Speech at the ‘Redmond 100’ Commemoration
Wexford Library, Wexford, Sunday 15 April 2018
Ba mhaith liom, i dtús báire, buíochas a ghlacadh le Méara Chomhairle Buirge Loch Garman, an Comhairleoir Jim Moore, as a chuireadh fial an seimineár seo a oscailt ar maidin agus as an deis a thabhairt dom a bheith páirteach sa searmanas comórtha sibhialta tráthnóna. Ba mhaith liom, freisin, comhghairdeas a dhéanamh le Comhairle Contae Loch Garman, leis an Roinn Cultúir, Oidhreachta agus Gaeltachta agus leo siúd go léir a raibh páirt lárnach acu i gcur chlár an lae inniu i dtoll a chéile.
While it is very appropriate that the centenary programme commemorating the death of John Redmond should take place in Waterford City, a Parnellite stronghold which was represented for so many years by John, his son William Archer Redmond and his daughter-in-law Bridget Redmond, it is so important that here in Wexford, a town and a county with which the Redmond name has been so associated for centuries that such a commemoration as this is taking place. I am sure that I speak for so many who will speak on John Redmond when I say we are all indebted to Dermot Meleady for his two fine volumes on John Redmond, the first volume of which deals in its opening chapters with those strong South East and Wexford connections.
Wexford has also held a special place in the history of our long road to national independence. After all it was here that a Republic, inspired by the ideas of Thomas Paine and the example of the French and American Revolutions, was first proclaimed on this island. Such a historical background in the wide sense was important. John Redmond was very influenced by the historical context from which he had sprung and the relationship which his forebears had with the struggles for independence and the folk memory of those struggles. As he put it he had
‘been reared in the midst of hills and valleys that witnessed the struggles of ’98…’,
and as he further reflected:
‘I had been taught to regard every scene as a monument of the heroism of our forefathers, and to remember that well-nigh every sod beneath my feet marked a hero’s sepulchre. My boyish ears had listened to the tales of ’98 from the lips of old men who had themselves witnessed the struggles, and I scarcely know a family who cannot tell of a father or grandfather or some near relative who died fighting at Wexford, at Oulart, or Ross… one of my proudest recollections has ever been, as it is today, that in that dark hour of trial, there were not wanting men of my race and name who attested by their lives to their devotion to Ireland.’
How that devotion was expressed, if we are to understand it in a balanced way, means recognising that while consciousness of a great wrong created a current of militancy that was radical, and at times violent, there was also a parallel set of radical tendencies within constitutionalism, tendencies, that often collided. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, the memory of the 1798 Rebellion might have thus both steadily faded as a failed military event and yet had become at once more vivid for what inclusive possibilities in terms of both source and membership it offered.
There was a diversity to such constitutionalist tendencies, and they had an all-island reach. Let us recall that Presbyterian Belfast was the bastion of the Society of United Irishmen that had furnished both the intellectual and material resources for such revolutionary activity. The memory of a glorious resistance had slowly eclipsed, in the public mind, the radical programme of the United Irishmen, so much so that all of the diverse elements of nationalist Ireland would lay claim to their legacy during the centenary celebrations in 1898.
The bloodshed of the 1790s, and the punitive response of the British Government and those Edmund Burke described as the ‘junto’ dominating Dublin Castle, with such easy access to coercive measures, convinced a generation of nationalists that an armed uprising of any size would not only fail but invite an immediate and terrible retribution.
It does say something of the extraordinary political genius that was that of Daniel O’Connell that he could, in the aftermath of those early terrible decades, assemble a remarkable and wide-reaching coalition of ideas and interests one that would seek, through both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary agitation, to fundamentally revise the combination of common law, statute, legal precedent and ideology of that that had become known as the British Constitution.
A true historiography of the second half of the nineteenth century, when it deals with relationship between Britain and Ireland then, has to deal with all the tensions both of the context outside Parliament – land, religion and rights – and also the different strategies, including many innovations, to be applied within Parliament to advance the case for legislative independence.
