New Phases of the Irish Revolution
(1880 - 1882)

Taken from The Life of Gladstone

by John Morley

Published in 1907 by Macmillan and Co

William Ewart Gladstone

William Ewart Gladstone

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See Parnell: The First Home Rule Bill

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The agitation of the Irish land league strikes at the roots of all contract, and therefore at the very foundations of modern society; but if we would effectually withstand it, we must cease to insist on maintaining the forms of free contract where the reality is impossible. – T. H. GREEN.[1]

On the day in 1880 when Lord Beaconsfield was finally quitting the official house in Downing Street, one who had been the ablest and most zealous supporter of his policy in the press, called to bid him good-bye. The visitor talked gloomily of the national prospect; of difficulties with Austria, with Russia, with the Turk; of the confusions to come upon Europe from the doctrines of Midlothian. The fallen minister listened. Then looking at his friend, he uttered in deep tones a single word. ‘Ireland!’ he said.

 In a speech made in 1882 Mr. Gladstone put the case to the House of Commons:-   

The government had to deal with a state of things in Ireland entirely different from any that had been known there for fifty years… With a political revolution we have ample strength to cope. There is no reason why our cheeks should grow pale, or why our hearts should sink, at the idea of grappling with a political revolution. The strength of this country is tenfold what is required for such a purpose… The seat and source of the movement was not to be found during the time the government was in power. It is to be looked for in the foundation of the land league.[2]

Two years later he said at Edinburgh: -

I frankly admit I had had much upon my hands connected with the doings of the Beaconsfield government in almost every quarter of the world, and I did not know, no one knew, the severity of the crisis that was already swelling upon the horizon, and that shortly after rushed upon us like a fiend.[3]

So came upon them by degrees the predominance of Irish affairs and Irish activity in the parliament of 1880, which had been chosen without much reference to Ireland.


A social revolution with the land league for its organ in Ireland, and Mr. Parnell and his party for its organ in parliament, now, in Mr. Gladstone’s words, rushed upon him and his government like a flood. The mind of the country was violently drawn from Dulcigno and Thessaly, from Batoum and Erzeroum, from the wild squalor of Macedonia and Armenia to squalor not less wild in Connaught and Munster, in Mayo, Galway, Sligo, Kerry. Agrarian agitation on the one hand, parliamentary violence on the other, were the two potent weapons by which the Irish revolutionary leader assailed the misrule of the British garrison as the agents of the British parliament in the country. This formidable movement slowly unmasked itself. The Irish government, represented by Mr. Forster in the cabinet, began by allowing the law conferring exceptional powers upon the executive to lapse. The main reason was want of time to pass a fresh Act. In view of the undoubted distress in some parts of Ireland, and of the harshness of certain evictions, the government further persuaded the House of Commons to pass a bill for compensating an evicted tenant on certain conditions, if the landlord turned him out of his holding. The bill was no easy dose for the cabinet or its friends. Lord Landsdowne stirred much commotion by retiring from the government, and landowners and capitalists were full of consternation. At least one member of the cabinet was profoundly uneasy. It is impossible to read the letters of the Duke of Argyll to Mr. Gladstone on land, church establishment, the Zulu war, without wondering on what theory a cabinet was formed that included him, able and upright as he was, along with radicals like Mr. Chamberlain. 

Before the cabinet was six months old the duke was plucking Mr. Gladstone’s sleeve with some vivacity at the Birmingham language on Irish land. Mr. Parnell in the committee stage abstained from supporting the measure, sixteen liberals voted against the third reading, and the House of Lords,  in which nationalist Ireland had not a single representative, threw out the bill by a majority of 282 against 51. It was said that if all the opposition peers had stayed away, still ministers would have been beaten by their own supporters.

Looking back upon these events, Mr. Gladstone set out in a memorandum of later years, that during the session of 1880 the details of the budget gave him a good deal to do, while the absorbing nature of foreign questions before and after his accession to office had withdrawn his attention from his own Land Act of 1870:-

Late in the session came the decisive and disastrous rejection by the House of Lords of the bill by means of which the government had hoped to arrest the progress of disorder, and avert the necessity for measures in the direction of coercion. The rapid and vast extension of agrarian disturbance followed, as was to be expected, this wild excess of landlordism, and the Irish government proceeded to warn the cabinet that coercive legislation would be necessary.

Forster allowed himself to be persuaded by the governmental agents in Ireland that the root of the evil lay within small compass; that there were in the several parishes a certain limited number of unreasonable and mischievous men, that these men were known to the police, and that if summary powers were confided to the Irish government, by the exercise of which these objectionable persons might be removed, the evil would die out of itself. I must say I never fell into this extraordinary illusion of Forster’s about his ‘village ruffian.’ But he was a very impracticable man placed in a position of great responsibility. He was set upon a method of legislation adapted to the erroneous belief that the mischief lay only with a very limited number of well-known individuals, that is to say, the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act… Two points of difference arose: first, as to the nature of the coercion to be used; secondly, as to its time. I insisted that we were bound to try what we could do against Parnell under the existing law, before asking for extraordinary powers. Both Bright and Chamberlain, if I remember right, did very good service in protesting against haste, and resisting Forster’s desire to anticipate the ordinary session for the purpose of obtaining coercive powers. When, however, the argument of time was exhausted by the Parnell trial[4] and otherwise, I obtained no support from them in regard to the kind of coercion we were to ask. I considered it should be done by giving stringency to the existing law, but not by abolishing the right to be tried before being imprisoned. I felt the pulse of various members of the cabinet, among whom I seem to recollect Kimberley and Carlingford, but I could obtain no sympathy, and to my dismay both Chamberlain and Bright arrived at the conclusion that if there was to be coercion at all, which they lamented, there was something simple and effective in the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act which made such a method preferable to others.[5] I finally acquiesced. It may be asked why? My resistance would have broken up the government or involved my own retirement. My reason for acquiescence was that I bore in mind the special commission under which the government had taken office. It related to the foreign policy of the country, the whole spirit and effect of which we were to reconstruct. This work had not yet been fully accomplished, and it seemed to me that the effective prosecution of it was our first and highest duty. I therefore submitted.

