The Chief Secretary - Augustine Birrell in Ireland.
Leon O’Broin. Chatto and Windus, 1969. pp 231.
This review was written in March 2003
This is one of six books by Leon O’Broin in my father’s library. O’Broin joined the Free State army at the time of the Civil War and subsequently joined the Irish civil service. He finished his career as head of the Post Office. He wrote in Irish and English and had an established reputation as an historian and writer which any academic historian would be proud of. Despite his own strongly nationalistic sentiments, O’Broin clearly had a soft spot for Birrell, who was Chief Secretary for Ireland in the Asquith Liberal Cabinet from 1907 to 1916. During these emerging years of Irish nationalism the Irish Secretaryship was a poison chalice. Birrell soon learnt to have a genuine affection for Ireland and his constant concern to bring home rule to the country lead to his staying in the post for nine years, three times as long as any other occupant of the post who preceded him. He was a man of great humanity and without any great personal ambition. He was of a literary turn of mind, witty and gregarious, and was described by Moran, the editor of the Leader at the time, as ‘My jocular and eloquent Mr. Birrell’. Sadly his long service to his Party and to Anglo-Irish relations ended his political career in humiliation as he bore the brunt of the blame for the 1916 insurrection.
Augustine Birrell was born in Liverpool in 1850 of a family from the borders of Lancashire and Northumberland. His first contact with Ireland was at the time of his appointment as Chief Secretary. He soon came to understand the Irish mind and Ireland’s urge to achieve self-determination. He was intolerant of the Tories’ intransigence about Irish aspirations, and he obviously preferred the Irish nationalists and Catholics to the implacable and puritanical Northerners whom he described as thin-lipped, bitter-black, teeth-neglected and a people wholly lacking romance. He also loved the Irish countryside, particularly the West where he traveled frequently with friends, and he was never happier than during his stays in Achill. He enjoyed the Abbey, managed to get W.B.Yeats on the Civil List, which assured the poet a welcome income, and he was largely responsible for the difficult and lengthy negotiations which lead to the successful passage of the Irish University Bill in 1908 which established the National University of Ireland. His role in steering this bill through parliament was rewarded in 1929, long after he had retired, by the award of an Hon.D.Lit.from the University. He introduced the last land reform act in 1909 which copper-fastened the implementation of the earlier Wyndham Act of 1905.
From PUNCH May 3rd 1916
Wanted - A St. Patrick.
St. Augustine Birrell. "I'M AFRAID I'M NOT SO SMART AS MY BROTHER-SAINT AT DEALING WITH THIS KIND OF THING. I'M APT TO TAKE REPTILES TOO LIGHTLY."
Birrell was of course opposed to Sinn Fein and the separatists. He believed in continuing the close contact between the two islands after home rule. He, and the members of the British cabinet and the British people, greatly misjudged the surge of separatism which followed 1916, an event which lead to his own downfall. He had a close relationship with Redmond and the Irish Parliamentary Party. He was an intimate colleague of Asquith’s whom he greatly admired. He disliked Lloyd George whom he did not trust as a cabinet colleague and who, he states, blamed the Irish entirely for the gathering crisis. During his tenure of office in Ireland he was scathing about jobbery which was then rife under the British administration, and he was equally scathing about the Honours List.
O’Broin, on page 109, referring to the split in the Volunteers in 1914 when the Great War commenced, states
A month earlier a committee of the American Clann na Gael told the German ambassador in the United States that it was their intention to organise an armed revolt in Ireland and ask for military assistance. This decision was communicated to the Supreme Council of the IRB who agreed that the rebellion should take place before the war ended.
I had been unaware that the Americans were implicated in sowing the seed of the 1916 rebellion.
It was also interesting to read on another page that when partition was first proposed it was strongly resisted by the members of the legal profession and by many of the industrial and business leaders in the North of Ireland. Like Sturgis, whose diary was edited by Michael Hopkinson and who was in Dublin Castle from 1920 to 1922, Birrell was critical of the incompetent Dublin Castle administration with its many squabbles and poor insights into the minds of the people, and he was dismissive of the part played by Lord Aberdeen, the Lord Lieutenant, (and by his busybody wife!).
Reading these pages one wonders how any settlement of the Irish question was achieved when such disagreement existed between the two countries, and when so many different opinions and passions were evident within each country. The account of Birrell’s life underlines the fact that the disintegration of the British Empire can be attributed as much to the conflict which existed within the British system in Westminster, to Tory conservatism and to the incompetence of the British administration more than to external factors.
Following the 1916 debacle, Birrell lived until 1933. He became a lonely and reclusive figure, widowed twice before his retirement from his post in Ireland, and apparently forgotten or largely ignored by his political colleagues. His services to Anglo-Irish relations were also forgotten in both islands, except by two Irish writers, Piaras Béaslí and P.S.O’Hegarty, who believed that Birrell’s low profile and non-coercive approach to the Irish, if he had survived 1916, might have succeeded in reaching an earlier and more amicable settlement if it were not for Lloyd George’s disastrous attempt to impose conscription on Ireland in the Spring of 1918 and the trumped German Plot about the same time. During his nine years as Chief Secretary Birrell was actuated by a non-coercive policy because of his fear of creating martyrs, a policy which, perhaps unfortunately, was subordinated by the martyrs of 1916 and after his departure from the scene.