elections for new officers and Committee. The poll was duly called to coincide with the elections – which were scheduled for the very next day. This effectively gave Garrett the advantage of surprise over his opponents.32 Furthermore, canvassing to encourage members to turn out for the poll was a discreet cover for mobilising support behind favoured candidates for the Committee. Stanford returned to Cambridge a day or so later to find that not only had his safeguards been swept aside, but the Union's gentlemanly electoral traditions had been set at naught.

There ensued an angry exchange of letters from which neither Stanford nor Garrett emerges with much credit. The Dictionary of National Biography neutrally observes that the composer "was easily led by his fiery temperament into indiscretions of utterance".33 Perhaps he counteracted the Victorian tendency to equate the cultural with the effeminate by playing up the rival stereotype of the combative Irishman. However, there was nothing contrived about his anger on this occasion. A little reflection might have persuaded Stanford that it was unwise to embark on a thunderous denunciation of a young man of 21, and all the more so if the target of his wrath affected contemptuous indifference.

                Stanford opened with the portentous announcement that if he had been in Cambridge on the night of the change-of-officers debate, he would have opposed the customary vote of thanks to the retiring President. In a deftly contemptuous choice of words, Garrett managed to imply that plain cowardice accounted for his opponent's failure to argue his case in person. Stanford laid much emphasis on alleged manipulation of the referendum, alleging that the fact that he had not received an official notification of the poll was evidence of "an underhand proceeding". The core of his charge was that "the whole arrangement was made in order to provide a political platform for one of the Irish party" and the invitation to Saunderson had been tacked on merely "to lend an air of apparent fairness". Garrett barely troubled to rebut the allegations and implied that he could not even be bothered to brand Stanford as a liar. His allegations, he contemptuously remarked, could be dismissed "very briefly in a monosyllable".34 In the exchange of unpleasantness, the angry professor had undoubtedly come off second best but, in a broader sense, it was Stanford who carried the day. The Conservative Sir John Gorst was the star turn at the adjourned Home Rule debate on 14 June 1887. Sexton never did speak at the Cambridge Union, and it was to be eight years before another member of the Irish party appeared at the despatch box. 


After seven passionate debates on Home Rule in 22 months, a year passed before the Union made a more mechanical return to the issue in October 1888. "No session of the Union would be complete without a discussion of the Irish question," remarked the proposer of the motion. Adopting a new style of informal reporting, the Cambridge Review observed that "there were hon. members enough prepared to assist in the discharge of this sacred task". Enough, no doubt, but the attendance was well below the audiences that Home Rule had drawn the previous year, and barely a quarter of the numbers who voted at the following debate on disestablishment. Home Rule itself was moving out of focus, being replaced by an omnibus motion that urged the Salisbury government to couple the "extension of Local Self-Government" with the expenditure of "a large sum of money" on public works and land purchase. "Local Self- Government" may have seemed a less threatening formula in the light of the establishment of county councils in England and Wales, but it did not win universal approval. An Ulster member claimed from "personal observation" that Local Boards in Ireland were incapable" of transacting any business .... They usually began with whiskey and ended with fighting." The motion was defeated by 46 votes to 19. The previous week, in an almost identical division of 43 votes to 17, the Union had refused to support the reintroduction of the stocks for minor offences.35 Once again, Ireland was ceasing to be a serious concern.

To restore interest, in March 1889 the Union once again resorted to a set-piece debate featuring visiting speakers. The motion condemned "the policy and conduct" of the Salisbury government "in the administration of Irish affairs", a further shift away from the overt focus on Home Rule. Liberals and Parnellites were moving into closer alliance. Under the glare of the Special Commission, Richard Pigott had confessed to the forgery of letters cited by The Times, in a hapless and incompetent piece of journalism, as proof of its thesis of a link between Parnellism and agrarian crime. In a wave of English fair play, Parnell was suddenly hailed as the victim of a conspiracy while Pigott fled to Madrid and shot himself. It seems that there was no problem in securing two high-profile Liberal speakers, R.C. Lehmann and Frank Lockwood. However, despite his "strenuous efforts" to secure "a counter-blast to the Gladstonian visitors", the President, F.H. Maugham, was forced to take on the role of main opposition speaker himself.

                Lehmann was a former President of the Union, who had in fact spoken against Home Rule in 1877. He was now an aspiring Liberal activist, and had recently founded the Granta at Cambridge. He did finally get into parliament in 1906, and his name is included among that lost legion of Liberals whom Asquith would have sent to the House of Lords in 1911 had the peers continued to resist the Parliament Act. However, his real enthusiasm was always for the river, and perhaps it is because he retired to a house by the Thames and continued to mess about with boats that Lehmann seems eternally to belong to the world of the Wind in the Willows rather than the era of the Plan of Campaign. Indeed, on that March evening Lehmann was not the chief attraction.

