Empire is a Man’s Business: Unionist Loyalties, Imperial Masculinities and Ulster’s Campaign Against Home Rule

This is a somewhat edited (and also less formal) version of a paper I gave this past weekend at St Michael’s College, University of Toronto.  The one-day symposium, hosted by the Celtic Studies Institute, was to mark the 100th anniversary of the 1912 Home Rule Bill.  I, however, thought it was to mark the 100th anniversary of the Ulster Covenant (an error to which I readily confessed and for which the kind audience forgave me).  Sometimes academic specialization really does skew one’s view of the universe…

There is a famous story about the first time that Edward Carson – the future leader of Ulster Unionism during the Home Rule Crisis of 1912-14 and the godfather of a partitioned Ireland – met Queen Victoria.  It was the 1890s and Carson was newly London’s most famous barrister.  Prior to Home Rule, of course, Carson had made his name as the barrister who famously had cross-examined Oscar Wilde at the latter’s libel trial against the Marquess of Queensbury in 1895; Carson was also the inspiration for the barrister in David Mamet’s The Winslow Boy, a play first written by Terence Rattigan in 1946.  (Carson, incidentally, looked NOTHING like Jeremy Northam.  As an historian of imperial masculinities, it’s an important distinction I feel I need to make.)

Edward Carson

Now, most of you probably are aware — if only from seeing pictures of TRH The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (aka Will&Kate) walking to the helicopter the day after their wedding last year — that the palace garden of Buck House has a huge terrace, a sprawling lawn, and then several pockets of greenery and trees.*  After accepting the royal salute, the queen – standing 4’11 – came down the stairs and eventually was introduced to Carson – all 6’2″ of him.  After a few words, the queen moved on to her other guests; Carson moved off to a shaded corner of the lawn, stood behind a tree, and wept — he later said he had been simply overcome by the entirety of the British Empire embodied in such a small, yet mighty woman.

*If you are a Canadian citizen and have not applied to Canada House in London for tickets to a Royal Garden Party for the next occasion you are in London in the summer, get on it.  They’re fabulous.  Just don’t do as I did and assume the Queen was marvelous enough to provide Bailey’s for everyone in a nice little shot glass.  It’s iced coffee.  You have been warned.

In this overwhelming moment between the queen-empress and one of her most fervent subjects, I believe, lies the heart of both unionist loyalties and Ulster’s sense of imperial masculinities during the Home Rule Crisis nearly twenty years later: Ulster unionists’ fidelity to the crown and empire was not only their foremost identity, but a loyalty which had the power to overpower the individual and border on sheer melodrama.

So, how does one go about deconstructing the mythology surrounding Ulster unionist masculinities in 1912?

The first thing, I think, is absolutely not to take any declarations of “loyalty” at face-value.  Nearly every time that a unionist Ulsterman mentioned his fidelity to the king in 1912, he followed this up with promises of armed rebellion and the formation of a provisional government in Belfast — fighting the British in order to remain British is hardly the most rational logic ever expressed.

David W. Miller has written at length about the “conditional loyalty” Ulster Protestants projected through their actions of apparent loyal disloyalty.  This was not blind faith in authority, but an emotional and intellectual agreement between the sovereign and his people based on shared ideals of Protestantism — dating back to the Scottish Solemn League and Covenant of 1643 — and the righteous might of the British Empire.  As Miller puts it, “Everyone…possesses a nationality.  Not everyone, according to Irish loyalist thinking, is loyal.”

Belfast Mural – 1912 Ulster Covenant

However, the schism at the heart of the Home Rule Crisis really came down to perceptions of the difference between loyalty and treason.  Nearly all historians agree that the actions sworn to in the text of the Ulster Covenant were illegal, and that advocating to take arms against parliament was the same as attacking the king.

Unionists, however, absolutely did not see things that way.

Edward Carson probably put it best when he spoke about the rebellious nature of his actions to a rapt audience, only a few days before signing the Covenant: “I have been dubbed a rebel and a traitor.  At all events I shall never be a rebel or traitor to you.  Names cannot alter realities.  What is right is right, and no act of Parliament can make it wrong.  If it be treasonous to love your King, to try and save your Constitution, and to preserve your birthright of civil and religious liberty, then I glory in being a traitor.”