By the end of November Mr. Gladstone explained to the Queen that the state of Ireland was menacing; its distinctive character was not so much that of general insecurity of life, as that of a widespread conspiracy against property. The worst of it was, he said, that the leaders, unlike O’Connell, failed to denounce crime. The outbreak was not comparable to that of 1832. In 1879 homicides were 64 against 242 for the earlier year of disturbance. But things were bad enough. In Galway they had a policeman for every forty-seven adult males, and a soldier for every ninety-seven. Yet dangerous terrorism was rampant. ‘During more than thirty-seven years since I first entered a cabinet,’ Mr Gladstone told the Speaker (November 25), ‘I have hardly known so difficult a question of administration, as that of the immediate duty of the government in the present state of Ireland. The multitude of circumstances to be taken into account must strike every observer. Among these stand the novelty of the suspension of Habeas Corpus in a case of agrarian crime stimulated by a public society, and the rather serious difficulty of obtaining it; but more important than these is the grave doubt whether it would really reach the great characteristic evil of the time, namely, the paralysis of most important civil and proprietary rights, and whether the immediate proposal of a remedy, probably ineffective and even in a coercive sense partial, would not seriously damage the prospects of that arduous and comprehensive task which without doubt we must undertake when parliament is summoned.’ In view of considerations of this kind, the awkwardness of directing an Act of parliament virtually against leaders who were at the moment the object of indictment in the Irish law courts; difficulties of time; doubts as to the case being really made out; doubts as to the efficacy of the proposed remedy, Mr Forster did not carry the cabinet, but agreed to continue the experiment of the ordinary law. The experiment was no success, and coercion accompanied by land reform became the urgent policy.


The opening of the session of 1881 at once brought obstruction into full view. The Irish took up their position as a party of action. They spoke incessantly; as Mr. Gladstone put it, ‘sometimes rising to the level of mediocrity, and more often grovelling amidst mere trash in unbounded profusion.’ Obstruction is obstruction all the world over. It was not quite new at Westminster, but it was new on this scale. Closure proposals sprang up like mushrooms. Liberal members with a historical bent ran privately to the Speak with ancient precedents of dictatorial powers asserted by his official ancestors, and they exhorted him to revive them.

Mr. Forster brought in his bill. Its scope may be described in a sentence. It practically enabled the viceroy to lock up anybody he pleased, and to detain him as long as he pleased, while the Act remained in force.[6] The debate for leave to introduce the bill lasted several days, without any sign of coming to an end. Here is the Speaker’s account of his own memorable act in forcing a close:-

Monday, Jan. 31:- The House was boiling over with indignation at the apparent triumph of obstruction, and Mr. G. yielding to the pressure of his friends, committed himself, unwisely as I thought, to a continuous sitting on this day in order to force the bill through its first stage.

On Tuesday, after a sitting of twenty-four hours, I saw plainly that this attempt to carry the bill by continuous sitting would fail, the Parnell party being strong in numbers, discipline, and organization, and with great gifts of speech. I reflected on the situation, and came to the conclusion that it was my duty to extricate the House from the difficulty by closing the debate of my own authority, and so asserting the undoubted will of the House against a rebellious minority. I sent for Mr. G. on Tuesday (Feb. 1), about noon, and told him that I should be prepared to put the question in spite of obstruction on the following conditions: - 1. That the debate should be carried on until the following morning, my object in this delay being to mark distinctly to the outside world the extreme gravity of the situation, and the necessity of the step which I was about to take. 2. That he should reconsider the regulation of business, either by giving more authority to the House, or by conferring authority on the Speaker.

He agreed to these conditions, and summoned a meeting of the cabinet, which assembled in my library at four P.M on Tuesday while the House was sitting, and I was in the chair. At the meeting the resolution as to business assumed the shape in which it finally appeared on the following Thursday, it having been previously considered at former meetings of the cabinet. I arranged with Playfair to take the chair on Tuesday night about midnight, engaging to resume it on Wednesday morning at nine. Accordingly at nine I took the chair, Biggar being in possession of the House. I rose, and he resumed his seat. I proceeded with my address as concerted with May, and when I had concluded I put the question. The scene was most dramatic; but all passed off without disturbance, the Irish party on the second division retiring under protest.

I had communicated, with Mr. G.’s approval, my intention to close the debate to Northcote, but to no one else, except May, from whom I received much assistance. Northcote was started, but expressed no disapproval of the course proposed.

So ended the memorable sitting of January 31. At noon, on February 2, the House assembled in much excitement. The question was put challenging the Speaker’s conduct. ‘I answered,’ he says, ‘on the spur of the moment that I had acted on my own responsibility, and from a sense of duty to the House. I never heard such loud and protracted cheering, none cheering more loudly than Gladstone.’ ‘The Speaker’s firmness in mind,’ Mr. Gladstone reported to the Queen, ‘his suavity in manner, his unwearied patience, his incomparable temper, under a thousand provocations, have rendered possible a really important result.’


