A verse from Isaiah prefaces the poem; the prophet says webs and deeds will not cover them because their works are of sin and violence is in their hands.
The poem concerns the signing of the Ulster Covenant in 1912.
The poem begins with a speaker saying the eleventh hour has arrived, and they are sold to the evil powers that they have long fought against. A litany of terrible things – greed, rape and pillage, hatred, oppression, and wrong – are set loose by England to control their – the Irish's – destiny. Their faith, laws, "honour, lives, and land" are sacrificed to Murder and Treason. They are thrust away.
The blood spilled by their fathers and all of their love and tribulations are used as evidence of their guilt and serve only to enchain them. There is no need for any more lies because "We are the sacrifice". They desire only to remain in their own land and rally to their own flag and throne, but now England makes them kneel.
They know about the wars prepared in peaceful homes and about the hells for those who do not serve Rome (the Catholic Church); they also know "the terror, threats, and dread" and that they will die if they ever yield. They do not boast or let fear into their hearts, and are ready to pay the ultimate cost.
The speaker calls "What answer from the North?" It is one Law, Land, and Throne, and if England continues her plan to drive them out, they will not fall alone.
This poem, like "Edgehill Fight" and "The Last of the Light Brigade", refers to a specific historical event – the creation and signing of the Ulster Covenant in 1912. While a significant moment in British and Irish history, it is not widely known elsewhere. Kipling had strong feelings on the subject and thusly wrote this poem, considered one of the most important in his oeuvre.
The residents of Ulster, the northernmost province of Ireland, desired to keep their province part of the United Kingdom. The long and complicated relationship between the Irish and the British had witnessed many tempestuous moments before, and this was simply another entanglement regarding the degree of autonomy Ireland was to have. By the late 19th century "Home Rule" was the idea de rigueur – it would give the Irish a devolved Parliament in Dublin to devise legislation for their own affairs, but they would be part of the British Empire. There were critics of this plan; dubbing themselves "Unionists", and originating mostly in Ulster, they felt that Home Rule was too close to an independent Ireland. Furthermore, as mostly Protestant, they feared the dominance of the rural, catholic South of Ireland over the northern part.
Charles Stewart Parnell, a Protestant member of the Irish Parliamentary Party, tried to bring up devolution for a vote. Home Rule bills were narrowly defeated in 1886 and 1891, and came up for debate again in 1910. Devolution was a political tool used to unite the Liberal and Irish Parliamentary Party, and Ireland received its own parliament in 1914 due to the Government of Ireland Act.
Throughout this process the Ulster Unionist Party, led by James Craig, MP for the Irish East Down, had been actively resisting this idea. Craig found Edward Carson, a charismatic barrister and unionist Dublin politician. Craig started to work on the Ulster Covenant and intended it to be an oath that all men in Ulster would sign to proclaim their right to remain citizens of the United Kingdom and defend that right by whatever means necessary. Carson, an excellent speaker, lit up the people with enthusiasm at speeches and rallies; he and Craig were the first to sign the Covenant on September 28th, 1912. In total, 237,368 men and women signed.
Although the Covenant was never officially presented to the British government, it was a powerful statement. When the British seemed to ignore it, Craig and Carson along with a businessman named Major Frederick Crawford formed and armed a militia of Ulster men. This caught Britain's attention, and the Army moved reinforcements to Ulster. Troops at the barracks in Ireland refused to participate in enforcing Home Rule and resigned. The government retreated and the officers were put back in their posts. Unionists were gleeful, and felt even more pleasure when Crawford conducted a successful arms smuggle from Germany.
The imminent violence caused King George V to try and mediate between both sides to avoid civil war, but a much larger crisis – WWI – diffused the struggle. The Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish Volunteers both fought for the British Empire and died in great numbers. The Government of Ireland Act was ignored during the war, and it was clear already that it would be hard to enforce given the vociferous opposition. An amended act created two Home Rule states by carving up Ireland into six Protestant northern counties – Northern Ireland – and grouping the rest of Ireland in the southern, Catholic region.
Kipling was not a fan of Home Rule, as the tone of his poem suggests. He had been frustrated with the British government for some time leading up to the crisis because of how they handled their victory in the South African War; he felt that they threw away their victory and abandoned their imperial authority in the region. He thought something similar was going to happen in Ireland. He also felt disgust for the Liberal Government, who he believed cared more about their political careers than the threat of Germany. In 1914 he signed a Covenant that pledged the signatories to oppose the British forcing Home Rule upon the Irish. He even wrote a poem, the 1914 "The Covenant", about this event.
It is clear from reading "Ulster" that Kipling views the Irish Unionists as noble figures, standing up against the evils of England. He uses words like "reward" "honour" "sacrifice" "toil" and "loyal" to describe the Irish, where words such as "Murder" "Treason" "rapine" "Oppression" and "terror" to describe England. The Unionists do not have unjust or irrational desires; they only want to defend their right to remain in the United Kingdom. They possess great courage and rectitude even as they proclaim that they will not back down under any circumstances. Kipling's poem, while rooted in this specific event, is universal enough to be used to describe any rebellion against oppression and oppression faced by peoples throughout history.