The 2nd Duke of Abercorn's life was 'quiet and useful', he was more figurehead than leader

​​The Hamiltons are Ulster’s foremost Ulster-Scots family. In October 1885 James Hamilton succeeded his father as the 2nd Duke of Abercorn and Ulster’s premier aristocrat and landed magnate.
The 2nd Duke of Abercorn was Ulster’s premier aristocrat and landed magnate in the late 19th and early 20th centuriesThe 2nd Duke of Abercorn was Ulster’s premier aristocrat and landed magnate in the late 19th and early 20th centuries
The 2nd Duke of Abercorn was Ulster’s premier aristocrat and landed magnate in the late 19th and early 20th centuries

His 76,500 acres in Tyrone and Donegal (and a further 2,100 acres in Scotland) and the title conferred great prestige and status on him within the unionist community, especially during the second and third Home Rule crises, but fell significantly short of amounting to leadership of the unionist community except in an honorific sense.

Although possessing influence and easy access to the leadership of the Conservative Party, his views did not always prevail, especially on the land question. He might be best regarded, even if slightly unfairly, as a figurehead.

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The industrial and commercial elite of Belfast had a strong and growing sense of its own importance and had only limited enthusiasm for leadership from the landed interest. Such leadership had little appeal for the urban industrial proletariat. While agricultural labourers were probably still deferential, deference formed no part of the make-up of Ulster’s tenant farmers, especially Presbyterian ones, who were keen on tenant right and compulsory purchase. They were by and away the stroppiest element of the unionist alliance.

However, in 1896 Abercorn was able to explain to the Marquess of Salisbury, the Conservative prime minister, that ‘during the last few years the Presbyterians have behaved very well to us. As a rule, they are a nasty radical lot but the Home Rule question has altered their former political opinions to a great degree’.

The fly in the ointment was T W Russell, the maverick Unionist MP for South Tyrone and the self-appointed spokesman for Ulster’s tenant farmers, who seemed to relish stirring up trouble between landlords and tenants and between Presbyterians and members of the Church of Ireland.

An exasperated Abercorn wrote to the Marquess of Salisbury, describing the Fife-born Russell as a ‘vicious, little, teetotal, radical Scotchman’. In reply, Salisbury suggested that Russell ‘would keep his head better if he returned to alcohol’.

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The future 2nd Duke was born in Brighton on August 24 1838 and educated at Harrow and Christ Church, Oxford. Contemporaneously with his graduation in 1860 he became one of the MPs for Co Donegal and represented the county until his narrow defeat in the general election of 1880. He hoped to re-enter the House of Commons for the newly created constituency of North Tyrone but his father’s death intervened. In 1885 Lord Ernest Hamilton, his brother, became the MP instead.

Anticipating Gladstone’s espousal of Home Rule (by six months), in May 1885 he sought to secure a realignment of Irish politics by uniting Conservatives and Liberals in defence of the Union via the creation of the Irish Loyal and Patriotic Union (ILPU).

The ILPU never gained much traction in Ulster because Ulster Unionists preferred to put their faith in a series of Ulster-based organisations, heralding the Ulsterisation of Irish Unionism.

Locally, in January 1886 Abercorn presided over a meeting in Omagh which resulted in formation of the North West Loyalist Registration and Electoral Association. Its purpose was to prevent Conservatives and Liberals splitting the pro-Union vote in counties Donegal, Tyrone and Londonderry and ensuring that pro-Union voters were on the electoral register. The initiative enjoyed the support of E T Herdman, president of Tyrone Liberal Association.

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Of his role during the second Home Rule crisis Abercorn is best remembered for his chairmanship of the Ulster Unionist Convention of June 17 1892 when he declared ‘we will not have Home Rule’ and invited the 12,000 delegates to raise their hands and repeat it after him.

In the spring of 1893 Abercorn presided at a huge meeting in opposition to Home Rule at the Albert Hall, London. He organised opposition against the bill in the House of Lords, bringing about its crushing defeat in September of that year. Every unionist peer was summoned to attend, irrespective of health or age. Allegedly, only two were absent without a valid excuse – one shooting lions in Somaliland, the other killing rats in Reigate.

In response to the Devolution crisis of 1904, Ulster unionists formed the Ulster Unionist Council in March 1905 with the duke as its first president. The Ulster Unionist Council could be viewed as the apogee of the ‘Ulsterisation’ of unionist politics. Lord Cadogan, the Lord Lieutenant, appreciated that by 1900 even ‘the Abercorns think more of Derry than Cork’. (That might not have been so clearly the situation at the formation of the ILPU in 1885.)

At the pre-Covenant rallies before the signing of the Ulster Covenant on September 28 1912, Abercorn’s declaration at the Ulster Unionist Convention was revived and solemnly endorsed.

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Although the duke presided at the pre-Covenant rally in Londonderry at which Carson and F E Smith were the principal speakers on September 20, he was too frail to travel to Belfast to sign the Covenant at the city hall but signed the document under a sturdy oak in the grounds of his Baronscourt home.

During his life the duke accumulated many of the distinctions appropriate to a man of his status, being a Knight of the Garter, a Privy Councillor and a Commander of the Order of the Bath.

Compared to his father, the 1st Duke, who had twice been Lord Lieutenant of Ireland (1866-68 and 1874-76) and who was nicknamed ‘Old Splendid’, the 2nd Duke’s life was ‘quiet and useful’. He was not an absentee landlord and had a benign interest in the welfare of his tenants. Furthermore, contemporaries thought that if other landlords had followed his example, the history of the country might have been written in a happier vein.

The 2nd Duke died on January 3 1913 and buried at Baronscourt.

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The 3rd Duke was Northern Ireland’s first governor, serving from 1921 to 1945. He had previously served as Unionist MP for the City of Londonderry from 1900 to 1913.

The present Duke of Abercorn, the 5th Duke, as Marquess of Hamilton was Unionist MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone between 1964 and 1970.