A Tailpiece rounds off the story as Victorian Cambridge and Nationalist Ireland plunge into 'War 1914-18 and Troubles 1919-21'. It seems fitting that an ex-President of the Cambridge Union had a role in the 1921 Treaty ─ as a messenger boy.





"The life of new Cambridge should differ but little from the old", insisted a university journalist in January 1919.1 Of course it could not be so. Within a few months, the undergraduate population had swollen to three times its pre-war numbers. Even after the backlog had passed through, Cambridge permanently doubled in size. Compulsory Greek was sacrificed in 1919; titular degrees conceded to women in 1920. The social composition of the university did not change overnight but the political atmosphere was utterly different from that of 1914. In October 1919, with the Union chamber packed like "a Crystal Palace Cup-Tie", a motion condemning the League of Nations as "a radically unsound and dangerous project" was rejected by a massive 723 votes to 280.2 A century earlier, Bulwer Lytton had seen the funny side of a debating club where "striplings settled questions spoilt by men". For a brief period, the striplings had a particular claim to set the world to rights. J.H.B. Nihill had won the Military Cross while serving with the Royal Munster Fusiliers and "had seen countless Irishmen make the supreme sacrifice in the hope that they would gain freedom for others". His denunciation in March 1919 of "government by courts-martial" in Ireland was something more than youthful bravado.3

The Union burst back into life, quickly clearing its wartime overdraft. Some continuity was provided by activists from the immediate pre-war years, such as Geoffrey Shakespeare, while ex-Presidents like J.R.M. Butler, now well-established as a Fellow of Trinity, made a point of participating to guide the new generation into the traditions of the Society. With far more aspiring speakers, there was an ever-greater danger of repetition and exaggeration, which makes all the more remarkable the evident demand for compromise in discussions of the Irish issue. "Why will people talk late for the sake of talking?", asked the exasperated correspondent of the Granta reporting the debate on Ireland in May 1919.4 Five debates between May 1919 and November 1921 demonstrate that "Ireland … always provides fitting meat for a discussion".5 Although T.P. O'Connor came as guest speaker in May 1921, the debates predominantly reflected student interest. Indeed, the debate of November 1921 was organised at short notice after the flamboyant Horatio Bottomley had withdrawn from a commitment to speak on another subject and members outraged traditionalists by passing notes to the chair asking to be called to speak.

The motions and outcomes of the five debates may be summarised. In May 1919 the Union condemned, by 94 votes to 58, "the inaction of the Government with regard to Ireland". Both the motion and its discussion were unhelpfully vague. The proposer, C.D.B. Ellis, later to become historian of the Quorn Hunt, "confessed to a complete ignorance of Ireland" and, thus equipped, denied that he had any "duty to outline a constructive policy".6 However, in December 1919 Lloyd George did come up with a series of "proposals for the solution of the Irish Question", and the Union voted its approval a month later by 197 votes to 131.7 The government's scheme, which combined Partition with a proposed Council of Ireland, eventually limped on to the statute book as the Government of Ireland Act. Meanwhile, the situation on the ground deteriorated. In October 1920, the Union decided by 264 votes to 166 that it viewed "with indignation the policy of reprisals" and urged "that Parliament should declare Ireland a Dominion and authorise an Irish Constituent Assembly to frame a Constitution within the Empire". The motion could be faulted, as a Nationalist partisan put it a year later, for saying in effect: "We are prepared to offer you a good place in the British Empire, but if you refuse we will force you to accept our terms".8 None the less, the debate was an indication of a trend of opinion towards some form of compromise. In May 1921, spurred no doubt by the honeyed words of T.P. O'Connor, the "coercive policy of the Government in Ireland" was again condemned, this time emphatically by 249 votes to 59.9 Finally, in November 1921, the Union rejected, by 162 votes to 140, a belligerent motion arguing that "in the event of a breakdown of the present negotiations with the Irish Leaders, the only course open would be a return to force".10 An uncharacteristic contribution to this debate was a maiden speech in favour of the motion from the young R.A. Butler, who managed to speak immediately after a plea for peace from his cousin J.R.M. Butler, to whom he delivered "an admirable retort". "Rab", so often modest in his later career, seems to have engaged in a rare piece of self-promotion, using the debate to proclaim that there was a new Butler on the block. "I leapt up just after Jim", he reported to his family, adding that "I got several people to realise who I was".11

The contrast with pre-war debates on Ireland was marked. The opposition to the repression in Ireland was far stronger than the muted rejected by 64 votes to 53 of George Wyndham's mild form of Coercion back in 1902. The open endorsement of some dominion status also went far beyond the narrow and fluctuating acceptance of Home Rule in the last years before the War. "The speeches were very moderate in temper", commented the Cambridge Review of the debate on the bloodcurdling motion of November 1921, "and if they are indicative of the country as a whole, a settlement of the Irish question will undoubtedly be obtained in the near future."12 Four weeks later, the Treaty was signed in Downing Street.

