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The Thing That Never Was

Frank Callanan

This essay is a revised version of a paper given in Waterford on April 11th, 2012 to mark the centenary of the introduction of the Third Home Rule bill.

In the second chapter of Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus is teaching a class of bored and restive boys in a Protestant private school in Dalkey in June 1904. He muses:

For them too history was a tale like any other too often heard, their land a pawnshop.

Had Pyrrhus not fallen by a beldam’s hand in Argos or Julius Caesar not been knifed to death? They are not to be thought away. Time has branded them and fettered they are lodged in the room of the infinite possibilities they have ousted. But can those have been possible seeing that they never were? Or was that only possible which came to pass? Weave, weaver of the wind.

Weaving in ancient Irish tradition is connected with the art of prophecy. Political events often do not turn out in the way that contemporaries anticipate. There are few events that so spectacularly exemplify this as the introduction of the third Home Rule bill in the House of Commons on April 11th, 1912. In the voluminous annals of the “ousted possibilities” of modern Irish politics, the third Home Rule bill has a strong claim to pre-eminence. The controversies that what became the Home Rule act and its successor legislation set in train are with us still a hundred years later, all the time subtly inflecting our perceptions of those controversies, the lines of which were at the time of unprecedented vehemence, fixity and rootedness.

For Irish nationalists, the bill’s introduction by the Liberal prime minister Herbert Henry Asquith represented the long overdue fulfilment of the commitment to Home Rule wrung from Gladstone by Parnell . That issued in the first Home Rule bill of 1886, defeated in the House of Commons. The second Home Rule bill, introduced by Gladstone in 1893, after Parnell’s death, was lost in the House of Lords. There followed a succession of Conservative governments until the Liberal landslide of 1906. A constitutional crisis followed the rejection by the House of Lords of David Lloyd George’s “people’s budget” in November 1909. The Liberals dissolved parliament and the first election of 1910, in January, saw the return of a Liberal government dependent on the support of Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party. Determined to ensure that the issue of the veto of the House of Lords was addressed, Redmond cleaved resolutely to the maxim of “no veto, no budget”. That position prevailed. The Liberal government, again dependent on Irish nationalist support, returned at the general election of December 1910, enacted in 1911 the Parliament Act, which replaced the Lord’s veto with a power of delay. A bill passed by the Commons in three successive sessions and rejected in the Lords would pass into law provided two years had elapsed. Redmond now seemed in a far better position as a leader of the Irish party to secure the enactment of a measure of Home Rule, better than Parnell in 1886, better than Justin McCarthy in 1893.

The Home Rule bill was to become law on September 18th, 1914, in tandem with an act suspending its operation to a date “not later than the end of the present war”, and with a commitment that parliament would have the opportunity of enacting an amending bill making special provision for Ulster. As Nicholas Mansergh points out in his magisterial The Unresolved Question, the suspension would have remained operative until the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne (with Turkey) in 1923, but the sense of the imminent end of the suspensory period as the war drew to a close engendered a sense of political urgency. The act in the event did not outlive the term of its suspension and so never came into operation. Section 76(1) of the Government of Ireland Act 1920 provided that “the Government of Ireland Act , 1914, is hereby repealed as from the passing of this Act”. This TP O’Connor, one of few members of the Irish party to survive the electoral Armageddon of December 1918, told the Commons with some bitterness was the only effective clause in all its provisions. The contrast between the spectral existence of the third Home Rule act as a legislative measure and the extraordinary political repercussions of its tortuous passage into law is something to ponder.

All of this in April 1912 lay unforeseeably in the future. It is difficult to reinstate without condescension the perceptions that prevailed as at April 1912, but essential that we try. The effort involved even now for the post-independence generations in Ireland is not inconsiderable. The independent Irish state conceived its parentage in the rising of 1916 and its sequel rather than in Irish parliamentarism, against which the rising was as much directed as against the British governance of Ireland. The course of events from the introduction of the Home Rule bill was for long read by many in Ireland with unrelieved morbidity as a black tale of English perfidy, imperially sponsored sectarian secession, and reprehensible nationalist impotence. This was not a matter of a questionable understanding of a remote incident in Irish history, but was something that for long informed the politics of the independent Irish state, particularly in its relation to Northern Ireland.

