France Had Pétain, We Nearly Had Redmond

John Redmond MP presents a regimental flag to a unit of the Irish National Volunteers, the paramilitary wing of the Irish Parliamentary Party, the Phoenix Park, Dublin, Ireland, April 1915
John Redmond MP presents a regimental flag to a unit of the Irish National Volunteers, the paramilitary wing of the Irish Parliamentary Party, the Phoenix Park, Dublin, Ireland, April 1915

John Redmond is probably one of the more divisive figures in Irish history and rightly so. The patrician head of the Irish Parliamentary Party, whose followers eulogised him with an almost messianic fervour, he was the self-proclaimed “leader of Nationalist Ireland” who bullied and cajoled thousands of young Irish men into sacrificing their lives in the service of the United Kingdom from 1914-18. While detesting “militant” nationalism at home he was a committed proponent of Britain’s militarist nationalism abroad, a devout imperialist whose desire for Home Rule was driven as much by self-serving political ambitions as a desire to see justice for the Irish people as a whole. Like his Westminster colleagues Redmond believed that Ireland was the personal fiefdom of the Irish Parliamentary Party and acted accordingly. Dissent was rarely tolerated and when rival forces arose, like the disparate Irish Volunteers in 1913, they were quickly appropriated or side-lined.

The innate conservatism of the Waterford-born MP shaped his political, economic and social world-view. He sought limited autonomy for Ireland within the so-called United Kingdom based upon exploitative class lines little different from those under the existing Dublin Castle administration allied to the diktats of the Roman Catholic church. The conformist, anti-pluralist state shaped in the 1920s by the Irish counter-revolution and the political forerunners of Fine Gael was in many ways the embodiment of Redmond’s constitutional ambitions, albeit with considerably more independence than he would have felt comfortable with.

Given John Redmond’s deplorable track record on the separation of church and state, women’s rights, labour rights, and opposition to health and welfare laws, it is surprising to see Rónán O’Brien, a Labour Party activist and former advisor to several Labour ministers in government (at the cost of €114,000 per annum, a chairde!), defending Redmond’s tarnished political legacy in the Irish Times. Albeit in a self-defeating manner:

“It is not difficult to understand why a man who called on Irish nationalists not only to defend the island of Ireland during the first World War but to volunteer for the British army has been written out of a national narrative based on Easter 1916.

It is not difficult to see either how a man whose Irishness was matched by an affinity to the British Empire was forgotten in independent Ireland.

And it is not difficult to see how a man hostile to women’s suffrage (unlike his brother) would be disregarded by at least half our population.

But none of these things should detract from the contribution made by him and his party to Irish independence.”

Actually, I think you’ll find that they should do so.

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23 comments

  1. John Redmond is probably one of the more divisive figures in Irish history and rightly so. The patrician head of the Irish Parliamentary Party whose followers eulogised him with an almost messianic fervour while excoriating any and all critics he was the self-proclaimed “leader of Nationalist Ireland” who bullied and cajoled thousands of young Irish men into sacrificing their lives in the service of the British Empire from 1914-18.

    (Er, no he didn’t actually.Half of em were British Army regulars who were already in the UK armed forces in 1914, and the rest joined up for the same reasons soldiers have always joined every army: economic necessity, desire to get away from paternity suits, boredom with civilian life, a desire for adventure – see Tom Barry – or because, ,like Redmond himself, they were genuinely appalled by the German atrocities committed against Catholic Belgium: which is why the Catholic clergy also urged them to join.)

    So given John Redmond’s deplorable track record on the separation of church and state, women’s rights,
    (it is hard to think of any political leader of any party in any European country who was in favour of women’s rights in the early 20th century)

    employee rights, opposition to comprehensive health and social care,

    (no country had comprehensive health and social care at the time)

    and generally early 20th century “neo-liberal” socio-economic outlook it is surprising to see Rónán O’Brien, a Labour Party activist and former advisor to several Labour ministers in government (at the cost of €114,000 per annum, a chairde!), defending Redmond’s tarnished political legacy in the Irish Times. Albeit in a self-defeating manner:

    “It is not difficult to understand why a man who called on Irish nationalists not only to defend the island of Ireland during the first World War but to volunteer for the British army has been written out of a national narrative based on Easter 1916.