One sign of changing attitudes was the virtual disappearance by 1921 of pejorative caricatures of Ireland. "The Irish objection was not that they governed well or ill but that they were governed at all," one young man announced in May 1919, adding that "Ireland can't be given her independence, because she hasn't got any money."13 Another complained in January 1920 that "[t]he most obvious characteristic of the Irish was their inability to think in political terms".14 But by October of that year, a rising Union star called Ian Macpherson offered a far more sober case against concession, even invoking Abraham Lincoln's resistance to Southern secession in the American Civil War. "They could not treat Ireland as dominion because geography would not allow them. Ireland was too near England's back door."15 The debate took place two days after the death of Terence MacSwiney at the close of a prolonged and harrowing hunger strike, a sacrifice to which Macpherson made an honourable acknowledgement. Watching from the gallery was the correspondent of the Granta (the editor unctuously rubbed home the point that the magazine had actually commissioned a reporter from one of the women's colleges). She was outraged that some of Macpherson's supporters did not "share his reasonable opinion of the Lord Mayor of Cork". In a trenchant rebuke, she told them that they should "at least refrain from making their opinions audible in an objectionable manner. It simply isn't done."16 Overall, ethnic stereotypes told more about the personalities of their perpetrators. "Nicely outspoken!" exclaimed the Cambridge Review in January 1920 when Victor Raikes "called the Irish lazy pro-German assassins". In a long career in Conservative politics, Raikes later supported Winston Churchill's Die-Hard campaign against concessions to Indian nationalism in the nineteen-thirties and became President of the Monday Club in 1975, the year that Margaret Thatcher was elected leader of the party.17

The Irish national cause was vocally upheld by two popular speakers, both of whom were elected to the Presidency, L.A. Abraham in October 1920 and W.D. Johnston in January 1922. Abraham's father had sat as an Irish MP at Westminster for thirty years, but he is best remembered for proposing the motion to depose Parnell from the party leadership during the fraught confrontation in Committee Room Fifteen in 1891. There is reason to suspect that it fell to William Abraham to wield the knife because he was "a Protestant member of the Party".18 Louis Abraham objected to being considered some species of savage simply because he was an Irish nationalist. "The only way to treat Ireland", he told the Union, "was to trust her and regard her as a country with her own ideals and traditions."19 His view of Ireland as a single entity naturally led him to play down the existence of a separate Ulster identity, something which he insisted was "confined to two counties and a borough and a half".20 The Granta condemned him in January 1920 for a "rather hysterical defence of Signor [sic] de Valera", but none the less he was a popular speaker. "Never have we listened to such absurd, illogical, bigoted and unbalanced rubbish", remarked the Granta of his speech in May 1919, "and, very never [sic] have we enjoyed a speech so much."21 Like John Redmond and Erskine Childers, Abraham later became a clerk of the House of Commons. Unlike them, he did not return to Irish politics.

The son of a Dublin judge, Denis Johnston burst upon the Union in October 1920 with a "brilliant" speech in favour of justice and understanding. In hailing this young Protestant who had been at school in Scotland, the Cambridge Review drew deep upon ethnic stereotype. "With his combination of Irish wit and eloquence the hon. Member should go far."22 In November 1921, on the verge of the Presidency, he delivered "a great speech", in which he "proclaimed Ireland a nation amongst thunderous applause".23 After graduation, Johnston returned to Dublin where, for some years, he was Director of the Gate Theatre. In 1936 he joined the BBC and, after distinguished service as a war correspondent, he went on to make an academic career in the United States.

Yet effective advocacy of the Irish case is hardly enough to explain the muted attitudes of the Cambridge Union. Throughout the previous hundred years, debates on Irish issues had assumed complete freedom of action. Catholic emancipation, disestablishment, Home Rule, land reform - all of these might or might not be conceded, according to the free and unconstrained decision of the "pre-dominant partner", the English elite. Even the apparent exception, O'Connell's election in the County Clare by-election of 1828, had done little to shift the balance of attitudes towards the Catholic claims, although in 1867 the Union had shown itself perhaps surprisingly flexible in the face of Fenianism. In 1919-21, for the first time, English opinion had to confront an Ireland that it could no longer control. "The choice was between Dominion Home Rule and the re-conquest of Ireland," Granville Sharp told the Union in October 1920, "between chaos and peace".24 Six times in the next thirty years Sharp would fight without success for a seat in Parliament, one of the gallant band who kept the Liberal Party faintly alive through its darkest decades. But if his party faltered, its spirit surely spoke for an important thread of English opinion.

