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  Edward Henry Carson (1854–1935), by George Charles Beresford, 1903 Edward Henry Carson (1854–1935), by George Charles Beresford, 1903
Carson, Edward Henry, Baron Carson (1854–1935), politician and lawyer, was born in Harcourt Street, Dublin, on 9 February 1854, the second son of Edward Henry Carson, architect and civil engineer, and Isabella Lambert of Castle Ellen, Athenry, co. Galway. His family was typical of the Irish protestant, or ‘Anglo-Irish’ people, with its mixture of professional and landed backgrounds.

Education and early legal career

Carson was educated at Arlington House, a boarding-school in Portarlington, Queen's county. In 1871 he took the entrance examination to read classics in Trinity College, Dublin, where he joined the celebrated debating society. In that society he displayed traits of his Liberal Unionist disposition, supporting radical causes such as the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland but in the broader context of maintaining the union with Britain. After taking only a pass degree in 1876 he studied at the King's Inns, Dublin, and was called to the Irish bar in the Easter term of 1877.

Carson soon built up a reputation as a junior counsel, making the acquaintance of Edward Gibson (afterwards Lord Ashbourne), then Disraeli's attorney-general for Ireland, and Gerald FitzGibbon, solicitor-general. Like many of his contemporaries, he was lucky in that, at a crucial time in his career, he was soon involved in the increase of litigation resulting from Gladstone's Land Act of 1881, and by 1886 he had acquired a leading reputation at the Irish bar. By then he had left any active political interests behind, but in 1886 John Gibson, recently appointed Irish attorney-general by the new Conservative administration, nominated him to be his crown counsel. Carson was only thirty-two years old, and the position carried with it some personal risk. He was soon embroiled in cases arising from the Plan of Campaign launched by members of the Irish Parliamentary Party to reduce rents in selected estates through direct and concerted action by the tenants. Carson was retained in his post by Peter O'Brien, Gibson's successor, and he caught the eye of Arthur James Balfour, chief secretary for Ireland, who was impressed by his legal skills and dogged courage.

Carson's role in prosecuting cases during the Plan of Campaign earned him the nickname of Coercion Carson, and the accusation that he had sold out on his earlier principles (when he had acted for tenants under the Land Act of 1881) in the hope of a government job. But it was characteristic of Carson to ignore criticism, however savage, if he thought that what he was doing was right: and Carson, always an admirer of the landlords of Ireland, believed that the Plan of Campaign must be faced down. He showed his mettle in the celebrated Mitchelstown affair on 9 September 1887, when the Royal Irish Constabulary fired on demonstrators, inflicting two fatalities. Carson deplored the mishandling of the episode which had led to the confrontation, but declared ‘I think that as far as the people are concerned, the firing would have a satisfactory result’ (Hyde, 71).

Carson's rise to the top of his profession was now rapid. In 1889 he was appointed a QC, and in June 1892 he became solicitor-general for Ireland. In 1892 he entered politics as one of the Unionist members for Dublin University, though he never lost his liberal disposition, and indeed preferred to describe himself as a ‘liberal unionist’. But his overwhelming interest still lay in the legal profession. He was called to the English bar by the Middle Temple in 1893, and became a QC in 1894. It was now that he made his name in some famous cases, notably the libel action brought by Oscar Wilde against the marquess of Queensberry in 1895. Carson acted for Queensberry, revealing his formidable powers of cross-examination in destroying Wilde in a celebrated encounter. By 1900 he was earning some £20,000 a year in fees, and was reckoned one of the great advocates in an age when advocates had a following among the public. In 1900 he was appointed solicitor-general for England, a ministerial post which carried a knighthood, and he went on to take further high profile cases. In 1910 he acted for the Archer-Shee family in their action following their son's expulsion from the Royal Naval College at Osborne for allegedly stealing a postal order. This case, which Carson won, showed him at his best: emotional, yet professional, and determined to gain justice for the smallest in the land against the greatest.