Frank Lockwood had come up to Cambridge in 1865 intending to take orders in the Church of England, but he was a product of a decade which saw a marked swing towards the secular, and opted for a career in the Law instead. A witty and confident court-room performer, who became a national figure as defence counsel in the sensational murder trial of the burglar Charlie Peace, Lockwood was bitten late by the bug of politics. He had never taken part in Union debates as an undergraduate but, after two failed attempts, he was elected to parliament as a Liberal in 1885. Later he endured the frustrating experience of representing Katharine O'Shea in the Parnell divorce case, and in 1894 Lord Rosebery made him Solicitor-General. Like so many others, he died young, at the age of 51 in 1897. In 1889, he was the star attraction who drew a packed house.

                "Every seat was occupied, a crowd of members stood at the entrance, and the gallery was crammed." The evening was less a debate than a series of brilliant lectures. Lehmann spoke for fifty minutes, Lockwood for "close upon an hour". Although Lockwood courteously congratulated Maugham upon his "able debating speech", it was clear that the Liberals had outgunned their opponents. Lack of time limited the numbers who could speak, but Maugham was unlucky in being supported only by the two rising Ulstermen, MacNaghten, the future judge and the ebullient (and, on this occasion, absurd) MacBride.

                Maugham dealt with the Pigott forgeries with what the Granta not unreasonably called a "somewhat remarkable" argument. Parnell, he argued, "ought to consider himself the most fortunate of men for having had the authorship of the forged letters imputed to him by The Times, since otherwise he would never have been able to clear himself of the charge". The anti-Home Rule case was reduced to scoring points at the expense of Dr Tanner, the Parnellite member for Mid-Cork, who was widely believed (not least by his own party colleagues) to be mad. Lehmann had excused Tanner's overwrought public utterances by explaining that "his occasional deviations from moderation in conduct and language were due rather to the warmth of his heart and the ardour of his patriotism than to any other cause". Maugham retorted that "it was almost impossible to say which was the deviation, and which was the ordinary course of that gentleman".

                The debate was adjourned to a second week to redress the balance and, unusually, there was no decline in the size of the audience. The house was treated to another hour-long address, this time from W.F. Maclean, who was a lawyer, a Liberal Unionist MP and a Cambridge graduate. Alfred Mond was among the student speakers who sought to neutralise his impact, but without success. The motion was defeated by 310 votes to 115. "The most pessimistic Unionist will find satisfaction in these figures," commented the Granta. "Settled convictions cannot be lightly uprooted," said the Cambridge Review, adding that "so far as the main issue is concerned ... the position is very much the same as it used to be".36  The point was underlined by the fact that that this was only the second time in the Union's history that over four hundred members had taken part in a division.

                The "main issue", of course, was Home Rule, which the Union once again discussed a year later, in February 1890, "as the only final settlement" for Ireland. "The Irish Question may be a well-worn subject," remarked the Cambridge Review, "but it is still capable of producing a very good debate." More to the point, it was well attended even though there were no prominent visitors. The debate began on a high note, with a "magnificent display of rhetoric" from the proposer, F.R. Keightley of Corpus. For three-quarters of an hour, the "crowded house listened entranced", although there was some puzzlement when he claimed that there were only 113 paupers in the whole of Ireland. Once again, the main opposition case was shouldered by the two Ulstermen, MacNaghten and MacBride. MacNaghten poured "much scorn on the words 'final' and 'settlement'". MacBride spoke at a "tremendous speed ... which made it extremely difficult to follow him". The Granta, not always vocal in admiration of MacBride, praised his "sound and logical defence" of the union between Ireland and Britain, during which he called the Irish peasantry a "lazy dissolute race" and dismissed the Parnellite party as "eighty-six bog-trotting ruffians". In the circumstances, it is best to draw a veil over the report that in its later stages, the debate "fell off appreciably". The motion was rejected by 133 votes to 47. Opposition to Home Rule, at 74 percent, was at its highest since the tense days of 1882-83. "Once again the Union has proved itself Unionist to the core by the decisive rejection of a Home Rule motion," commented the Granta.37

                A year after the unmasking of Pigott, the Special Commission finally published a balanced report on the charges against Parnell and his party. Naturally, the more extreme allegations were dismissed, but individual Nationalists were found to have behaved irresponsibly during the Plan of Campaign. "I think it is just about what I should have said myself", was Parnell's private comment.38 Conservatives made a brief attempt to keep the issue alive but, by and large, it suited all sides to claim a victory and move on. Not so at Cambridge. The Special Commission's timing had been inconvenient, the publication of its report following hard on the heels of the Home Rule debate of February 1890. Yet there did seem to be an obsessive tenacity in re-opening the subject at the start of the third term, at the end of April 1890. MacNaghten, now President, was no doubt determined to have his pound of Parnellite flesh. In his later career he would become an Ulster Unionist MP and later a judge.