After coercion came a land bill, and here Mr. Gladstone once more displayed his unequalled mastery of legislative skill and power. He had to explain and be ready to explain again and again, what he told Lord Selborne was ‘the most difficult measure he had ever known to come under the detailed consideration of a cabinet.’ It was no affair this time of speeches out of a railway carriage, or addressed to excited multitudes in vast halls. That might be, if you so pleased, ‘the empty verbosity of exuberant rhetoric’; but nobody could say that of the contest over the complexities of Irish tenure, against the clever and indomitable Irish experts who fought under the banner of Mr. Parnell. Northcote was not far wrong when he said that though the bill was carried by two to one, there was hardly a man in the House beyond the Irish ranks who cared a straw about it. Another critic said that if the prime minister had asked the House to pass the Koran or the Nautical Almanac as a land bill, he would have met no difficulty.

The history of the session was described as the carriage of a single measure by a single man. Few British members understood it, none mastered it. The whigs were disaffected about it, the radicals doubted it., the tories thought that property as a principle was ruined by it, the Irishmen, when the humour seized them, bade him send the bill to line trunks. Mr. Gladstone, as one observer truly says, ‘faced difficulties such as no other bill of this country  has ever encountered, difficulties of politics and difficulties of law, difficulties of principle and difficulties of personnel, difficulties of race and difficulties of class, and he has never once failed, or even seemed to fail, in his clear command of the question, in his dignity and authority of demeanour, in his impartiality in accepting amending suggestions, in his firmness in resisting destructive suggestions, in his clear perception of his aim, and his strong grasp of the fitting means. And yet it is hardly possible to appreciate adequately the embarrassments of this situation. 

Enough has already been said of the legislation of 1870, and its establishment of the principle that Irish land is not the subject of an undivided ownership, but a partnership. The act of 1870 failed because it had too many exceptions and limitations; because in administration the compensation to the tenant for disturbance was inadequate; and because it did not fix the cultivator in his holding. Things had now ripened. The Richmond Commission shortly before had pointed to a court for fixing rents; that is, for settling the terms of the partnership. A commission nominated by Mr. Gladstone and presided over by Lord Bessborough, had reported early in 1881 in favour not only of fair rents to be settled by a tribunal, but of fixity of tenure or the right of the tenant to remain in his holding if he paid his rent, and of free sale; that is, his right to part with his interest. These ‘three F’s’ were the substance of the legislation of 1881.

Rents could not be paid, and landlords either would not or could not reduce them. In the deepest interests of social order, and in confirmation of the tenant’s equitable and customary ownership, the only course open to the imperial legislature was to erect machinery for fixing fair rents. The alternative to what became matter of much objurgation as dual ownership, was a single ownership that was only a short name for allowing the landlord to deal as he liked with the equitable interest of the tenant. Without the machinery set up by Mr. Gladstone, there could be no security for the protection of the cultivator’s interest. What is more, even in view of a wide and general extension of the policy of buying out the landlord and turning the tenant into single owner, still a process of valuation for purposes of fair price would have been just as indispensable, as under the existing system was the tiresome and costly process of valuation for purposes of fair rent. It is true that if the policy of purchase had been adopted, this process would have been performed once for all. But opinion was not nearly ready either in England or Ireland for general purchase. And as Mr. Gladstone had put it to Bright in 1870, to turn a little handful of occupiers into owners would not have touched the fringe of the case of the bulk of the Irish cultivators, then undergoing acute mischief and urgently crying for prompt relief. Mr. Bright’s idea of purchase, moreover, assumed that the buyer would come with at least a quarter of the price in his hand, - an assumption not consistent with the practical possibilities of the case.

The legislation of 1881 no doubt encountered angry criticism from the English conservative, and little more than frigid approval from the Irish nationalist. It offended the fundamental principle of the landlords; its administration and the construction of some of its leading provisions by the courts disappointed and irritated the tenant party. Nevertheless any attempt in later times to impair the authority of the Land Act of 1881 brought the fact instantly to light, that the tenant knew it to be the fundamental charter of his redemption from worse than Egyptian bondage. In measuring this great agrarian law, not only by parliamentary force and legislative skill and power, but by the vast and abiding depth of its social results, both direct and still more indirect, many will be disposed to give it the highest place among Mr. Gladstone’s achievements as lawmaker.

Fault has sometimes been found with Mr. Gladstone for not introducing his bill in the session of 1880. If this had been done, it is argued, Ireland would have been appeased., no coercion would have been necessary, and we should have been spared disastrous parliamentary exasperations and all the other mischiefs and perils of the quarrel between England and Ireland that followed. Criticism of this kind overlooks three facts. Neither Mr. Gladstone nor Forster nor the new House of Commons was at all ready in 1880 to accept the Three F’s. Second, the Bessborough commission had not taken its evidence, and made its momentous report. Third, this argument assumes motives in Mr. Parnell, that probably do not at all cover the whole ground of his policy. As it happened, I called on Mr. Gladstone one morning early in 1881, ‘You have heard,’ I asked, ‘that the Bessborough commission are to report for the Three F’s?’ ‘I have not heard,’ he said, ‘it is incredible!’ As so often comes to pass in politics, it was only a step from the incredible to the indispensable. It was the cruel winter of 1880-1 that made much difference.