Entering unionist politics

Carson entered his most active political phase only belatedly. But, in a real sense, his Irish experience at the bar had already helped him formulate his political ideas. His early career had been marked by his appearing for tenants under Gladstone's Land Act; but his experience during the Plan of Campaign, and his concern to defend the landlord system, made him a stern advocate of the landlord class. In 1892 he represented one of the most unpopular landlords, Lord Clanricarde, during the hearings of John Morley's evicted tenants commission. He condemned the Irish Land Bill of 1895, and led a revolt against the Land Act of 1896, which extended the right of tenants to purchase their farms. Carson was no passive spectator of Irish policy, as his revolt showed. He castigated British ministers for their occasional asides against the Irish members, denouncing A. J. Balfour for his remark that the Irish members ‘will invariably come down to the House and press for money when they think it can be squeezed out of the Treasury’ (Boyce, 150). He warned British ministers against their ‘everlasting attempt to make peace in Ireland by giving sops to one party at the expense of the other’ (Beckett, 163). When he told Balfour in 1900 that it was ‘only for Ireland that I'm in politics’ he spoke the plain truth. But his coming to the forefront of Irish, and British, politics was delayed until 1910, when Carson was fifty-six years old and (as always) obsessed with what he regarded as his poor health. This, the apogee of his political career, revealed Carson's strengths and weaknesses as a political leader and as a man. And it seemed at variance with his career in the law that had been the mainstay of his rise to fame and fortune.

In February 1910 Carson became leader of the Irish Unionist MPs at Westminster. These members, about twenty in number, were drawn almost entirely from the unionist constituencies of the north, and Carson assumed the leadership at a time when the political outlook for unionist Ireland seemed dangerous. The general election of January 1910 left Asquith's Liberal government dependent for its Commons majority on John Redmond and the Irish nationalists. A second election in December left the position virtually unchanged, and now the Liberals set about removing the House of Lords' veto over Commons' legislation. Once this was done, the last constitutional barrier against Irish home rule would be dismantled. A man of Carson's temperament would have disliked the Liberals' attack on the Lords anyway, for it showed the exercise of government power at its most ruthless. But the price of nationalist support for the attack on the Lords was a new Home Rule Bill, which Asquith introduced in April 1912. Carson now prepared himself for the last great struggle of his career, to preserve the union, which he described as the guiding star of his political life.

The home-rule crisis, 1912–1914

This brought Carson to confront the nature of his political beliefs, and test them against the harsh realities of power; to struggle between his passionate, emotional temperament and the need to act as a pragmatic leader of a volatile Ulster unionist rebellion against home rule; and to reconcile this leadership with a lifetime spent in the law. Carson had shown Balfour in 1896 that he would not spare unionist politicians if he thought they were betraying Ireland; it was unlikely that Liberal politicians would fare any better. But his struggle against home rule proved to be more protracted than anyone could have imagined, and lasted until after the First World War. And the changing backdrop against which it took place called upon Carson to weigh up his love of unionist Ireland against his equally deeply held belief in the British empire. It was indeed only for Ireland that Carson was in politics; but politics soon made other demands on his loyalties, demands which could not be set aside. Small wonder, then, that the years between the Home Rule Bill of 1912 and the partition of Ireland in 1921 were to prove the most dramatic and testing of Carson's long and distinguished life.

His life rather than his career; for there was little to be gained by Carson in terms of career politics from his special connection with Ulster Unionism. His purpose was to defeat home rule for the whole of Ireland; his means were the special case that he could make for Ulster opposition to home rule which, he believed, would force the government to abandon its bill. If Ulster could not be coerced, then home rule was dead. This course of action must involve him in some dangerous circumstances; and, while Carson never feared danger, he went into the Ulster camp in what was a risky venture. At a great demonstration on 23 September 1911 held at Craigavon, the home of the Ulster Unionist MP for East Down, Sir James Craig, Carson was welcomed as the leader of Ulster's stand for union. Carson pledged himself to join with the Ulster unionists to defeat ‘the most nefarious conspiracy that has ever been hatched against a free people’ (Hyde, 291). There is no doubt that Carson's bond with Ulster unionists was sincere; no doubt, too, that he was loved as much by them as he was hated by nationalists. But, while in public their unity was proclaimed, this concealed deep differences not only of tactics but of strategy as well. Carson came from the outside; and he struggled to control the Ulster unionists, and to keep them to peaceful processes. Thus he joined enthusiastically in the brilliant propaganda coup of ‘Ulster's solemn league and covenant’ in September 1912, in which Ulster unionists pledged themselves to resist home rule, which was as much an attempt to control passions as to express defiance. He accepted the raising of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in 1912 to resist home rule, and acquiesced in its arming in 1914. But he was no proto-fascist, leading armed men against lawful authority. And, despite his grand strategic design of defeating home rule for the whole of Ireland, he knew that his duty lay in making whatever reasonable settlement could be achieved. On 23 September 1913 he wrote to the Conservative and Unionist Party leader, Andrew Bonar Law, that he was ‘fully conscious of the duty there is to try and come to some terms’ (ibid., 339–40). This would entail getting the best terms that he could for the Ulster unionists, should his more ambitious plan to save all Ireland for the union come to nothing. These would take the form of some form of exclusion of unionist Ulster from the operation of the Home Rule Act, be it county option, or a six-county ‘clean cut’. In March 1914 fifty-eight officers of the British army, stationed at the Curragh camp, co. Kildare, declared that they would accept dismissal from the service rather than attack Ulster unionists. Carson used the government's loss of face to press, not for the abandonment of the Home Rule Bill, but for the exclusion of six counties of Ulster. He accepted the Ulster unionist plan of a gun-running expedition when he became convinced that not to proceed would weaken the Ulster Volunteers and thus undermine the whole Ulster unionist position. ‘I rely on you to keep your arms with a view to keeping the peace’, he warned one UVF regiment (ibid., 368). Carson now appeared to have become the servant of events rather than their master: by May 1914 the Home Rule Bill had proceeded through all the formalities, and only required the royal assent. Carson's mood, seldom optimistic, now darkened, and he awaited with despair the final crisis, one that seemed inevitable when a conference held at Buckingham Palace at the end of July to try to resolve the deadlock ended in failure on the issue of which Ulster counties would be excluded temporarily from the jurisdiction of the Home Rule Act.