                The debate was not a success. "The perennial Irish question failed to attract a large House" and many speeches were "rendered somewhat dull by the frequency of quotations" from the report. The proposer, A.C. Deane of Clare, had the good sense to deliver a speech "judiciously cut shorter than usual". Deane claimed to be "heartily glad" that Parnell had been "excused from the worst charges that had been made against him" but insisted that "because a man is absolved of greater crimes", he was not necessarily acquitted of lesser offences. MacBride "electrified the assembly" by claiming to be descended from the leader of an Irish insurrection (presumably in 1798) and proclaiming that his ancestors "would turn in their graves could they see the modern patriot". Once again, "the debate fell off rapidly" later in the evening. Despite the advocacy of C.P. Trevelyan, who would serve in Britain's first two Labour cabinets, the Union agreed by 61 votes to 33 that "the Irish Party stands condemned by the report of the Special Commission". 39

                By contrast, there was a "full house" on 4 November 1890 for a motion censuring "the late conduct of the Irish executive". The wording was ungracious, given Balfour's increasing willingness to smother Ireland with kindness, and the large attendance was explained partly by a rumour that there would be a clash between two popular ex-Presidents, MacNaghten and the Eton schoolboy hero, J.K. Stephen. In the event, neither of them spoke, but MacBride rumbled forth as usual. "Unintelligible at first, his remarks gradually assumed the form of a speech." Typically, he declared that Ulster was the "only respectable part of Ireland", and that in the rest of the country the people spent their time "lying around or shooting or batoning the police". The Cambridge Review found him "amusing and eloquent", but did not venture to claim that he was informative. Another speaker claimed to possess "a knock-down argument for Home Rule" but nobody seemed to know what it was. The audience melted away. By half past ten, there were barely fifty members present and proceedings were adjourned.40

Unexpectedly, the resumed debate on 11 November was "fertile in good speeches" and "a distinct success", with well over two hundred members staying for the vote. One possible explanation lies in rising speculation about the Parnell divorce case, which began to be reported a few days later. Deane referred to the running joke in Punch, which characterised the Leader of the House of Commons, W.H. Smith, as "Old Morality", adding that Smith was to be preferred to "the 'young immorality' which so characterized the Gladstonian ranks". This was guilt by association with a vengeance. The Granta felt that the failings of the two principal speakers cancelled each other out. The proposer, T.A. Bertram of Caius, had done well enough but "if the latter half of his speech had not so seriously contradicted the first half, the effect perhaps would have been more marked". MacNaghten, who spoke against, was criticised for including a fifteen-minute peroration in a twenty-five minute speech, although he made an impact with his warning that Gladstone in office would mean Parnell in power. The motion was defeated by 153 votes to 64, the 70 percent majority consistent with the general division of opinion against Home Rule.41

                In 1891, the year of Parnell's death, the Union did not turn its attention to Ireland at all. This was the first blank in the record since 1876, and the following year was not much more fruitful. In June 1892, two months before Gladstone returned to office, an attempt was made to inject some novelty into the Irish question by a motion approving "of an armed rising in Ulster in the event of a Home Rule Bill becoming law". The debate was a failure. It clashed with too many May Week events, producing "a very small House and a large gallery". Worse still, the proposer arrived fifteen minutes late, "in rather a bad temper" and tried to make up for his unpunctuality by speaking at "an incredible speed". A majority of 41 votes to 18 against the motion suggests that the Union agreed with the opposing speaker who "denied that Ulster can be called a nationality". (The proposer and seconder were to register a similar defeat, by 38 votes to 15, two months later when they invited a Long Vacation debate to regret "the prevalence of the habit of Smoking in this University".) 42

                However, in May 1893, the Union took a more benevolent view of the concerns of Ireland's most northerly province, a small house dismissing by 53 votes to 25 the motion that "popular demonstrations – especially those in Ulster – are either dangerous or useless, and ought to be abolished". (There was, of course, some difference between popular demonstrations and an armed rising, even in Ulster.) "The chief fault of the debate", pronounced the Cambridge Review, "... was its discursiveness." The Granta agreed, criticising the chair for allowing speakers "to roam at their own sweet will over the whole range of Irish history, of Irish politics and other questions still more remotely connected with the announced subjects". However, with Ulster as the theme and MacBride as its champion, the evening was not dull:


Beginning with the ancient kings of Ireland, he panted down the ages, now wildly abusing the Roman Catholic  Hierarchy, now denouncing the universal ignorance which  prevails outside Ulster, and now arrogating civilisation  to Ulstermen alone, that solid body of Anglo-Saxon  settlers imported into the middle of Celtic barbarism.