In point of endurance the session was one of the most remarkable on record. The House of Commons sat 154 days and for 1400 hours; some 240 of these hours were after midnight. Only three times since the Reform bill had the House sat for more days; only once, in 1847, had the total number of hours been exceeded and that only be seven, and never before had the House sat so many hours after midnight. On the Coercion bill the House sat continuously once for 22 hours, and once for 41. The debates on the Land bill took up 58 sittings, and the Coercion bill 22. No such length of discussion, Mr. Gladstone told the Queen, was recorded on any measure since the committee on the first Reform bill. The Reform bill of 1867 was the only measure since 1843 that took as many as 35 days of debate. The Irish Church bill took 21 days and the Land bill of 1870 took 25. Of the 14,836 speeches delivered, 6315 were made by Irish members. The Speaker and chairman of committees interposed on points of order nearly 2000 times during the session. Mr. Parnell, the Speaker notes, ‘with his minority of 24 dominates the House. When will the House take courage and reform its procedure?’ After all, the suspension of habeas corpus is a thing that men may well think it worth while to fight about, and a revolution in a country’s land-system might be expected to take up a great deal of time.


It soon appeared that no miracle had been wrought by either Coercion Act or Land Act. Mr. Parnell drew up test cases for submission to the new land court. His advice to the army of tenants would depend, he said, on the fate of these cases. In September Mr. Forster visited Hawarden, and gave a bad account of the real meaning of Mr. Parnell’s plausible propositions for sending test cases to the newly established land commission, as well as of other ugly circumstances. ‘It is quite clear as you said,’ wrote Mr. Gladstone to Forster in Ireland, ‘that Parnell means to present cases which the commission must refuse, and then to treat their refusal as showing that they cannot be trusted, and that the bill has failed.’ As he interpreted it afterwards, there was no doubt that in one sense the Land Act tended to accelerate a crisis in Ireland, for it brought to a head the affairs of the party connected with the land league. It made it almost a necessity for that party to advance or to recede. They chose the desperate course. At the same date, he wrote in a letter to Lord Granville:-

With respect to Parnellism, I should not propose to do more than a severe and strong denunciation of it by severing him altogether from the Irish people and the mass of the Irish members, and by saying that home rule has for one of its aims local government – an excellent thing to which I would affix no limits except the supremacy of the imperial parliament, and the right of all parts of the country to claim whatever might be accorded to Ireland. This is only a repetition of what I have often said before, and I have nothing to add or enlarge. But I have the fear that when the occasion for action comes, which will not be in my time, many liberals may perhaps hang back and may cause further trouble.

In view of what was to come four years later, one of his letters to Forster is interesting (April 12, 1882), among other reasons as illustrating the depth to which the essence of political liberalism had now penetrated Mr. Gladstone’s mind:-

1. About local government for Ireland, the ideas which more and more establish themselves in my mind are such as these.

(1) Until we have seriously responsible bodies to deal with us in Ireland, every plan we frame comes to Irishmen, say what we may, as an English plan. As such it is probably condemned. At best it is a one-sided bargain, which binds us, not them.

(2) If your excellent plans for obtaining local aid towards the execution of the law break down, it will be on account of this miserable and almost total want of the sense of responsibility for the public good and public peace in Ireland; and this responsibility we cannot create except through local self-government.

(3) If we say we must postpone the question till the state of the country is more fit for it, I should answer that the least danger is in going forward at once. It is liberty alone which fits men for liberty. This proposition, like every other in politics, has its bounds; but it is far safer than the counter doctrine, wait till they are fit.

(4) In truth I would say (differing perhaps from many), that for the Ireland of to-day, the first question is the rectification of the relations between landlord and tenant, which happily is going on; the next is to relieve Great Britain from the enormous weight of the government of Ireland unaided by the people, and from the hopeless contradiction in which we stand while we give a parliamentary representation, hardly effective for anything but mischief without the local institutions of self-government which it presupposes, and on which alone it can have a sound and healthy basis.

We have before us in administration, he wrote to Forster in September –

a problem not less delicate and arduous than the problem of legislation with which we have lately had to deal in parliament. Of the leaders, the officials, the skeleton of the land league I have no hope whatever. The better the prospects of the Land Act with their adherents outside the circle of wire-pullers, and with the Irish people, the more bitter will be their hatred, and the more sure they will be to go as far as fear of the people will allow them in keeping up the agitation, which they cannot afford to part with on account of their ulterior ends. All we can do is to turn more and more the masses of their followers, to fine them down by good laws and good government, and it is in this view that the question of judicious releases from prison, should improving statistics of crime encourage it, may become one of early importance.


