The Acts of Union 1800, united the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland (previously in personal union) to create the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. At various intervals during this time, attempts were made to destabilise Anglo-Irish relations. Rebellions were launched in 1803, 1848, 1867, and 1916 to try to end British rule over Ireland. Daniel O’Connell in the 1830-1840s campaigned to repeal the Act of Union.
The Home Government Association, calling for an Irish parliament, was formed in 1870 by Isaac Butt, a Protestant lawyer who popularised “Home Rule” as the movement’s slogan. In 1873 the Home Rule League replaced the association, and Butt’s moderate leadership soon gave way to that of the more aggressive Charles Stewart Parnell.
Prime Minister William E. Gladstone was converted to Home Rule by 1885, but it was rejected by Parliament in 1886. Home Rule was the name given to the process of allowing Ireland more say in how it was governed, freeing them from the rule of London and thus appeasing those in Ireland who wanted Ireland to have more home derived power.
Gladstone introduced a second Home Rule Bill in 1893; it was defeated in the House of Lords. The third bill had to wait for another Liberal ministry (the Conservatives had attempted to “kill Home Rule by kindness,” to undermine its program by effecting moderate reforms); its introduction in 1912 inflamed the militant opposition of both unionists (led by Edward Carson) and republicans in Ireland. The bill became law on 18 September 1914, but was inoperative for the duration of World War I.
Some of those who supported complete separation from Britain also hoped that Home Rule would alter the geography of Irish politics, though in a different way. While Arthur Griffith, initially denounced the 1912 Bill as a ‘grotesque abortion’ of the national demand, he quickly rallied and called on separatists to make preparations for becoming the principal party of opposition in the Irish parliament.
But many proved less optimistic. One advanced nationalist, who later fought during the 1916 Easter Rising, recalled: ‘It did really look as though some Bill would actually become law. Those of us who thought Home Rule utterly inadequate were a very small minority.’
His despondency was shared by another future Easter Rising rebel, Terence MacSwiney, whose 1914 play, The Revolutionist, depicted the plight of advanced nationalists under a hostile Home Rule administration.
After years of conflict, a system akin to Home Rule was established in the six counties of Ulster by the Government of Ireland Act (1920). By the Anglo-Irish Treaty (1921) the remaining 26 counties in the south achieved dominion status; the nominal link with the British Commonwealth was further eroded in 1937 and was severed in 1949.
Photograph: Pro-Home Rule postcard © National Museums Northern Ireland Collection Ulster Museum