His eloquent and fiery speech was "evidently inspired by a genuine feeling that saved it from being mere rant". It is unlikely that MacBride's tirade helped those present to any real understanding of Ulster Protestant mentalities. Indeed, the speeches from the opposition were generally condemned for being "violently ulsteric". One speaker conceded that "a revolution that was a spontaneous eruption was justifiable, and even exalted, but one that was incited was deplorable". Another pointed to the safety-valve argument. "If we force Ulster to be silent we shall have a revolution."43

                If there had indeed been a shift in sympathy towards Ulster between the two debates, it was to be attributed to the re-emergence of Home Rule as a practical issue. As MacNaghten had warned, the general election of 1892 had produced a minority Liberal government dependent upon Irish Nationalist support. Table Five indicates that  in the early nineties, Home Rule remained a straight party issue.

Gladstone unveiled his Second Home Rule Bill on 13 February 1893; eight days later the Union addressed the motion that it would prove to be "no settlement of the Irish Question" and "beneficial neither to England nor Ireland". The Granta proudly observed that Cambridge undergraduates "certainly cannot be accused of want of interest in politics": it was estimated that almost six hundred of them packed the chamber, drawn by a rumour that Edward Saunderson was to speak. Instead, they heard a little-known Liberal MP, William Allen, who "spoke in hexameters", offering a "stormy defence of Home Rule without saying much on the Bill". Indeed, throughout the evening, it was "no Bill, and anything but the Bill that was debated upon". In "a speech that would seem better read than heard", the student proposer briefly condemned its terms, criticising the dual system which would subject Ireland to the control of Tim Healy at one moment and to a Tory government in London the next, and predicting that no Dublin cabinet would survive more than six months. MacBride took up his familiar position in the last ditch, ready to pulverise anyone who challenged him. In retrospect, probably the most notable feature of the debate was a thoughtful rejection of the idea of a federal relationship between Britain and Ireland from Erskine Childers. The motion was carried by 267 votes to 122, a wholly predictable 69 percent majority against, in the largest division since Frank Lockwood's visit four years earlier.44

While opposition to the Second Home Rule Bill ran at levels identical to the First, the controversy of 1893 failed to sustain the intensity of the crisis of 1886. Gladstone's measure dragged its way through the House of Commons but, apart from the moderately attended debate in May on the tangential issue of Ulster demonstrations, the Cambridge Union left the question alone. Home Rule was massively rejected in the Lords on 8 September, but the ensuing autumn term saw no attempt to discuss either the Bill itself or the controversial question of the powers of the upper house, as had happened when the peers had sought to interfere with the Land Act in 1881-82. The Liberal retreat from the incubus of its Irish commitment was as evident among Cambridge students as it was among Gladstone's cabinet colleagues. The Cambridge Union fell back upon the strategy of inviting a front-rank politician to bring in a crowd. The MP for Waterford, John Redmond, agreed to speak on 6 March 1894.

                It might have been a memorable evening, had Redmond not withdrawn "at the last minute". On 3 March, Gladstone retired, and within forty-eight hours, Rosebery had succeeded him in office. The political world waited to learn whether the new prime minister intended to make another attempt to secure Home Rule. The issue of co- operation with the Liberals was especially acute for John Redmond, leader of the Parnellite wing of the shattered Irish Party and thus inheritor of the dead Chief's Gladstonian alliance. On 11 March, Rosebery defined his position; Home Rule was only feasible if accepted by "England as the pre-dominant member of the Three Kingdoms".45 The admission represented both a political blunder and a political truism: 465 of the 670 members of parliament were returned from English constituencies. It was no doubt true that the change of prime minister rendered it necessary for Redmond to return "to Ireland on most urgent business".46 Equally, on 6 March 1894, Redmond had little to gain and much to lose from a confrontation with the entrenched unionist sentiments of England's future ruling caste.

                At short notice, the Union arranged a set-piece debate that pitted two dons who argued that "justice and expediency" required Home Rule against two ex-Presidents. They held the full house to the end, but it was tacitly agreed that the debate would be confined to the four gladiators. As the Cambridge Review put it, "it was virtually impossible to say anything new on such a painfully worked out theme ... one of which everybody is notoriously weary". Not surprisingly, the evening resulted in "the usual overwhelming majority against Home Rule for Ireland". Indeed, both the attendance and the result virtually duplicated the debate of the previous year. The motion was dismissed by 261 votes to 133.47 Slightly under 69 percent of the 389 students who had taken part in the 1893 division had voted against Home Rule. In 1894, that percentage had slipped to just over 66 percent in a house of 394. In effect, nine young men out of almost four hundred had shifted towards the Irish cause. Given the accidental nature of the "sample", the difference is hardly significant.

