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The Turn of the Wheel

Frank Callanan

Redmond: A Life Undone, by Chris Dooley, Gill and Macmillan, 352 pp, €24.99, ISBN: 978-0717165827

Chris Dooley, foreign editor of The Irish Times, where this work was conceived, has written a fine book, as it happens his first. Rather than attempting a full biography of Redmond in the wake of Dermot Meleady’s very recent and excellent two-volume treatment, he has written an account of Redmond’s apparent triumph and its cruel unravelling, 1910-17. It is not journalistic (a favourite term of professional disparagement among historians) but it is informed by journalistic technique. It is written in the present tense as forward narrative with contextual flashbacks. It is impressively dispassionate. Redmond’s final rise and fall is by no means an easy story to tell, and Dooley has given shrewd consideration to how it is to be done. He has privileged public statements, too often reduced to soundbite citations in more ambitiously wide-ranging narratives, and these are given in quite sizeable chunks, judiciously interlaced with the private correspondence. While the author avoids being drawn into the exhausting arcana of the micro-high politics of home rule, nothing salient is omitted.

The narrative maps the high points of home rule (the 1910 elections which left the Irish party with the balance of power, the Parliament Act that removed the veto of the House of Lords, the great meeting in O’Connell Street on March 31st, 1912, the introduction of the [third] Home Rule Bill, its re-passage through the Commons in May 1914 after its rejection by the Lords, and its suspensory enactment in September 1914 after the outbreak of the Great War) against the rise of resistance in Ulster, fostered by the conservative opposition under Bonar Law’s leadership, the readiness of the British government to countenance partition at the outset professedly limited to six years, the rising, and the collapse of the authority of the Irish party domestically and at Westminster, and the triumph of Sinn Féin at the general election of December 1918.

There is a neat epilogue. On the centenary of Redmond’s birth on September 30th, 1956 members of the interparty government attended the unveiling of a plaque to John Redmond, in Redmond Square in Wexford, which is named after his granduncle, John Edward Redmond. James Dillon, minister for agriculture and future leader of Fine Gael from 1959 to 1965, recalled standing beside Redmond’s grave in 1918 as his father, John Dillon, delivered the oration. He stated then that he remained “a proud and unrepentant Redmondite”. Eamon de Valera chaired a symposium on Redmond in the Theatre Royal in Wexford, but as chancellor of the National University used the role of the Irish party in securing the passage of the University Act of 1908 as cover. He declared himself in consummate de-Valera-speak “happy to play my part in doing honour to a great Wexford man to whom we are quite ready to give credit for having worked unselfishly according to his views for the welfare of his country”.

By 1956, the Redmondite tradition had been largely absorbed as one of the constituent strains of the Fine Gael party. This was not easily or immediately achieved. Many of the old Irish party leaders had remained hostile to Cumann na nGaedhael, viscerally so in the case of William O’Brien. John Redmond’s son William Archer Redmond had against the Sinn Féin tide retained his father’s Waterford seat in the by-election of March 1918. He held on narrowly at the general election, becoming the only Irish party candidate elected outside Ulster. He was elected to the Dáil as an independent for Waterford at the 1923 general election and held the seat until his death. He was the leading figure in the Irish National League party which won a remarkable eight seats at the election of June 1927. After the botched (or Jinksed) attempt to displace the government of WT Cosgrave he was only one of two representatives of the party returned at the September 1927 election. The party was dissolved, and Redmond joined Cumann na nGaedheal before the general election of February 1932, where he was returned for the last time, at the head of the poll. He died on April 17th, 1932. His widow, Bridget Mary Redmond, held a seat in Waterford for Cumann na nGaedheal and later Fine Gael at seven general elections. Her death in 1952 (there were no children) brought to an end the decades of Redmond parliamentary representation of Waterford, though Redmondism long endured, and still retains a vestigial presence as an element in Waterford politics.

