1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Birrell, Augustine

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BIRRELL, AUGUSTINE (1850–  ), English author and politician, son of a Nonconformist minister, was born near Liverpool on the 19th of January 1850. He was educated at Amersham Hall school and at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He went to the bar, and gradually obtained a good practice; in 1893 he became a K.C., and he was professor of law at University College from 1896 to 1899. But it was as a literary critic of unusually clever style and an original vein of wit, that he first became known to the public, with his volume of essays entitled Obiter Dicta (1884). In 1889 he was returned to parliament for West Fifeshire as a Liberal. In the House of Commons his light but pointed humour gradually led to the coining of a new word, “barrelling,” and his literary and oratorical reputation grew apace. Whether he was writing miscellaneous essays or law-books, his characteristic style prevailed, and his books on copyright and on trusts were novelties indeed among legal textbooks, no less sparkling than his literary Obiter Dicta. A second series of the latter appeared in 1887. Res Judicatae in 1892 and various other volumes followed, for he was in request among publishers and editors, and his easy charm of style and acute grasp of interesting detail gave him a front place among contemporary men of letters. Mr Birrell was first married in 1878, but his wife died next year, and in 1888 he married Mrs Lionel Tennyson, daughter of the poet Frederick Locker (Locker-Lampson). At the general election of 1900 he preferred to contest the N.E. division of Manchester rather than retain his seat in Fifeshire, but was defeated. He did valuable service, however, to his party by presiding over the Liberal Publication Department, and at the general election of 1906 he was returned for a division of Bristol. He had been included in Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman’s cabinet, and as minister for education he was responsible for the education bill which was the chief government measure in their first session. But the prolonged controversy over the bill, and its withdrawal in the autumn owing to the refusal of the government to accept modifications made by the House of Lords in the denominational interest, made his retention of that office impossible, and he was transferred (January 1907) to the post of chief secretary for Ireland, which he subsequently retained when Mr Asquith became prime minister in 1908. In the session of 1907 he introduced an Irish Councils bill, a sort of half-way house to Home Rule; but it was unexpectedly repudiated by a Nationalist convention in Dublin and the bill was promptly withdrawn. His prestige as a minister, already injured by these two blows, suffered further during the autumn and winter from the cattle-driving agitation in Ireland, which he at first feebly criticized and finally strongly denounced, but which his refusal to utilize the Crimes Act made him powerless to stop by the processes of the “ordinary law”; and the scandal arising out of the theft of the Dublin crown jewels in the autumn of 1907 was a further blot on the Irish administration. On the other hand his scheme for a reconstituted Irish Roman Catholic university was very favourably received, and its acceptance in 1908 did much to restore his reputation for statesmanship.