As in eastern Europe, a nationality problem peculiar to Britain grew more acute near the end of the nineteenth century. This was “the Irish problem,” as the English called it.
The English, and the Scots who came to settle in the northern Irish province of Ulster in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, had remained as privileged Protestant landowners over a subject population of Catholic Irish peasants. Although there were also native Irish among the ruling classes, many of them had been Anglicized and had become Protestant.
For three centuries religious, political, and economic problems in Ireland had remained unsolved. Early in the nineteenth century the English attempted to solve the political problem by a formal union of the two kingdoms, with Irish members admitted to the British Parliament. On January 1, 1801, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland came into being.
Beginning with the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, which allowed Irish voters to elect Catholics to office, most of the English reforms were extended to Ireland. The Irish, led by Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847), the Great Emancipator, organized politically to press for repeal of the union and in favor of home rule. They sought not only self-government but also land reform, to break the economic dominance of the Protestant minority, and disestablishment of the Anglican church in Ireland—that is, abolition of a state church supported by taxes levied both on its members and on the Irish majority, who were nonmembers.
Irish hatred for the English was fanned by the disastrous potato famine of the 1840s, when blight ruined a crop essential to the food supply. The British government did not provide prompt or efficient relief, and twenty-one thousand Irish deaths were attributed directly to starvation. At least a million more people, weakened by malnutrition, succumbed to disease. Many of these deaths occurred on ships, as up to a million Irish emigrated. Those who survived carried their hatred of the British with them.
Over the next decades British governments made piecemeal reforms. In 1869 they disestablished the Anglican church in Ireland, and in the next year the Irish Land Act began a series of agrarian measures that were designed to protect tenants from “rack renting” (rent gouging) by landlords. The reforms were neither far-reaching nor rapid, intensifying Irish awareness of cultural differences and nationality.
Then in 1875 a brilliant Irish leader, Charles Parnell (1846-1891), was elected to the British Parliament. Under his leadership the Irish nationalists in the British Parliament were welded into a firm, well- disciplined party which could often swing the balance between Liberals and Conservatives.
The critical step came in 1885, when Gladstone was converted to the cause of Irish home rule. In the next year he introduced a bill providing for a separate Dublin- based Irish parliament under the Crown. Gladstone’s decision split his own Liberal party, and a group led by Chamberlain seceded under the name of Liberal Unionists; in effect, they joined the Conservative party. Gladstone lost the election brought on by the split, and home rule was dropped for the moment.
Agitation continued in Ireland, however, becoming more and more bitter. In 1892, however, Gladstone won a close election on the Irish issue, obtaining enough English seats to get a second home rule bill through the Commons with the aid of eighty-one Irish nationalists. However, the bill was defeated in the House of Lords and was dropped once more. The Conservatives, when they came in for a ten-year reign in 1895, sought to “kill home rule by kindness,” enacting several land reform bills that helped make Ireland a land of small peasant proprietors.
But Ireland was now beyond the reach of modest reforms. Irish nationalism was now in full flower, nourished by a remarkable literary revival in English and Gaelic by writers like the poet W. B. Yeats (1865-1939), the dramatist John Millington Synge (1871-1909), and Lady Augusta Gregory (1859-1932), cofounder of the Abbey Theatre, which staged plays with deeply Irish themes. Irish men and women everywhere—including Irish-Americans—would be satisfied with nothing less than an independent Irish state.
The Liberals, back in power after 1905, found that they needed the votes of the Irish nationalists to carry through their proposal for ending the veto power of the Lords. The Liberals struck a bargain: home rule in return for the Parliament Act of 1911. A home rule bill was placed on the books in 1912 but never went into force, for as home rule seemed about to become a fact, the predominantly Protestant north of Ireland, the province of Ulster, bitterly opposed to separation from Great Britain, threatened to resist by force of arms.
The home rule bill as passed carried the rider that it was not to go into effect until the Ulster question was settled. The outbreak of the European war in 1914 put such a settlement out of the question, and the stage was set for the Irish Revolution of the 1920s and the long extension of the Time of Troubles, at least for Northern Ireland, into the present.