In a commemorative decade where public attention is mostly trained on events of large-scale and major historical significance, it’s hardly surprising that the departure, in early 1915, of Ireland’s longest-serving lord lieutenant, Lord Aberdeen, should excite barely a murmur of comment.
Why would it? The role of viceroy – as it was also known – was one largely devoid of power, the office-holder reduced to the performance of mainly ceremonial duties. Such constitutional clout as he held was theoretical only. As far as the practical governance of Ireland was concerned, power had, from the Act of Union of 1800 onwards, been shifting steadily towards Dublin Castle where the chief secretary presided over an ever-expanding administration.
Lord Aberdeen, despite serving two terms as viceroy, did little to arrest this erosion of power. And yet, when the British prime minster finally called time on his service in Ireland, he left reluctantly and only following a futile campaign to cling to office.
But to what exactly was Aberdeen so attached? Was it the comfort of his fine Phoenix Park residence at the vice-regal lodge, now Áras an Uachtaráin? Or the thrill of playing host to the finest parties on Dublin’s social scene? Or the almost monarchical pomp that so often accompanied his public appearances? Or was it the salary, which helped steady his otherwise uncertain finances?
Maybe, but all that is to ignore Lord Aberdeen’s sheer exceptionality. Here was the first lord lieutenant to favour home rule, his initial appointment, in 1886, coming under the Liberal administration of William Gladstone, who had initiated a project to pacify Irish nationalism by addressing some of its most long-standing grievances.
Here too was the first lord lieutenant to be accompanied by a wife whose profile and political influence eclipsed that of his own. In May 1914, Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin newspaper caustically claimed that it was “her ladyship . . . not the babbling creature who wears the title” who was the real governor-general of Ireland.
Griffith may then have occupied on place on the margins of Irish political opinion, but on this matter, he undoubtedly spoke for the mainstream.
So great were Lady Ishbel Aberdeen’s philanthropic impulses and so varied were her social and political concerns that she appeared an almost ubiquitous presence in Irish life. Supported by her husband, she was indefatigable in her championing of charitable causes, social reform and home-grown Irish industrial development.
Ishbel led a fight to eradicate the scourge of tuberculosis and promoted efforts to provide better housing for the urban poor, an ambition scuppered by the intervention of the first World War.
In rejecting the role of the ornamental wife, Ishbel frequently found herself the object of private resentment and popular ridicule. If government officials were repeatedly piqued by her interference in official business, unionists objected to her home rule sympathies, frowning on her dalliances with Gaelic culture, which extended to learning a few words of the Irish language. As for advanced nationalists, no amount of good works could reconcile them to anything associated with a viceroyalty, which Arthur Griffith had once described as the “fount of all that is slimy in our national life”.
In the end, it was partly Ishbel's activism and meddling that was her – and her husband's – undoing. In November 1914, a controversy erupted after newspapers disclosed details of a private letter she had sent to the editor of the Freeman's Journal in which she accused unionists of using the Red Cross Society for political purposes. In an unedifying exchange of letters which followed in this newspaper, the whole affair was characterised as a "deplorable business".
Most likely, the episode hastened an exit that would have anyway come. Within weeks, the Aberdeens received notice from the prime minister, Herbert Asquith, that their time in Ireland was up. And within months, despite heavy lobbying to remain in situ, they were gone. On a fine February afternoon in 1915, the Aberdeens departed Dublin through crowd-lined streets and amid banners and placards with inscriptions reminding them of the causes and campaigns they had espoused and supported. Upon one scroll was a message in Irish: "Dia libh".
For all the criticism levelled at them, not all of it unjustified, their engagement with Ireland was as sincere as it was deep. With their departure, moderate Irish nationalism lost an ally and the poor a friend.