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"Rome Rule" was a term used by Irishmarker Unionists and Socialists to describe the belief that the Roman Catholic Church would gain political control over their interests with the passage of a Home Rule Bill. The slogan was coined by the Radical MP and Quaker John Bright during the Home Rule crisis in the late 19th century.


The term has been documented as used in the House of Commonsmarker as early as 12 July 1871. The Local and Personal Act (Ireland) Bill had been proposed by Denis Caulfield Heron, MP for Tipperary. The Nationalist MP for Westmeath, Patrick James Smyth, rose to second the Bill and used his speech to advocate repeal of the Union . In reply John Vance stated The constituents of the honourable member for Westmeathmarker would not be satisfied with the homeopathic dose of "home rule" embodied in the present bill and his own opinion was that "home rule" in Ireland would prove to be "Rome rule".

Traditionally anti-catholicism amongst the Protestant population remained latent since the end of the 18th century:
"Most Irish Protestants were deeply afraid of a repetition of the events of 1798 and the years just before.

They tended to consider Roman Catholicism and possible rebellion as almost identical terms.

To keep things as they were in Church and State seemed the guarantee of safety"

Ensuing out of the anti-‘Catholic landowner’ slogan "To Hell or Connaught" after the Battle of the Diamond in 1795 , the "No Popery" originated from the solemn League and Covenant of 1643, which was a formal agreement to reform religion in the kingdoms of England and Ireland and to endeavour the extirpation of 'popery, prelacy . . . . superstition, heresy, schism, profaneness and what ever shall be found to be contrary to sound doctrine and the power of godliness:
Goeffrey Lewis,
Carson - the Man who divided Ireland, p.103, hamaledon continuum (2006) ISBN 1-85285-570-3 slogan prior to Catholic Emancipation becoming law in 1829 – an event the Protestant Orangemen had long dreaded , their sentiments continued to be aroused by such writings as the Rev.
Thomas Drew’s, one pamphlet reading:
"I learn by the doctrines, history and practices of the Church of Rome that the lives of Protestants are endangered,
the laws of England set at nought, and the crown of England subordinated to the dictates of an Italian bishop" .

The 1885 Home Rule Bill

After the collapse of the 1798 United Irish rebellion and the passing of the Act of Union in 1801 the Orange Order was stronger than ever before, but began to decline and fell into disrepute towards the middle of the century. However from 1882 Charles Stewart Parnell turned his attention from Irish land reform to pursuing Home Rule. As his National League grew, so did the Irish Protestants' fear of Home Rule .

When Gladstone made known his conversion to Home Rule in 1885 and introduced the First Home Rule Bill the Order experienced a dramatic revival, became highly respectable and a very powerful political organisation working for the maintenance of the Union. Ironically some leaders of the Irish Nationalist movement such as Isaac Butt and Charles Stewart Parnell were not Roman Catholics, but the majority of their supporters were.

While southern Ireland was clamouring for repeal of the Union with Britain, Ulster came round to the view that Union with Britain suited her better than any form of self-government for Ireland. For one thing she saw that the Union was to her economic advantage, since she was far more industrialised than the agricultural south, and her future clearly depended on the continuance of friendly trade with Britain. Due to the industrial revolution Belfastmarker had grown bigger than Dublinmarker. Ulstermen were proud of their achievements and would have seen them as proof of the Weberian theory of the "Protestant work ethic". Religious faith combined with business acumen to arise in Ulster a fixed opposition to Home Rule, which was later expressed in the popular slogan, Home Rule means Rome Rule .

Her Protestant majority became fearful of one day finding herself dominated by a Roman Catholic Parliament in Dublin:
  • They saw Catholic priests playing a big role in the pro-Home Rule IPP branches.
  • Would Home Rule, they wondered, become Rome Rule, with Catholic bishops telling Catholic MPs how to vote?
  • Might Irish Protestants not thereby lose their civil and religious liberty?

This was the background against which the English Conservative Party played the Orange Card. Lord Randolph Churchill played it with gusto. In 1886, the year of Gladstone’s first Home Rule Bill, Churchill crossed to Belfast to make an inflammatory anti-Home Rule speech in the Ulster Hallmarker, and a little later, coined the memorable phrase, "Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right" .

Parnell's political opponents pointed out that he was the only non-Catholic MP in his party. To avoid further accusations about Rome Rule he nominated 6 other non-Catholics for safe seats (out of the IPP's new total of 85 MPs) in the 1886 election.

Other elements

As the Irish nationalist movement recovered in the 1890s from the division caused by Parnell's relationship with Mrs O'Shea, it embraced Gaelic games and a growing Irish language revival movement, which were often encouraged by the Catholic church for the good of its parishioners, but which also alienated Irish Protestants. The fate of Bridget Cleary in 1895 suggested that many rural Irish Catholics were still unduly superstitious. An "Irish-Ireland" ideology of nationalism was developed by David Moran, who stated in 1905 that it was essential to be Catholic to be Irish.