Carson warned that the great crisis of ‘our country’ and ‘our fate’ was imminent ‘unless something happens’. That something turned out to be the involvement of the United Kingdom in the European war in August 1914. As the new crisis approached, Carson and Bonar Law met Asquith on 30 July and agreed that, subject to the cabinet and John Redmond's approval, an amending bill which the government had offered dealing with the Ulster question should be postponed. Asquith's decision, announced on 15 September, to place the Home Rule Bill on the statute book, but postpone its operation until the war ended, was naturally regarded by unionists as a betrayal. But Carson showed that he was a loyal servant of the state. He swallowed the government's ‘betrayal’ and promised the Ulster Volunteer Force for overseas service without qualification.

Carson and the First World War

But it was from now on that Carson's political guiding star—the defence of the union—found itself influenced by other, and at times much more pressing, issues. Carson, the unionist back-bencher, now proved himself a formidable scourge of the government's mishandling of the war. When Asquith reconstructed his administration in May 1915 to include members of the opposition, Carson entered the cabinet as attorney-general, but resigned in October because of the series of military and strategic blunders that began with the disaster of the Gallipoli landings, and ended with the collapse of Serbia. Carson's stock in the Unionist Party now rose to new heights. He led the unionist war committee, a ‘ginger group’ formed in January 1916 and dedicated to a more vigorous prosecution of the war. He played a significant role in the fall of Asquith and his replacement by Lloyd George in December 1916. Carson now became first lord of the Admiralty, but he proved a surprisingly ineffective minister. Lloyd George ascribed this to Carson's Irishness, asserting that an Irishman was naturally opposed to every government, even one supported by his own party. This trite remark contained a germ of truth: Carson's real power lay, as it did in his legal career, in his strength of critical attack. He had not the temperament to hustle civil servants, and his admiration for the navy lowered his guard against the prejudices and conservatism of the service. In July 1917 he moved to the war cabinet as minister without portfolio.

But Carson's involvement in, and sincere commitment to, the British war effort modified his deep-seated love of the union. Following the Easter rising in April 1916 Asquith gave Lloyd George the task of making a quick settlement between nationalists and unionists so that the kingdom would not be weakened by a renewal of the Irish crisis. Carson accepted Lloyd George's suggestion for a settlement based on the exclusion of six Ulster counties (Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry, and Tyrone) from a Dublin parliament, which would now be introduced at once. Carson yielded to the loss of most of Ireland from the union because, as he exclaimed when Lloyd George warned him that not to settle might lose the war, ‘if the war is lost, we are all lost’. It was a measure of his distance from his fellow southern unionists that his support of partition was accepted by the Ulster Unionist Council in June 1916, but rejected by leading southern unionists such as Lord Lansdowne and Lord Middleton. Carson was deeply disappointed at the failure of the Lloyd George mission; but Ireland returned to the agenda in March 1917, when the government was anxious that the Irish question should not hinder its efforts to induce the United States of America to enter the war on the allied side. Carson consented to the setting up of a convention of representative Irishmen under the chairmanship of Sir Horace Plunkett to find a basis for agreement. Carson did not participate in the convention. And it was a sign of his growing remoteness, not only from southern but also from Ulster unionists, when he moved towards the idea of a federal settlement of the Irish question (which he had considered in 1914), only to see this now firmly rejected by the Ulster unionists in the convention. In January 1918, thoroughly unhappy in office, Carson resigned from the government, on the grounds that he wanted to be ‘unfettered’ in considering any Irish settlement proposal that Lloyd George might derive from the convention's report.

