Carson, Edward Henry, Baron Carson, of Duncairn 1854-1935, Ulster leader and lord of appeal in ordinary, was born in Dublin 9 February 1854, the second son of Edward Henry Carson, a civil engineer practising in that city, by his wife, Isabella, daughter of Captain Peter Lambert, of Castle Ellen, Athenry, co. Galway, a descendant of General John Lambert [qv.]. He was educated at Portarlington School and at Trinity College, Dublin, where he studied law, although his first inclination was towards architecture. After taking his degree, he was called to the Irish bar (King's Inns, Dublin) in 1877 and by 1880 had become known to solicitors as a desirable junior, so that three years later he was much in demand both in the Dublin courts and on the Leinster circuit. In 1887 he became junior counsel to the attorney-general, John Gibson, on whose elevation to the bench in 1888 Peter O'Brien (afterwards Lord O'Brien) [qv.] continued Carson as his counsel. As junior crown prosecutor he conducted several important criminal trials until, in 1889, he took silk. At the instance of A. J. Balfour, who had formed a high opinion of him, he was appointed solicitor-general for Ireland in June 1892, only two months before the end of Lord Salisbury's second administration. In July he was returned to parliament as one of the members for Dublin University, a seat which he continued to hold for twenty-six years. He then determined to explore the wider field open to talent across St. George's Channel, and he was called to the English bar by the Middle Temple in 1893, becoming Q.C. the following year. In due course he was elected a bencher (1900) and treasurer (1922) of his Inn; he had been a bencher of King's Inns since 1891
Carson's first success at the English bar was in the libel action brought in 1895 by Oscar Wilde [qv.] against the Marquess of Queensberry, which caused him to be acknowledged by common consent as one of the foremost advocates at the bar. Although he was invited to take office when the unionists gained power in 1895, Carson refused: he was at the height of his powers as an advocate, and he felt it necessary to devote himself to his professional career. In 1900, however, having been sworn of the Irish Privy Council in 1896, he became solicitor-general for England, an office which involved a knighthood and which he held until the fall of the unionist administration in December 1905, when he was sworn of the Privy Council. In January 1910 he was chosen as leader of the Irish unionists in the House of Commons on the retirement of W. H. (afterwards Viscount) Long [qv.] from that position. On the resignation of Balfour himself from the leadership of the opposition in the next year, Carson was one of the four men canvassed as possible successors, but he refused to allow his name to go forward, preferring to devote all his energies to the service of Irish unionism. Many years afterwards he said: From the day I first entered parliament up to the present, devotion to the union has been the guiding star of my political life.
Even though the liberals had promised that no home rule bill should be introduced during the parliament elected in 1906, Carson saw that a liberal administration constituted a grave menace to the union, and he promoted to the best of his ability the close organization of the rank and file of the loyalists of Ulster; in 1907 he vigorously opposed the devolution scheme which, as it was also rejected by the nationalists, remained stillborn. In the battle over the parliament bill (1910-1911), his speeches were directed to showing the effect that this measure would have on the Irish problem, for if the veto of the House of Lords were abolished, the passage of home rule was assured.
In 1911 the Ulster Unionist Council appointed a commission to take immediate steps, in consultation with Sir Edward Carson, to frame and submit a constitution for a provisional government in Ulster. For this post of Ulster leader, Carson had all the qualities necessary; readiness to accept responsibility, insight, courage, resource, and single-minded sincerity for the cause. At a great demonstration on 23 September, at Craigavon, near Belfast, he was welcomed as the new leader, and in a speech in reply to addresses declaring for resistance to the jurisdiction of a Dublin parliament, he declared that the people of Ulster and he joined together would yet defeat the most nefarious conspiracy that has ever been hatched against a free people and called on them to be ready themselves to become responsible for the government of the Protestant Province of Ulster. The appeal was heard, and in spite of extreme provocation and threats, the discipline maintained by him prevented any outbreak of disorder in Ulster.
