Friday 19 July 2019

Redmond: the man that Ireland forgot

Easter 1916 changed everything and effectively killed off Home Rule, depositing its architect John Redmond in the dustbin of history. But he deserves better, writes Eamon Delaney

Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Redmond inspects Irish Volunteers
Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Redmond inspects Irish Volunteers
John Redmond

Eamon Delaney

1916 is back in fashion. New books and films on the Rising are flowing and will continue to do so up until the centenary in two years' time. A young generation has coming afresh to accounts of this momentous event and are understandably struck by the heroism and drama for the first time. For an older generation, looking back from our recent economic crisis, the selflessness and idealism can only impress.

But it is also part of recent surge of interest in history, which makes it all the more odd that Education Minister Ruari Quinn wants to downgrade history in the second level curriculum.

It wasn't always so. Just a few years ago, 1916 was regarded as passé and boringly nationalistic, as much a part of Éamon De Valera's Ireland as dour Catholicism and Irish dancing classes. The obsessive emphasis on heroic sacrifice turned people off, along with the 'cult of personality' built around often obsessive figures like Pádraig Pearse and Countess Markewicz, and other poets and mystics.

This was also the effect of historic revisionism which questioned the narrative of violence as a virile method of patriotic struggle, thereby ignoring the constitutional nationalist tradition, not to mention, until lately, the Ulster Unionist dimension. Much of this reaction was generated by the eruption of the Northern Ireland conflict, of course, where the same dubious principles of blood sacrifice and ruthless assassination were so destructively invoked.

This was an overdue reassessment and valuable. For decades, our history was more like mythology, and a simplistic one, about a long period of struggle leading to the glorious dawn of 1916, and a successful guerrilla war. The reality is much more complex. In a new book Peace After The Final Battle -The Story of the Irish Revolution 1912-1924 historian John Dorney examines just why Ireland went from being a country content with limited Home Rule, and the British king, to one consumed with Republican fervour.

You respect the Rising all the more when you see how it didn't come out of the blue but was connected to other competing and complimentary factors, not least the way that the Home Rule movement created the conditions for a bigger ambition and had already politicised the Irish public.

But there is a danger that in our new patriotic fervour we may lose this wider perspective. One glaring imbalance is that, although the Irish participation in World War is now acknowledged, the tradition of Home Rule and its wartime leader John Redmond continues to be relatively ignored.

In a recent RTÉ documentary A Sovereign People, it was as if revisionism and modern, non-emotionalised history had never happened. While an impressive documentary, much of it resembled the old 'route-one' nationalist history, with swelling violins and eulogies to Pádraig Pearse alongside shallow denigrations of John Redmond.

There are no plans by the State to commemorate John Redmond or his efforts even though his movement brought Ireland to the verge of Home Rule after 50 years of struggle. Granted it was only limited self-rule, but it was the cause that had consumed the Irish people for generations, as well as the one that had brought such huge gains on the land issue.

Redmond was a brave and dedicated man, who deserves credit for his long service. It is said he was betrayed by everyone at the end – Ulster Unionists, British government and Irish Republicans – but really he was betrayed by events and everything 'changing utterly.'

''Obviously, Redmond's career ended in failure", says UCD History Professor Diarmaid Ferriter "but he had been an impressive parliamentarian and orator and was an effective advocate of Irish nationalism in Britain, dealing with politicians who were often hostile or indifferent, and he helped bring about important reforms in land and education.

'But he became very out of touch with Irish opinion, was far too snobbish and contemptuous in his attitude to a younger, more militant generation, and left himself in a position where he could be justifiably castigated for being far too trustworthy of untrustworthy British politicians.''

However, Redmond's worst luck was probably the duration of the World War, adds Ferriter, and certainly it was the Great War that ultimately did for him.

At Woodenbridge in Wicklow, he made a famous speech urging Irishmen to enlist and help boost the Home Rule cause, but little did he realise the scale of the war, or future British obfuscation or the secret plans by 1916 Republicans.

However, his memory has not been completely ignored. A superb new biography has recently been published by Dermot Meleady and Wicklow Fine Gael TD Billy Timmins has organised a memorial at the beautiful Woodenbridge site, to be unveiled next September.

The sod for it was turned by former Taoiseach, John Bruton, a staunch admirer of Redmond.

John Redmond's story is also the story of Ireland's independence. He died heartbroken in 1918 and his brother William, also a young MP, had already died in the Belgian trenches like many other brave Irishmen.

Poignantly, at the subsequent bye-election his seat was won by a new political force, Sinn Féin, represented by 1916 survivor Éamon De Valera. A whole other chapter had begun.


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