The resurgent Church's dogma on the Syllabus of Errors, Papal infallibility and Ne temere were unattractive. For observant Protestants the encyclical "Apostolico Curae" in 1896 had simply denied the validity of the Anglican hierarchy. In 1907 Modernism was proscribed in "Pascendi Dominici Gregis" and "Lamentabile Sane", indicating that no Protestant, being a heretic, could ever be well regarded by a Catholic-led government.

From 1898 the "Index", or list of books forbidden to Catholics was modified by Pope Leo. Along with indecent works it still included forbidden authors such as Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe, and the scientists John Locke and Galileo, that most Europeans would by then have found unexceptional.

Socialist theorists on Rome Rule

The English socialist organizer Harry Quelch wrote in his 1902 essay, "Home Rule and Rome Rule":
  • "It is not too much to say that from the time that a Pope of Rome formally sold Ireland to an English King, the Church of Rome has been the persistent, unrelenting enemy of Ireland and the Irish people."
  • "A Roman Catholic writer, Mr. Michael J. F. McCarthy, in a book on “Priests and People in Ireland,” makes a vigorous and uncompromising attack on the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Ireland. He ascribes the ills of Ireland mainly to a single cause, that is sacerdotalism. In his opinion it is the priesthood which is keeping Celtic Ireland “poor, miserable, depressed, unprogressive.” Mr. Frank Hugh O'Donnell, himself a Roman Catholic and an Irish Nationalist, declares that notwithstanding the appalling poverty of masses of the Irish people, large sums are obtained by the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Ireland. He says that:- “All over Ireland urgent wants of the lay Catholic community are left unattended. All over Ireland, not even wants, but mere caprices of the clergy are the excuse for costly outlay. All over Ireland, and outside of Ireland, the sight of collecting priests on all sorts of mendicant missions is an abiding vision. Sometimes it is to construct a sumptuous cathedral in a hamlet of grog-shops and hovels. Sometimes it is to raise a memorial church of marble at a cost of £80,000 on an uninhabited hillside in Kerry out of respect to the birthplace of Daniel O’Connell. Sometimes it is to defray the mistake of an architect. Sometimes it is to defray the bill of a Jew purveyor of decorative monstrosities. Never is it to endow the most crying needs of a Catholic university."
  • "We hear from time to time that the Irish people are determined to formulate their own politics, and not to take them from Rome; but events constantly demonstrate that not only the religion but the politics of Ireland are those of the Church of Rome, and that the Irish people are still being exploited in the interest of clericalism and for the proselytising of England. The question is: How long will the people of Ireland permit themselves to be used in this way, and to constitute one of the most effectual barriers to Irish independence by the suspicion that Home Rule only means Rome Rule?"

The Irish socialist and nationalist James Connolly wrote much about religion and politics, but did not consider the insecurities of Irish loyalists. His optimistic view in 1910 was that the Catholic Church would accommodate itself with an Irish "Workers' Republic", and so Rome Rule could never occur:
  • "North and the South will again clasp hands, again will it be demonstrated, as in ’98, that the pressure of a common exploitation can make enthusiastic rebels out of a Protestant working class, earnest champions of civil and religious liberty out of Catholics, and out of both a united Social democracy."


The Protestants’ fears about a Dublin Parliament may have been exaggerated, and the history of Ireland since independence has, on the whole, tended to suggest that they were, but they did not think so at the time, and it was upon that belief that they acted.
"Home Rule", they declared, "would be Rome Rule, and that was all there was to it".
"It may seem strange to you and me," Bonar Law told Lord Riddell, "but it is a religious question.
Those people are .
. prepared to die for their convictions" .

Indeed, occasional speeches by leading Nationalists designed to allay Liberal fears that "Home Rule really would be Rome Rule," were in 1911 clearly making some Catholic churchmen anxious. The end and the reward of Home Rule commanded the sympathy of all of us, but the question is: Are they not as likely, or more likely, to have as their reward Secularism in the Schools?

The nationalist view was also indicatively divergent:
"Our home was a Catholic household; all the children were at Catholic schools and the Catholic University, so all the children’s friends were Catholics, and all my grandmother’s subtle match-making and her ambition’s pre-supposed Catholic dynasties.
Home Rule means Rome Rule said the Ulster Protestant slogan.
Not at all.
It was 'our people', neither Rome nor the Protestant ascendancy, who should rule in Ireland.
'Our people', through an élite, sprung from it, trained for its service, .
The Jesuits were helping to train such an élite".

The envisaged threat from both Home Rule and Rome was expressed in an angry poem by Rudyard Kipling Ulster 1912’’ 4th verse:
’’We know the war prepared
On every peaceful home,
We know the hells declared
For such as serve not Rome –-

It so happened that Pius X was Pope in 1903-1914, the period when the policies of Ulster unionism were cast. His general policy of church supremacy led to antagonism across Europe between secular governments and his Church. Unlike other Catholic churches in Europe, such as in Spain or Portugal, the Irish Church was no longer semi-autonomous but had been assigned in 1833 to the Congregation of Missions in Rome. As a result the Irish Church could be governed under canon law by the relatively informal motu proprio system. Concern about this led to proposals for safeguards in the debates that led to the Home Rule Act 1914.

