Augustine Birrell

Augustine Birrell

Infobox Officeholder
honorific-prefix =
name = Augustine Birrell
honorific-suffix = KC

imagesize = 150px

caption = Sketch of Augustine Birrell
order =
office = Chief Secretary for Ireland
term_start = 1907
term_end = 1916
birth_date = birth date|1850|01|19|mf=y
birth_place = Liverpool, England
death_date = death date and age|1933|11|20|1850|01|19
death_place = London, England
nationality = English
spouse = Margaret Mirrielees (dec.)
Eleanor Tennyson
party = Liberal

Augustine Birrell, KC (January 19, 1850 - November 20, 1933), was an English politician, barrister, academic and author. He was Chief Secretary for Ireland from 1907 to 1916, resigning in the immediate aftermath of the Easter Rising.

Early life

Birrell was born in Wavertree, near Liverpool, the son of a Baptist minister. He was educated at Amersham Hall school and at Trinity Hall, Cambridge where he was made a Fellow in 1899. He started work in a solicitor's office in Liverpool [Alvin Jackson, "Augustine Birrell" in Brack et al (eds.) "Dictionary of Liberal Biography"; Politico's, 1998 pp 42] but was called to the Bar in 1875, becoming a KC in 1893 and a Bencher of the Inner Temple in 1903 ["Who was Who", OUP 2007] . From 1896 to 1899 he was Professor of Comparative Law at University College, London."Augustine Birrell", in the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition] [Ó Broin, Leon, "The Chief Secretary: Augustine Birrell in Ireland", Chatto & Windus, 1969 pp. 3-4] . In 1911 Birrell served as Lord Rector of Glasgow University ["Who was Who", OUP 2007] .

His first wife, Margaret Mirrielees, died in 1879, only a year after their marriage, and in 1888 he married Eleanor Tennyson, daughter of the poet Frederick Locker-Lampson and widow of Lionel Tennyson, son of the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson. [Ó Broin, "The Chief Secretary", p. 136] They had two sons, one of whom, Frankie (1889–1935) was later a journalist and critic and associated with the Bloomsbury Group. Birrell found success as a writer with the publication of a volume of essays entitled "Obiter Dicta" in 1884. This was followed by a second series of "Obiter Dicta" in 1887 and "Res Judicatae" in 1892. These, despite their titles, were not concerned with law, but he also wrote books on copyright and on trusts. Birrell wrote, and spoke, with a characteristic humour which became known as "birrelling". [Ó Broin, "The Chief Secretary", p. 206]

Entry into politics

After unsuccessfully contesting parliamentary seats in Liverpool, Walton in 1885 and Widnes in 1886, Birrell was elected to parliament for West Fife at a by-election in 1889, as a Liberal [Jackson, op cit p.43] . He retained his seat in the general elections of 1892 and 1895, but in the general election of 1900 he stood in Manchester North East and was defeated. He was returned for Bristol North at the general election of 1906, in which the Liberals won a large majority, and was included in the cabinet of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman as President of the Board of Education. [Ó Broin, "The Chief Secretary", pp. 4-5] He introduced the Education Bill 1906, intended to address nonconformist grievances arising from the Education Act 1902. It passed the House of Commons, but the House of Lords amended it to such an extent that it was effectively a different bill. The Commons rejected the amendment and the bill was dropped. [Havighurst, Alfred F., "Britain in Transition: The Twentieth Century", University of Chicago Press, 1985, pp. 89-90: see [ Google Books] ] This made it impossible for Birrell to continue in his post, and in January 1907 he was appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland, to replace James Bryce who had been made Ambassador to the United States.

