Entertainment Books

Friday 18 January 2019

A fallen hero of nationalist Ireland

History: John Redmond: Selected Letters and Memoranda, 1880-1918, Dermot Meleady, Merrion Press, hardback, 350 pages, €29.99

Vision: John Redmond had hoped unionists and nationalists would bury their differences fighting in the Great War
Vision: John Redmond had hoped unionists and nationalists would bury their differences fighting in the Great War
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

A new book of John Redmond's letters offers an insight into the man who came within striking distance of heading an Irish government.

In August 1914, at the outbreak of the World War I, John Redmond was poised to become the first leader of Ireland under Home Rule. The Clongowes-educated grandee from the Irish Parliamentary Party was in touching distance of heading an Irish government, which would have been similar in some ways to the present devolved administration in Scotland.

Under Home Rule, Ireland was to enjoy a measure of independence while remaining within the British Empire, but the future of Ulster, and the question of which counties would be in or out, was unresolved.

By the start of the war, Redmond was the leader of nationalist Ireland. He had reunited and rebuilt a party that had split acrimoniously over its previous leader Charles Stewart Parnell - and his affair with a married woman, Katherine O'Shea. Under Redmond's leadership, the Wyndham act enabled over 200,000 tenant farmers to buy their land holdings on reasonable terms.

But less than four years after the outbreak of war, the leader died a disconsolate and broken man. Although it was on the statute book by September 1914, Home Rule was delayed by the war. At huge political cost, Redmond felt it necessary to compromise over partition, a scenario he himself had envisaged as the 'mutilation' of his country.

The Easter Rising, which he condemned, ushered in the rise of Sinn Féin, and led to the erosion of support for his party. The war had dragged on for much longer than most observers had predicted, claiming the life of his brother Willie and thousands of Irishmen.

Redmond, in popular nationalist folk memory, was cast as an Uncle Tom figure, too ready to compromise with the British and support their imperial ventures.

The historian Dermot Meleady has devoted the best part of two decades to researching the life of Redmond, and trying to rehabilitate his reputation. He has previously written two comprehensive volumes of biography of the politician, and this book of his letters and memoranda will serve as a useful companion volume for researchers.

It offers insights into his thinking from the start of his career as an MP, through the period of his leadership until his death 100 years ago this month.

Redmond came from a Catholic gentry family in Wexford, and he was steeped in the politics of Westminster from a young age. His father William Archer Redmond was also an MP.

After dropping out of Trinity College, he moved to London, where he worked for his father in the House of Commons. At the age of just 24, a year after his father's death, he was returned unopposed as MP for New Ross.

As a parliamentarian, Redmond was regarded as one of the best speakers in the House of Commons, with an imposing physical presence.

Home Rule was the principal aim of the party, but in the 1880s, Redmond and his party colleagues were also involved in land agitation on behalf of tenant farmers.

After one speech during a land dispute, Redmond was imprisoned for using intimidating language. In a letter to the priest in New Ross, Father Patrick Furlong, Redmond complained of having a sore back as a result of the plank bed in Tullamore Prison.

When the controversy over Charles Stewart Parnell's affair erupted in 1890, and the Catholic church called for his resignation, Redmond emerged as leader of the minority who backed the party leader. He said he was bound to Parnell "by the double ties of private friendship and political allegiance".

In a letter to Father Furlong, the MP said he had acted "from a clear and strong perception of what is best for the country".

The split in the party that continued after Parnell's death was bitter. One of Redmond's achievements as leader a was to bring some of the personalities in a fragmented movement together over the following years.

In a letter written one year after he took over as leader, Redmond wrote: "Regarding the party in the House, the new men are a great improvement on the old. We now have no drinking brigade. The party is made up of steady, sober, thoroughly decent and capable men."

In his later career, when he was away from Westminster, Redmond lived the life of a country squire at Aughavannagh, his Wicklow retreat, where he indulged his interest in shooting and fishing.

He set out his vision for Home Rule in 1911 in a letter to his fellow MP John Muldoon: "By Home Rule I do not mean any cowardly or grudging measure, but a bold measure of self-government which will give to the Irish people control of their own purely local affairs, through the agency of a freely-elected parliament in Dublin, with an executive responsible to it, subject, of course, to imperial supremacy…"

During the present Decade of Centenaries, Redmond has been overshadowed by the republican leaders of 1916. The events of the Rising make for sexier material for documentaries and stories, while the painstaking work of Redmond and his ilk does not lend itself to high drama.

In recent weeks, however, considerable attention has been paid to the leader with events marking the centenary of his death. Redmond is championed by those who believe that the constitutional path was a better one than armed insurrection, but Redmond was no pacifist himself, and encouraged tens of thousands of Irishmen to enlist in the British war effort. His defenders would say he had little choice if he was to get Home Rule over the line. In his manifesto of September 1914, he said: "It is a just war.... it is a war for the defence of the sacred rights and liberties of small nations."

Redmond expressed the belief that unionists and nationalists would bury their differences on the battlefield. He hoped that "their union in the field may lead to a union in their home, and that their blood may be the seal that will bring all Ireland together in one nation…"

Ultimately, his hopes were dashed, and at the end of the war his party was almost obliterated in an election. Both his admirers and his detractors will find plenty of fascinating material in this volume.


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