    It is not difficult to see either how a man whose Irishness was matched by an affinity to the British Empire was forgotten in independent Ireland.

    And it is not difficult to see how a man hostile to women’s suffrage (unlike his brother) would be disregarded by at least half our population.

    But none of these things should detract from the contribution made by him and his party to Irish independence.”

    Actually, I think you’ll find that they should. And do.

    (The Catholic middle class, almost in it’s entirety, remained loyal to Redmond in the 1918 election. The Sinn Fein landslide was the type of perverse result you get from the first past the post electoral system: rather like Mrs T getting 100+ majorities in 83 and 87 with only 43% of the vote. In 1918, only 51.8% of the eligible population of Ireland actually bothered their arses to vote: that 51.8*% split 46.9% Sinn Fein, 25% Unionist and 23% Nationalist – and 3% Ind Unionist, 2% Labour Unionist: Combined vote for – pro Union candidates was 29-30% absolute max Protestant pop was 23-24%, and not all of them voted Unionist. ( Casement, Ernie Blythe, Countess M etc) – which means that a large minority of Catholics voted Unionist. Leaving the Prods out of the equation, the Catholic vote was probably something like 56% Sinn Fein, 37% Nationalist, 7% Unionist)

    1. John,

      1) Is there any question that John Redmond encouraged/cajoled/bullied numerous Irishmen into joining the British armed forces 1914-18? You may dispute the figures but there seems no doubt that they were in the thousands rather than hundreds or dozens. He – and the IPP and those which supported it – must take some responsibility for all those white crosses. And none.

      2) Patrick Pearse, James Connolly, etc. supported female suffrage.

      3) The IPP had a dreadful record of opposing the basic services on offer at the time, particularly in Dublin where the demands of “rate-payers” (big business) was a constant refrain from the IPP benches. The criminal under-resourcing and mismanagement of health and social services in the Free State / Ireland was developed from the regressive political and social attitudes of the IPP.

      4) The question of the legitimacy of Sinn Fein’s vote in 1918 (and 1920, 1921) has long been settled. All mainstream historians accept that if SF had contested all constituencies in 1918 its overall vote would have exceeded 70% and possibly reached as high as 80% of votes cast. Trying to rewrite history is ridiculous. The SF result was a landslide.

      1. Er, Sinn Fein DID contest all constituencies: and, as I said, got 46.9% of the vote on a 51.8% turnout: rather like saying there was a landslide victory in favour of a welsh assembly in the referendum in 1998. When you factor in electoral fraud, voter intimidation, multiple voting and other unpleasant tactics which the Shinners, then as now excelled at, it is unlikely that more than 20% of the eligible electorate cast a vote for them. The phrase “vote early vote often, was I think invented in Ireland. Landslide?I think not. As I said, the catholic middle class basically remined loyal to the IPP: or voted Unionist.

        1. 25 of the constituencies where SF candidates were elected were uncontested, which lessens its overall vote.

          I have never read or heard of any mainstream historian arguing that the 1918 general election was anything other than a massive victory for SF and with negligible electoral fraud. It is seen, even by the most revisionist-minded, as a democratic election despite the many interpretations put on the meaning of the vote.

          Apologies but you are clutching at straws with this one.

          1. No I aint. As I said, they got 46.9% on a 51.8% turnout. In other words, 75%of the population didn’t vote for them.

  2. The other thing which always irritates me about your Single Transferable Article is this: it kinda begs the question regarding “The Fight For Irish Freedom” ™ – freedom to do what, exactly? The only freedom anyone in my family got out of it was the freedom to move to England to get a job.

    As Professor Lee of UCC pointed out many years ago, when the nasty evil exploitative imperialist Brits pulled out of the 26 Counties in 1922, Ireland had the fifth or sixth highest per capita income in Europe. Forty years later, it was, with the exception of Portugal, the poorest country in Western Europe. Had the Irish electorate in 1918 been able to foresee the awe inspiring levels of corruption, incompetence, nepotism, and economic mismanagement of the nomenklatura who took over after 1922, I think they would probably have voted to stay with John Bull.