In 1912 the Ulster Volunteer Force was raised, and application was made to the magistrates for permission to drill. It was granted, and soon battalions sprang up all over the province to form the nucleus of the body which gave substance to the declaration that Ulster intended to govern the districts over which she had control. On 9 April 1912, at a great demonstration at Balmoral, near Belfast, Bonar Law, after assuring Ulster of the support of English unionists, shook hands with Carson as a visible sign of the pledge amid great enthusiasm.
When in the committee stage of the home rule bill an amendment was put down by Thomas Charles Reginald Agar-Robartes, liberal member for St. Austell, to exclude the counties of Antrim, Down, Derry, and Armagh from the jurisdiction of the Dublin parliament, Carson advised that it should be supported. His colleagues had doubts, but their faith in his judgement was such that they unanimously supported him. Once more, at a gathering at Blenheim on 29 July, Bonar Law pledged the support of the unionists of England, and Carson announced that the people of Northern Ireland would shortly challenge the government to interfere with them if they dared, and would await the result with equanimity. This was followed by the drafting of a bond or sacred obligation, which at first was intended to be worded according to the Scottish national covenant of 1581; but this was found to be impracticable, and a new covenant was drawn up which was to be signed all over the province on 28 September, known as Ulster day. Carson described the covenant as a step forward, not in defiance, but in defence, not in a spirit of aggression nor of ascendancy, but with a full knowledge that Ulster would carry out everything which it meant, whatever the consequences. Following this up, Carson moved, in January 1913, the exclusion of the whole province of Ulster from the scope of the bill. The amendment was defeated, although Carson's speech made a powerful impression, and on 16 January the bill was read a third time. A fortnight later it was defeated in the Lords by a majority of 257, but it had only to be passed again in two succeeding sessions in order to become law, and therefore preparations were pushed forward in Ulster, plans were adopted for a provisional government, and Carson, accepting the chairmanship of the central authority, said Ulster might be coerced into submission, but in that case she would have to be governed as a conquered country. To the guarantee fund of £250,000 for members of the Ulster Volunteer Force and their dependants who might suffer as a result of their services, Carson subscribed immediately £10,000.
The importation of arms and ammunition into Ireland having been prohibited by royal proclamation in December 1913, correspondence took place between Carson and the prime minister, H. H. Asquith, which many people looked upon as the forerunner of some concessions on the part of the government. Carson, however, knowing how much the government was in the hands of the nationalists, had no illusions on the subject, and his scepticism was shown to be well founded when, on the second reading of the bill on 9 March 1914, the prime minister was only able to offer county option with a time limit of six years. Carson described the offer as sentence of death with a stay of execution, but he noted with satisfaction that the government had admitted the principle of exclusion. The debate was adjourned, but on 14 March at Bradford Mr. Winston Churchill made a grave speech clearly hinting that if Ulster refused the offer of the prime minister, force would be employed, and concluded: Let us go forward together and put these grave matters to the proof. What this meant was revealed when it was announced that warships had been dispatched to Lamlash in the Isle of Arran, and that extra troops were to be rushed into Ulster. The immediate sequel was the Curragh incident (20 March), and the imminence of civil war was brought home to the world. Lastly, when the gun-running at Larne (24 April) was denounced by Asquith as a grave and unprecedented outrage, Carson replied that he took full responsibility for everything that had been done. The prime minister then assured the House of Commons that the government would, without delay, take proper steps to vindicate the authority of the law; but there the matter ended, for no steps whatever were taken.
The promised amending bill was introduced and passed the Commons (25 May), but on 8 July the Lords substituted the permanent exclusion of the whole province of Ulster in the place of county option. Rumours reached Carson that there were differences of opinion in the Cabinet over the amending bill. At the subsequent conference of party leaders opened at Buckingham Palace on 21 July, Carson and James Craig (afterwards Viscount Craigavon) [qv.] attended as the Ulster representatives, and when, on 24 July, it broke down on the question what portion of Ulster should be excluded, the amending bill, with county option, was put down for second reading on 30 July. By then, however, the country was on the brink of war, and at Asquith's request, in order to avoid domestic controversy at such a crisis, Carson and Bonar Law consented to the postponement of the proceedings on the amending bill, on the express assurance of the prime minister that this was of course without prejudice to its future. War having broken out in August, a party truce was proclaimed on the terms that no controversial measures were to be taken, but the prime minister provoked the protest of the whole unionist party by advising the royal assent to the home rule bill, although at the same time announcing a bill suspending its operation until after the war, and saying that as an integral part of the proposals the government would introduce an amending bill before the Irish government bill could possibly come into operation. In the same speech Asquith declared the coercion of Ulster to be an absolutely unthinkable thing which he and his colleagues would never countenance or consent to.