This movement of O’Connell’s – and let us recall that it represented one of the first great mass movements of European history – succeeded in dismantling the penal laws, and, through its parliamentary representatives, championed a series of liberal reforms, including the abolition of slavery within the British Empire. Yet that movement did not, to the great disappointment of Daniel O’Connell, achieve what would become the sine qua non of Irish politics throughout the nineteenth century - the repeal of the Act of Union and the re-establishment of an Irish Parliament.
What was to surface as any form of disputation on what ‘independence’ meant was varied, intermittent and was never clearly defined, meaning different things to different social layers. There was a huge distance between layers of insecure tenants and the consideration of those who envisaged a future membership in what was assumed to be an incontestably expanding Empire. George Bermingham has written of how in the West of Ireland when an enquiry in the local shop, as he gathered his paper, as to how the vote on Home Rule had gone was made the reply was ‘to hell with Home Rule, ‘sure tis the land we are after’.
Several decades after the death of O’Connell, constructing a constitutional politics on this combination of tendencies was the great task to which John Redmond dedicated his political life, and like Daniel O’Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell before him, he would come in his time to be seen as representing the Irish nation itself.
For though he is now often remembered as a great parliamentarian, both in his mastery of procedure and of oratory, he was, let us recall, the leader of one of the great movements of thought and action of the nineteenth century, one that, at its height, was capable of wresting from the British Parliament concessions that seemed unimaginable to contemporaries and that left tangible results in housing for labourers, university independence and opposition to vicarious forms of Coercion Acts.
When John Redmond took the then parliamentary seat of New Ross in 1881, he was joining a newly revived national movement, one that had, through the New Departure, brought together some of the diverse strands of the Irish nationalism: the struggle for the land, the battle for legislative independence, and the radical separatism of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which drew on the support and organisation of Irish men and women steeped in the radical democratic politics of the United States.
The Irish Parliamentary Party, founded by Isaac Butt – who, in his time, had valiantly sought to hold together what often amounted to a fractious and often aristocratic caucus – had been transformed under the leadership of Parnell into a disciplined force that understood, but also saw the limitations of the British House of Commons, a force that, in the Irish National League, united parliamentary and extra-parliamentary efforts.
Under Parnell, the class composition of the Irish parliamentarians changed dramatically – only three of the 23 Nationalist MPs elected in 1880 were landlords. One contemporary chronicler of the Irish Parliamentary Party described, in predictably disparaging terms, the shock at witnessing the new entrants to the hallowed halls of Westminster: ‘Penny-a-liners from New York and Lambeth, from Mallow and Drumcondra; out-of-works from half a dozen modest professions had come in their place to earn the wages of Mr. Patrick Egan and Mr. Patrick Ford’.
Despite emerging from a different milieu to that of journalists such as Tim Healy, or labourers such as Michael Davitt, John Redmond was a wholehearted champion of the rights of tenants, and firmly committed to pursuing that policy through parliamentary obstructionism, where he readily joined Charles Stewart Parnell, to whom he would give an extraordinary loyalty and devotion, something that won the admiration of Carson, for example, speaking on the campaign trail in New Ross in 1881 he committed himself to ‘the holy crusade…. being engaged against landlordism’. Famously, it was said that he took his seat, made his maiden speech, and was expelled from the House of Commons, all on the same evening, a record of which few parliamentarians, then and now, could or can boast.
He was a brilliant parliamentary orator, described by the colonial civil servant and Conservative MP (Sir) Richard Temple – not indeed a politician with a natural sympathy for Irish MPs - as ‘fluent without being verbose, eloquent without being bombastic, earnest without being over-strained’.
Redmond was also a committed extra-parliamentary activist in the 1880s, supporting the renewal of the Land War through the Plan of Campaign, even against the wishes of the then more cautious Parnell. Indeed. He was convicted of using intimidating language towards landlords in 1888 here in Wexford and served a period of time in prison. Dermot Meleady’s description of John Dillion’s meeting of Redmond after his prison haircut is one of the most charming images in a book that so well serves the subject.