Carson and the Irish settlement

Carson now seemed to have lost all his political bearings. He supported conscription for Ireland, but warned that the inclusion of Ulster in a home rule bill as the price of conscription was impossible. ‘Nothing’, he exclaimed in a remarkable outburst in the House of Commons in April 1918, ‘Ireland—north, south, east and west—has suffered so much in its history as from the broken pledges of British statesmen’ (Colvin, 3.343). When the Lloyd George coalition published its manifesto for the general election of December 1918, Carson supported its promise that Ulster would not be coerced into any home-rule settlement. In that election Carson finally abandoned his southern Irish constituency and successfully contested the Duncairn division in Belfast; but he pressed for the government to introduce better services of health, housing, and education into the whole of Ireland. When the government introduced its Irish legislation, in the form of double-barrelled home rule, with parliaments for northern and southern Ireland, Carson advised the southern unionists to accept the inevitable, or take refuge in Ulster, but although he chaired the meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council held in March 1920 to decide its response to the bill, Carson took no part in the debates. This meant that Ulster would accept home rule, and although Carson approved of the decision, he then went on to say in Westminster that home rule was fraught with disaster: ‘As regards my own country, it will be cut off from the greatest Kingdom that has ever existed.’ His political impotence was clear to all when he confessed that he would ‘not vote for home rule. At the same time I shall do nothing to prevent this Bill from becoming law’ (Hyde, 447).

Carson formally resigned the Ulster Unionist leadership in February 1921, a few days before his sixty-seventh birthday, urging the Ulster unionists ‘from the outset’ to see that ‘the Catholic minority have nothing to fear from the Protestant majority’ (Hyde, 449). In May 1921 he was appointed lord of appeal and was created Baron Carson of Duncairn. But his last, and in many ways his greatest, speech was made on 14 December 1921 during the debates in the Lords on the Anglo-Irish treaty which Lloyd George had signed with Sinn Féin on 6 December. Carson was now fully liberated from the need to put loyalty to Britain before loyalty to Ireland, and he attacked the treaty in a superb display of invective. But his speech was a commentary on his own failure to defend the union as much as it was an attack on the treaty. ‘Loyalty’, he declared, ‘is a strange thing. It is something you cannot get by sitting round a table and trying to find a formula for an Oath of Allegiance which means nothing. It is something born and bred in you.’ It was Carson's tragedy that his loyalty could not remain all of a piece, but was divided between his southern upbringing, his Ulster affiliations, and his wider British and imperial patriotism. His bitter attack on the Conservative and Unionist Party, in particular, was an expression of his frustration, as negative as it was brilliant.

Carson may have damaged the coalition government by his attack, though it is doubtful if it made a substantial difference to what was an already uneasy political arrangement. Carson continued as a law lord, between 1921 and 1929, defending the interests of southern unionists in the new Irish Free State. He was regarded by his contemporaries as a competent rather than a great judge, but he remained, as always, well disposed towards even the most junior barrister. He revisited Ulster only three times: to receive an honorary LLD from Queen's University, Belfast, in 1926, to attend the opening of the new Northern Ireland parliament buildings at Stormont in 1932, and on the occasion of the unveiling of his own statue in front of those buildings in July 1933.

Character, marriages, and death

Carson was a man of powerful and brooding presence. His features were usually set in a scowl, and his political speeches were marked by a menacing, and yet homely, style. However, he could look jaunty and dashing, and he possessed great charm. His outward appearance hid a lack of confidence and an emotional nature which placed him under great strain. He occasionally took to his bed, complaining of bad health but, considering the demands he made on himself in the course of his career, and especially between 1911 and 1921, his constitution was clearly sound. Carson was married twice: first, on 19 December 1879, to Sarah Annette Foster (d. 1913), the adopted daughter of Henry Persse Kirwan of Triston Lodge, co. Galway, and second, on 17 September 1914, to Ruby (1881–1966), elder daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel Stephen Frewen of Charlton Musgrove, Somerset. His friendships with women—with whom he was more at ease than with men—caused strained relations with his first wife. His second wife was younger than Carson by some thirty years, and this provoked ribald jokes from his contemporaries about the reasons for his fatigue during the day. His children (two daughters and two sons from his first marriage, and a son from his second) caused him concern, and he once described them as a ‘rum lot’. His elder son and younger daughter by his first marriage predeceased him; Edward Carson, his son by his second marriage, was elected Conservative member of parliament for the Isle of Thanet in July 1945.