One means of imaginatively reinstating the political circumstances that prevailed in the spring of 1912 is to recall two very different meetings that took place in the immediate prelude to the introduction of the third Home Rule bill.

On Sunday March 31st, 1912 a great demonstration took place in O’Connell Street in Dublin in support of Home Rule. Four platforms were erected the length of the street. Platform No 1 was erected close to the Parnell monument, which Redmond had unveiled six months previously. The meeting opened with the singing from Platform No 1 by a Mr JC Browner of A Nation Once Again, after which it was sung by the whole crowd to the accompaniment of the numerous bands in attendance. It was from that platform that Redmond spoke. The Irish leader declared:

I desire to say that I entertain a confident belief that the Home Rule Bill will be a great measure and adequate for the purposes of those who promote it.

The Freeman’s Journal reported:

It seemed as if in some miraculous way his words had penetrated throughout all the vast assembly. The cheer with which it was greeted was taken up from end to end of that vast mass, and from Rutland square to Westmoreland street a large volume of sound went up that with a gigantic voice proclaimed the unity of the nation.

Continuing, Redmond defined the purposes of the bill:

First, to put an end once and for all to the disastrous and ruinous war that has gone on between Ireland and England and the Empire. The Irish people, I believe, have always been willing to make peace with England; today they are eager for the war to end (hear,hear). The second purpose is to enable Ireland, with dignity and self-respect to enter for the first time into co-partnership in the Empire with perfect good faith and with perfect loyalty on a footing of equality and of liberty (cheers). The third purpose is to re-establish National Self-government in Ireland by a Parliament fully representative of all creeds and classes: a Parliament with power to govern all purely Irish affairs in accordance with the dictates of Irish public opinion ...

John Dillon was the principal speaker at Platform No 2, Joseph Devlin at Platform No 3. Platform No 4 was the Students’ Platform, even if that was a slight misnomer. As the Freeman’s Journal reported, “Gaelic speakers, members of the Gaelic League, addressed the crowd in the native tongue from each platform”. The Irish speaker at Platform No 3, at the junction with Middle Abbey Street, just down from the General Post Office, was Patrick Pearse. “Mr. P. H. Pearse, B. L.,” reported the Freeman’s Journal, “supported the resolution in a vigorous speech”, which it reported in Irish. Vigorous it was. Pearse concluded: “Let the English (na Gaill) understand that if we are again betrayed there shall be red war throughout Ireland.” Eoin MacNeill spoke from Platform No 4, his speech going, as Stephen Gwynn wrote with some acerbity “as its speaker was destined to go, half the way with Pearse”.

For Irish nationalists this was a momentous occasion, and replete with symbolic significance. In a striking passage, the Freeman’s Journal reached an acme of lyricism in its evocation of the final moments of the meeting:

Just as the President of National University College, Dublin, stepped up to the front of the Students’ platform a pencil of light penetrated the mist, and falling on the drum of the O’Connell pedestal towering behind him, bathed in golden sunlight the figure of Erin trampling on her fetters. Looking from the bridge up the length of O’Connell Street, to where the Lord Mayor of Dublin was known to be standing at the time though his figure could not be distinguished in the distance, a gleam, as of fire, was seen in the air above him. It was the sun through the mist, shining with a ruddy glow on the pyre that crowns the Parnell monument. At the same moment the crowd was stirred to action, hundreds of thousands of green bannerettes waved in the air signifying assent to the Home Rule declaration. The grey of evening had begun to descend on the noble thoroughfare, but these two points of light continued to glow for a full minute. The phenomenon has a simple explanation in words, but it was dramatic in the appropriateness, both of the moment of the illumination and of the objects illuminated and many must have asked themselves whether this display from above the skies was without design.

The crowd dispersed rapidly, and a little light rain began to fall.

