Gladstone and His Cloud in the West: This Month Marks the Bicentenary of the Birth of Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone. Kevin Haddick Flynn Looks at the Attempt of the Grand Old Man of Liberalism to Solve the Irish Question and His Conversion to Home Rule in the Mid-1880s

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Ireland! Ireland! That cloud in the west, that coming storm, the minister of God's retribution upon cruel and inveterate and half-aroused ill justice!

Gladstone, 1845.

In the opinion of some, William Ewart Gladstone was the greatest statesman of his age. His career continues to fascinate and its appeal springs not only from his pre-eminence as a politician but from the unusual nature of his personality and character. 'A comic genius' is how one contemporary described him. But in truth the Grand Old Man, or GOM as he became known, was never comic, at least not intentionally. He was a highly resolute man in a sombre and straitlaced age. Benjamin Disraeli neatly captured Gladstone's character when he remarked that he did not possess 'a single redeeming defect'.

What were the traits that marked him? First, he was a man of exceptional physical energy, although often subject to bouts of serious illness. He was a keen traveller, but when visiting stately homes often chose to walk the last half-dozen miles. Where Harold Wilson left tobacco pipes, Gladstone left axes with which he had hewn down great trees. After an arduous day of Cabinet meetings and parliamentary business, sometimes followed by a formal dinner, it was not unusual for him to venture onto the streets to 'rescue' ladies of the night. Roy Jenkins says that Gladstone's diaries indicate that he sometimes succumbed to these ladies' allurements; other historians are less sure. His jottings reveal, however, that he was frequently torn by conscience and actually chastised himself to banish temptations of the flesh.

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Second, his physical prowess was matched by extraordinary mental energy. An inveterate diarist, he chronicled his life in great detail, not just daily, but practically hourly from his early years until shortly before his death aged 89. He was a prodigious reader; Jenkins estimates that he read 20,000 books (an average of five a week) during his lifetime; otherwise his leisures were few, although he was a discriminating diner and an occasional theatregoer (though he admitted to having slept through Ibsen's An Enemy of the People). A compulsive penman, but not a great author, he published more than 30 books and pamphlets and was a recognised, if idiosyncratic, authority on Homer. He wrote a three-volume work on the poet claiming that he was a mystic who anticipated the doctrine of the Trinity. He lectured on his hero to great applause at the Oxford Union when over 80. On the day of his final retirement from Parliament (in 1894) he completed a translation of the Odes of Horace and the following year edited a hefty volume on the works of Bishop Joseph Butler.

Of a religious bent, Gladstone initially felt drawn towards ordination in the Church of England, but was dissuaded by his father. He saw his career in politics as part of God's calling, an attitude that prompted the Whig radical Henry Labouchere to remark that, although he did not object to Gladstone having an ace up his sleeve, he took exception to the view that God had put it there. Gladstone's first published work was entitled The State in its Relations with the Church (1838) and argued that the Church of England represented the conscience of the British state. Macaulay, in a savage refutation, castigated him as 'the rising hope of those stern and unbending Tories'.

He was born in Liverpool in 1809, the fourth son of a wealthy Scot who owned slave plantations in the West Indies. He went to Eton and Christ Church, Oxford and the acerbic Walter Bagehot remarked of him that he gave the impression of being 'Oxford on the surface and Liverpool underneath'. Gladstone explained his success as being due to his ability to combine both. He took a first class degree in classics and mathematics and became president of the Union. His oratory, cultivated accent and fine physical presence impressed, as did his capacity for hard work. …