By the time Redmond made good his promise to speak, at the end of February 1895, even the terms of the motion reflected the bolting of the stable door: "the abandonment of Home Rule by the Government" was hailed as "the best solution of the Irish Question". MacBride was felled by influenza and unable to confront the visitor. In his absence, the motion was proposed by the incoming President, Montagu Butler (father of R.A. Butler), but not surprisingly Redmond massively outshone the handful of student speakers. As the Granta put it, "the most graceful of our academic speakers may be excused if he seemed to fail" by comparison. Redmond delivered "a magnificent speech, strong in its moderation, and convincing in its earnestness". He appealed to the example of Canada, self-governing and prosperous notwithstanding its mixture of peoples and creeds:


"I am", he said, impressively, amid an expectant hush,  "a Catholic, and if I thought that Home Rule would interfere with the rights of my Protestant fellow- countrymen, I would cease to be a Home Ruler."


Redmond failed to defeat the motion, but the Granta noted that the margin of defeat was narrower than usual, 237 votes to 180. Since opposition to Home Rule fell by about ten points, to 57 percent, Redmond's impact seems to have been similar to that of Dillon nine years earlier. "He seemed to present the old question in a new light; and caused many opponents to consider how far their opposition was based on conviction, and how far on prejudice." The Cambridge Review was more noncommittal. It was "always interesting to hear a man on the subject which forms his life-work" and especially so "when he is so eloquent and earnest a speaker". None the less, "we were discussing a question which at the moment had lost its pressing importance".48  Perhaps most significant of all was the fact that Redmond's tour-de-force on a dormant issue had still proved insufficient to win over a majority among the young elite of the United Kingdom's predominant member state. 

Four set-piece debates on Ireland in six years had attracted consistently massive attendances, with the numbers voting ranging from a low of 389 to a high of 425. The only issue that was remotely comparable as a source of controversy was the decision of the London County Council to close a popular music hall, which drew 331 members to a protest vote in November 1894. Yet the  Cambridge Review was right. Redmond's visit marked more of a requiem than a revival in the consideration of Home Rule in Cambridge. Two years were to pass before the Union turned its attention to Ireland again. It was the report of the Financial Commission in 1897 that broke the silence with a motion viewing "with disfavour any attempt to break up the existing Union between England and Ireland" or – as the Granta put it, "our old friend Home Rule". The link between Irish finance and  Irish devolution was by no means straightforward. Gladstone had indeed promised the Commission as a step towards untangling the funding of a Home Rule settlement, and Rosebery had gone on with it as a way out of the devolution imbroglio. The Commission's findings, which began to leak out during 1896, were at least an embarrassment, if not a bombshell. Its first chairman had been the former President of the Cambridge Union, Hugh Childers, who had died while the enquiry was in progress, but not before he had become persuaded that Ireland was substantially overtaxed. To argue from this, as did John Morley, that the solution lay in Home Rule was essentially to return to the opening problem that Gladstone had hoped to solve: what share of the common revenue of the United Kingdom ought to be handed to an autonomous Dublin executive? Yet the principal lines of argument open to those seeking to rebut the implications of the Financial Commission's report literally made a mockery of the United Kingdom that they sought to defend. One was that the United Kingdom was a single state in which it was impossible to apportion either burdens or advantages by kingdom or county or parish. The other was that if the Irish drank less whiskey, they would not contribute so much to the Treasury through indirect taxation.

Such arguments made light of the genuine anger that swept Ireland in the aftermath of the Commission's report. By the time of the Cambridge debate a shared sense of injustice threatened to create a cross-community political alliance. Edward Saunderson was as outraged as Tim Healy, and Lord Castletown, a former Conservative MP, warned that the American colonies had been lost because of a dispute over taxation. In the Cambridge Union, even the Honourable Henry Prittie, son of the Tipperary landlord Lord Dunally, weighed in to defend the Commission. So did Cecil de Burgh Persse, "an indignant Irishman" from Glenarde in County Galway, who "condemned the gross ignorance of Englishmen" and "urged the claim of Ireland to be considered an independent nation". Persse continued to be both proud of his identity and indignant in the defence of small nations: he was nearly forty when the First World War broke out, but he joined the Irish Guards and was killed in 1915. The debate attracted the "largest House of the term", but this was not saying much since debates were temporarily in the doldrums and few topics attracted more than one hundred members. More surprising to observers was the fact that Newnham and Girton packed the gallery. The motion was carried by 57 votes to 37, the 61 percent majority suggesting a conventional vote against Home Rule, irrespective of the validity of Irish grievances, but in a notably smaller house than had been seen in earlier years.49