Strong words, and ones which clearly define unionist perceptions of the difference between emotional ties to the traditions of the monarchy and Magna Carta, and a parliament supposedly enacting anti-British legislation.

That said, I always hear Carson’s voice for this particular passage in the vein of Stephen Fry from Blackadder Goes Forth.  It’s just *so* Edwardian (the bit I’m thinking of is from 1.20 to 1.35):

Ironically, of all the people to share Carson’s attitude about the emotional nature of true fidelity, the closest was Sir Roger Casement, the Irish Protestant nationalist who was hanged for treason in 1916.  At his trial, Casement stated that loyalty was “a sentiment, not a law.  It rests on Love, not on restraint.”  Sentimental melodrama, whether spoken in front of cheering crowds or expressed from the prisoner’s dock, seems to have been a defining aspect of loyalty during this fraught period in Irish history.

A note from “Billy” of the Shankill area was a bit more precise about those who gloried in being traitors.  Billy’s letter to the authorities — intercepted by the Royal Irish Constabulary — contained a few choice excerpts, including the following:

“Down with fenian George the ould mollycoddle, and his papish bitch of a wife – she would be another bloody mary if she got the chance, the shrew.  We don’t want them here.  As for signing the home rule bill, if he does, God help him, that’s all.  Nothing will save him.  We will rise.  We will not sing God save the king no longer.  We will fling the Union Jack on the ground and tramp it under foot, so look out….  Go on, Carson.” [spelling as in the original]

Billy – who, incidentally, was never caught by the RIC – seems to have preferred Ulster’s leader – Carson – to Ulster’s monarch – George V.  This underscored both the fervency of unionist sentiment during the Home Rule Crisis, but also the lunacy of proposing that men in the north-eastern corner of Ireland were so loyal to the crown… they’d kill the king.


So what does a unionist look like?  How does he appear, physically, in the historical record?  Was he an Ulsterman, born and bred, a Presbyterian, and a war veteran like Sir James Craig?

James Craig

Craig had fought against both the Boers and the Irish Transvaal Brigade in South Africa, and was the master-mind behind much of the anti-Home Rule campaign in the north.  But, being from Ulster, would he fit the bill?  On many occasions in the 1912-14 period, Craig seems to have been saddled with the burden of being “a prophet in his own land,” so to speak, so that an outsider was needed in order to bring legitimacy to the unionist cause.

So, was the right man Sir Edward Carson, the superstar of the age, or, to use Alvin Jackson’s clever phrase, “the lantern-jawed Ubermensch” who embodied both brute machismo and also a tender, soft sensitivity?  Carson was able to “overcome” his Dublin and Anglican heritage in order to become the greatest unionist icon in the north since William of Orange.  Through an extremely well-managed propaganda campaign, he really did become “King Carson: The Prince of Ulster.”

Or, was a true unionist more of the adventurous, violent, swashbuckling type?

Colonel Fred Crawford

Colonel Fred Crawford was the famed gun-runner of 1914 for the unionist cause — the man who, in a single night, brought in 20,000 guns and over 2 million rounds of ammunition, truly re-introducing the gun into the Irish Question.

He also was something of Ulster’s own Scarlet Pimpernel, using disguises and subterfuge on his numerous trips across the English Channel in order to arm the north and ensure Ulster’s apparent continued freedom.

All three members of this unionist trifecta seem to share the dour, stoic, stolid presence that has more or less characterized unionist politics for the past century.  It has always been easier to accept a unionist raging about his loyalty rather than smiling about it.  Be honest — if you see Ian Paisley grinning, does it put you at ease, or do you brace yourself for what’s about to come next?  I rest my case.

To play up the stereotype, the perfect unionist man was tall — certainly over 6’0″ — broad, grim, solemn, of one Protestant background or another, from the middle- or upper-classes, and with some sort of military service.  The shibboleth of the Second South African War soon became the 1913 oath of the Ulster Volunteer Force, followed most famously by participation in the 36th (Ulster) Division, who fought on 1 July 1916 — the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

That isn’t to say that you couldn’t have fun with this hyper-masculine image:

The Daily Express

Here, the British press has pictured Carson in that most masculine of Irish sports – boxing – and had him knock out Prime Minister Asquith, to the worry of John Redmond (with the towel) and Winston Churchill, and the tiny irateness of wee Lloyd George and his Welsh dragon (very Game of Thrones, if I do say so myself).  (Someone at my paper this weekend apparently thought this was a cat.  It’s not.  It’s a dragon: note both the wings and pointed tail.  Also, since when does a cat symbolize Wales?)  Obviously, the press assumed there were certain archetypes and stereotypes of manliness (i.e. the images and idealized standards of masculine behaviour, as opposed to masculinities,  the modern realities created by attempting to live up to such images and standards) that the reading public understood and recognized, allowing the Home Rule Crisis to take on pointedly gendered terms.


