Home Rule Movement

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


THE Home Government Association had its origin at a meeting held at the Bilton Hotel, Dublin, on the evening of the 19th of May, 1870. The meeting was a private one, composed of prominent professional and mercantile gentlemen of the metropolis, and may be said to have been made up of the most heterogeneous elements, as it embraced men of various creeds and of every shade of political opinion—Orangemen, Ultra-montanes, Conservatives, Liberals, Repealers, Nationlists, Fenian sympathizers and sturdy Loyalists. The one object, which for the first time, perhaps, in the history of Ireland, effected, at least, a temporary truce between men of divergent views and conflicting opinions, was the consideration of the condition of their common country, with a view to the amelioration of the present state of things therein.

The following names with the religious persuasion and political creed of each person indicated, will exemplify the mixed character of this meeting: the Rt. Hon. Edward Purdon, Lord Mayor of Dublin (Protestant and Conservative); the ex-Lord Mayor, Sir John Barrington (Protestant and Conservative); Sir William Wilde (Protestant and Conservative, father of the poet, Oscar Wilde); Rev. Joseph Galbraith, F. T. C. D. (Protestant and Conservative), Isaac Butt, Q.C. (Protestant and Nationalist, John Martin (Protestant and Nationalist, " '48 man"), Dr. Maunsell, editor of the Evening Mail (Protestant and Tory); James O'Connor, late of the Irish People (Catholic and Fenian); Venerable Archdeacon Gould (Protestant and Tory), A. M. Sullivan (Catholic and Nationalist), Capt. E. R. King-Harman (Protestant and Conservative), Hon. Lawrence Harman King-Harman (Protestant and Conservative), and many other leading citizens and representative men.

The sentiment of the Protestant section of the assembly, as indicated by its spokesmen, was, that they could no longer view with equanimity the uncertain state of things in the country, the insecurity to property, and the dangers inseparable from periodical revolutionary outbreaks such as had disturbed the country for the past five years; that the experiment of an alien parliament for Ireland had been tried and found wanting; and that the time had arrived to demand the restoration of her native parliament to legislate her domestic affairs. This proposal, however, was limited by a distinct disavowal of any wish to sever the imperial connection and a profession of unswerving loyalty to the English throne.

Such a declaration coming from the old "Ascendency" party might well be termed a new departure, and a wonderful stride toward the goal of national aspiration; and, uttered thirty years previously, and joined by so powerful an ally, O'Connell might have carried Repeal. The objects of the Repeal movement and those aimed at by the speakers at the Bilton Hotel meeting had, however, some points of difference. The popular idea of Repeal in O'Connell's time was the restoration of the national parliament, and the old order of things as existing before the Act of Union in 1800, although O'Connell, for a wise motive, doubtless, never defined in detail the Repeal programme; not so the new organization, as will be seen from a perusal of the resolutions drawn up by a committee appointed at the meeting held at the Bilton Hotel. They were as follows:

1. This Association is formed for the purpose of obtaining for Ireland the right of self-government by means of a national parliament.

2. It is hereby declared as the essential principle of this Association that the objects, and the only objects, contemplated by its organization are:

To obtain for our country the right and privilege of managing our own affairs, by a parliament assembled in Ireland, composed of her majesty the sovereign, and her successors, and the lords and commons of Ireland.

To secure for that parliament, under a federal arrangement, the right of legislating for, and regulating all matters relating to, the internal affairs of Ireland, and control over Irish resources and revenues; subject to the obligation of contributing our just proportion of the imperial expenditures.

To leave to an imperial parliament the power of dealing with all questions affecting the imperial crown and government; legislation regarding the colonies and other dependencies of the crown; and relations of the United Empire with foreign states; and all matters appertaining to the defense and the stability of the empire at large.

To attain such an adjustment of the relations between the two countries without any interference with the prerogatives of the crown or any disturbance of the principles of the constitution.

3. The Association invites the co-operation of all Irishmen who are willing to join in seeking for Ireland a federal arrangement based upon these general principles.

