Gladstone and the Irish Nation

By J. L. Hammond | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VI
GLADSTONE'S IRISH RECORD BEFORE 1868 AND HIS CONVERSION

A study of Gladstone's temperament makes it clear that he was the Englishman best able and most likely to make a serious effort to reconcile England and Ireland.1 Yet anybody who listened to the debates in the House of Commons in the 'fifties and early 'sixties would have been surprised to be told that this was to be the main task of the last twenty years of his life. The Irish members knew him best as the Chancellor of the Exchequer who had imposed on Ireland in 1853 the Income Tax that Peel had withheld ten years earlier. His speeches on Irish social conditions showed no special discernment and followed the accepted opinion of the day.

"If it be true," he said on June 12, 1863, "that Irish landlords reside less on their estates than the landlords of Scotland or Yorkshire or Devonshire, that may be a circumstance to be much regretted but I do not believe there is any way in which this House can address itself to so serious an evil. I know of no way in which the House can address itself to correct that evil except by endeavouring to do everything in its power to improve the social and economical condition of Ireland, and give its people equal rights and advantages with the rest of the kingdom in regard to the security, confidence and freedom of their enjoyment and disposal of their property."

Two years later, discussing an Irish motion about distress in Ireland, he made a speech that was sharply criticized in

____________________
1

It is to the credit of Meredith Townsend, one of the acutest minds of the day, that as early as 1864 he foretold Gladstone's Irish future. In a character sketch in the Spectator, October 29, 1864, he wrote, "he perhaps alone among statesmen would have the art and the energy to try as a deliberate plan to effect the final conciliation of Ireland." Morley, II, 177.

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