For in many ways, the debates of 1920 and 1921 were not so much about Ireland as fundamental confrontations with the nature of Englishness. Sharp insisted that reprisals by Crown forces in Ireland "were not acts of legitimate self-defence but premeditated, and inflicted on the innocent rather than the guilty". Kingsley Martin, future editor of the New Statesman, attacked apologists for the policy of reprisals: "they could not conceive of an Englishman doing wrong". Another speaker likened Lloyd George's government to a "fourth rate cricket team. Hit the batsman if you can't get the wicket."25 That wise old performer, T.P. O'Connor, took up the theme, insisting that he "did not come to speak for Ireland, but came to speak primarily in the interest of the British Empire". The dominions, he said, had rallied to the cause in 1914 because the Empire was "based upon law, liberty, love, order and honour". Insisting that the Crown forces in Ireland "were miserable caricatures of the true English soldier", he warned that "England would find it hard to recover her old name for honour and love of order and speaking the truth".26 Ian Macpherson had urged members to pause before condemning the reprisals: "let them think of the provocation".27 For the majority, provocation was not a sufficient excuse. Three times in eighteen months, the Cambridge Union voted against the use of force in Ireland.


It has been called "the most melodramatic moment in modern Anglo-Irish relations".28 At Downing Street late on the evening of 5 December 1921, as the Irish delegates hesitated to sign the terms hammered out in exhausting negotiations, Lloyd George dramatically produced two letters, announcing that one of them must be sent by special messenger to the prime minister of Northern Ireland, Sir James Craig, that very night. One letter announced that there would be peace, the other the resumption of terrible war. "Whichever letter you choose travels by special train to Holyhead, and by destroyer to Belfast. The train is waiting with steam up at Euston." The delegates opted for peace and signed the agreement for a Treaty.29

The messenger was one of Lloyd George's private secretaries, Geoffrey Shakespeare, who was just down from Cambridge. Shakespeare had first been elected to the Union Committee in 1914. War service had taken him to Gallipoli, where mystified Australian troops hailed him as "a perishing Bard", before scarlet fever had invalided him back home.30 He had been President of the Union when it had first endorsed Lloyd George's scheme to pacify Ireland in January 1920, but had only once spoken in an Irish debate himself, before or after the war, and then from the cross-benches on the inconclusive motion of May 1919. "The office of President is a useful passport into political life," he would later write. "I was to find that true in my own career." In fact it is a great deal more likely that he was taken on to the Downing Street staff because his father, a prominent Baptist minister, was one of Lloyd George's closest allies, part of the inner circle that had planned the Coalition Liberal campaign for the general election of 1918.31

Shakespeare never could understand why the Irish delegates failed to call Lloyd George's bluff. As Pakenham pointed out, whatever the nature of the undertaking to inform Sir James Craig of the outcome, he had already been kept waiting for months. In any case, a British obligation to Craig "could hardly be set against the whole future of both parts of Ireland".32 The Irish delegates might well have stood on their formal position that Craig was the creature of alien government, and added the more prosaic objection that since he had hardly gone out of his way to advance the chances of an all-Ireland settlement, the Northern Ireland premier could be left to read the newspapers like everybody else.

It is possible that Lloyd George's theatrical gesture represented a manoeuvre at a much more fundamental level. Not merely did the Irish delegates accept the threatened mission "like a law of nature".33 They conspicuously failed to demand similar facilities - at least the special train to Holyhead if not the connecting warship - to enable them to refer the terms of the Treaty back to Dublin. It would seem that the British negotiators had realised that their Irish counterparts had implicitly resolved to reach their own decision. If so, then the elaborate charade of sending news to Craig can be seen as a device to force the Irish to come to terms with the implications of their own decision not to refer the terms on offer to Dublin. To consult Dublin - which, in effect, would be to place the decision in the hands of the inflexible de Valera - would be tantamount to a rejection of the proposed agreement. By demonstrating how easily a messenger could be rushed to Belfast, Lloyd George was forcing the Irish delegates to confront the corollary of their own strategy: once they had resolved to decide for themselves, they had in effect determined upon acceptance. It was not, as Pakenham put it, that Lloyd George "had conjured Dublin off the map" and thereby "obsessed each Delegate with an inescapable sense of personal responsibility".34 It was rather that he had compelled them to recognise the consequences of their own strategy by reminding them of the proximity of Belfast.

