My attention was first called to Ulster-born writer George A. Birmingham by a review of his novel The Major’s Candlesticks on the Reading 1900–1950 blog. That novel is a comedy set in the aftermath of the Irish War of Independence (not the most promising setting for a comedy, you’d have thought). Intrigued, I went off and looked for a copy (first published 1929). I didn’t find one online, but Project Gutenberg has several of Birmingham’s works (he was fairly prolific) available to download for free. I picked The Red Hand of Ulster based on the title alone. As the book was published in 1912, the year of the Home Rule crisis and the Ulster Covenant, the subject matter seemed clear enough.
And indeed, this is a novel about those historic events, though not the kind of novel I expected. I’d read before about the niche genre of Home Rule dystopias that flourished briefly around this time, and I thought I might get something like that, or perhaps just something more stolidly declaratory of the honorableness of the Ulster Unionist position.
Early on in the novel, I was wrong-footed by the following passage, which seemed to indicate that the novel did have some Unionist propagandistic intent:
It was the fashion in England and throughout three-quarters of Ireland to laugh at Belfast. Nobody believed that a community of merchants, manufacturers and artisans actually meant to take up arms, shoot off guns and hack at the bodies of their fellow-men with swords and spears. This thing, at the beginning of the twentieth century, seemed incredible. To politicians it was simply unthinkable. For politics are a game played in strict accordance with a set of rules. For several centuries nobody in these islands had broken the rules. It had come to be regarded as impossible that any one could break them. No one expects his opponent at the bridge table to draw a knife from his pocket and run amuck when the cards go against him. Nobody expected that the north of Ireland Protestants would actually fight. To threaten fighting is, of course, well within the rules of the game, a piece of bluff which any one is entitled to try if he thinks he will gain anything by it. Half the politicians in both countries, and half the inhabitants of England, were laughing at the Belfast bluff. The rest of the politicians and the other half of the inhabitants of England were pretending to believe what Belfast said so as to give an air of more terrific verisimilitude to the bluff. Conroy [an Irish-American millionaire], guided by the instinct for the true meaning of things which had led him to great wealth, believed that the talk was more than bluff.
The implication of this passage is clear: take the Ulster Unionists seriously.
But beyond that, the novel defies easy classification.
Firstly, the prefatory note states that this is not a roman à clef, and also denies that the views represented in it are those of the author:
In a book of this kind some of the characters are necessarily placed in the positions occupied by living men; but no character is in any way copied from life, and no character must be taken as representing any real person. Nor must the opinions of Lord Kilmore of Errigal, the imaginary narrator of the tale, be regarded as those of the Author.
The question of Birmingham’s opinions is one which I would like to return to, but for the minute let’s stay with the characters. To a reader familiar with the history of the province and the period, the target of the story’s satire is perplexing. I understand satire to require a clear relation to reality, but in the novel character types are satirized but individuals are not. Take, as an example of the former, the Trinity Professor Gideon McNeice, a representative of the anti-Catholic intelligentsia:
Gideon McNeice’s Unionism was of a much more vigorous and militant kind. He respected England and had no objection to singing “God save the King” very much out of tune, so long as England and her King were obviously and blatantly on the side of Protestantism. He was quite prepared to substitute some other form of government for our present Imperial system if either the King, his representative the Lord Lieutenant, or the Parliament of Westminster, showed the smallest inclination to consider the feelings of the Roman Catholic hierarchy.
Or the Belfast industrialist Cahoon, a hilarious portrait of the pious, practical and humorless Ulsterman, with his all-purpose dismissive comment of anything that doesn’t fit into his world-view:
“That’s all well enough in its way,” he would say; “but it won’t do in Belfast. We’re business men.”
On the other hand, there is the figure of the politician Babberly, who fills the Sir Edward Carson role in the Home Rule protests portrayed in the book (”Babberly is the most terrific of all Unionist orators. If his speeches were set to music, the orchestra would necessarily consist entirely of cornets, trumpets and drums. No one could express the spirit of Babberly’s oratory on stringed instruments. Flutes would be ridiculous.”). But Babberly, his behavior in the novel makes clear, is definitely not Carson (or, indeed, any real-life prominent Unionist, at least as far as I can make out).
This mixture of satire and fantasy is one of the perplexing things about this book. Briefly, the main plot describes a bored American multi-millionaire of Irish extraction named Conroy financing the Unionist opposition to Home Rule simply “[t]o buck against the British Lion!” Cynically, he backs the Ulster Unionists as he think them more likely to fight the British than the Irish Nationalists. And foreshadowing the actual gun-running that armed the UVF, Conroy uses his steam yacht the Finola to smuggle arms into Ireland. Assuming a delay of at least six months (perhaps longer) between writing and publishing, this reveals a good deal of prescience on Birmingham’s part.