The other demonstration took place on Easter Tuesday, April 9th, 1912, two days before the introduction of the bill. More than 100, 000 men marched past review platforms at the Agricultural Society’s showgrounds at Balmoral, outside Belfast. The proceedings opened with prayers read by the Primate of All Ireland and the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, and the 90th psalm was sung. The Times noted, perhaps a little defensively: “The prayers with which the proceedings began, and the deep enthusiasm with which the great audience joined in singing the hymn with which it is the custom of this sternly religious people to preface the consideration of grave subjects are tokens of the spirit that fills them.” At the moment of the passing of a resolution against Home Rule, an immense Union Jack, said to be the largest ever woven, broke from a tower crowned by a ninety-foot flagstaff. The symbolism was as marked as at the demonstration in Dublin nine days earlier, but its political significance was greater. As ATQ. Stewart wrote in The Ulster Crisis, this was “no less than the wedding of Protestant Ulster with the Conservative and Unionist party, represented by Bonar Law and seventy English, Scottish and Welsh members of Parliament”.

It was the first venture of Andrew Bonar Law into the terrain of Ulster resistance. His election as leader of the Conservative party in succession to Arthur Balfour on November 13th, 1911, coupled with that of Edward Carson as the leader of Ulster Unionist parliamentary party on February 21st, 1910, presaged a radical hardening of the unionist opposition to Home Rule, and a readiness to countenance recourse to extra-constitutional resistance to what was deemed the treasonable capitulation of the Liberal government to the Irish party, on whose votes it depended, and its intended betrayal of the loyalists of Ulster in particular. Their ascendancy was an ominous indication that politics in Britain was changing phase. Anointing himself with the resonant imagery of Ulster loyalism, Bonar Law told his Balmoral audience “you are a besieged city”. At Blenheim in July, Bonar Law would say: “I can imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster can go in which I should not be prepared to support them, and in which, in my belief, they would not be supported by the overwhelming majority of the British people.”

And so, two Irelands distantly confronted each other. With half an eye on the British theatre, each characterised the other stereotypically. Thus, the Belfast Northern Whig in an extended salute to the Balmoral demonstration declaimed:

The Sackville Street mob was indeed Mr. Redmond’s Ireland ‑ the England-hating Ireland, the shiftless Ireland, the work-shy Ireland, the despoil-the-Protestant Ireland, the Home-Rule-Government-keep-everybody-in-idleness Ireland.

The southern unionist take of The Irish Times was more nuanced, to the point of contradiction. It pronounced the Dublin demonstration “a picturesque and well-organised spectacle”:

The crowds came from all parts of Nationalist Ireland. Their comfortable appearance testified to Ireland’s increasing prosperity under the Act of Union. Their conduct was orderly and good-humoured. On the whole, this was as decent a crowd of its kind, as could be got together in any part of the Empire. To this extent the demonstration was a success.

Juxtaposing the two meetings nine days apart, in Dublin and Balmoral, there is a problem of which Redmond in Dublin superficially at least might not seem to have taken account. That problem exists even if one accepts that unionist Ulster could not have held out against Home Rule without active Conservative sponsorship. Why, if he was not naively trusting in British constitutionalism, did Redmond not anticipate and aggressively pre-empt that problem?

To import anachronistically a modern political technician, what self-respecting handler would have allowed Redmond declare himself as confidently as he did in Dublin? He went on to say “believe me. Home Rule is winning (loud cheers). We will have a Parliament sitting in College Green sooner than the most sanguine and enthusiastic man in this crowd believes (prolonged applause).” Redmond didn’t have handlers, but Joe Devlin, as well as being a formidable parliamentarian and the leader of northern nationalism, lacked few of the handler’s arts. It is worth pointing out that it is not merely the concept of a professional handler that is anachronistic, but the idea of what might be called the professional politician’s suspicion of the electorate. The growth of distance between party leadership and electorate owes much to the rout of the Irish party at the general election of 1918 which changed Irish politics forever.

There were perfectly good reasons for Redmond’s approach. The purpose of the meeting in O’Connell Street was at least as much to impress the Liberal government with the scale of nationalist support for Home Rule as it was to gratify Irish nationalists. The demonstration was part of the choreography of the Liberal-Nationalist alliance rather than a domestic display of nationalist militancy. The meeting sealed the Liberal-nationalist compact, requiring the Liberals to make good on Gladstone’s historic commitment and rebutting any suggestion that there was not a massive popular demand in Ireland for Home Rule.

