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Churchill and Ireland

Paul Bew
Oxford University Press


From the Introduction

On 3 December 1925 Winston Churchill told the parliament of the United Kingdom: 'The Irish question will only be settled when the human question is settled.' Winston Churchill took Ireland seriously: if anything, his engagement with Ireland was more serious than Ireland's engagement with him. Twice in his career, in Manchester in 1908 and Dundee in 1922, Churchill painfully lost his parliamentary seat. On both occasions, despite enjoying the support of the official Irish nationalist leadership, Churchill was deserted by the majority of the significant Irish vote in the constituency. His embrace, first of home rule, then of the Irish Free State, did him little good.

Ulster Unionists loathed him during the home rule crisis of 1912-14, and some also loathed his role in the negotiation of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921. Mainstream Irish nationalism has tended to regard him as an imperialist John Bull figure—unsympathetic to and ill-informed about Ireland. Even the most subtle and nuanced of Irish writers treat his interventions and attempted interventions in Irish affairs— especially in the context of his dislike for Irish neutrality during the Second World War—with some coolness. The one rather dramatic exception to this general rule was Garret FitzGerald, Irish prime minister, who declared on Irish television that Churchill was a per­sonal hero. More typical was the contestant on the popular Irish radio quiz show Question Time, broadcast from Belfast in August 1942, who replied—to gales of approving laughter—when asked the name of the world's most famous teller of fairy stories, not Hans Christian Andersen, but Winston Churchill.2

In Hugh Leonard's play DA, the playwright's adoptive father tries to get his son a clerkship in the Land Commission. The incident, which Leonard took from real life, is also described in his memoir Home before Dark. The setting is early 1945 or possibly late 1944. Leonard's father is an Irish Republican Army (IRA) veteran and supporter of De Valera, though his military activities were pretty much limited to hiding guns in the grounds of the Jacob family big house in Dalkey, where he was head gardener. Leonard presents his father as generally decent if naive: in this conversation he is clearly trying to impress a possibly influen­tial civil servant, Drumm, whom he believes might get his son a job:

DA: Hitler's the man that's well able for them. He'll give them lackery, the same as we done. Sure isn't he the greatest man under the sun, himself and De Valera?

MOTHER (not looking at him): Now that will do...

DA: What the hell luck could the English have? Didn't they come into the town here and shoot decent people in their beds? But they won't see the day when they can crow over Heil Hitler. He druv them back into the sea in 1940, and he'll do it again. Sure what's Churchill anyway, bad scran to him, only a yahoo, with the cigar stuck in his fat gob and the face on him like a boiled shite.

[pause, drumm just looks at him]

Churchill himself intensely disliked the idea that he was a 'Hiberno-phobe': in fact, he felt it was the very opposite of the truth. Speaking in the House of Commons in November 1948, Churchill faced a certain amount of heckling on the basis that he was in some sense crudely 'anti-Irish'. His reply is of some significance:

I have my own mental contacts with that people, whose fortunes I have followed and been connected with in many ways, long before those who make these superficial scoffings were called upon to form, or were capable of forming, any intelligent opinion on this subject. I say that we on this side of the House harbour no ill towards the Irish people wherever they may dwell.

He wanted to see the two nations work closely together in the future.

Winston Churchill made his first public appearance in Dublin in 1878, when a portrait of the young child was displayed before the slightly amused eyes of the Irish press. He had his first rather elemen­tary lessons in politics from his nanny, who warned him against Fenian terrorism. Churchill's first major historical book, his biography of his father, devotes much space to the analysis of Randolph Church­ill's role in Irish affairs. The sharpness and shrewdness of Churchill's discussion here are worthy of note: but so, also, are the rather notable lacunae. Randolph Churchill's Irish career was characterized by an initial unionist sympathy. This mutated into a friendly and intimate engagement with Irish nationalism, and then reverted back to a more unionist, or at any rate Ulster Unionist, position. Ironically, his son reproduced, with much greater historic resonance and over a longer period of time, the trajectory of his father.

In spring 1904, as a young MP, Churchill switched from the Union­ist Conservative Party to the Liberal Party, the party of home rule for Ireland. This initiates a more complex phase in his relations with his eminent Irish Unionist cousins, the Londonderrys. On 15 October 1904, Churchill wrote to Lady Londonderry:

It was nice of you to express regret at my severance with the Conservative party, and as I said to you and C, have a perfect right to express regret and even to formulate a reproach. Had everyone adopted a tolerant line the present situation would be vastly differ­ent. I appreciated your attitude all the more because I had gathered from tales told—as tales are told—that some times in the last few months you had commented upon my actions rather more severely than I had reason to expect from one who has known me all my life. But I was delighted to find at Blenheim that you still seemed to take a friendly interest in my fortunes.4

In fact, Churchill's relations with the Londonderry family were to become ever more tense and did not recover until after the First World War. In Lady Londonderry's papers Churchill is described first as a 'rat'5 at the height of the home rule crisis in April 1914, and then as 'vindictive and unscrupulous'6 in late May 1915, but in February 1918, when he offers her son a front-bench post (at the Air Ministry) in the Lords, he is 'at bottom... kind, when it suits him'.7 For some years, Churchill-Londonderry relations were cordial, but they soured again over differing strategies towards Germany in the interwar period.8 At first, as a Liberal, Churchill retained a unionist stance, but he rapidly began a complex process of public and personal reflection on the Irish question—which began with his Manchester speech in September 1904 on the devolution crisis and intensified during the completion of his father's biography at the end of October of 1905. This stage of Churchill's Irish journey concluded with his increasingly frank espousal of home rule by 1908—an espousal that was combined with a strong conviction that it would be desirable to make a special arrangement for north-east Ulster.