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Kildare’s Unionist women in fighting mode

The women of Kildare – or a least a section of them – were on the war path a hundred years ago and woe betide anybody who got in their way. The section of Kildare women involved were, in truth,  a highly select group being the ladies and daughters of the squire’s residences in the county. Their cause: opposition to the Home Rule Bill which had been introduced into the Westminster Parliament in 1912 and seemed certain to grant Ireland a strong measure of self-government while retaining it within the United Kingdom. Since 1800 Ireland had been ruled directly from London and this had proven beneficial for the Unionist (mostly Protestant) section of Irish society. However the prospect of a parliament and a government sitting in Dublin and made up of a nationalist (and largely Catholic) membership was bad news for the country squires and their ilk. No longer would they rule the show locally and they would also be distanced from the Westminster and the UK government. There was a fear too that a Dublin parliament would show undue deference to the Pope in Rome and displace the moral authority of the King.

The prospect of the Home Rule Bill had triggered intense reaction among Unionists and Protestants, most markedly in Northen Ireland where the Unionist affiliation transcended all classes. Shipyard workers joined with the titled elite as one to oppose Home Rule going as far as to form their own armed force, the Ulster Volunteer Force, to defend the Protestant people of the north in case their own government (the British government) attempted to coerce them into an all-Ireland arrangement.

The Unionists in the south of Ireland were in an even more isolated position. While Unionism in the north-east of Ireland spanned all classes and could mobilise huge numbers the southern Unionists were smaller in number and more isolated – many of them owners or staff of country estates which were like islands of Unionism within a population largely made up of Catholic Home Rulers.

A reflection of the mounting alarm of the Unionists in the south of Ireland was the formation of a North Kildare Branch of the Women’s Unionist Association which was convened in the Clements Residence at Killadoon House, Celbridge in late February 1912. There were a number of curious features about the meeting not least that it was chaired by a man. And of the four speeches given to the organisation three were by men. Mr. H.J.B. Clements presided over the meeting of what was ostensibly headlined as a women’s organisation – a fact probably indicating that even in the circles of strong Unionist women there was still an amount of deference to the male gender.

A big campaign of the Women’s Unionist Association was to try and educate English voters about the implications of the Home Rule Bill for Ireland and how it would impact on their Unionist brethren across the Irish Sea. The sole woman to speak at the meeting was a Miss Harrison who said she had travelled to villages in Norfolk and Suffolk to impress on English voters the consequences if the United Kingdom was broken up and the Irish allowed set up their own parliament. The doughty Miss Harrison said it was important that other Irish Unionist women should to to England and promote the campaign against the Home Rule Bill. Making an impassioned plea to the Killadoon meeting she said: “We all should so something to save our country now that this government is trying to force Home Rule on us merely to keep in office.”

The attendance assembled in Killadoon house represented some of the leading figures in Kildare society including Mr. & Mrs. Barton of Straffan House, Baroness de Robeck of Gowran Grange, and Captain Connolly of Castletown.   A motion proposed by Mrs. de Burgh of Naas, and seconded by Mrs. Barton encapsulated the mood of the gathering: “that this meeting … urges all Unionists in north Kildare to join the ranks of the Irish Unionist Alliance and take their part in defending the integrity of the United Kingdom.”

In the years after 1912 there were many upheavals and traumatic twists in the story which saw southern Ireland getting a strong measure of Home Rule and saw the Unionists in the north retaining their status with partition creating a North of Ireland state still fully part of the United Kingdom.  In many ways the southern Unionists were to emerge as losers after the decade of upheaval, their cherished link with the United Kingdom was broken and they found themselves having to accommodate to the realities of an Irish Government, nationalist in tone and Catholic in its loyalties. Series no: 271


Liam Kenny's weekly Looking Back series, no. 271, reflects on the unionist women of Kildare's opposition to Home Rule. Our thanks to Liam

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