4. The Association will endeavor to forward the object it has in view by using all legitimate means of influencing public sentiment, both in Ireland and Great Britain; by taking all opportunities of instructing and informing public opinion, and by seeking to unite Irishmen of all creeds and classes in one national movement, in support of the great national object hereby contemplated.

5. It is declared to be an essential principle of the Association that, while every member is understood by joining it to concur in its general object and plan of action, no person so joining is committed to any political opinion except the advisability of seeking for Ireland the amount of self-government contemplated in the objects of the Association.

The most conspicuous political figure at this meeting, perhaps, was Isaac Butt, who has been already mentioned in connection with the political trials, and the Amnesty Association, of which he was now the president. Mr. Butt was distinguished for legal learning, eloquence, and sterling patriotism; albeit his political bark had been launched on the waters under conservative colors; but the changes of the time had converted him from the distorted dogmas of Tory bigotry to National principles. His voice was all-powerful on this occasion in allaying disquiet in the minds of many of his co-religionists, who had come to this meeting full of doubt and apprehension in regard to the advisability of an alliance with their Catholic fellow-countrymen at such a period. The Irish Church Disestablishment Act had been but a short time passed, and this "leveling up" of the Catholics, was naturally enough viewed with no little concern by the Protestant body, who, many of them, in their blind ignorance of the real state of feeling on the question, conjured up a vision of the Catholic community exulting in triumph over a fallen foe. Mr. Butt's words to his co-religionists were reassuring: "Trust me, we have all grievously wronged the Irish Catholics, priests and laymen."

The Home Pule movement at the outset encountered the opposition of the Catholic bishops, whose hopes in regard to their favorite scheme of denominational education were considerably encouraged by the concession—if such it can be called—of disestablishment of the Protestant Church, and who regarded the promoters of the new movement as unreasonable in pursuing what they deemed to be a premature policy.

A by-election for the county Meath, which occurred in 1871, was the first test of the popular will in its pronouncement on the new policy. John Martin, of "'48" fame, and a Presbyterian, was the Home Rule candidate chosen against the Hon. Mr. Plunkett, a Catholic, and brother of Lord Fingall, a nobleman warmly esteemed in the county. Notwithstanding that Mr. Plunkett had the support of the clergy, and the advantage of family influence, he suffered a crushing defeat, Mr. Martin polling double the number of his votes. This was followed by a succession of Home Rule victories. Mitchell-Henry was elected for Galway; P. J. Smyth for Westmeath; Isaac Butt, the Home Rule president, for Limerick; and lastly, young Blennerhassett, for Kerry, the last, perhaps, the greatest victory; as the landlord power of that county was most formidable, and put forth all its resources for the struggle, but went down in the dust.

In October, 1873, the council of the Home Rule Association decided on summoning a National conference to consider and debate the question of Home Rule. A requisition, signed with the names of twenty-five thousand men of position and mark, was circulated thoughout the country. The conference met in the great hall of the Rotunda, Dublin, on the 18th of November, 1873. The attendance was large and the representation complete, as it comprised about nine hundred delegates from all parts of the kingdom, made up of men of various religious denominations, and of every political shade. Mr. William Shaw, M.P. for Cork county, presided. The conference lasted four days, and the proceedings were conducted in the most dignified and harmonious manner.

The principles of the Home Government Association were fully confirmed by this National conference, and the Association being then dissolved, a new organization, "The Irish Home Rule League,"was established to control and direct the new movement.

In January, 1874, Mr. Gladstone dissolved parliament quite unexpectedly. A general election followed, and now the new organization found its opportunity. The effect of the conference had been undoubtedly good, as it set the seal of national approval on the movement, and the electors showed their faith in the national leaders, for they rallied to the hustings under the Home Rule banner, and the result was a return of sixty Home Rule members to the House of Commons, under the leadership of Mr. Butt.

The party decided on pursuing the policy of persistent agitation in parliament for moderate concessions, and the securing of at least one annual debate on the question of Home Government for Ireland. It may be said, in a word, that for some years no concession of any consequence was obtained from the Tory ministry in power, and no advance toward the goal of Home Government could be noted.