It was in the autumn of 1881 that Mr. Gladstone visited Leeds, in payment of the debt of gratitude due for his triumphant return in the general election of the year before. This progress extended over four days, and almost surpassed in magnitude and fervour any of his experiences in other parts of the kingdom. We have an interesting glimpse of the physical effort of such experiences in a couple of his letters written to Mr. Kitson, who with immense labour and spirit had organized this severe if glorious enterprise:-

Hawarden Castle, Sept. 28, 1881. – I thank you for the very clear and careful account of the proposed proceedings at Leeds. It lacks as yet that rough statement of numbers at each meetings, which is requisite to enable me to understand what I shall have to do. This will be fixed by the scale of the meeting. I see no difficulty but one – a procession through the principal thoroughfares is one of the most exhausting processes I know as a preliminary to addressing a mass meeting. A mass meeting requires the physical powers to be in their best and freshest state, as far as anything can be fresh in a man near seventy-two; and I have on one or more former occasions felt them wofully contracted. In Midlothian I never had anything of the kind before a great physical effort in speaking; and the lapse of even a couple of years is something. It would certainly be most desirable to have the mass meeting first, and then I have not any fear at all of the procession through whatever thoroughfares you think fit

Oct. 2, 1881. I should be very sorry to put aside any of the opportunities of vision at Leeds which the public may care to use; but what I had hoped was that these might come after any speeches of considerable effort and not before them. To understand what a physical drain, and what a reaction from tension of the senses is caused by a ‘progress’ before addressing a great audience, a person must probably have gone through it, and gone through it at my time of life. When I went to Midlothian, I begged that this might never happen; and it was avoided throughout. Since that time I have myself been sensible for the first time of a diminished power of voice in the House of Commons, and others also for the first time have remarked it.

Vast torchlight processions, addresses from the corporation, four score addresses from political bodies, a giant banquet in the Cloth Hall Yard covered in for the purpose, on one day; on another, more addresses, a public luncheon followed by a mass meeting of over five-and-twenty thousand persons, then a long journey through dense throngs vociferous with an exultation that knew no limits, a large dinner party, and at the end of all a night train. The only concessions that the veteran asked to weakness of the flesh, were that at the banquet he should not appear until the eating and drinking were over, and that at the mass meeting some preliminary speakers should intervene to give him time to take breath after his long and serious exercises of the morning. When the time came his voice was heard like the note of a clear and deep-toned bell. So much had vital energy, hardly less rare than his mental power, to do with the varied exploits of this spacious career.

The topics of his Leeds speeches I need not travel over. What attracted most attention and perhaps drew most applause was his warning to Mr. Parnell. ‘He desires,’ said the minister, ‘to arrest the operation of the Land Act; to stand as Moses stood between the living and the dead; to stand there not as Moses stood, to arrest, but to spread the plague.’ The menace that followed became a catchword of the day: ‘If it shall appear that there is still to be fought a final conflict in Ireland between law on the one side and sheer lawlessness upon the other, if the law purged from defect and from any taint of injustice is still to be repelled and refused, and the first conditions of political society to remain unfulfilled, then I say, gentlemen, without hesitation, the resources of civilisation against its enemies are not yet exhausted.’[7]

Nor was the pageant all excitement. The long speech, which by way of prelusion to the great mass meeting he addressed to the chamber of commerce, was devoted to the destruction of the economic sophisters who tried to persuade us that ‘the vampire of free-trade was insidiously sucking the life-blood of the country.’ In large survey of broad social facts, exposition of diligently assorted figures, power of scientific analysis, sustained chain of reasoning, he was never better. The consummate mastery of this argumentative performance did not slay a heresy that has nine lives, but it drove the thing out of sight in Yorkshire for some time to come.[8]


On Wednesday October 12, the cabinet met, and after five hours of deliberation decided that Mr. Parnell should be sent to prison under the Coercion Act. The Irish leader was arrested at his hotel the next morning, and carried off to Kilmainham, where he remained for some six months. The same day Mr. Gladstone was presented with an address from the Common Council of London, and in his speech at the Guildhall gave them the news:-

Our determination has been that to the best of our power, our words should be carried into acts [referring to what he had said at Leeds], and even within these few moments I have been informed that towards the vindication of law and order, of the rights of property, of the freedom of the land, of the first elements of political life and civilisation, the first step has been taken in the arrest of the man who unhappily from motives which I do not challenge, which I cannot examine and with which I have nothing to do, has made himself beyond all others prominent in the attempt to destroy the authority of the law, and to substitute what would end in being nothing more or less than anarchical oppression exercised upon the people of Ireland.

The arrest of Mr. Parnell was no doubt a pretty considerable strain upon powers conferred by parliament to put down village ruffians; but times were revolutionary, and though the Act of parliament was not a wise one, but altogether the reverse of wise, it was no wonder that having got the instrument, ministers thought they might as well use it. Still executive violence did not seem to work, and Mr. Gladstone looked in a natural direction for help in the milder way of persuasion. He wrote (December 17th) to Cardinal Newman: -

I will begin with defining strictly the limits of this appeal. I ask you to read the inclosed papers; and to consider whether you will write anything to Rome upon them. I do not ask you to write, nor to tell me whether you write, nor to make any reply to this letter, beyond returning the inclosures in an envelope to me in Downing Street. I will state briefly the grounds of my request, thus limited. In 1844, when I was young as a cabinet minister, and the government of Sir R. Peel was troubled with the O’Connell manifestations, they made what I think was an appeal to Pope Gregory XVI. for his intervention to discourage agitation in Ireland. I should be very loath now to tender such a request at Rome. But now a different case arises. Some members of the Roman catholic priesthood in Ireland deliver certain sermons and otherwise express themselves in the way which my inclosures exhibit. I doubt whether if they were laymen we should not have settled their cases by putting them into gaol. I need not describe the sentiments uttered. Your eminence will feel them and judge them as strongly as I do. But now as to the Supreme Pontiff. You will hardly be surprised when I say that I regard him, if apprised of the facts, as responsible for the conduct of these priests. For I know perfectly well that he has the means of silencing them; and that, if any one of them were in public to dispute the decrees of the council of 1870 as plainly as he has denounced law and order, he would be silenced.

