John Redmond

Contributors: TOR.

John Edward Redmond was born at Ballytrent House, Kilrane, Co. Wexford on 1 September 1856, the eldest son of William Archer Redmond, nationalist MP for Wexford. The Redmonds were a well-established Catholic gentry family in the county. His mother, Mary, was the daughter of Major Hoey of Hoeyfield, Co. Wicklow. He was educated at Clongowes Wood College and later at Trinity College Dublin. After graduating he became a clerk in the House of Commons. Redmond was to devote his entire life to politics. He was elected MP for New Ross in 1881. An able speaker, he quickly established himself within the Irish Parliamentary Party and the National League as a devoted follower of Charles Stewart Parnell. During 1883–4, he toured Australia and America with his brother William, and raised nearly £30,000 for the Irish Party’s funds. He read read law at Gray’s Inn,London; he was called to the English Bar in 1885, and to the Irish Bar two years later; but he never practised. He sat as MP for North Wexford from 1885 until 1891 and for Waterford City 1891–1918. Although not an agrarian radical, he took part in the Land War (1879–82) and Plan of Campaign (1886–91) and was briefly imprisoned in 1888 for incitement.

Redmond was deeply opposed to the use of physical force. He was committed to political change by constitutional means. He was a zealous admirer of the British House of Commons. He sought only limited Irish self-government, considering it undesirable that Britain and Ireland should be wholly separated, and he had no wish to see the dismemberment of the British Empire. Redmond was leader of the minority that supported Parnell during the split of 1890, following the O’Shea divorce case. Sitting as MP for Waterford from 1891 until his death in 1918, he led the Parnellite remnant of the party—just nine members in January 1892. He sat on the Recess Committee (established 1895) which sought to consider the means by which Irish farmers could best be served and the way suitable legislation could help them. Its meetings were held during the parliamentary recess. Its recommendations led to the establishment of the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction (1899). Redmond also retained his contact with influential Irish-Americans, and he visited the USA in 1895 and 1899.

When the rise of the United Irish League led to the reunification of the Irish party in 1900 he became leader. His leadership had been contested by old anti-Parnellites, most notably by William O’Brien and Tim Healy. He was an important member of the Land Conference of 1902, from which came the Land Act of 1903. This Act gave a dramatic impetus to tenant land-purchase. He was also involved in the negotiations that resulted in the foundation of the National University in 1908. The outcome of the two general elections, held in 1910, marked a high point in his political career. Irish nationalist MPs held the balance of power at Westminster and he used this leverage to persuade the Liberal Government of H. H. Asquith to introduce a Bill to grant Ireland self-government, the third Home Rule Bill, in April 1912.

Opposition to Home Rule from the Ulster Unionist Party, led by Sir Edward Carson, became a serious threat to Redmond’s Irish Party. Now there was increasing militancy and the growing threat of civil war in Ireland. In January 1913 the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was set up and pledged to ‘use all means that may be necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule parliament in Ireland’. In response, the Irish Volunteers were established in November 1913 under the leadership of the nationalist, Eoin MacNeill, with ideals unshakably opposed to those of the UVF. Unionists were prepared to settle for Irish Home Rule only if the six north-eastern counties were excluded. Redmond reluctantly agreed to what he saw as a temporary exclusion. He and his chief lieutenant, John Dillon, represented the Irish Party at the Buckingham Palace Conference, July 1914. It was convened by King George V to break the deadlock over the third Home Rule Bill but it broke up without agreement. The Government of Ireland Bill was passed and with it another bill postponing the implementation of Home Rule until the end of the Great War. These bills became law on 18 September 1914.

When the war broke out in August 1914, Redmond proposed in the House of Commons that Ireland should be guarded by the Volunteers, north and south, and that British troops should be withdrawn from Ireland. The government thwarted his efforts. He had hoped that the common cause in the war would unite all Irish people.

He encouraged members of the Irish Volunteers to join the British army and in a speech at Woodenbridge, Co. Wicklow, 20 September 1914, he pledged his support to the Allied cause. The words he addressed to the Irish Volunteers were:

‘The interests of Ireland—of the whole of Ireland—are at stake in this war. This war is undertaken in the defence of the highest principles of religion and morality and right, and it would be a disgrace for ever to our country and a reproach to her manhood and a denial of the lessons of her history if young Ireland confined their efforts to remaining at home to defend the shores of Ireland from an unlikely invasion, and to shrinking from the duty of proving on the field of battle that gallantry and courage which has distinguished our race all through its history. I say to you, therefore, your duty is twofold. I am glad to see such magnificent material for soldiers around me, and I say to you: “Go on drilling and make yourself efficient for the Work, and then account yourselves as men, not only for Ireland itself, but wherever the fighting line extends, in defence of right, of freedom, and religion in this war”’.

Militant nationalists reacted angrily but the great majority of the Volunteers supported Redmond and became known as the National Volunteers. In May 1915 Redmond declined a seat in the War Cabinet, in which Carson was Attorney General. Despite rebuffs he continued to encourage Irishmen to join the British forces. Over 120,000 Irishmen fought in World War One. His brother was killed at the front in 1917. The minority of Volunteers who disregarded Redmond’s plea were dominated by the IRB and retained the title Irish Volunteers.

The 1916 Rising was a shattering blow to his life-long policy of constitutional action. He described the Easter Rising of 1916 as a ‘German intrigue’. His pleas, and John Dillon’s, that the rebels be treated leniently were ignored. Sinn Féin re-organised in 1917 and became Redmond’s strongest opposition.

The new Prime Minister, David Lloyd George accepted Redmond’s suggestion for an Irish Convention to resolve the problem of Home Rule and to draft a constitution for Ireland within the British Empire. The convention met in July 1917 but had made little headway when Redmond died suddenly on 6 March 1918. Later that year, in the general election of December, Redmond’s party’s representation at Westminster collapsed, resulting in a Sinn Féin triumph.

Speeches, Biography & Studies. John Redmond, Home Rule speeches, ed. with intro. by R. Barry O’Brien (London 1910). L. G. Redmond-Howard, John Redmond, the man and the demand: a biographical study in Irish politics (London 1910). Warre B. Wells, John Redmond: a biography (London 1919). Stephen Lucius Gwynn, John Redmond’s last years (London 1919). Denis Gwynn, The life of John Redmond (London 1932). Paul Bew, John Redmond (Dundalk 1996). Joseph P. Finnan, John Redmond and Irish unity, 1912–1918 (Syracuse NY 2004).

Tomás O’Riordan