Together with the rest of the unionist party, Carson considered the government to have been guilty of a flagrant breach of faith in thus passing the home rule bill into law; nevertheless, he offered it the services of the Ulster Volunteer Force. In Belfast, on 30 September, he explained to the Ulster Unionist Council the position in regard to the postponement of the amending bill, and said that however unworthily the government had acted, their own duty was to think of their country. Their country and the Empire were in danger; England's difficulty was their difficulty and England's sorrows had been, and always would be, their sorrows. He therefore said to the Ulster volunteers: Go and help to save your country; go and win honour for Ulster and for Ireland. Next morning he marched at the head of the North Belfast volunteers to the Old Town Hall where they were enrolled as the first unit of the now famous 36th (Ulster) division.
In Asquith's administration of May 1915, Carson was appointed attorney-general. In the eighteen months of its existence, he became more and more dissatisfied with the way in which the government was being conducted, holding strong views about the delay in applying conscription, the necessity of a retreat from the Dardanelles, and the dishonour of Great Britain's abandonment of Serbia after the pledges given by Sir Edward Grey. The exigencies of war having still required the further postponement of the amending bill, Asquith renewed his pledge on the matter, but after the Easter rebellion in Dublin in 1916, the government, to the astonishment of everyone, proposed that negotiations should be opened for an arrangement for bringing the Home Rule Act into immediate operation, subject to an amending bill excluding the whole or a portion of Ulster. On behalf of the government, Lloyd George asked Carson to go to Belfast to try to persuade the people there to agree to the exclusion of the six counties. Carson consented, solely, as he said, on account of the representations made to me as to the urgency of the matter for the prosecution of the war and the encouragement of America to join the Allies. The Ulster people, with equal reluctance, authorised me to assent on their behalf, while protesting that their devotion to the union remained unimpaired.
Before leaving on this difficult mission, Carson had received a letter from Lloyd George assuring him that the six county area would be permanently excluded from the act of 1914. Meanwhile the nationalist leaders had persuaded their followers to agree to this policy of exclusion, but they maintained that a promise as to its temporary character had been made to them. On this misunderstanding the negotiations broke down. On 24 July Lloyd George gave another assurance that under no conditions did the present government or any member of it contemplate forcing the six counties into a home rule government against their will.
Carson's resignation from office in October 1916 heralded the break up of Asquith's administration. Under Lloyd George, who became prime minister in December 1916, Carson accepted office as first lord of the Admiralty. His admiration for the men of the navy was unbounded and he avowed that the glory of success belonged only to the officers and men of the ships. His whole duty lay in serving them, in seeing that they got all that they required for their support in guns, ammunition, and comfort.
Carson had said: I myself would never have accepted office in [Lloyd George's] government except on the distinct understanding that no attempt would be made to violate these reiterated pledges not to put Ulster under Home Rule. Nevertheless, T. P. O'Connor [qv.] once more raised the question in the Commons on 7 March 1917, and Lloyd George in his speech on that occasion pointed out that in the north-eastern portion of Ireland you have a population as hostile to Irish rule as the rest of Ireland is to British rule, as alien in blood, in religious faith, in traditions, in outlook—as alien from the rest of Ireland in this respect as the inhabitants of Fife or Aberdeen. In May, under pressure from the prime minister, Carson consented to the setting up of a convention of representative Irishmen under the chairmanship of Sir Horace Plunkett [qv.], and it was said by Lloyd George that if this body could propose a settlement by substantial agreement, the government would introduce legislation to give effect to it. But after it had sat for many months, the prime minister admitted that in the report of the convention there was no substantial agreement. In January 1918, on learning that Lloyd George was intending to introduce a home rule bill for the whole of Ireland, which it was generally assumed would be based on the majority report from which all the Ulster delegates had dissented, Carson, who had left the Admiralty in order to become a member of the War Cabinet in July 1917, resigned from the government.