As already mentioned, the story’s narrator is Lord Kilmore:
I am an insignificant Irish peer, far from wealthy, with a taste for literature, and, I think, a moderate amount of benevolent feeling towards those of my fellow-men who do not annoy me in any way.
The fact that Kilmore is not a Unionist is a source of much confusion to everyone he encounters; here Birmingham is mocking the binary mode of thinking of his fellow countrymen.
I am constitutionally incapable of becoming excited about politics, and have therefore the reputation, quite undeserved, of being that singular creature, a Liberal peer.
The narrative voice is what makes this novel. Kilmore is passive but flippant and often witty, an observer who refuses to take seriously the issues that exercise the others around him. It’s often difficult to tell whether he’s joking or not:
I seized a chance of expressing my own views on the mixed marriage question. It seems to me that the whole difficulty about the validity of these unions might be got over by importing a few priests of the Greek Church into Ireland. The Vatican, I believe, recognizes that these Orientals really are priests. The Protestants could not reasonably object to their ministrations since they refuse to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the Pope. A mixed marriage performed by one of them would, therefore, be valid in the opinion of the ecclesiastical advisers of, let us say, the bridegroom. It would be quite unobjectionable to those responsible for the soul of the bride. I put my plan as persuasively as I could; but the Dean did not seem to see any merit in it. Indeed I have never met any one who did. That is the great drawback to trying to help the Irish nation out of its difficulties. No one will ever agree to a reasonable compromise.
This may seem silly, but is it any more nonsensical than the contradictions Kilmore identifies in the Unionists’ position?
It is the merest commonplace to say that Ireland is a country of unblushing self-contradictions; but I do not think that the truth of this ever came home to me quite so forcibly as when I read [in] The Loyalist that it would be better, if necessary, to imitate the Boers and shoot down regiments of British soldiers than to be false to the Empire of which “it is our proudest boast that we are citizens.” The editor—such was the conclusion I arrived at—must be a humorist of a high order.
Much of the comedy in the novel (and it is frequently funny) arises from Kilmore’s interactions with the diehard Unionists in his social circle, who wish to recruit him to their cause, as well as with Godfrey, his social parasite nephew and heir:
In the seventeenth century any member of the aristocracy who was afflicted with an heir like Godfrey had him shut up in the Bastille, or the Tower, by means of lettres de cachet or whatever corresponded to such instruments in England. There the objectionable young man ate bread and drank water at the expense of the public funds. Nobody seems to have suffered any discomfort at the thought that the cost of the support of his relative was falling either on the rates or the taxes. (I am not sure which it was but it must have been one or the other.) Nowadays we are horribly self-conscious in such matters. The debilitated labourer began it, objecting, absurdly, to being fed by other people in the workhouse. His spirit spread to the upper classes, and it is now impossible, morally, for me, a peer, to send my heir to the workhouse. Fortunately public opinion is swinging round again. The latest type of working-man has no objection to receiving an Old Age Pension, and likes to hear of his children being given free breakfasts at school. In time this new feeling will soak through to the class to which I belong. Then I shall be able, without a qualm, to send Godfrey to the workhouse. At present, I regret to say, I cannot.
As the above comment, with its allusion to the incipient welfare state being created by the Liberal government of the time, shows, Kilmore is sharper than he chooses to appear. He picks up on the socialist critique that Unionism that sectarianism is simply used by the upper classes to prevent working-class Catholics and Protestants uniting in solidarity:
“Nowadays,” said Lady Moyne, “when the industrial proletariate [sic] is breaking free from all control, it is a splendid thing for us to have a cause in which we take the lead, which will bind our working classes to us, and make them loyal to those who are after all their best friends and their natural leaders.”
I quite saw Lady Moyne’s point. Crossan would not be at all likely to follow her or regard her as his best friend in ordinary matters. He might even resent her interference with his affairs. But on the subject of Home Rule Crossan would certainly follow any one who took his side of the great controversy. If Lady Moyne wore an orange sash over her pretty dresses Crossan would cheer her. While Home Rule remained a real danger he would refrain from asking why Lord Moyne should spend as much on a bottle of champagne for dinner, as would feed the children of a labourer for a week. It did not surprise me to find that Lady Moyne was clever enough to understand Crossan.