It was not a matter of Redmond giving hostages to fortune. It was far too late for that to be a concern. He already knew he would stand or fall by the enactment of the Home Rule bill. It was a quarter century since the introduction of the first Home Rule bill. In his speech at the unveiling of the Parnell monument the previous year, Redmond said “we have got back, at long last, to the point to which Parnell had led us before he and our cause were submerged in that catastrophe of twenty years ago”, referring of course to the Parnell split. Getting back to that point had required twenty-five years of political endeavour and nationalist forbearance, across seven general elections. Failure now was unthinkable.

We should be slow to impute to Redmond a naive complacency. He was confident, but hardly without anxiety. Confidence was in Redmond’s case as well as an expression of a phlegmatic disposition, a strategy. It was not one about which he had a lot of choice, and it is difficult to see what better one was available within a parliamentary setting. Redmond transpired to be almost unbelievably unlucky. Everything that possibly could go wrong went wrong. A swift mobilisation of militant resistance to Home Rule in Ulster sustained by the leaders of the Conservative party, a protracted world war, an Irish rebellion, and a decision to impose conscription in Ireland supervened in the six-year interval between the introduction of the Home Rule bill and Redmond’s death on March 6th, 1918.The Liberal Daily News was driven to refer on his death to “the almost grotesque tragedy of his career”. The outturn of events made him appear to have been risibly over-sanguine, naively trusting in the Liberals, and out of step with nationalist opinion.

The day after the demonstration at Balmoral, The Irish Times wrote : “There is an element of tragedy in Nationalist Ireland’s inability, or unwillingness, to appreciate Ulster’s point of view.” If Redmond was assailed by his nationalist and republican enemies for his acquiescence in partition, he has attracted some tentative criticism from historians from a different angle. It has been suggested that Asquith, and Redmond, erred in not making some specific provision for the at least temporary exclusion of some of the counties of Ulster in the bill as introduced, to pre-empt the escalation of unionist opposition. There were reasons for Asquith’s subsequently derided policy of “wait and see”: it was still not clear how far that opposition would develop, and the Ulster issue within the savage controversy that raged around the Home Rule bill was to mutate from an argument against Home Rule for Ireland as a whole to a demand for the exclusion of some or all of the counties of Ulster. The contours of an outcome which would leave southern unionists as well as northern nationalists politically orphaned had not yet emerged. The political import of the meeting at Balmoral was to that extent more ambiguous than it might now seem.

Redmond could never have taken any initiative in favour of the exclusion of Ulster, temporary or otherwise. He declared in Limerick in October 1913 that Irish Nationalists could “never be parties to the mutilation of the Irish nation”, adding that “the two-nation theory is to us an abomination and a blasphemy”. In addition any such concession in April 1912 risked giving credence to the unionist opposition to Home Rule, without the least certainty of abating its fervour.

Events ran remorselessly against Redmond. Two years on, on March 9th, 1914, moving for the third time the second reading of the Home Rule bill, Asquith unveiled the government’s proposal that any county in Ireland might vote itself out of the jurisdiction of a Home Rule parliament for six years, on the expiration of which period it would come under the Home Rule parliament unless the Imperial Parliament decided otherwise. Having been bounced into assenting to exclusion for three, then five, and finally six years, Redmond reluctantly assented.

The concession did not hold. Arising out of a suite of highly controversial negotiations that were conducted by Lloyd George in the wake of the Easter rising, what was by then a wartime coalition government resolved on the permanent exclusion of six counties, and a reduction in Irish representation at Westminster. When the bill embodying these proposals was introduced on July 25th it was repudiated by Redmond:

I will not bandy words about breaches of faith or violations of solemn agreement, but I want this House and the Government clearly to understand that they have entered on a course which is bound to increase Irish suspicion of the good faith of British statesmen ‑ a course which is bound to inflame feeling in Ireland, and is bound to do serious mischief to those high Imperial interests which, we were told, necessitated the provisional settlement of this question. Some tragic fatality seems to dog the footsteps of the Government in their dealings with Ireland. Every step taken by them since the Coalition was formed, and especially since the unfortunate outbreak in Dublin, has been lamentable. They have disregarded every advice we tendered to them, and now in the end, having got us to induce our people to make a tremendous sacrifice, and to agree to the temporary exclusion of these Ulster counties, they throw this agreement to the winds, and they have taken the surest means to accentuate every possible danger and difficulty in the Irish situation.

These were very much the sentiments which informed John Dillon’s sustained dirge for the Irish party in the aftermath of the 1918 election. Redmond’s colleague Stephen Gwynn wrote “that day really finished the constitutional party and overthrew Redmond’s power”.

