Date of Award


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Degree Name

Master of Arts




The life of Frederick Edwin Smith, 1st Earl of Birkenhead (1872- 1930), was fascinating but puzzling. The second Earl of Birkenhead has described his father as "a brilliant failure," a man of tremendous intel­ ligence and talent who failed to reach the pinnacle of success. Most historians have confirmed this assessment but have added a somewhat sinis­ ter element to Birkenhead' s career. Birkenhead is generally depicted as a latter-day condottiere, reckless and unprincipled, who used his great gifts in any expedient or demagogic scheme that would advance his career.

This thesis is not a straightforward biography of Birkenhead but an account of the effect which the Irish problem had on British politics from 1912 to 1921 and Birkenhead' s occasionally ambiguous contributions to the solution of that problem. Birkenhead' s personal life and his achievements and activities outside of the Irish question are given only cursory treatment, although the first chapter gives a description of Birkenhead's life up to 1911--with particular emphasis on the constitutional crisis of 1909-11, the bitterness of which helped to .create the tense atmosphere of the Home Rule controversy in 1912-14--and the fourth chapter briefly outlines the strengths and weaknesses of the coalition ministry of 1919-22, thus providing the background for the Irish negotiations in 1921. Events in Ireland are described with some thoroughness in order to show the conditions in that island and the constant pressure which was placed on the British Government to devise a viable policy. For the sake of clarity and chronology, Birkenhead is referred to as "Smith" until he was raised to the peerage in 1919, after which time he is designated by his title.

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