Kilmore’s passivity seems more and more a front for Socratic irony. He lets those around him condemn themselves out of their own mouths.
The Dean caught me a little later in the morning, and, though I told him I had letters to write, he insisted on explaining to me that, as a clergyman, he considered it wrong to take any active part in politics.
“The Church,” he said, “cannot allow herself to become attached to any party. She must stand above and beyond party, a witness to divine and eternal righteousness in public affairs.”
I am, on the whole, glad that I heard the Dean say this. I should certainly have believed he was taking a side in politics, if he had not solemnly assured me that he was not. I might even have thought, taking at their face value certain resolutions passed by its General Synod, that the Church was, more or less, on the side of the Unionists, if the Dean had not explained to me that she only appeared to be on their side because they happened to be always in the right, but that she would be quite as much on the side of the Liberals if they would only drop their present programme which happened in every respect to be morally wrong. This cleared my mind for me, and I felt quite ready to face Conroy at luncheon, and dispel any difficulties he might feel about the Church and politics.
At times, Kilmore attempts to advance a moderate opinion, but each time it founders on the rocks of the others’ bigotry. Here he in conversation with O’Donovan, the onetime nationalist editor of a Loyalist journal:
“McNeice tells me,” he [O’Donovan] said, “that you are writing a history of Irish Rebellions. I suppose you have said that Nationalism ceased to exist about the year 1900?”
“I hadn’t thought of saying that,” I said. “In fact—in view of the Home Rule Bill, you know—I should have said that Irish Nationalism was just beginning to come to its own.”
“There’s no such thing as Irish Nationalism left,” he said. “The country is hypnotized. We’ve accepted a Bill which deprives us of the most elementary rights of freemen. We’ve licked the boots of English Liberals. We’ve said ‘thank you’ for any gnawed bones they like to fling to us. We’ve—”
It struck me that O’Donovan was becoming rhetorical. I interrupted him.
“Idealism in politics,” I said, “is one of the most futile things there is. What the Nationalist Party—”
“Don’t call them that,” said O’Donovan. “I tell you they’re not Nationalists.”
“I’ll call them anything you like,” I said, “but until you invent some other name for them I can’t well talk about them without calling them Nationalists.”
“They—” said O’Donovan.
“Very well,” I said. “They. So long as you know who I mean, the pronoun will satisfy me. They had to consider not what men like you wanted, but what the Liberal Party could be induced to give. I don’t say they made the best bargain possible, but—”
“Anyhow,” said McNeice, “we’re not going to be governed by those fellows. That’s the essential point.”
I think it is. The Unionist is not really passionately attached to the Union. He has no insuperable antipathy to Home Rule. Indeed, I think most Unionists would welcome any change in our existing system of government if it were not that they have the most profound and deeply rooted objection to the men whom McNeice describes as “those fellows,” and O’Donovan indicates briefly as “they.”
In the course of the novel, Kilmore becomes — thanks to the social circle in which he moves — a spectator of and at times unwilling participant in the anti-Home-Rule movement. The novel climaxes with a mass demonstration organised in Belfast, which the government attempts to proscribe. The irony with which Kilmore describes Babberly’s speech to the crowd is exquisitely done:
When the audience had stopped cheering Babberly’s forefathers, he went on to tell us that Belfast had the largest shipbuilding yard, the largest tobacco factory, the largest linen mill, and the second largest School of Art Needlework in the United Kingdom. These facts were treated by everybody as convincing reasons for the rejection of the Home Rule Bill, and a man, who was squeezed very tight against the platform just below me, cursed the Pope several times with singular vindictiveness.
All of the above may suggest that Birmingham is on the side of the constitutional nationalists, who at the time of writing seemed to have achieved their aim of Home Rule for Ireland. But in fact, he also skewers the naïveté of the Irish Parliamentary Party and those like them, for being incapable of understanding the depth of unionist antipathy to the idea of Home Rule:
I spent my time in the train reading several different accounts of an important Nationalist meeting held the day before in a village in County Clare, the name of which I have unfortunately forgotten. […] They all began by declaring that under Home Rule all Irishmen should receive equal consideration and be treated with equal respect. They all looked forward to the day when they would be walking about the premises at present occupied by the Bank of Ireland in Dublin with their arms round Babberly’s neck. The dearest wish of their hearts—so they all said, and the people of County Clare cheered heartily—was to unite with Lord Moyne, Babberly, Malcolmson and even the Dean in the work of regenerating holy Ireland. Any little differences of religious creed which might exist would be entirely forgotten as soon as the Home Rule Bill was safely passed. They then went on to say that the Belfast people, and the people of County Antrim and County Down generally, were enthusiastically in favour of Home Rule.
