From the mid-1860s to 1914 the Irish problem was frequently the prime issue in British politics. Quantitatively it absorbed more time and energy than any other question. There was little about Ireland which was not aired at length in the press, in Parliament and at the dinner tables of the British political elite. Fenianism obsessed British minds at the beginning of the period while at the end it seemed all too possible that Irish home rule would spark off the largest civil disruption in the British Isles since the seventeenth century. Throughout the late Victorian and Edwardian eras Ireland never drifted far from political consciousness. The importance of the Irish question in modern British history is undeniable. It remains a staple of schools and university history syllabuses. For many William Gladstone's long career, most of which had little connection with Ireland, was bound up with his mission to pacify the Emerald Isle. Charles Stewart Parnell, the Protestant nationalist who guided an essentially Catholic movement so triumphantly, has inspired the best in poetry and the worst of Hollywood. The Irish problem, understandably, has continued to excite interest and passion beyond any other issue of the time. Its ramifications are with us even today. Failure to resolve the Irish problem by 1914 left a bitter legacy and was a major factor in giving birth to the contemporary Northern Ireland violence. That the Irish question played so considerable a part in later nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain is at initial glance very curious. Ireland was a small, relatively poor backwater on the fringe of the British Isles and western Europe. It possessed few significant resources and had little intrinsic importance. Scotland and Wales, lands of infinitely more value to Britain, attracted little concern by comparison though both had grievances and aspirations similar to those in Ireland. Moreover, neither the industrial workers of Britain's cities or the agricultural classes of the countryside were given the consideration devoted to the humblest of Ireland's Catholic peasantry. Ireland's centrality is explicable in three principle ways. First, there was a range of outstanding Irish grievances which public opinion had been educated to understand demanded attention if the Catholics of the country were to consent freely to be part of a unified kingdom. Certain issues, then, were ripe for legislation. Secondly, a movement emerged which was able to galvanise the Catholic masses. It also proved effective in keeping Ireland to the fore in British life over an extended time.
Reactions to Irish Nationalism, 1865-1914