And then there is the imperial element.  Just what did unionist Ulstermen envisage when they declared their allegiance to the British Empire?

Ulster imperialism – such as it was – was composed of three parts.  The first was a loud enthusiasm for the benefits of imperial citizenship, which incorporated the rule of the Common Law, the legacy of Magna Carta, the format of constitutional monarchy created by the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and a belief in the power of both Protestantism and the English language.

Its second tenet was that, by calling on the empire, unionists were tapping into the Orange and Protestant elements of the greater Irish Diaspora.  These international links had been created through decades (if not centuries) of Irishmen in colonial and military service, and the successful establishment of Protestant fraternities and churches in every country with British loyalties, the Dominions of Canada and Newfoundland being, perhaps, the most successful examples of the same.  The Irish Protestant Diaspora, it was thought, had greatly helped to create all those ‘pink bits’ on the imperial map of the world, and the unionist anti-Home Rule platform intended to make use of it, in word if not in deed.

Finally, Ulster imperialism saw the British Empire as the new Rome, an idea first expounded by Lord Palmerston in 1850.  Civis romanus sum (or britannicus sum) were magical words that ensured the protection and freedom of British subjects and citizens the world over.  This was a time when imperialists, not just in Ulster, but around the globe were able to believe in a familial relationship binding the various colonies and dominions together.  It was within this context that one of the more interesting (?) solutions to the Home Rule Crisis was proposed, by none other than Canada’s own Sam Hughes.

Hughes’ idea was very simple: you can solve any possibility of Home Rule disagreement by kicking the English out of London and letting the colonials take over.  He felt the English would do just as well up in York.  Make London truly the new Rome, and no one would feel under-appreciated or -represented:

“Let the better elements of the Empire join hand in hand, sinking minor problems that might involve differences; and work together for the establishing of the Empire of Greater Britain, made up of a full partnership union of Great Britain and Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India.”

Somehow, I don’t think Sam was picturing Gandhi with that reference to India, but a more hard-line, militaristic version of Rudyard Kipling…


The climax for all of the anti-Home Rule propaganda and agitation was Ulster Day, 28 September 1912.

Sir Edward Carson signing the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant

It certainly appeared that signing the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant was to be the mythic touchstone for decades to come in the north of Ireland — though, with hindsight, we can see that it was replaced less than five years later by the unionist sacrifice at the Somme.  The unknown events of 1916 notwithstanding, the pageantry of September 1912 was a carefully orchestrated event that pointedly highlighted the masculine nature of the Covenant.

The Solemn League and Covenant, 28 September 1912

The document clearly defined its signatories as “men of Ulster,” separating the true Covenant from the Women’s Declaration signed by female unionists.  The assertion of manly authority in the Covenant rested – after God – in the person of the king, along with references to “defending” and “standing by one another,” two phrases that fell into traditional archetypes for warrior masculinities.  The Belfast News-Letter stressed that the Women’s Declaration had different wording because the Covenant was “exclusively for men.”  In fact, women weren’t even allowed to use the same building as the men on 28 September.  The Covenanters gathered together beneath the illustrious dome of Belfast City Hall, while the women who also felt Home Rule would be a disaster were shunted the various side streets and lecture halls to sign their Declaration.  There absolutely was female support for the cause, but masculine agency was left intact as the main force to defeat Home Rule.

The other aspect that certainly underscored the masculine nature of Covenant Day was the religious tone to the event.  Nearly all unionist Ulster Protestants viewed 28 September as a time for great reflection and prayer.  The word “solemn” is ubiquitous to the campaign in general, but reaches storied heights of repetition in the newspaper coverage at the end of the month.