The joint letter issued by Lloyd George and Bonar Law on the eve of the general election of December 1918 gave a solemn pledge that only when the condition of Ireland was sufficiently settled would the Home Rule Act of 1914 be put into force, and that the policy of the government, if again returned to power, was to exclude the six counties of north-east Ulster from its operation. Carson was shown this letter and asked if he agreed with it. He replied in the affirmative, and in response to representations from Belfast, consented to return to Westminster for the newly created Duncairn division of Belfast. No one realized more than Carson that the danger to Ulster was as great as ever and that while the Home Rule Act of 1914 was likely to come into force at any time after the legal end of the war had been determined, no provision had been made for the amending bill. In December 1919 Lloyd George, stating that three-fourths of the people of Ireland were bitterly hostile and were at heart rebels against the Crown and government, but that Ulster was a complete contrast which would make it an outrage to place her people under the rest of Ireland, announced that these were the considerations upon which he based his proposed legislation for the next session.
When the Government of Ireland bill had been introduced on 25 February 1920, Carson went to Belfast and after a speech from him, the Ulster Unionist Council adopted a resolution disclaiming responsibility for the bill, but declaring that as there was no prospect of securing the repeal of the Act of 1914, the Ulster parliamentary representatives should not assume the responsibility of attempting to defeat it. Therefore when the rejection of the bill was moved on 31 March 1920, Carson rose and reiterated his opposition to the very end to the whole policy of home rule for Ireland: It will be fraught with disaster to your country and to mine. — The truth of the matter is there is no alternative to the union, unless separation, and anybody who will think out the circumstances will necessarily come to that conclusion. — What you are really going to do, and I wish to put it on record as my opinion, is to give a lever to your enemies by which they may, under the guise of constitutional law, attain results which you know in your hearts will be absolutely fatal to your whole Empire. But he went on: If I help to kill this bill, I bring automatically into force the Act of 1914, and he added, It may turn out, as the leader of the House said yesterday, that under this bill, if it passes, the only part of Ireland which will have a parliament is the part that never asked for it. — One thing I will promise you, that Ulster will do her level best with her parliament. And to the lord chancellor, F. E. Smith, Lord Birkenhead [qv.], he wrote a letter which the latter read to the House of Lords on 22 November 1920. We have agreed therefore, and have made up our minds that in the interests of Ireland, Great Britain and the Empire, the best and only solution of the question is to accept the present bill and endeavour to work it loyally. When therefore the Government of Ireland bill became law on 23 December 1920, many people believed that the great struggle had at last come to an end.
Carson now felt that his place should be taken by a younger man, and at a meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council held on 4 February 1921 he announced his resignation as leader of the Ulster unionists. An urgent request to him to continue in office was met by the plea that it was a case of age and energy, and that he felt himself unequal to the task of undertaking the initiation and establishment of the new Northern Ireland parliament. Three months later (24 May) he left the House of Commons on appointment as a lord of appeal in ordinary. As a compliment to his old constituency he took the title of Baron Carson, of Duncairn, and from his seat in the House of Lords he never ceased to guard the interests of Ulster. He strongly protested against handing over the southern loyalists to their enemies under the treaty of 6 December with Sinn Fein. He also, on 11 May 1922, spoke very strongly in support of measures taken by the government for the protection of the old Royal Irish Constabulary, and once more he called attention to the treatment by Sinn Fein of British subjects in Ireland. At the end of October 1929 he resigned his office as lord of appeal in ordinary.
In October 1926, in the course of a fortnight's stay in Ulster, Carson received the honorary degree of Doctor of Law from Queen's University, Belfast, and his last two visits were for the opening of the new parliament buildings at Stormont by the Prince of Wales in 1932 and for the unveiling of his own statue in front of these buildings in July 1933.
