For Unionists of his time – and for many unionists today – Edward Carson was the uncrowned King of Ulster, a Dubliner who saved them from Home Rule. Yet, his deeply held wish throughout his life was to maintain all of Ireland within the United Kingdom.
Carson was a powerful politician, a forceful lawyer, a leader who through the Ulster Volunteer Force was prepared to bring Ireland to the brink of civil war in his desire to save the Union. He was a man of great resilience and strength, yet prone to hypochondria and pessimism. He was a Queen’s Counsel (QC) – fearsome but also theatrical at times, who could be belligerent or sensitive to witnesses, as the case demanded. He destroyed Oscar Wilde but saved the Winslow Boy.
He was born at 4 Harcourt Street in Dublin on February 9th, 1854, the son of an architect and from a family who were solid members of the Church of Ireland. His grandfather William Carson left Scotland in 1815 for the Irish capital, these Scottish roots perhaps contributing to his obdurate, resolute and combative character that was so at home in unionist Ulster.
Carson went to boarding school in Portarlington on the Laois-Offaly border and, at the urgings of his father, also called Edward, completed a BA at Trinity College, Dublin, an experience he enjoyed and cherished, going on achieve a brilliant law career. One of his contemporaries at Trinity – where he also played hurling – was Oscar Wilde, even then gifted and flamboyant in contrast to Carson, viewed as diligent but dull. They were not friends.
Aged 25, he married Annette Kirwan from Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire), against the wishes of his family. (She died in 1913 and he married again, this time to Ruby Frewen, in September 1914.) Carson and his first bride started off virtually penniless, but he gradually built up his practice, the briefs he earned in the 1880s during the Land War easing their financial worries. At first he worked for the tenants, but the landlords who spotted a legal talent had their solicitors instruct him.
It was a turbulent time, but Carson, by dint of his persuasive legal qualities and some high-profile cases that he won, progressed up the legal and social ladder. In 1889, aged 35, he became the youngest QC in Ireland. Three years later, he was appointed Solicitor-General for Ireland and the same year was returned for Trinity to the House of Commons as a Liberal Unionist.
With the demands of being Irish adviser to the then Conservative leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons and future British prime minister, Arthur Balfour, he moved his practice to England. There, he established himself as one of the top two or three lawyers of his day.
His most famous case was representing the Marquess of Queensberry against a charge of criminal libel by Oscar Wilde, whom Queensberry had described as “posing as a sodomite”. The courtroom duel between Wilde and Carson was one of contrasting styles, Wilde with his eloquence and speedy wit getting the better of the initial exchanges, but Carson steadily and remorselessly wearing down the writer until he admitted defeat. It was a broken Wilde, not Queensberry, who ended up in prison.
Carson was also in several other celebrated cases, one of which was successfully defending 13-year-old Catholic naval cadet George Archer-Shee, who was accused of stealing a five-shilling postal order from another boy – a case dramatised by Terence Rattigan in the play, The Winslow Boy.
Throughout his political career, he maintained a concerned eye on attempts to introduce Home Rule for Ireland and, in 1910, as the star of John Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party appeared to be rising, he accepted the invitation to become leader of the Irish Unionists, dedicating himself to their cause “whatever may happen”.
He knew too that opposition to Home Rule was likely to involve him in decidedly extra- parliamentary activity, but his attitude was that as long as Unionist Ulster was prepared to resist he would lead it. He told 50,000 unionists and Orangemen at a monster rally at James Craig’s home in Craigavon in September 1911 that the moment a Home Rule Bill would pass they must be prepared “to become responsible for the government of the Protestant province of Ulster”.
The campaign was already rolling when, in April 1912, the British Liberal prime minister H H Asquith introduced the Home Rule or, as properly titled, the Government of Ireland Bill. With Craig as the chief organiser, Carson addressed mass unionist rallies against Home Rule throughout Northern Ireland, climaxing with Ulster Day in Belfast on September 28th, 1912. This was when 237,368 men signed – some in their own blood – the Ulster Covenant pledging to use “all means” to defeat Home Rule, and 234,046 women signed a similar solemn pledge.
Through the two previous failed attempts to achieve Home Rule in 1886 and in 1892-93 the “Orange Card” of military or paramilitary resistance was proposed – as in “Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right”, as stated by Lord Randolph Churchill. This was brought a step further with the creation of the Ulster Volunteers in 1912 and the formal establishment of the Ulster Volunteer Force in early 1913. By the end of that year, the old UVF was strongly organised with more than 90,000 part-time members.
In January 1914, under the enthusiastic promptings of Craig, Carson supported the decision to import arms from Germany for the UVF, with some 25,000 guns landed at Larne in April 1914. Two months later, the Irish Volunteers responded by also importing German weapons. This was at a time when Britain and Ireland were in turmoil over Home Rule and the prospect of civil war seemed very real. But the threat receded when a much greater conflict started in July that year.
Both sets of volunteers ultimately ended up dying in their thousands, sometimes together, in the Battle of the Somme and other great battles of the first World War. That conflict brought Carson to a different form of centre-stage British politics. He was Attorney-General in 1915 and 1916, First Lord of the Admiralty in 1917-1918 and a member of Lloyd George’s War Cabinet in 1917-1918.
After the war, he was elected for Belfast Duncairn in the 1918 election, and thereafter apprehensively observed the convulsions that led to civil war and partition. He again rallied to the unionist cause, telling Orangemen on July 12th, 1920, that the UVF would be called out if there were any threat to the Union.
Carson could have lived with partition as long as Ireland remained within the United Kingdom. But he saw the severing of the 26 counties from the Union in December 1921 with the creation of the Irish Free State as a British government betrayal. Ulster Unionists, as the historian A T Q Stewart wrote in a brief biography of Carson, in achieving a government at Stormont “had won a victory of a kind”. But Carson felt no such sense of achievement, as the “guiding star” of his political life was to save all of Ireland for the Union.
Stewart added: “It was no part of his intention to dismember Ireland, or to see unionism survive in the form of a Home Rule parliament in Belfast – rather the contrary was true – but having used the resistance of the Ulster loyalists as the trump card to defeat Home Rule, he became to some degree their prisoner. Paradoxically, the very success of the Ulster cause ensured the ruin of his own.”
He politely declined the invitation to be first prime minister of Northern Ireland in 1921, leaving that job to James Craig. When he formally handed over leadership of the Ulster Unionist Council, ruling body for the Ulster Unionists, he offered them some final advice: “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. While maintaining intact our own religion, let us give the same rights to the religion of our neighbours”.