                In November 1897, the Union degenerated into an episode of apparent bad taste. Indeed, even the proposer of the motion regretting "the existence of the Irish Nation" was sufficiently embarrassed to explain that he had agreed to take part in order to enable the Vice-President, Thomas McDonnell, to attack stereotypes "which he had opposed from childhood upwards with great success". The elder of two brothers from St Paul's School in London, both of whom rose to the Presidency of the Union, McDonnell was a dedicated champion of all things Irish, so long as they were Nationalist and Catholic: "anyone standing up for Ireland was always in difficulty, as he had to contend against prejudice". He had taken his pet motion on the circuit of college debating societies, but its frivolity did not translate well to the larger stage of the Union. Inclined to the histrionic, McDonnell delivered his "clever speech" with dramatic effect, although the audience was "astonished when he portrayed the Irish members as a solid brotherhood of patriots". Although by the eighteen-nineties, it was a "rare event" to challenge the terms of a motion, members responded to an unsatisfactory situation with "the unusual proceeding of an amendment directed essentially against Irish political methods". By 82 votes to 64, they resolved to regret "the continued existence of certain Members of the Irish Nation". The qualification was directed against Tammany Hall and the Irish parliamentary party, and the adjective "continued" carried the specific meaning that "we do not mind their existence if only we can get rid of them when we want to". After the passage of the amendment, the debate simply disintegrated. As a result of a "peculiar lack of members at the end", no final vote was recorded.50 One can only hope that they had all slunk away in embarrassment at having participated in such an absurd discussion.

                The last Union debate of the Gladstonian era took place in February 1898 and, like the first discussion of Home Rule twenty-five years earlier, it drew a distinction between "approving of the granting of a system of Local Government to Ireland" and opposition to "any legislation tending towards Home Rule". Salisbury's government had announced legislation to extend the system of county councils to Ireland, an example of a contradiction within unionist thinking, which at one moment justified separate treatment for Ireland as the price of its inclusion within the United Kingdom, while at the next insisting on identical institutions as the theoretical corollary of integration. With Thomas McDonnell as the principal speaker against the motion, the debate focused upon Home Rule. The fact that the motion was defeated, if only by a single vote in a division of 91 members, is not easy to interpret. Possibly some members objected to any form of local democracy for the Irish and felt it safe to vote against a motion condemning Home Rule simply because the larger issue seemed safely dead. Overall, however, the most striking feature of the debate was its triviality. Ireland had often aroused strong feelings in the Cambridge Union. Now the contemptuous attitudes triggered by McDonnell's ill-judged motion surfaced again: Ireland was little more than a target for derision.

                The debate drew "a languid House", reported the Cambridge Review. "The cause lies no doubt in the sound knowledge of the subject which the majority of us imagine we possess and the profound boredom thereby induced." "The Debate was about as dull as the subject", agreed the Granta. "In all the speeches argument was the last consideration." Even by its own account, this was not wholly true. The proposer of the motion, William Finlay, was the son of R.B. Finlay, a prominent Liberal Unionist who had replaced Frank Lockwood as Solicitor-General when Salisbury had returned to office in 1895. Taking advantage of the fact that Gladstone was now safely in retirement, he risked lauding the Grand Old Man: "two Cabinets and the greatest political genius of the century had been unable to set forth a really adequate scheme". Another speaker "laid great stress on the danger that Ireland, if autonomous, would threaten in time of war". An Indian student was criticised for levity but contributed the bright thought that the "only maxim for the Irish that England could give was the Maxim gun".

                Home Rule, the Granta pronounced bluntly, was "defunct". More than twice as many members had turned out a fortnight earlier to hear a young History graduate from Trinity, G.M. Trevelyan, denounce the injustice of the Dreyfus case. Yet perhaps the single most depressing feature of the Home Rule debate of February 1898 "was the Irish brogue, real or feigned, which so many speakers affected".51 The Cambridge Union had often shown itself indifferent and even insensitive to Ireland and its needs. Yet this seems to have been the sole debate in the hundred years under review that sank to the level of merely treating the sister island as a subject for juvenile mirth. Five years would pass before the Union once again debated Home Rule. Somewhere in that interval there are the first signs of a sea-change in attitudes that at least ensured that Edwardian Cambridge treated Ireland with the dignity that it deserved.








Abbreviations are listed at the close of the Preface.