Soon after his eightieth birthday (1934) Carson fell very seriously ill with bronchitis, and although he recovered, his health was undermined and he died at Cleve Court, Minster, Kent, 22 October 1935. He was given a state funeral in Belfast and was buried in St. Anne's Cathedral.
Carson was twice married: first, in 1879 to Sarah Annette Foster (died 1913), adopted daughter of Henry Persse Kirwan, of Triston Lodge, co. Galway, and had two sons and two daughters of whom the elder son and younger daughter predeceased their father; secondly, in 1914 to Ruby, elder daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel Stephen Frewen (afterwards Frewen-Laton), of Winton and Sigston Castle, Yorkshire, formerly commanding the 16th Lancers, and had one son, who was elected conservative member of parliament for the Isle of Thanet in July 1945.
Carson was one of the most remarkable and powerful advocates that the bar has ever produced, and one of the most conscientious and fearless in defence of his clients' interests. He had a shrewd and wide insight into human nature and his persuasive influence was enhanced by the charm of his attractive personality. As a lawyer he was at his best in cross-examination and in his appeal to a jury, of which he was an acknowledged master. His gift of searching cross-examination was aided by his piercing eyes and the height of his thin sinewy frame. He was certainly not a bully, as his enemies sometimes suggested, but he overpowered a witness with his penetrating eyes and the impression of commanding power. He was liked by all the juniors at the bar and respected by them, because he was never overbearing, pompous, or remote. He would never take a case unless he could give his whole time to it. He cared nothing for money if it stood in the way of what he conceived to be his duty. In the Archer-Shee case (1910), in which he vindicated the honour of a young Osborne cadet against all the forces of the Crown and its law-officers, he devoted ten days to the case for a nominal fee and turned away a brief for 1,500 guineas. He said to a friend after he had become a lord of appeal in 1921: I died on the day I left the House of Commons and the bar. As a judge, he was fearless in his championship of right and in his passionate desire to do justice and prevent oppression and wrong.
Carson was a great orator—perhaps the greatest of his time, if the test of oratory is its power to move men to the very depths of their souls—but he never attempted to be oratorical. He never prepared set speeches. Lord Morley said to a friend in reference to the greatest oration which Carson ever made (the speech in the House of Lords on the capitulation, as he regarded it, of the government to Sinn Fein): It was so overwhelming in its passionate sincerity that if a division had been taken at that moment I should have trembled for the result. But Carson told the same friend: I had prepared nothing, because I had a heavy case in the courts that day.
To the eloquence, courage, and capacity of Carson in critical years, Ulster owes her existence, for it can be truly said that by his determined refusal to allow Ulster to be driven out of the union, he saved the province from being coerced into a separation from all that it held dear. His services to Ulster were made at great personal sacrifice without the slightest consideration of the cost or the risk involved, and he was distinguished by a moral grandeur of character of which everybody was conscious except himself.
Probably the best portrait of Lord Carson is that by P. A. de László in the Middle Temple. An oil-painting by Sir John Lavery, executed in 1921, is in the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery. A picture by the American artist Robert MacCameron is in the possession of Lady Carson, as well as a portrait of Carson as a young man by Julia Falkard. There is also a portrait by Sir Edward Burne-Jones in the possession of Mr. Walter Carson. In the National Portrait Gallery, and also in the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery, there is an etching of the head by John George Day (1914) which is a striking likeness. The statue which stands in the grounds of the parliament buildings at Stormont is by L. S. Merrifield, who also executed a marble bust now in the possession of the Belfast Corporation. In Vanity Fair, 9 November 1893 appeared a cartoon by Lib entitled Dublin University, which is considered an excellent likeness and was reproduced by Edward Marjoribanks as the frontispiece to his biography.
Edward Marjoribanks, The Life of Lord Carson, vol. i, 1932
Ian Colvin, The Life of Lord Carson, vols. ii and iii, 1934, 1936
Contributor: D. L. Savory.