Birrell and the Suffragettes

Birrell was not really in favour of votes for women and like many of his political colleagues and members of the general public he strongly disapproved of the militancy and violence the suffragettes were increasingly espousing. In November 1910 he was walking alone from the House of Commons to the Athanaeum Club when he was set upon by a group of about twenty suffragettes who had recognised him. While he did not believe there was any serious attempt to damage him, he did suffer some injuries which stopped him from taking strong exercise on which he told C. P. Scott he depended for his good health. He feared he might require an operation to remove his knee-cap and joked to Scott that, if he did, he would remain 'a weak-kneed politician' to the end of his life [Trevor Wison (ed.)"The Political Diaries of C P Scott: 1911-1928;"Collins, 1970 p.35]

Chief Secretary for Ireland

Council Bill, Universities Bill and Land Bill

Birrell's Under-Secretary was Sir Antony MacDonnell, who had worked successfully with a previous Chief Secretary, George Wyndham, on the Land Purchase Act 1903. MacDonnell's proposals for what was called "devolution" – the transfer of local powers to Ireland under a central authority – had encountered strong opposion from Unionists, leading eventually to Wyndham's resignation. Birrell modified MacDonnell's proposal and on 7 May 1907 introduced the Irish Council Bill. The bill was welcomed by Nationalist leaders John Redmond and John Dillon, and opposed, for different reasons, by unionists and by more radical nationalists who wanted nothing less than Home rule for Ireland. At a convention of the United Irish League, opposition was so strong that Redmond changed his position; the convention rejected the bill and the government was unable to proceed with it. [Ó Broin, "The Chief Secretary", pp. 11-15] Birrell suffered further embarrassment when he sought to discontinue the use of the Irish Crimes Act 1887, a coercive measure introduced by Arthur Balfour to deal with agrarian crime, only to be faced with an increase in cattle-driving. [Ó Broin, "The Chief Secretary", pp. 18-19] Another affair, in which Birrell was not directly involved but for which he had to take part of the blame, was the theft of the Irish Crown Jewels from Dublin Castle (where the Chief Secretary had his offices) in July 1907. [Ó Broin, "The Chief Secretary", pp. 25-26]

Birrell had more success with his next two bills: his excellent relations with both Catholic and Protestant Church leaders ensured the successful passage of the Irish Universities Bill 1908, which established the National University of Ireland and Queen's University Belfast and dissolved the Royal University of Ireland. It solved the sectarian problem in higher education by dividing the Protestant and Catholic traditions into their own separate spheres and ensured Catholic, Nationalist scholars had access to university education [Jackson, op cit p.43] . Contemporaries also praised his achievement in carrying the Irish Land Act 1909, which allowed for compulsory purchase of large areas of land for the relief of congestion, through a hostile House of Lords. [Ó Broin, "The Chief Secretary", pp. 20-24] .

Home Rule Bill

After the passing, with the support of the Irish Parliamentary Party, of the Parliament Act 1911, which restricted the power of the Lords to veto bills, Prime Minister H. H. Asquith introduced the Third Home Rule Bill on 16 April 1912. The Unionists, led in Ireland by Edward Carson and in Britain by Tory leader Andrew Bonar Law, threatened to use force to oppose the bill, [Ó Broin, "The Chief Secretary", pp. 57-58] and Carson proposed an amendment excluding Ulster from the scope of the bill. Birrell was opposed to the exclusion of any part of the country and when David Lloyd George proposed a compromise involving the exclusion of six of the nine counties of Ulster for a period of five to six years Birrell responded by offering his resignation. [Ó Broin, "The Chief Secretary", p. 85] The proposal was rejected by both Unionists and Nationalists and Birrell stayed on. The crisis continued through 1913 and into 1914. The bill was introduced for a third time in July 1914, this time along with an amending bill allowing for the exclusion of some of the Ulster counties, [Ó Broin, "The Chief Secretary", p. 106] but with the outbreak of World War I the bill was passed without further debate, with its implementation suspended until after the war.

Easter Rising

A further threat to Birrell's administration had arisen with the formation in November 1913 of the Irish Volunteers, ostensibly to safeguard Home rule but in fact, under the influence of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) aiming to break the union with Britain altogether. Feelings in nationalist Ireland were further aroused by the possibility of conscription. Sir Matthew Nathan, Birrell's Under-Secretary since October 1914, told him in September 1915 that the Nationalist Party was losing ground in the country and that extreme nationalists, often referred to as "Sinn Féiners", were gaining support. Nathan took measures such as suppressing newspapers and forcing Irish Volunteer organisers to leave the country. The Irish Party leaders, Redmond and Dillon, cautioned against taking direct action against the 'Sinn Féiners' and the administration kept to that policy. [Ó Broin, "The Chief Secretary", p. 149] Birrell himself felt that the danger of a bomb outrage was greater than that of an insurrection. [Ó Broin, "The Chief Secretary", p. 166] His assessment was proved wrong when the Easter Rising began on 24 April 1916.