A good example comes from the sermon by the Right Reverend Bishop C. F. D’Arcy at St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast, that Saturday morning, when he reaffirmed religion’s place in Ulster as a male contruct: “This is a very great, a very solemn, a very awful day…. Let me say that it stirs one’s soul to see the men of Ulster fired, as they are today, by the noblest enthusiasm which can move the heart of man.”

Ulster Day wasn’t a happy day — this wasn’t Easter or Advent which would imply joyous religious celebration.  If anything, the signing of the Covenant stood as a warning against the rest of Ireland invoking Amos’ Day of the Lord:

“Woe unto you that desire the day of the LORD! to what end is it for you? the day of the LORD is darkness, and not light.  As if a man did flee from a lion, and a bear met him; or went into the house, and leaned his hand on the wall, and a serpent bit him….  But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.”
(Amos, 5: 18-19, 24)

Signing the Ulster Covenant was to call down the wrath of judgment and righteousness that accompanied a time of darkness – such as would exist, so unionists thought, if “Rome Rule” was allowed to exist on the island of Ireland through the establishment of a Dublin parliament.  This was a sobering, monumental occasion with strong eschatological undercurrents for those who believed in its divine origins.  When unionists sang ‘O God Our Help in Ages Past,’ they meant it.

What we’re left with on the 29th of September 1912 is a collective group of men that formed part of a passing age of chivalry and masculine ideals, countering – if not outright rejecting – more modern ways; by the end of the war, six years later, unionist Ulstermen’s sense of manliness was absolutely a throw-back to a more Victorian age.

This past Wednesday saw the death of Paul Fussell, whose work The Great War and Modern Memory fundamentally changed how historians viewed the 1914-18 war and the role that language and imagery had in both violent conflict and the birth of modernism.  What set Ulster and, later, Northern Ireland apart from the rest of the western world was their refusal to become part of Fussell’s vision of irony born in the trenches.  They rejected the bleak language and melacholy modernity of the Western Front, focusing instead on the vision of the Ulster Covenant sealed with the blood of thousands of Ulstermen on the battlefield of the Somme.  This belief formed the modern mythology for unionism centering on the actions of the Home Rule Crisis and the Great War that had proven, to them if no one else, that unionist Protestant Ulstermen were the most loyal subjects of the British Empire.

If anything, this centennial year of 2012 is just a beginning; there will be many events commemorated in the next four years that will test the legacy and lasting influence of the episodes from 1912 to 1916, both north and south of the Irish border.

The events of the Home Rule Crisis are a fascinating topic for numerous academic disciplines.  From a cultural and gendered perspective, they are not only notable for their iconic images and jingoistic flavour, but also because they mark such a huge moment of cleavage between unionist masculinities and the rest of Ireland.  They day after the Covenant was signed, the men who had put ink on paper redefined their place within the empire; they were no longer men of Ireland — they were men of Ulster.

Sir Edward Carson statue at Stormont

Because of that declaration of loyalty, with all its attendant pomp, ceremony and melodrama, the men of the Ulster Covenant, really, are the most masculine of midwives for the eventual birth of Northern Ireland.  In their own way, they felt they had changed the shape of their small corner of the empire; but the sun was already setting on the greater imperial world they claimed to hold most dear.

Further Reading

Belfast Newsletter, 30 September 1912
Belfast Telegraph, 24 September 1912
House of Lords Parliamentary Archive, Bonar Law Fonds, BL/82/1/8, Sam Hughes to Max Aitken, 15 December 1910
R. W. Connell, “Masculinities and Globalization”
David Fitzpatrick, The Two Irelands (1998)
Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (1975)
Alvin Jackson, Sir Edward Carson (2012)
Jane G. V. McGaughey, Ulster’s Men (2012)
David W. Miller, Queen’s Rebels (1978)
NA CO/904/28/2, letter to Augustine Birrell, 18 July 1913
Northern Whig, 30 September 1912
A. T. Q. Stewart, The Ulster Crisis (1997 reprint)
The Times, 30 June 1916

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Midatlantic Musings by Jane G. V. McGaughey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

About midatlanticmusings

Historian of the Irish Diaspora and masculinities, wife, mother, lover of good books, red wine, fine whiskies, pop culture aficionado, and Star Wars wonk.
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