Loyalists were unspecific about the likely effect of "Rome Rule", but it became an effective slogan in maintaining the loyalty of the Protestant working class, and contributed to the lack of trust which caused the near-civil war prior to the 1914 Third Home Rule Act and the Partition of Ireland during 1914-25. From the Easter Rising in 1916 on a number of prominent Nationalist Protestants or lapsed Catholics even felt the need to conform to be considered fully involved in the nationalist movement.

During the Irish War of Independence the Irish Republic sought international recognition from other countries including the Holy See. Its envoy Seán T. O'Kelly wrote to Pope Benedict XV in 1920 in terms suggesting that the war was a part of a long religious struggle, and identifying the Irish Republic with "Catholic Ireland". The letter was not published until recently; it included:

"Irish Catholics believe that their devotion to their religion and to the Holy See handicaps their efforts for independence. While this in no way shakes their adherence to the Faith, they naturally resent the audacity of an officially heretical government approaching the Holy See on occasions through Catholic or non-Catholic channels, seeking to procure, on pretexts of faith and morals, the condemnation of Catholic Ireland. It is true that the latter happens to be weak and England strong; hence England tries to turn into an instrument of further oppression a force on which Ireland should obviously have paramount claims and for which Ireland suffered and fought and bled while the oppressor repudiated, blasphemed and persecuted it."

After 1922 Rome Rule was occasionally used as a disparaging term by anti-clerical socialists in Irelandmarker who opposed the Church's views on social policy.

Outburst in 1988

The slogan continued to be used for decades in unionist politics in Northern Irelandmarker, and explains the visceral outburst by Ian Paisley in the European Parliamentmarker against the presence of Pope John Paul II on 12 October 1988. Paisley's intended audience was not the parliament but his constituents; he was portraying the Pope's presence as a guest as a modern-day attempt at Rome Rule.


Other links


  1. Robert Kee, The Green Flag Vol.II: The Bold Fenian Men, Penguin Books, London, 1972, p.64
  2. G. R. Searle, A New England? Peace and War 1886-1918 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005), p. 142.
  3. The Times; Parliamentary Intelligence. House Of Commons, Wednesday, July 12; 13 Jul 1871; pg6 col F
  4. The Times; Parliamentary Intelligence. House Of Commons, Wednesday, July 12; 13 Jul 1871; pg.6 col F
  5. The Times; Parliamentary Intelligence. House Of Commons, Wednesday, July 12; 13 Jul 1871; pg6 col F
  6. Hansard debate 12 July 1871
  7. Tony Gray, The Orange Order Bodley Head, London, 1972, p.87 ISBN 0 370 01340 9
  8. Tony Gray, The Orange Order Bodley Head, London, 1972, p.50-52 ISBN 0 370 01340 9
  9. Tony Gray, The Orange Order Bodley Head, London, 1972, p.103 ISBN 0 370 01340 9
  10. Tony Gray, The Orange Order Bodley Head, London, 1972, p.105 ISBN 0 370 01340 9
  11. Tony Gray, The Orange Order Bodley Head, London, 1972, p.150 ISBN 0 370 01340 9
  12. M.E. Collins Ireland 1868-1966 Ch. X: The Emergence of the Unionist Party and the defeat of Home Rule p.107, Edco Press Dublin (1993) ISBN 0-8616-7305-0
  13. A. T. Q. Stewart The Ulster Crisis, Resistance to Home Rule, 1912-14, Faber and Faber, London, (1967), (1979), p.31 ISBN 0 571 08066 9
  14. Edgar Holt Protest in Arms Ch. III Orange Drums, pp.32-33, Putnam London (1960)
  15. M.E. Collins Movements for reform Ch. 5.2 How Unionists responded to the success of Parnell, p.71, Edco Press Dublin (2004) ISBN 1-845360-03-6
  16. H Quelch essay 1902
  17. James Conolly 1910 chapter
  18. A. T. Q. Stewart The Ulster Crisis, Resistance to Home Rule, 1912-14, Faber and Faber, London, 1967, 1979, p.44 ISBN 0 571 08066 9
  19. David W. Miller, Church, State and Nation in Ireland 1898-1921, Home Rule Politics, Gill & Macmillan, 1973, p.268-269 ISBN 0 7171 0645 4
  20. Conor Cruise O'Brien’’ States of Ireland, pp.63-64, Hutchinson of London (1972) ISBN 0-09-113100-6
  21. A. T. Q. Stewart The Ulster Crisis, Resistance to Home Rule, 1912-14, Faber and Faber, London, 1967, 1979, p.56 ISBN 0 571 08066 9
  22. Hansard statement 11 April 1912
  23. ST O'Kelly - letter of 18 May 1920 - accessed 20 January 2009
  24. Fourthwrite article
  25. Paisley's intervention can be found on YouTube.

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