Birrell had spent Easter in London, where Nathan had telegraphed him with news of the capture and scuttling of the arms ship the "Aud" and the arrest of Sir Roger Casement. He had just sent approval for the arrest of the movement's leaders on Easter Monday morning when he was told by Lord French, Commander-in-Chief of the British Home Forces, that the Rising was on. [Ó Broin, "The Chief Secretary", p. 173] He maintained contact with Nathan by telegraph and answered questions in Parliament on Tuesday and Wednesday, then travelled by destroyer to Dublin, arriving in the early hours of Thursday morning. From there he wrote to the Prime Minister, giving him his assessment of the situation. [Ó Broin, "The Chief Secretary", p. 174] In one of his letters he wrote that he 'couldn't go on'. On 1 May, the day after the Rising, Asquith accepted his resignation 'with infinite regret'. [Ó Broin, Leon, "Dublin Castle & the 1916 Rising", Sidgwick & Jackson, 1970, p. 116] The Royal Commission on the 1916 Rebellion (the Hardinge commission) was critical of Birrell and Nathan, in particular their failure to take action against the rebels in the weeks and months before the Rising. [Ó Broin, Leon, "Dublin Castle & the 1916 Rising", p. 161]

Personal life

While Birrell's first phase as Chief Secretary was a clear success, the period from about 1912 onwards saw something of a decline in Birrell's career which was also mirrored in his domestic life. Birrell's wife Eleanor had been suffering from an inoperable brain tumour and this eventually caused her to lose her sanity. This affected Birrell deeply privately and publicly, but he did not tell his political colleagues.

The quality of his public work deteriorated and as one historian has noted the severe personal strain must have been a contributory factor in "...the uncharacteristic combination of excessive zeal and indecision which marked [Birrell's] response to the Dublin industrial agitation of 1913" [Pat Jalland, "Augustine Birrell" in "Dictionary of National Biography", OUP 2004-08] . Only after Eleanor died in 1915 did Birrell begin to regain some of his old energy and effectiveness as a minister.

Later life

Birrell did not defend his seat in the 1918 general election, nor did he ever return to Ireland. In 1929 he accepted an honorary doctorate from the National University of Ireland, but storms in the Irish Sea prevented him from making the crossing and he had to receive his degree in absentia. [Irish Times 9 August 2008] He returned to literature with a further volume of essays and book reviews, "More Obiter Dicta" (1920) and a book on his father-in-law, Frederick Locker-Lampson. He died in London on November 20, 1933, aged eighty-four. His autobiography, "Things Past Redress" was published posthumously.


The main collection of Birrell’s papers, those dealing with his period as Chief Secretary, are deposited in the Bodleian Library. The Bodleian also contains collections of Birrell’s public correspondence with political figures of his day, Asquith, Lewis Harcourt and others. Birrell’s correspondence with Campbell-Bannerman and Herbert Gladstone are in the British Library. His correspondence with Lloyd George is in the Parliamentary Archives. Correspondence with Herbert Samuel is in King’s College, Cambridge. Other collections can be found in the National Library of Ireland, Lambeth Palace, National Library of Scotland and Trinity College, Dublin. His family correspondence is deposited in the University of Liverpool [Cameron Hazlehurst, Sally Whitehead & Christine Woodland, "A Guide to the Papers of British Cabinet Ministers, 1900-1964"; Royal Histoprical Society, Cambridge, 1996] .

Further reading

*"The Times", Obituary, 21 November 1933
*"Augustine Birrell: Politician and Author" by Pat Jalland in "Dictionary of National Biography" OUP, 2004-08
*"Augustine Birrell" by Alvin Jackson, entry in "Dictionary of Liberal Biography," Brack et al (eds.) Politico's, 1998


External links

*gutenberg author|id=Augustine_Birrell|name=Augustine Birrell

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