That it was ever possible to avert some form of exclusion of the north-east in the ferocious political conditions that prevailed ‑ whether or not one considers that ferocity to have been artificially ramped up as nationalists have always believed ‑ is highly debatable. The affront to nationalist sentiment ran deep. The ancient claim to nationhood of Ireland, and the long struggle for Home Rule from Parnell onwards, seemed set at naught by the sudden emergence of resistance in Ulster, sponsored by the leadership of the Conservative party, in breach of the principles of majority rule as Nationalists conceived it to apply in Ireland, and as Conservatives had theretofore observed it in the then United Kingdom.

Eoin MacNeill’s article of November 1913 urging the establishment of the Irish Volunteers in response to the formation of the Ulster Defence Force was famously entitled “The North Began”. Nationalist resentment of the progress of militant northern resistance was as much to do with the idea that it had started so late and made such bounding advances: that it was a purely reactive and opportunistically belated political entrant, whose demands were then treated as possessed of a legitimacy at least equal to those of nationalism. In a reversal of the fable, the Irish nationalist tortoise came in to be outrun by the Ulster unionist hare.

Partition did more than rip a corner off the fabric of a Home Rule settlement, as Liberals who believed in Gladstonian Home Rule were ruefully aware. In the subtraction of the north-eastern counties, the impact of partition on Home Rule was not just territorially quantitative. Home Rule had been devised for a unitary state. It was intended in Gladstone’s high dispensation to reconcile the majority and minority in Ireland as well as to reconcile Ireland with Britain. If most of the minority were to be excluded, part of the point of Home Rule and much of its attractiveness was lost.

Redmond inevitably was blamed for partition. The casting of Redmond in the role of scapegoat was not without functional advantage in Irish politics. That partition could in some degree be treated as a fait accompli for which responsibility rested with the Irish party in a limited but crucial degree defused the issue in domestic Irish politics. It must be considered to have assisted pro-Treaty Sinn Féin to persuade a majority of the Irish people to accept the Treaty in 1922. The price was a strain of evasion and disingenuousness in the politics of the independent Irish state in relation to the basis for partition and in attitudes towards the Northern Ireland state that came to be confronted only with the onset of the troubles in the North from 1969.

Where matters had come to rest in the debates on the Home Rule bill also afforded a base line, a point of departure, for the negotiations of the Treaty. In that way the “ousted possibilities” that it represented were also of some service. The acknowledgement of the least continuity with the endeavours of the Irish party remained anathema to Sinn Féin and its successor parties in the independent Irish state.

It has taken all of the experience of the intervening century in Ireland for it to be possible to assess the achievement that the introduction of the Home Rule bill represented. One might draw a distinction between the politico-historical symbolism and substance of the Home Rule act.

The introduction of the third Home Rule bill was a momentous historical event. It reflected a long collaboration between the Irish parliamentary party and the British Liberal party that involved a rapprochement and a deepened understanding between the Irish people and the peoples of England, Scotland and Wales that changed forever relations between Ireland and England, and whose irradiating effects were not confined to sympathisers of the Liberal party.

In a way that Irish nationalists have never took full account of imaginatively, the course of Irish parliamentary nationalism transformed British politics. It was not simply that the Irish party became aligned with the Liberal party, but that juncture became the defining line in British politics. That was perhaps in the end Redmond’s principal problem. It contributed much to the staggering ferocity with which the issue of Home Rule bill was fought out in Britain. Whatever else, it could not be said that the Irish question in British politics had been ignored. As Margaret O’Callaghan, in her British High Politics and a Nationalist Ireland has rightly insisted, one must query the conclusion “that the issue of Ireland was never important as a ‘thing in itself’ in English politics”.

The introduction of the bill marked the zenith of an extraordinary transnational progressive collaboration between the Irish nationalist and Liberal parties, the culmination of a complex political endeavour over twenty-five years. That collaboration was a phenomenon that requires to be apprehended in its historical context. It was sui generis. It did not conform to any of what became the regnant paradigms of progressive politics in the twentieth century. The Liberals were shortly to undergo their “strange death” by their supercession as a great party of state by the Labour party, their decease coinciding with that of the Irish parliamentary party. What they collaboratively achieved, and what their collaboration signified, is not effaced by the substantial failure of the third Home Rule bill, or by the electoral fate of the two parties. Politically we have perhaps learned to be less cruelly dismissive in the high Marxian mode of the formations through which progressive politics are democratically advanced.