Carson died at home at Cleve Court, Isle of Thanet, on 22 October 1935 and was buried in St Anne's Cathedral, Belfast. He belonged to the Anglo-Irish tradition which held fast to the belief that the union between Great Britain and Ireland was axiomatic. This earned Carson the jibe from one opponent that ‘he has no country—he has a caste’. Certainly he and his people depended on England's support, and it was a measure of the essential fragility of their position that Carson found himself on the losing side in 1921. But he believed in the greatness of the British empire, and in this sense he possessed a broader patriotism that he always hoped would be compatible with his Irish patriotism. Perhaps a better judgement was that of T. M. Healy, who remarked of Carson that ‘although a Unionist, he never was un-Irish’. Carson saw no conflict between being Irish and being a unionist. This is why, in both parts of the partitioned island, he felt, like Garibaldi, that he had been made a stranger in the land of his birth.

D. George Boyce

Sources  

E. Marjoribanks, The life of Lord Carson, 1 (1932) · I. Colvin, The life of Lord Carson, 2–3 (1934–6) · H. M. Hyde, Carson: the life of Sir Edward Carson, Lord Carson of Duncairn (1953) · A. T. Q. Stewart, Edward Carson (1981) · A. Jackson, Sir Edward Carson (1993) · R. B. McDowell, ‘Sir Edward Carson’, The shaping of modern Ireland, ed. C. C. O'Brien (1960), 85–97 · J. C. Beckett, ‘Carson: unionist and rebel’, Confrontations: studies in Irish history (1972), 160–70 · D. G. Boyce, ‘Edward Carson and Irish unionism’, Worsted in the game: losers in Irish history, ed. C. Brady (1989), 145–57

Archives  

CAC Cam., cabinet papers [copies] · PRONI, corresp. and papers |  BL, corresp. with Arthur James Balfour, Add. MS 49709, passim · BL, corresp. with Lord Northcliffe, Add. MS 62158 · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Herbert Asquith · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with H. A. Gwynne · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lord Selborne · Linen Hall Library, Belfast, Ulster day scrapbook · Lpool RO, corresp. with seventeenth earl of Derby · NL Scot., letters to F. S. Oliver · Parl. Arch., letters to R. D. Blumenfield · Parl. Arch., corresp. with Andrew Bonar Law · Parl. Arch., letters to David Lloyd George · Parl. Arch., corresp. with Herbert Samuel · Parl. Arch., corresp. with John St Loe Strachey · PRONI, corresp. with H. de Fellenburgh Montgomery · PRONI, letters to Lady Londonderry  

FILM

 

BFINA, ‘The sportsmen battalion’, Warwick Bioscope Chronicle, 1912; ‘Scenes and incidents in connection with “Ulster day”’, 28 Sept 1912; ‘The Belfast unionist demonstration held at Balmoral Belfast’, 1913; ‘The Ulster covenant’, 1962


Likenesses  

R. P. Staples, chalk, 1898, NPG · B. Stone, photograph, 1898, NPG · G. C. Beresford, two negatives and photograph, 1903, NPG [see illus.] · M. Beerbohm, watercolour caricature, 1913, NPG · J. G. Day, etching and drypoint, 1914, NPG · J. Lavery, oils, 1921, Ulster Museum, Belfast · G. C. Beresford, negative, 1923, NPG · G. C. Beresford, photograph, 1923?, NPG · L. S. Merrifield, statue, c.1933, Stormont, Belfast · H. Furniss, pen-and-ink sketch, NPG · W. Hester, caricature, Hentschel-colourtype, NPG; repro. in VF (8 Feb 1911) · P. de Laszlo, oils, Middle Temple, London · Lib [L. Prosperi], cartoon, NPG; repro. in VF (9 Nov 1893) · L. S. Merrifield, marble bust, Belfast corporation · B. Partridge, pen-and-ink sketch, NPG; repro. in Punch (26 Nov 1913) · A. P. F. Ritchie, cigarette card, NPG · W. H., chromolithograph caricature, NPG; repro. in VF (17 Jan 1912)

Wealth at death  

£150,295 18s. 5d.: probate, 19 Dec 1935, CGPLA Eng. & Wales · £398 14s. 5d.: probate, 29 May 1936, CGPLA Éire