Mr. Errington, who is at Rome, will I believe have seen these papers, and will I hope have brought the facts as far as he is able to the knowledge of his holiness. But I do now know how far he is able; nor how he may use his discretion. He is not our official servant, but an independent Roman catholic gentleman and a volunteer.

My wish is as regards Ireland, in this hour of her peril and her hope, to leave nothing undone by which to give heart and strength to the hope and to abate the peril. But my wish as regards the Pope is that he should have the means of bringing those for whom he is responsible to fulfil the elementary duties of citizenship. I say of citizenship; of Christianity, of priesthood, it is not for me to speak.

The cardinal replied that he would gladly find himself able to be of service, however slight it might be, in a political crisis, which must be felt as of grave anxiety by all who understand the blessing of national unity and peace. He thought Mr. Gladstone overrated the pope’s power in political and social matters. Absolute in questions of theology, it was not so in political matters. If the contest in Ireland were whether ‘rebellion,’ or whether ‘robbery’ was a sin, we might expect him to anathematize its denial. But his action in concrete matters, as whether a political party is censurable or not, was not direct, and only in the long run ineffective. Local power and influence was often a match for Roman right. The pope’s right keeps things together, it checks extravagances, and at length prevails, but not without a fight. Its exercise is a matter of great prudence, and depends upon times and circumstances. As for the intemperate dangerous words of priests and curates, surely such persons belonged to their respective bishops, and scarcely required the introduction of the Supreme Authority.


We have now arrived at April 1882. The reports brought to the cabinet by Mr. Forster were of the gloomiest. The Land Act had brought no improvement. In the south-west and many of the midland counties lawlessness and intimidation were worse than ever. Returns of agrarian crime were presented in every shape, and comparisons framed by weeks, by months, by quarters; do what the statisticians would, and in spite of fluctuations, murders and other serious outrages had increased. The policy of arbitrary arrest had completely failed, and the officials and crown lawyers at the Castle were at their wits’ end.

While the cabinet was face to face with this ugly prospect, Mr. Gladstone received a communication volunteered by an Irish member, as to the new attitude of Mr. Parnell and the possibility of turning it to good account. Mr. Gladstone sent this letter on to Forster, replying meanwhile ‘in the sense of not shutting the door.’ When the thing came before the cabinet, Mr. Chamberlain – who had previously told Mr. Gladstone that he thought the time opportune for something like a reconciliation with the Irish party – with characteristic courage took his life in his hands, as he put it, and set to work to ascertain through the emissary what use for the public good could be made of Mr. Parnell’s changed frame of mind. On April 25th, the cabinet heard what Mr. Chamberlain had to tell them, and it came to this, that Mr. Parnell was desirous to use his influence on behalf of peace, but his influence for good depended on the settlement of the question of arrears.  Ministers decided that they could enter into no agreement and would give no pledge. They would act on their own responsibility in the light of the knowledge they had gained of Mr. Parnell’s views. Mr. Gladstone was always impatient of any reference to ‘reciprocal assurances’ or ‘tacit understanding’ in respect of the dealings with the prisoner in Kilmainham. Still the nature of the proceedings was plain enough. The object of the communications to which the government were invited by Mr. Parnell through his emissary, was, supposing him to be anxious to do what he could for law and order, to find out what action on the part of the government would enable him to adopt this line.

Events then moved rapidly. Rumours that something was going on got abroad, and questions began to be put in parliament. A stout tory gave notice of a motion aiming at the release of the suspects. As Mr. Gladstone informed the Queen, there was no doubt that the general opinion of the public was moving in a direction adverse to arbitrary imprisonment, though the question was a nice one for consideration whether the recent surrender by the no-rent party of its extreme and most subversive contentions, amounted to anything like a guarantee for their future conduct in respect of peace and order. The rising excitement was swelled by the retirement of Lord Cowper from the viceroyalty, and the appointment as his successor of Lord Spencer, who had filled that post in Mr. Gladstone’s first government. On May 2nd, Mr. Gladstone read a memorandum to the cabinet to which they agreed:-

The cabinet are of opinion that the time has now arrived when with a view to the interests of law and order in Ireland, the three members of parliament who have been imprisoned on suspicion since last October, should be immediately released; and that the list of suspects should be examined with a view to the release of all persons not believed to be associated with crimes. They propose at once to announce to parliament their intention to propose, as soon as necessary business will permit, a bill to strengthen the ordinary law in Ireland for the security of life and property, while reserving their discretion with regard to the Life and Property Protection Act [of 1881], which however they do not at present think it will be possible to renew, if a favourable state of affairs shall prevail in Ireland.

From this proceeding Mr. Forster dissented, and he resigned his office. His point seems to have been that no suspect should be released until the new Coercion Act had been fashioned, whereas the rest of the cabinet held that there was no excuse for the continued detention under arbitrary warrant of men as to whom the ground for the ‘reasonable suspicion’ required by the law has now disappeared. He probably felt that the appointment of a viceroy of cabinet rank and with successful Irish experience was in fact his own supersession. ‘I have received your letter,’ Mr. Gladstone wrote to him (May 2), ‘with much grief, but on this it would be selfish to expatiate. I have no choice; followed or not followed I must go on. There are portions of this subject which touch you personally, and which seem to me to deserve much attention. But I have such an interest in the main issue, that I could not be deemed impartial; so I had better not enter on them. One thing, however, I wish to say. You wish to minimise in any further statement the cause of your retreat. In my opinion – and I speak from experience – viewing the nature of that cause, you will find this hardly possible. For a justification you, I fear, will have to found upon the doctrine of “a new departure.” We must protest against it, and deny it with heart and soul.’