Constitutionally the Home Rule act was a remarkable achievement. Ireland was not a distant colony or dominion, but a constituent part of the United Kingdom. First essayed by Gladstone in 1886, the crafting of a Home Rule settlement which addressed the Irish demand for legislative independence was an ambitious and innovative undertaking.

If, as an admittedly problematical intellectual exercise, one tries to leave out of account the 1916 rising and the Sinn Féin opposition to parliamentarism, to abstract for a moment the advanced nationalist and republican ideological antagonism to a Home Rule settlement, one is driven to wonder whether Home Rule might not have already become superseded and demodé, a great late Victorian edifice reared up too late; whether it was an anomalous quasi-federalist middle term that did not conform to emergent modern ideas of statehood in Europe, particularly post-Versailles. At Versailles itself the dominions, Australia and New Zealand, Canada and South Africa, entered the war as British colonies and ended as separate signatories to the peace treaties. They were to be foundation members of the League of Nations. This is to suggest that not merely did the Home Rule act only enjoy a phantom existence as a legislative measure, but that twenty years after Parnell’s death Home Rule had slipped somehow into the realm of the archaic, almost unnoticed in the sound and fury that raged over the treatment of Ulster. Had statal modernity called time on a Home Rule settlement before Sinn Féin did? “Weave, weaver of the wind.”

It is hard to banish these sceptical intimations, but they belong to the realm of counterfactual speculation. It is reasonable to assume that a Home Rule state would have proved fluid and evolved rapidly. The trajectory of a Home Rule polity over time was likely to evolve towards statehood: that was the whole point of Conservative opposition in its original form to Home Rule for any part of Ireland, that it would lead inexorably to separation. The route by which a Home Rule Ireland was to evolve towards sovereignty was however uncharted and – something that is telling – exceedingly difficult to project counterfactually. What the Home Rule act crucially did not do was to constitute an independent state, with the capacity to develop quasi-organically that is the defining attribute of statehood.

The world of Redmond and Dillon, of Asquith and Lloyd George, of Bonar Law and Carson, has in our own time in Ireland become less shrouded in ideological mists, and by a curious process less unfathomably distant. In the Republic of Ireland that has much to do with the experience of membership of the European Union following accession in 1972, and the imaginative reconception of the nature of statehood it brought about.

In the island, it derives from experiences of the Sunningdale agreement of 1973, the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985 and the Good Friday agreement of 1998. While concerned with the governance of Northern Ireland, the suite of agreements and what they engendered enabled in the Republic a cathartic recasting of the events of 1912-22, of the early history of the relations between the Irish and British states, and of the engagement of the Republic with the issue of the north. That reflected the radical realisation that what had divided us could unite us, not in discounting history but in giving history its full weight. And so finally there was a guarded common expression of the shared experience of the extraordinary journey on which we have been embarked from 1912.

Conor Cruise O’Brien wrote in Maria Cross that “there is for all of us a twilit zone of time, stretching back for a generation or two before we were born, which never quite belongs to the rest of history”. As the events that are marked in the centennial cycle that here commences pass irrevocably into history, we can perhaps attain a degree of dispassion that has not always been achievable in Irish politics

A hundred years on, in his city of Waterford, we can acknowledge the contribution of John Redmond, on whose death Robert Lynd observed:

John Redmond’s gift to Ireland was above all the gift of good temper. He realised that good temper was one of the foundation stones of nationality. He was by temperament a reconciler. His aim as a statesman was first of all to reconcile Irishmen to each other. His second aim was to reconcile Ireland and England on what he believed to be a basis of equal freedom.

Stephen Gwynn recalled of Redmond:

The friend who knew him best in Convention, and who had seen him in his darkest hours then and long ago, said this of him: “He was always an optimist.” The speaker did not mean ‑ he could not have meant ‑ that in those last months Redmond was sanguine. He meant, I think, that he had faith; that in a country where suspicion is the prevailing disease, he credited men with honest motives and his own love of Ireland.

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