Hamilton, Lord Ernest (1858–1939), politician and writer, was born 5 September 1858 at Brocket Hall, Hertfordshire, seventh son and thirteenth child of James Hamilton (qv), 2nd marquess and 1st duke of Abercorn, and his wife, Jane Russell, daughter of the 6th duke of Bedford, who was the half-brother of Lord John Russell. Hamilton's childhood was spent in the great houses of his family, and at the viceregal lodge in Dublin during his father's terms as lord lieutenant of Ireland (1866–8, 1874–6). Hamilton was particularly fond of Baronscourt, the Abercorn seat in Co. Tyrone, though the family made it their permanent residence only in 1878; he was impressed and disturbed by the coexistence of affection for the family and covert adherence to older loyalties among the catholic estate workers. Hamilton's eldest sisters were married well before his birth; several nephews and nieces were his contemporaries. ‘Large families were thought pleasing to the Almighty . . . if human sacrifices are pleasing . . . My three eldest sisters had thirty-four children between them’ (Forty years on). He grew up in this vast extended family as an attention-seeking enfant terrible.
Hamilton was educated at Harrow and the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. He became a sub lieutenant in the 11th hussars in 1878, and was promoted captain in June 1884. (The regiment was chosen because of its social prominence and because it had recently left India and was unlikely to return there soon.) In December 1883 Hamilton participated in an occupation of Derry town hall by Apprentice Boys to prevent the Parnellite lord mayor of Dublin, Charles Dawson (1842–1917), from addressing a meeting there. During exchanges of revolver fire a nationalist was killed; after the meeting had been held elsewhere and Dawson had left for Dublin, the apprentice boys paraded provocatively through catholic districts. Hamilton testified at the inquest, and narrowly escaped dismissal from the army. In 1884 he witnessed the visit of the prince and princess of Wales to Cork (surreptitiously encouraging his horse to kick into a booing crowd of nationalists).
Hamilton left the army in 1885 for politics. He had already been an unsuccessful conservative candidate for Paisley at a by-election in February 1884. Shortly before the 1885 general election Hamilton's father died suddenly. Hamilton's eldest brother, the conservative candidate for the marginal seat of North Tyrone, was thus removed to the house of lords; with three other brothers committed elsewhere, Hamilton became the unionist candidate. Abercorn family influence was crucial in holding the seat. He defeated John Dillon (qv) in 1885 and a presbyterian liberal, J. O. Wylie (1845–1935), in 1886; both races were tightly fought (and are picturesquely described in his memoirs). Hamilton found back-bench life irritating and soon neglected his parliamentary duties. At one point he went fishing in Norway during a parliamentary session with the MP for a marginal English seat; summonses from the whips provoked facetious threats in verse of resignation.
In 1891 Hamilton married Pamela Campbell; they had two sons and two daughters. At the 1892 general election he was replaced as MP by his brother, Lord Frederick Hamilton. (Thereafter North Tyrone was held narrowly but continuously by liberals and nationalists from 1895.) From this time on Hamilton made his living from journalism and mining syndicates, involving much world travel. After the first world war (in which his eldest son died) Hamilton published gossipy and anecdotal books of memoirs, contrasting mid-Victorian society with the 1920s. In general he preferred the relative social freedom of his children's generation; he saw the society of his youth as dominated by humbug and false refinement, and thought that mid-Victorian art and female dress were the ugliest ever produced. He also wrote a work of ‘instant history’, The first seven divisions: a history of the fighting to Ypres (1916), which went into eleven editions and was translated into Danish.
Hamilton is best remembered for several books on Ulster history and identity produced in the period of unrest between the 1916 rising and the report of the Boundary Commission (1925). The soul of Ulster (1917) presents the Ulster planters as descendants of the medieval Scottish borderers familiar to readers of Sir Walter Scott. (Hamilton was proud of his own border ancestry; he visited the area annually to shoot grouse with his brother-in-law the duke of Buccleuch, and his first novel, The outlaws of the marsh (1897), is set in the borders during the sixteenth century.) Reading back into the past the tightly maintained socio-religious divisions of 1880s North Tyrone, Hamilton claimed that the planters remained racially distinct because intermarriage would have meant absorption by catholicism. The 1641 massacre, catholic sectarian murders during the 1798 rising, and subsequent agrarian violence are cited as evidence of an abiding catholic desire to extirpate protestants as foreign interlopers. Hamilton defends the planters as bearers of civilisation: ‘Should England be evacuated in favour of the Welsh . . . New Zealand in favour of the Maoris? Should the French clear out of Algiers, the British out of Uganda?’ (The soul of Ulster, 122.) He closed with the ambivalent hope that Sinn Féin, by encouraging anti-clericalism, would inadvertently promote the admixture and anglicisation of the two races. Elizabethan Ulster (1919) and The Irish rebellion of 1641 (1920) expand on his view of the plantation. Hamilton made extensive use of original printed sources; he tended to maximise the barbarism of the natives while palliating atrocities perpetrated by the settlers. His comparison of the 1641 massacres to the French and Bolshevik revolutions hints at contemporary political fears. He also dealt with 1641 in fictional form in Tales of the troubles (1925).
In the 1920s and early 1930s Hamilton was a prominent member of the British fascists (a tory diehard splinter group), thundering against ‘enemy aliens’ in its Fascist Bulletin. His book ‘The identity of God’ failed to find a publisher because its account of Jesus was regarded as anti-semitic. His works were still quoted by ultra-loyalist groups at the end of the twentieth century. He died on 14 December 1939 at his home in Chesham Place, London.
The Abercorn papers (PRONI, D / 623) contain copies of Hamilton's unpublished ‘The identity of God’ and an unpublished book on King Arthur. The University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections, MS General 1586 is a collection of Paisley unionist literature and correspondence, 1880–1905, collected by Hamilton.