1. Maitland, Leslie Stephen, p. 388 (6 May 1886). Stephen though the Home Rule Bill "about the most insane contrivance that anybody ever blundered into. But what is a poor radical to do?" But in October 1881 he had expressed "a devout wish that the Irish might be left to settle their own quarrels and see how they liked it. I should repeal the Union to-morrow, but people here do not seem to be of my way of thinking just yet." (pp. 388-9; 345).

2. Gr, 8 Mar 1889, pp. 3-4.

3. 26/1-2/2/86, CR, 27 Jan. 1886, pp. 168-9. At Edinburgh on 18 March 1886, students in the Dialectic Society tried to block a motion censuring the Liberal government with an amendment calling for suspension of judgement "till Mr Gladstone's scheme for the pacification of Ireland is before Parliament and the country". The amendment was defeated by 12 votes to 7, with three abstentions. History of the Dialectic Society (1887), p. 130.

4. Published in The Times, 4 May 1886 and quoted A.B. Cooke and J. Vincent, The Governing Passion: Cabinet Government and Party Politics in Britain 1885-86 (1974), p. 411.

5. CR, 26 Jan. 1887, pp. 164-7.

6. Morley, Gladstone, iii, pp. 345-6; H. Pelling, Social Geography of British Elections 1885-1910 (1967), p. 415. Constituency results of the 1886 general election are taken from J. Vincent and M. Stenton, eds., McCalmont's Parliamentary Poll Book: British Election Results, 1832-1918 (1971).

7. 8-15/6/86; CR, 7 June 1886, p. 372.

8. So Rosebery believed. Cooke and Vincent, Governing Passion, p. 434.

9. Blunt, Land War, p. 34 (5 March 1886).

10. R.F. Foster, Lord Randolph Churchill: A Political Life (1988 ed.), pp. 220, 322; W.S. Churchill, Lord Randolph Churchill (1951 ed.), pp. 231, 256-7.

11. Blunt, Land War, p. 34.

12. He ostentatiously nominated Oscar Browning for the post of Provost of Eton despite the fact that he was a Harrovian himself and would almost certainly have known that Browning had been eased out of his post at the school because of his suspected homosexuality. Hollis, Eton, pp. 281-4.

13. Blunt, Land War, p. 144.

14. F.S.L. Lyons, Parnell (1978 ed.), p. 353; O'Brien, Life of Parnell, ii, pp. 155-7. Parnell told Barry O'Brien "we cannot persuade the English people. They will only do what we force them to do." Davitt felt that Parnell "had neglected the English democracy" -- but the Cambridge Union was on odd place to start reversing the process.

15. Blunt, Land War, pp. 144-5.         

16. CR, 9 June 1886, p. 373.

17. Blunt, Land War, pp. 144-5.

18. F.S.L. Lyons, John Dillon: A Biography (1968), p. 79.

19. H.C.G. Matthew, ed., The Gladstone Diaries, xi (1990), p. 585 (8 July 1886).

20. 24/8/86.                                                    

21. 26/10/86. See Table 5.

22. 25/1/87. CR, 26 Jan. 1887, p. 165.

23. 7-14/6/87.                                                 

24. 18/10/87.

25. 3-10/5/87.

26. CR, 26 Jan. 1887, p. 164.

27. Secretary's MB, 1885-7, Private Business Meeting, 31 Jan. 1887.

28. P. Lewsen, ed., Selections from the Correspondence of John X. Merriman 1890-1898 (Van Riebeeck Society, 1963), p. 242. Cf. E. Pakenham, Jameson's Raid (1960), p. 252. E.T. Cook, Edmund Garrett: A Memoir (1909) gives a more favourable picture, but says little about his Cambridge days.

29. Browning, Memories of Sixty Years, pp. 317-19. Known as the "O.B.", Browning was an early version of a publicity-seeking media-don. After losing his post at Eton, he did useful work at Cambridge in the development of teacher training and in cultivating friendly relations (for whatever motives) with students. Undergraduates liked but did not respect him. As E.F. Benson put it, "it was impossible not to be aware that he was a buffoon". (E.F. Benson, As We Were: A Victorian Peep-Show (1971 ed.), p. 129.) Browning's increasing tendency to put on weight, which caused him to waddle rather than walk, literally made him a figure of fun: a Cambridge rhyme punningly warned him against becoming "too obese". He was sometimes mistaken for his namesake, the poet, but not by Tennyson. "I'm Browning", the O.B. said by way of introduction. "You're not", replied Tennyson in an unambiguous put-down. Although a prolific rather than a profound historian, Oscar Browning was thought to be in the running foe Regius Chair in 1895. "O.B. or not O.B, that is the question", remarked Maitland in a faint attempt to find the threat amusing. Fifoot, ed., Letters of Maitland, p. 130. Happily for Cambridge History, Lord Acton was appointed instead.