The little comedy had to be played out to its end. At twenty minutes to three, the jovial prime minister promised young Shakespeare a state funeral in Westminster Abbey should his mission fail and bundled him out into the December darkness. At once it became clear that the dramatic elements of the dash to Belfast, the special train and the waiting destroyer, had been emphasised at the expense of the necessary supporting detail. Downing Street had made no arrangements to get its envoy to Euston: indeed, it was one of Shakespeare's own informal responsibilities to act as the prime minister's chauffeur. Clutching a copy of the document that was to bring peace to Ireland, he headed into Whitehall to look for a cab. The first taxi that he hailed refused to stop, its driver perhaps mindful of the fact that a delegation of Irish terrorists was at Downing Street. By the time he reached Euston, Shakespeare was in a state of high excitement about his mission. Earlier that night, he had passed the time grilling Erskine Childers about the plot of The Riddle of the Sands. Ushered into a sleeping compartment on the special train, his first thought was to thrust the precious Treaty under the pillow, resolving to guard it throughout the night in full wakefulness. In fact, the next thing he knew was the steward rousing him with the news that the train would reach Holyhead in five minutes. He was whisked aboard the warship and rushed to Belfast. There he encountered a further reminder that melodrama had been emphasised over practicality. No arrangements had been made for him to be met on arrival. The herald of peace went to a public telephone box to call Craig's office, only to find that he did not have the pennies needed for the coin-box. In desperation, he dialled the operator and pleaded the urgency of his need to speak to the prime minister of Northern Ireland. Fortunately, the Belfast telephone exchange had orders to put "the English envoy" through without charge. Using a code of spectacular naivety, Shakespeare was soon able to telegraph to London an assurance that the customer was prepared to do business on the quoted terms.35 It had been seven and a half centuries since Strongbow had sailed from the shores of Lloyd George's native land. In that time, governments in London had rained down upon Ireland armies of conquest, laws of repression and projects of improvement. It fell to the Welsh Wizard to achieve a settlement of the Irish question through the bizarre device of threatening to unleash a young private secretary just down from Cambridge.


Abbreviations are listed at the close of the Preface.

1. Howarth, p. 57.

2. Shakespeare in Cradock, pp. 107-9. Howarth, p. 23, points out that the audience was equal to about one-fifth of the undergraduate population of Cambridge.

3. CR, 19 March 1919, pp. 261-2.

4. Gr, 15 May 1919, pp. 50-1.

5. CR, 30 Jan, 1920, p. 133.

6. 16/3/1920. CR, 19 May 1919, pp. 312-13; Gr, 15 May 1919, pp. 50-1.

7. 27/1/1920. CR, 30 Jan. 1920, pp. 173-4; Gr, 30 Jan. 1920, pp. 166-7.

8. 26/10/1920. CR, 29 Oct. 1920, pp. 50-1; Gr, 29 Oct. 1920, pp. 48-9 and cf. W.D. Johnston in CR, 11 Nov. 1921, pp. 84-5.

9. 10/5/1921. CR, 13 May 1921; Gr, 13 May 1921, p. 390.

10. 8/11/1921. CR, 11 Nov. 1921, pp. 84-5; Gr, 11 Nov. 1921, pp. 82-3.

11. Gr, 11 Nov. 1921, pp. 82-3; A. Howard, Rab, p. 16.

12. CR, 11 Nov. 1921, p. 84.

13. CR, 16 May 1919, pp. 312-13; Gr, 15 May 1919, pp. 50-1.

14. CR, 30 Jan. 1920, pp. 173-4.

15. CR, 29 Oct. 1920, pp. 50-1. Macpherson's namesake, Lloyd George's Chief Secretary for Ireland, does not appear to have been related.

16. Gr, 29 Oct. 1920, pp. 48-9.

17. CR, 30 Jan. 1920, p. 174.

18. O'Connor, Memoirs of an Old Parliamentarian, ii, p. 218.

19. CR, 30 Jan. 1920, pp. 173-4.

20. CR, 16 May 1919, p. 312-13. The Cambridge Review praised him for raising the quality of debate.

21. Gr, 15 May 1919, pp. 50-1.

22. CR, 29 Oct. 1920, p. 51.

23. CR, 11 Nov. 1921, pp. 84-5.

24. CR, 29 Oct. 1920, p. 50.

25. CR, 20 Oct. 1920, p. 51.

26. CR, 13 May 1921, pp. 365-6.

27. CR, 29 Oct. 1920, p. 50.

28. M. Hopkinson, Green Against Green: The Irish Civil War (1988), p. 32.

29. F. Pakenham, Peace by Ordeal (1935), p. 298, quoting from notes by Austen Chamberlain.

30. Gr, 30 Jan. 1920, p. 165 ("Those in Authority").

31. G. Shakespeare, Let Candles Be Brought In (1949), p. 22. His father, Dr J.H. Shakespeare, was a member of a key committee established in July 1918 to plan Coalition Liberal election strategy. T. Wilson, The Downfall of the Liberal Party 1914-1935 (1968 ed.), p. 151.

32. Shakespeare, Let Candles Be Brought In, pp. 87-8; Pakenham, Peace by Ordeal, p. 301.

33. Pakenham, Peace by Ordeal, p. 301.

34. Pakenham, Peace by Ordeal, p. 302.

35. Shakespeare, Let Candles Be Brought In, pp. 89-91.

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