John Redmond became so associated, in the succeeding structuring of the collective memory of Irish nationalism, with an image of very particular kind of Irish Party MP – overly deferential to both parliamentary procedure and to the authority of the Parliament in Ireland – that his energy, his courage, and his commitment to defying landlordism and the legitimacy of the exercise of British power here in Ireland may not have been given appropriate weight. He was, after all, one of the most talented of a remarkable generation of Irish parliamentarians whose radicalism inspired the supporters of democracy both in Ireland in Britain, and whose activism was viewed by the establishment as nothing less than a challenge to the rule of British law in Ireland.
May I suggest that the decision of John Redmond to stand with Parnell during those fateful days of discord in Committee Room 15 was the most defining and revealing of his political career. It took bravery and courage to side with Parnell and the Fenians against the combined influence of the Catholic Church in Ireland and William Gladstone and the Liberal Party in Britain. It took perseverance to maintain what, in retrospect, now seems a most unusual alliance of Redmondites and Fenians.
The Waterford City by-election of 1891, skilfully recounted by Dermot Meleady in the first volume of his biography of Redmond, illustrates some of these incongruencies. Redmond’s opponent was Michael Davitt, the founder of the Irish National Land League. In him Redmond faced a veteran campaigner and Fenian and a powerful champion of the rights of labour. Yet it was Redmond who was able to draw on the moral support of the city’s working-class, who though they may have been unable to vote yet still had a voice, and were able to intimidate and prevent Davitt from speaking. In 1891, Redmond was the radical, and Davitt, much to his chagrin, was presented as the stooge of those Parnell had termed as 'the English wolves howling for my destruction’.
Though the two men were then at odds during the Parnell Split I would like to take this opportunity to highlight an incident in which they were united, one which is an example of great moral and political courage. In 1904, the small Jewish community in Limerick, numbering no more than perhaps 35 families, were assailed by their fellow citizens, who were incited by a local priest. Michael Davitt and John Redmond were the only two national figures to wholeheartedly condemn the attempted pogram.
By his actions, Redmond was carrying on a tradition of Irish solidarity with the Jewish people which manifested itself seventy years before in the campaign for Jewish Emancipation in which Daniel O’Connell played a leading role. John Redmond was more than willing to implicitly denounce a priest – he had defied the Catholic hierarchy before: in 1888, in response to Papal condemnation of the Plan of Campaign, he declared that ‘political interference of any sort they would not more tolerate from the Vatican than from Dublin Castle’.
The re-unification of the Irish Home Rule movement in 1900 was a consequence of, and response to, activism from below, in the form of a new organisation, the United Irish League, which sought to re-impose discipline upon all Nationalist MPs and to campaign against the new power of the graziers who were increasingly coming to dominate the post-Famine agricultural landscape, some of whom were in the ranks of the UIL.
John Redmond would lead a united Irish Party for the first time in 9 years, one that was capable of leveraging the extra-parliamentary campaign of the United Irish League into a parliamentary victory in the Land Purchase Act of 1903, the first substantive provision for land purchase for tenants. It would be followed by the Labourers Acts of 1906 and 1911, both substantial pieces of housing legislation, and by another Land Purchase Act in 1909. When taken together, these pieces of legislation represent the largest transfer of Irish land since the 1690s, and one of the largest housing programmes ever attempted on these islands.
The re-united nationalist parliamentary party that emerged in the 1900s was strong enough to detach itself from reliance on the Fenians – though the historian James McConnell has estimated that nearly a quarter of Nationalist MPs were or had been, at any one time, former Fenians.
A new generation, however, exemplified perhaps most of all by Sean MacDermott, the national organiser of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the protégé of Tom Clarke, eschewed engagement with the parliamentary party choosing instead the promising space of cultural activities.
Long decades of a hegemony from a particular source - and the replacement of the Fenian contingent with the Ancient Order of Hibernians in the 1900s - had lent a certain lassitude to the Irish Party. Indeed, in terms of its representation in local government in Dublin it had come to be, ironically, a party of landlords.