30. Stanford, Passages from an Unwritten Diary, pp. 254-7.

31. Secretary's MB, 1887-9, 5 May 1887.

32. Secretary's MB, 1887-9, 30 May, 1, 8 June 1887. Officially canvassing in Union elections was banned, but the prohibition was often ingeniously or even blatantly evaded. Oxf. Mag., 11 March 1891, p. 280.

33. DNB 1922-1930 (1937), p. 805.              

34. CR, 15 June 1887, pp. 385-7.

35. CR, 25 Oct. 1888, pp. 40-1; 23/10/88; cf. 16/10/88.

36. CR, 7, 14 March 1888, pp. 272-3, 260-1; Gr, 8 March, p.  8; 15 March 1889, pp. 8-9; 5-12/3/89. For Lehmann, see Searby, pp. 664-5. Tanner defended boycotting, pointing out "that his fashionable practice in Cork had been ruined when he became a Nationalist politician. If the classes boycotted, why not the masses?" When the O'Shea divorce case revealed that Parnell had used the alias "Mr Fox", Tanner pursued him through the North Kilkenny by-election campaign shouting "Tally-ho!". T.P. O'Connor, Memories of an Old Parliamentarian (2 vols, 1929), ii, pp. 158-9; F. Callanan, The Parnell Split (1992), pp. 66-7.

37. 4/2/90. CR, 6 Feb. 1890, pp. 188-9; Gr, 8 Feb. 1890, p. 185.

38. Lyons, Parnell, p. 472.

39. 29/4/90; CR, 1 May 1890, pp. 292-3; Gr, 6 May 1890, pp. 297-8. It is possible that the proposer was related to Sir Thomas Newenham Deane, the architect of the National Library in Dublin, who came from a Cork Protestant family. The Cambridge Union's handling of the Special Commission may seem petty, but it was mild in comparison with that of the Oxford Union. There Lord Hugh Cecil successfully proposed a motion insisting that "the great prevalence of crime and outrage in Ireland from the year 1878 to the year 1888 was chiefly due to the wicked and criminal acts, speeches and conduct of Mr. Parnell and his associates". Oxf. Mag., 5, 12 March 1890, pp. 246-7, 264-5.

40. 4-11/11/90; Gr, 8 Nov. 1890; CR, 6 Nov. 1890, pp. 68-9. The Cambridge correspondent of the Oxford Magazine sarcastically reported that the Union was "so excited by the novelty of the subject that it adjourned the debate". J.K. Stephen died in 1892. An obituary praised his "brilliant oratory and fascinating wit" as well as his "indefinable personal magnetism". Oxf. Mag., 12 Nov. 1890, p. 88; 10 Feb. 1892, pp. 161-2.

41. An Oxford visitor who contributed to the debate, H.E.A. Cotton, was identified by the Granta as an Irishman whose "native county was Killarney [sic]". Gr, 15 Nov. 1890, pp. 70-1; Oxf. Mag., 19 Nov. 1890, p. 105.

42. 14/6/92; Gr, 16 June 1892, pp. 398-9.

43. 9/5/93; CR, 11 May 1893, p. 331; Gr, 13 May 1893, pp. 315-16; Oxf. Mag., 17 May 1893, p. 376.

44. 21/2/93; Gr, 25 Feb. 1893, pp. 218-19; CR, 25 Feb. 1893, pp. 234-5.

45. CR, 8 March 1894, p. 272; Lord Crewe, Lord Rosebery, ii, pp. 444-5.

46. Gr, 10 March 1894, p. 245.

47. 6/3/94. CR, 8 March 1894, pp. 272-3.

48. 26/2/95; Gr, 2 March 1895, pp. 231-2; CR, 28 Feb. 1895, p. 228; Oxf. Mag., 6 March 1895, p. 277.

49. 23/2/97; CR, 25 Feb. 1897, p. 260; Gr, 27 Feb. 1897, pp. 218-20.

50. 23/11/97; Gr, 27 Nov. 1897, pp. 106-7; CR, 25 Nov. 1897, pp. 112-13.

51. 22/2/98. CR, 24 Feb. 1898, pp. 247-8; Gr, 26 Feb. 1898, pp. 215-16. The joke about the Maxim gun might suggest the influence of Hilaire Belloc's sardonic comment on Britain's growing empire in Africa : "Whatever happens we have got/ The Maxim Gun, and they have not." In this case, however, the young Cambridge orator can be acquitted of plagiarism, for Belloc's The Modern Traveller did not appear until November 1898.I am grateful to Peter B. Freshwater for this information.