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Book RreviewCarson: an unwitting proponent of Irish partition

February 15, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Peter McDermott

EDWARD CARSON, by A.T.Q. Stewart. Blackstaff Press/Dufour Editions, 150 pp. $19.95.

One day in early 1895, two famous Dubliners chanced upon one another in a London street. Born in the same year, 1854, they had been contemporaries at college, though not friends. One was the most famous literary figure of the day. The other was a member of parliament, representing their alma mater, Dublin University. Oscar Wilde said: “Fancy you being a Tory and Arthur Balfour’s right man! You’re coming along, Ned.”

Oscar Wilde’s success had been predicted; Edward Carson, though, had been a plodding student, but, starting out on the Leinster Circuit, he had risen impressively in the legal profession to become one of the most sought after advocates in London.

On that day the playwright invited the M.P. to dine with him. A.T.Q. Stewart writes: “Carson had never liked Wilde, but he was touched by his friendliness. Had he accepted the invitation, Wilde’s tragic history might have been different, for it was Carson’s strict rule never to appear against anyone from whom he had accepted hospitality.” When a few weeks later Wilde initiated the criminal libel case against Lord Queensbury, the father of his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, Carson accepted the defense brief. Wilde wasn’t too worried. Says Stewart: “He knew Carson’s mind and how it operated, the plainness of his speech still with its strong Dublin twang, and the dogged harsh logic of his argument.” But Carson’s cross-examination would be seen as the turning point in the trial, and in Wilde’s life.

When it was over, after Queensbury was released and Wilde arrested, Carson approached the solicitor-general to ask: “Cannot you let up on the poor fellow now? He has suffered a great deal.” But it was too late.

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Carson went on to feature in some other memorable cases. In 1902 he was the Crown prosecutor in the murder trial of George Chapman, a Polish-born publican who was accused of poisoning his barmaid. Two other women of Chapman’s acquaintance were exhumed and found to be in a state of perfect preservation, a sign of antimony poisoning. He was found guilty and hanged. Later it was discovered that he’d lived in Whitechapel in 1888-89 when the “Jack the Ripper” murders took place there and also in Jersey City in this country when similar murders were committed there in 1890-92.

Carson successfully represented George Archer-Shee, the 13-year-old Catholic cadet who had been dismissed from a naval college on suspicion of stealing. The case captivated the British public in 1909-10 and became the basis of Terence Ratigan’s play “The Winslow Boy,” which was made into a film in 1948.

Archer-Shee died in the Great War, by which time Carson had risen to the pinnacle of British politics. He was appointed to the four-man inner cabinet, known as the War Council. During this period, though, he declined the Conservative leadership.

Thirty-five years earlier, Carson the young barrister passed up another offer: a group of nationalists in Waterford asked him to stand for parliament as a “no-rent” candidate. Though he was at that time a radical, he told them he couldn’t agree with their aim of breaking the Union of Great Britain and Ireland. The Union was to become the “guiding star” of his life.

In this first-rate short biography – originally published in Dublin in 1982 as part of a fine Gill and MacMillan series – Stewart relates an early incident in Carson’s career in which he displayed the kind of courage that “sets the seal on greatness.” He compares the Irishman to de Gaulle, who could also win the admiration of his most bitter enemies with his integrity and courage. Stewart, though, doesn’t draw out the obvious parallel: both men, when they believed they were being truly patriotic, were accused of treason by their peers.

Carson was a central figure in the Ulster Crisis, which convulsed British politics from 1912-14. Churchill and the Belfast military commander Macready, who couldn’t abide the Unionists, were ready to move the troops in. But Carson and his allies had powerful friends in the establishment, as the Curragh mutiny showed.

Ireland was what was at stake, not Ulster. Prime Minister Asquith had promised Home Rule to John Redmond, the Irish nationalist leader. Carson had hoped that the mobilization of Ulster would encourage the government to drop the whole idea. Instead the recruitment and arming of the 90,000-strong Ulster Volunteer Force set in train a process that led to, in the nationalist lexicon, a six county “statelet” with an “artificial majority.”

But the Protestants hadn’t asked for their own state and the most militant among them thought that the exclusion of a nine-county Ulster, where Protestants comprised just half the population, would have been an acceptable compromise with nationalist Ireland. Instead, in their view, the Unionists in Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal, had been sold out.

The real problem with the six-county solution, as Bew, Gibbon and Patterson argue in “Northern Ireland 1921-1996,” was “applying the logic of a devolved system of competitive party government to a divided society.”

Carson could foresee the difficulties. Retiring as leader of the Ulster Unionist Council in February 1921, he said: “From the outset let us see that the Catholic minority have nothing to fear from Protestant majority. Let us take care to win all that is best among those who have been opposed to us in the past.”

Stewart points out that Carson, who died in 1935, never wanted the dismemberment of Ireland; however, “the very success of the Ulster cause ensured the ruin of his own.”

“Edward Carson is avaiable through Dufour Editions, Chester Springs, PA 19425-0007; (610) 458-5005.

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