The way in which Mr. Gladstone chose to put things was stated in a letter to the Queen (May 3):- ‘In his judgment there had been two, and only two, vital powers of commanding efficacy in Ireland, the Land Act, and the land league; they had been locked in a combat of life and death; and the cardinal question was which of the two would win. From the serious effort to amend the Land Act by the Arrears bill of the nationalists[9], from the speeches made in support of it, and from information voluntarily tendered to the government as to the views of the leaders of the league, the cabinet believed that those who governed the land  league were now conscious of having been defeated by the Land Act on the main question, that of paying rent.’

For the office of Irish secretary Mr. Gladstone selected Lord Frederick Cavendish, who was the husband of a niece of Mrs. Gladstone’s, and one of the most devoted of his friends and adherents. The special reason for the choice of this capable and high-minded man, was that Lord Frederick had framed a plan of finance at the treasury for a new scheme of land purchase. The two freshly appointed Irish ministers at once crossed over to a country seething in disorder. The afternoon of the fatal sixth of May was passed by the new viceroy, and Lord Frederick in that grim apartment in Dublin Castle,  where successive secretaries spend unshining hours in saying No to impossible demands, and hunting for plausible answers to insoluble riddles. Never did so dreadful a shadow overhang it as on that day. The task on which the two ministers were engaged was the consideration of the new provisions for coping with disorder, which had been prepared in London. The under-secretary, Mr. Burke, and one of the lawyers, were present. Lord Spencer rode out to the park about five o’clock, and Lord Frederick followed him an hour later. He was overtaken by the under-secretary walking homewards, and as the two strolled on together, they were both brutally murdered in front of the vice-regal residence. The assassins did not know who Lord Frederick was. Well has it been said that Ireland seems the sport of a destiny that is aimless.[10]

The official world of London was on that Saturday night in the full round of its pleasures. The Gladstones were dining at the Austrian embassy. So too, was Sir William Harcourt, and to him as home secretary the black tidings were sent from Dublin late in the evening. Mr. and Mrs. Gladstone had already left, she for a party at the admiralty, he walking home to Downing Street. At the admiralty they told her of bad news from Ireland and hurried her away. Mr. Gladstone arrived at home a few minutes after her. When his secretary in the hall told him of the horrible thing that had been done, it was as if he had been felled to the ground. Then they hastened to bear what solace they could, to the anguish-stricken home where solace would be sorely needed.

The effect of this blind and hideous crime was at once to arrest the spirit and the policy of conciliation. While the Irish leaders were locked up, a secret murder club had taken matters in hand in their own way, and ripened plots within a stone’s throw of the Castle. No worse blow could have been struck at Mr. Parnell’s policy. It has been said that the nineteenth century had seen the course of its history twenty-five times diverted by actual or attempted crime. In that sinister list the murders in the Phoenix Park have a tragic place.

The voice of party was for the moment hushed. Sir Stafford Northcote wrote a letter of admirable feeling, saying that if there was any way in which Mr. Gladstone thought they could serve the government, he would of course let them know. The Prince of Wales wrote of his own horror and indignation at the crime, and of his sympathy with Mr. Gladstone in the loss of one who was not only a colleague of many merits, but a near connection and devoted friend. With one or two scandalous exceptions, the tone of the English press was sober, sensible, and self-possessed. ‘If a nation,’ said a leading journal in Paris, ‘should be judged by the way in which it acts in grave occasions, the spectacle offered by England is calculated to produce a high opinion of the political character and spirit of the British people.’ Things of the baser sort were not quite absent, but they did not matter. An appeal confronted the electors of the North-West Riding as they went to the poll at a bye-election a few days later, to ‘Vote for ---, and avenge the death of Lord Frederick Cavendish!’ They responded by placing ---’s opponent at the head of the poll by a majority of two thousand.

The scene in the House had all the air of tragedy, and Mr. Gladstone summoned courage enough to do his part with impressive composure. A colleague was doing some business with him in his room before the solemnity began. When it was over, they resumed it, Mr. Gladstone making no word of reference to the sombre interlude, before or after. ‘Went reluctantly to the House,’ he says in his diary, ‘and by the help of God forced out what was needful on the question of the adjournment.’ His words were not many, when after commemorating the marked qualities of Mr. Burke, he went on in laboured tones and slow speech and hardly repressed emotion:-

The hand of the assassin has come nearer home; and though I feel it difficult to say a word, yet I must say that one of the very noblest hearts in England has ceased to beat, and has ceased at the very moment when it was just devoted to the service of Ireland, full of love for that country, full of hope for her future, full of capacity to render her service.

Writing to Lady Frederick on a later day, he mentions a public reference to some pathetic words of hers (May 19):-

Sexton just now returned to the subject, with more approval from the House. You will find it near the middle of a long speech. Nothing could be better either in feeling or in grace (the man is little short of a master), and I think it will warm your heart. You  have made mark deeper than any wound.