The distinctive political formation that Parnellism represented and that John Redmond led in the 1890s – a coalition of urban artisans, shopkeepers and labourers, many of whom were schooled in a Fenian culture – drifted apart in the re-united Irish Party, and, of course, a new syndicalist trade union movement led by Jim Larkin had emerged to organise workers in urban areas, epitomised by the battle for union recognition that occurred in this town in 1911. Yet there are significant differences between the Wexford Lockout of 1911 and the Dublin Lockout of 1913 in terms of business, public and clerical support.
In this Decade of Centenaries we are all invited to recall what has become to be known as an Irish Revolution. We have now come to use that appellation ‘revolution’ in recognition of the rupture that occurred in the years between 1916 and 1923 – a rupture that was a mixture of heroism, disastrous military decisions but also new alliances for example in opposition to an imposed conscription in 1918.
The Irish people saw the rise in Europe of new ideas, conveyed through innovative cultural expressions and the possibility – and I emphasise the term possibility - of not only a transfer of power and authority between classes, genders, and generations in Ireland but of an idealism that could be turned into practice or discarded in favour of a pragmatic adjustment to new and different propertied classes.
Fin de siècle Britain had itself come to be gripped by a new imperial spirit, one that had grown in strength since the crowning of Queen Victoria as Empress of India, a decision that Isaac Butt and his colleagues had challenged in the House of Commons. Politicians such as Cecil Rhodes and Joseph Chamberlain, dreamed of an imperial federation of self-governing white settler states ruling over the rest of the British Empire.
Irish parliamentarians – including some former Fenians - were not immune to mimicking such sentiments, and by the time of the Third Home Rule Bill many of the critics of the Parliamentary Party could be forgiven for believing that Home Rule within the Empire had indeed become the ne plus ultra for the Party.
This belief was given succour by the wholehearted support given to the British war effort during the First World War by John Redmond – a decision that, much like the decision of the socialist and social democratic parties in Europe to support their respective national war efforts, will continue to be a matter of great controversy.
John Redmond and the Irish Party could not contain the new forces that emerged during our revolutionary period, no more than the polite Home Rulers of Isaac Butt’s time – including John Redmond’s father, William – could contain the enthusiasm of John Redmond and his generation for land reform and aggressive parliamentary and extra-parliamentary confrontation with the British authorities. The demands for the rights of labour, for the rights of women, and for a separate, independent Irish republic would sweep away the Irish Party. They were contained for a short time in the political formation known as Sinn Féin, but it too dissolved in the crucible of the Civil War, unable, and in some cases, unwilling, to represent the multiple ideas and interests which gave it life.
The independence of our country was not, and I believe could not, be won by parliamentary manoeuvres alone. The Irish Party, who thwarted British authority so successfully in Ireland through the Land War and the Plan of Campaign attest, demonstrated by their actions that they were never fully convinced of this either. As the long and unremitting national liberation struggles waged by the nations of the Global South throughout the twentieth century has shown, great empires do not yield easily.
Our own war of independence was as necessary as any of those wars of national liberation fought by other peoples. Yet let us recognise that there was no simple or linear path to our national self-determination, and it was the Irish Party carried the struggle for very many years, winning respect and admiration for the cause of home rule. The constitutional advocacy and legacy informed the practices of the new state, for example on the form in which the 1922 Constitution was framed.
When I addressed the Houses of Parliament in Westminster four years ago I spoke of the inspiration I took from standing in a place where, for more than one hundred years, many dedicated Irish parliamentarians represented not only the interests and aspirations of the Irish people but also contributed to the development of British democracy.
Today, I am delighted, as President of Ireland, to have the opportunity to participate in the commemoration of one of the greatest of those Irish parliamentarians, a patriot and a courageous politician who sought, at all times, often carrying the burden of illness, to do what he thought was right in the best interests of our people. The South-East of Ireland was always in his heart and it is so appropriate that he be honoured, as indeed his grand uncle was, in Wexford.