The juxtaposition of the public rhetoric and private parleys shows the terrible dilemma of the Irish party leadership. Its electorate had weaned on the long-deferred promise of home rule. Redmond knew there would be an accommodation made for Ulster, or at least the northeastern counties. It became evident almost from the outset that this would involve some form of exclusion, temporary or permanent. The party had to be seen to fight that for as long as possible. Redmond could not try to prepare the nationalists of Ireland for the shock of partition in some form, or to educate its voters on why that was more or less unavoidable. The nationalist parliamentarians and the pro-Irish party press (as they more or less had to) extravagantly derided the threat of Ulster loyalist resistance, insisting that Carson and Bonar Law were bluffing. Chris Dooley cites a striking passage from Redmond’s cable to nationalists in Australia in the wake of the Curragh mutiny of March 1914:

The Ulster Orange plot is now completely revealed. Carson and his army have not, and never had, the slightest intention of fighting as a fighting force. Against the regular troops they could not hold out a week. The plan was to put up the appearance of a fight, and then by Society influences, to seduce the army officers, and thus defeat the will of the people.
The action of the commanders of some crack cavalry regiments, officered by aristocrats, has now fully disclosed the plan of campaign. The issue raised is wider even than home rule.

It might be objected that the unionist threat of extra-constitutional resistance was never confined to the northeast of Ireland, if primarily localised there; and that the precise modality by which the threats of Carson and Bonar Law took effect was neither here nor there. But this statement, pitched at the Australian democracy, was more forcefully articulated than most of the nationalist variations on the “bluff” theme, and more impassioned than Redmond felt he could habitually afford to be in the already constricted and inexorably narrowing confines of the discourse of home rule politics in Britain.

Even before the rising, Redmond was getting dangerously out of touch. Dooley cites a column from the redoubtable Skibbereen Eagle concerning a Sinn Féin church gate collection in October 1915. “City Man” had expected that “these hot-headed youths” would be hunted from the church doors by the congregation, but they were not. He concluded that “it is evident that the general public have a sneaking regard for the Sinn Féiners”. This is a strikingly early and telling deployment of a term whose cognate “sneaking [perhaps phonetically ‘snaking’] regarders” was to be given a wider currency by John Healy in his “Backbencher” column in the paper for which Mr Dooley writes in relation to those who sympathised silently with the Provisional IRA.

Inevitably there are limitations inherent in the framing of the book’s subject. There is nothing on the squaring of Redmond “the Parnellite” with Redmond “the National Leader” to use the titles of Dermot Meleady’s two volumes. There is a haunting photograph of Redmond as the resolute Parnellite leader in the late 1890s ‑ in retrospect perhaps his true zenith ‑ seated clasping a copy of the Parnellite Irish Daily Independent.

Dooley cites an unusually candid and introspective utterance of Redmond in the House of Commons in May 1917 in response to Lloyd George’s announcement of the establishment of the Irish Convention, an idea Redmond had fostered, in which Redmond quotes Mangan, and the second sentence of which provides the book’s epigraph:

The recent developments have been for me and for my friends naturally in the nature of bitter disappointment. The life of a politician, especially of an Irish politician, is one long series of postponements and compromises and disappointments and disillusions. As we grow old, and this of course bears in upon me, we feel our ideals grow dimmer and more blurred, and perhaps many of them disappearing one by one. One of the greatest of our poets said

Gone, gone forever, is the fond belief,
The all-too-generous trust in the ideal.
All my divinities have died of grief
And left me wedded to the rude and real.

It was a swan song. Redmond died on March 6th, 1918 at the age of sixty-one in a London hospital. It was less than a year since his exuberantly gallant and widely-loved younger brother and fellow-Parnellite and parliamentarian Capt William Hoey Kearney Redmond had died of wounds sustained in the assault on Wytschaete in Belgium.

The Irish Independent, the paper Parnell established that the anti-Parnellite magnate William Martin Murphy had acquired in 1900 on Redmond’s urging, and which had played a major and it might be thought perverse role in the undermining of mainstream support for the Irish party, wrote with peremptory unctuousness on John Redmond’s death: “Rightly or wrongly, a great proportion of Nationalists had grown cold in their attachment to him. His last days resembled very closely those of O’Connell, Butt and Parnell. Such has been the tragic fate of Irish leaders.”

01/10/2015

Frank Callanan is a Senior Counsel practising in Dublin and a historian. He has written The Parnell Split (1992) and T. M. Healy (1996). He is currently writing a book on the influence of Parnell and of the Parnell split on James Joyce, and Joyce’s treatment of the Parnell myth.




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