To Lord Ripon in India, he wrote(June 1):-

The black act brought indeed a great personal grief to my wife and me; but we are bound to merge our own sorrow in the larger and deeper affliction of the widow and the father, in the sense of the public loss of a life so valuable to the nation, and in the consideration of the great and varied effects it may have on immediate and vital interests. Since the death of this dearly loved son, we have heard much good of the Duke, whom indeed we saw at Chatsworth after the funeral, and we have seen much of Lady Frederick, who has been good even beyond what we could have hoped. I have no doubt you have heard in India the echo of words spoken by Spencer from a letter of hers, in which she said she could give up even him if his death were to work good to his fellow men, which indeed was the whole object of his life. These words have had a tender effect, as remarkable as the horror excited by the slaughter. Spencer wrote to me that a priest in Connemara read them from the altar; when the whole congregation spontaneously fell down upon their knees. In England, the national attitude has been admirable. The general strain of language has been, ‘Do not let this terrible and flagitious crime deter you from persevering with the work of justice.’

Well did Dean Church say that no Roman or Florentine lady ever uttered a more heroic thing than was said by this English lady when on first seeing Mr. Gladstone that terrible midnight she said, ‘you did right to send him to Ireland.’[11] ‘The loss of F. Cavendish,’ Mr. Gladstone wrote to his eldest son, ‘will ever be to us all as an unhealed wound.’

On the day after the murders Mr. Gladstone received a note through the same channel by which Mr. Chamberlain had carried on his communications:- ‘I am authorised by Mr. Parnell to state that if Mr. Gladstone considers it necessary for the maintenance of his [Mr. G.’s] position and for carrying out his views, that Mr. Parnell should resign his seat, Mr. Parnell is prepared to do so immediately.’ To this Mr. Gladstone replied (May 7):-

My duty does not permit me for a moment to entertain M. Parnell’s proposal, just conveyed to me by you, that he should if I think it needful resign his seat; but I am deeply sensible of the honourable motives by which it has been prompted.

‘My opinion is,’ said Mr. Gladstone to Lord Granville, ‘that if Parnell goes, no restraining influence will remain; the scale of outrages will be again enlarged; and no repressive bill can avail to put it down.’ Those of the cabinet who had the best chance of knowing, were convinced that Mr. Parnell was ‘sincerely anxious for the pacification of Ireland.’

The reaction produced by the murders in the Park made perseverance in a milder policy impossible in face of English opinion, and parliament eagerly passed the Coercion Act of 1882.  I once asked an Irishman of consummate experience and equitable mind, with no leanings that I know of to political nationalism, whether the task of any later rule of Ireland was comparable to Lord Spencer’s. ‘Assuredly not,’ he replied; ‘in 1882 Ireland seemed to be literally a society on the eve of dissolution. The Invicibles still roved with knives around the streets of Dublin. Discontent had been stirred in the ranks of the Royal Irish Constabulary, and a dangerous mutiny broke out in the metropolitan force. Over half of the country the demoralisation of every class, the terror, the fierce hatred, the universal distrust, had grown to an incredible pitch. The moral cowardice of what ought to have been the governing class was astounding. The landlords would hold meetings and agree not to go beyond a certain abatement, and then they would go individually and privately offer to the tenant a greater abatement. Even the agents of the law and the courts were shaken in their duty. The power of random arrest and detention under the Coercion Act of 1881 had not improved the moral of magistrates and police. The sheriff would let the word get out that he was coming to make a seizure and profess surprise that the cattle had vanished. The whole country-side turned out in thousands in half the counties in Ireland to attend flaming meetings, and if a man did not attend, angry neighbours trooped up to know the reason why. The clergy hardly stirred a finger to restrain the wildness of the storm; some did their best to raise it. All that was what Lord Spencer had to deal with; the very foundations of the social fabric rocking.’

The new viceroy attacked the formidable task before him with resolution, minute assiduity, and an inexhaustible store of that steady-eyed patience which is the sovereign requisite of any man who, whether with coercion or without, takes in hand the government of Ireland. He was seconded with high ability and courage by Mr. Trevelyan, the new Irish secretary, whose fortitude was subjected to a far severer trial than has ever fallen to the lot of an Irish secretary before or since. The coercion that Lord Spencer had to administer was at least law. The coercion with which parliament entrusted Mr. Forster the year before was the negation of the spirit of law, and the substitution for it of naked and arbitrary control over the liberty of the subject by executive power – a system as unconstitutional in theory as it was infatuated in policy and calamitous in result. Even before the end of the parliament, Mr. Bright frankly told the House of Commons of his Coercion Act:- ‘I think that the legislation of 1881 was unfortunately a great mistake, though I was myself a member of the government concerned in it.’

[1] Works of T.H. Green, iii, 382

[2] House of Commons, April 4th, 1882

[3] Edinburgh, Sept 1st, 1884

[4] Proceedings had been instituted in the Dublin courts against Parnell and others for seditious conspiracy. The jury were unable to agree on a verdict.

[5] Tried by Lord Spencer in Westmeath in 1871, it had been successful, but the area of disturbance was there comparatively insignificant.

[6] For a plain and precise description of the Coercion Act of 1881, see Dicey’s Law of the Constitution, pp. 243 – 8.

[7] At the Cloth Hall banquet, Leeds, Oct. 8, 1881.

[8] Speech to the Leeds Chamber of Commerce, Oct. 8, 1881.

[9] Introduced by Mr. Redmond.

[10] It had been Mr. Burke’s practice to drive from the Castle to the Park gate, then to descend and walk home, followed by two detectives. On this occasion he found at the gate that the chief secretary had passed, and drove forward to overtake him. The detectives did not follow him as usual. If they had followed, he would have been saved.

[11] Life of Dean Church, p299.