Then it all gets really strange. The British government does actually send warships and troops to Belfast to restore order. The troops choose to fire into the air instead of at the loyalist militias (the UVF is not mentioned by name, but this is what is meant – again, Birmingham’s prescience is impressive) and then they return to base, leaving the Unionists holding the field. One battleship attempts to shell Belfast and is in return fired upon and damaged by field guns set up by the Unionists on the Cave Hill.
This never happened, but I was fascinated to find out by chance that in March 1914 (two years after the novel’s publication) Winston Churchill, at the time First Lord of the Admiralty, vowed privately to “pour enough shot and shell into Belfast to reduce it to ruins” if opposition to Home Rule continued. 
Kilmore finds himself co-opted onto a provisional government and sent as plenipotentiary to negotiate with the British government, a task he still refuses to take entirely seriously:
“Shall I demand Mr. Redmond’s head on a charger? I don’t suppose you want it, but it’s always well to ask for more than you mean to take. It gives the other side a chance of negotiating.”
The demands he is dispatched to make perfectly reflect the contradictory nature of the Unionists’ ‘loyal’ rebellion:
“We will not have Home Rule,” said the Dean and Malcolmson together.
“All we ask,” said McNeice, “is that the English clear out of this country, bag and baggage, soldiers, policemen, tax collectors, the whole infernal crew, and leave us free hand to clean up the mess they’ve been making for the last hundred years.”
The British government, vacillating as they did in real life over the Home Rule crisis, agree to the demands rather than risk having to properly fight the Unionists. Thus the campaign to prevent Home Rule end ups achieving full independence instead!
As I commented earlier, this mixture of fantasy and satire is what makes the novel so perplexing. It says something about attitudes to (Northern) Ireland that the Protestant-Catholic/Unionist-Nationalist/British-Irish dichotomy has been so totally assimilated into the way we view and attempt to understand Ireland that it is actually conceptually difficult to cope with something that refuses to fit into these predefined patterns.
And what of George A. Birmingham himself? He may have disassociated himself from the views of his narrator, but as I’ve argued here, it’s hard to believe from the story that he fully sympathised with either nationalists or unionists. The name “George A. Birmingham” was in fact a pseudonym of James Owen Hannay (1865–1950), who was a Church of Ireland minister from Belfast. He served congregations in counties Mayo and Kildare, leaving Ireland for good in 1920. He spent the remaining thirty years of his life in England. Possibly the reception of his writings had something to do with the move; his novel Up, The Rebels! is dedicated “to any friends I have left in Ireland after the publication of this book”.
Up, The Rebels!, incidentally, is about the Sinn Féiners in the aftermath of the Easter Rising. A review in the ‘Spectator’ at the time commented that “he recognizes that the spirit of rebellion in Ireland is not unmixed with a vein of buffoonery, but you never can tell when it will not turn to grim earnest” and that Birmingham “treats Loyalists and Nationalists, Government officials and rebels, with impartial satire”. That’s certainly true of The Red Hand of Ulster as well.
It seems to me that in these (one hopes) more pluralistic and enlightened days George A. Birmingham is worth a revival. There’s certainly enough to choose from: he seems to have written a novel a year from 1905 to his death!
- I can’t resist quoting the following exchange, which I think encapsulates an attitude still common among certain portions of Northern Ireland’s population:
I find by consulting my diary that it was on the 30th of June that I went to Dublin. I am not often in Dublin, though I do not share the contempt for that city which is felt by most Ulstermen. Cahoon, for instance, will not recognize it as the capital of the country in which he lives, and always speaks of Dublin people as impractical, given over to barren political discussion and utterly unable to make useful things such as ships and linen. He also says that Dublin is dirty, that the rates are exorbitantly high, and that the houses have not got bath-rooms in them. I put it to him that there are two first-rate libraries in Dublin.
“If I want a book,” he said, “I buy it. We pay for what we use in Belfast. We are business men.”
“But,” I explained, “there are some books, old ones, which you cannot buy. You can only consult them in libraries.”
“Why don’t you go to London, then?” said Cahoon.
- Crossan is Kilmore’s business manager, as well as being Grand Master of the Orangemen of the county. ↩
- Quoted in McMeekin, Sean, July 1914: Countdown to War, pp. 385–6 ↩
The Red Hand of Ulster by George A. Birmingham by Bruce Gaston