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Edward Carson Defense Barrister in Oscar Wilde Trial

by / Wednesday, 15 May 2013 / Published in Oscar Wilde Trials

Sir Edward Henry Carson (1854-1935) led the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force in opposing Home Rule plans for the whole of Ireland, eventually succeeding in ensuring Northern Ireland remained part of the British union.

Born on 9 February 1854 to a Protestant family in Dublin Ireland and educated in Trinity College Dublin. Carson established his name in the legal profession as a formidable advocate. It was Carson who as Queens Counsel for Queensberry cross-examined Oscar Wilde. His cross-examination coupled with the evidence he had uncovered forced Oscar Wilde to drop his libel charges against Queensberry, which ultimately brought about his conviction for the then illegal practice of homosexuality.

Carson developed a deep mistrust of Irish separatists while living and working in Ireland and he would have been well acquainted with Oscar Wilde’s mothers writings on nationalism . Edward Carson was appointed Irish Solicitor General in 1892, the same year he was elected to the House of Commons.

When Oscar Wilde was informed that Edward Carson was appointed by the Marquess of Queensberry to defend the libel action , Wilde’s response was “No doubt he will pursue his case with all the added bitterness of an old friend.” Unfortunately for Oscar this turned out to be the case and Carson went to extraordinary lengths to make his case forcing Oscar Wilde to drop the case. Carson taking his instructions from Queensberry forwarded all the evidence he uncovered during the trial to the Crown prosecutor who after winning his case wanted his pound of flesh and make sure that Oscar could be kept away from his son Bosie. Unfortunately this left the crown prosecutor with little option but to seek Oscars imprisonment.

“‘Did you kiss him (Lord Alfred Douglas’s servant), ‘ Carson asked. ‘Oh dear, no, ‘ Wilde replied, ‘He was a peculiarly plain boy. He was, unfortunately, extremely ugly. I pitied him for it.’”

However, maintaining the Union was the guiding star of Carson’s life. He was a Unionist MP since 1892. He was called to the Bar the following year, serving as British Solicitor General from 1900-05. In February 1910 Carson ended his prospects of leading the Conservative Party in the House of Commons by accepting the leadership of the Irish Unionists – a party determined chiefly with an anti-Home Rule policy.

When the 1912 Home Rule Bill was brought forward by Herbert Asquith’s Liberal administration , Carson spoke out vociferously – and persuasively – against Home Rule in the House of Commons, while signing (along with other prominent leaders) a so-called ‘covenant of resistance’ to Home Rule on 28 September 1912. Carson quickly mobilized Protestant Ulster against it, and helped set up the Ulster Volunteer Force (the Protestants’ version of the IRA). Carson then set about establishing a provisional government in Belfast in clear readiness for what he regarded as inevitable civil war.

The UVF was determined to resist – by violent means if necessary – the imposition of Home Rule in Ireland. He also took possession of a large quantity of German-sourced weapons at Larne in County Antrim in April 1914.
In the event Asquith’s governments decided to negotiate with Carson. Edward Carson tried to save all of Ireland for the Union but in July 1914 Carson agreed to Irish Home Rule with the exception of Ulster.

The outbreak of war with Germany in August 1914 brought to a halt plans to enact Home Rule and the events of 1916 in Dublin soon ended it. Carson could have lived with partition as long as Ireland remained within the United Kingdom. But he saw the severing of the 26 counties from the Union in December 1921 with the creation of the Irish Free State as a British government betrayal. Ulster Unionists, as the historian A T Q Stewart wrote in a brief biography of Carson, in achieving a government at Stormont “had won a victory of a kind”. But Carson felt no such sense of achievement, as the “guiding star” of his political life was to save all of Ireland for the Union.

Edward Carson was asked to be first prime minister of Northern Ireland in 1921 but he declined.When he formally handed over leadership of the Ulster Unionist Council, ruling body for the Ulster Unionists, he offered them some final advice: “From the outset let us see that the Catholic minority have nothing to fear from Protestant majority. Let us take care to win all that is best among those who have been opposed to us in the past. While maintaining intact our own religion, let us give the same rights to the religion of our neighbours”. Unfortunately this advice was not heeded.

Edward Carson retired from politics, disillusioned and embittered.
Baron Carson died in 1935 and is buried in St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast.

In April 2011 an application to include him on a blue plaque by was by denied by English Heritage.The organisation has decided against erecting a blue plaque honouring the Dublin-born unionist.
London has about 850 of the plaques which commemorate historical personalities, Oscar Wilde was honoured with a blue plaque in 1954.

A panel chaired by historian Professor Sir David Cannadine selects about 12 names a year to be honoured on new plaques. To be one of those 12, the subject must have “made some important positive contribution to human welfare or happiness” or else be so exceptional that “the well-informed passer-by immediately recognises their names”.

The panel said Carson’s career “in British politics was not sufficiently outstanding to justify commemoration”. Keeping Carson company in the reject pile is the Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue who helped cure King George VI of his stammer and inspired the Oscar-winning film The King’s Speech.

An interesting article in the Irish times pointing out Edward Carson’s link and the role he played in the trial of Oscar Wilde.


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“Mere color, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways. ” ― Oscar Wilde

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