    John Redmond was not a “warmonger” – he was someone who did what he thought was best for his people at the time. He was mistaken, horribly, but like all of us, he did not have the gift of prophecy. Like everyone else in 1914, he thought it would all be over by Christmas. He was genuinely appalled by the German atrocities in Belgium. Twenty thousand Belgian civilians were massacred in the first few months of the war by German forces (our gallant allies in Europe!) which rather put the activities of the Black & Tans in perspective – and genuinely believed that Catholic Belgium had to be protected against Prussian militarism: he was hardly unique in this regard: most of the Catholic clergy seem to have thought likewise.

    1. Repetitive apologisms for British rule in Ireland no matter how tortured their logic remain just that: apologisms. The anachronistic narrative of the revisionist school has had its day. The world has moved on and so has this island nation.

      Colonial rule was no more beneficial for Ireland than for anywhere else in the world.

      Some of your arguments are the same ones made by some White South Africans against Black majority rule and the end of Apartheid. Things were better before democracy, things were better with Whites-only rule, everyone was happier, more prosperous, less corruption, less crime, etc. No one wanted revolution, most Black South Africans opposed the ANC, hated Mandela, etc.

      The same things were being said in the United States in the early 1800s with Empire Loyalists hankering for the return of good king George!

  3. Ireland in 1914 had, along with the rest of the UK, full adult suffrage for men over 21 (and women over 30 in 1918), just about the widest suffrage in Europe, no restrictions on freedom of speech, association or publication, no restrictions on movement out of the country, either to Britain or North America, no rules regulating the bearing of arms (something the Ulster Vols and National Volunteers took full advantage of), no conscription, which was almost unique in Europe, a pretty good rail and road infrastructure (which was totally thrashed by the Irregulars in 1932-24) a rising Catholic middle class, declining poverty levelsand an economy which was chugging away nicely.

    Ireland in 1950 was a basket case, the poorest and most backward country in Western Europe: As I said, Prof Lee is very good on this, but you won’t read him, or if you do,will dismiss his work, as it does not chime in with your ideological prejudices: what have the Romans ever done for us?

    I remember as a kid watching Bernadette Devlin as she was then, spewing hatred at speeches in Derry and Fermanagh: as a relative of mine said, she did not hate British dole money, or British pensions, or the NHS, or British taxpayers paying for her college fees, something which my cousins in the Republic – the few that were left there that is – had to find themselves.

    1. Speaking of basket cases, John, if the British want to maintain a presence in Ireland then why shouldn’t they pay for it? I would encourage everyone to take every British penny you can get, let’s ensure the british presence doesn’t come cheap. And I am heartened to see elected unionists in Ireland are not shy in claiming for every penny they are ‘entitled’ they can get of the British exchequer. Proper order. Everyone has their part to play.

      P.s its extraordinary Redmond and his like were never charged with treason. Much to Ireland’s shame.

    2. John, I’ve answered your points several times. Claiming the SF had no electoral mandate during the Irish Revolution by pointing to those who didn’t vote and interpreting that by your own lights is ridiculous. Again, no serious historian challenges the validity of the 1918 election even where they disagree on its meaning. Where SF stood the turn-out averaged 68%. It took the majority vote or was elected uncontested. That is how democracy works. It is universally accepted as an SF majority vote and a sea-change in Irish politics representing the greater numbers of eligible voters, changing demographics etc. It was a “generational vote”.

      Ireland in 1918 was not some elysian field of the Pax Britannica and it is nonsense to claim otherwise. Joe Lee’s statistics have been questioned many times, more especially the interpretations he puts on them (and have been made obsolete by more recent studies). Poverty, urban and rural remained widespread despite a growing middle class or petty bourgeoisie. Malnutrition and mini-famines were not unknown, industrial unrest was widespread, unemployment was exceptionally high (and to grow worse), political oppression and repression was the norm, the judiciary and government worked along tightly defined class and ethno-national lines, distinctive aspects of Irishness, from the language to sports, were subject to arbitrary persecution, etc.

      Again you simply hark back to a colonial “Golden Age” before the natives took over. The same phenomenon has been observed in many other post-colonial situations, especially where there are those who identify more with the coloniser than the colonised. India has it, Algeria has it, and so on.

      The attack on Bernadette Devlin McAliskey is bizarre. Of all the targets you could have picked that is a strange one. I suppose the northern civil rights movement was a front for the IRA or hijacked by them?

      And yes all those Irish Republicans and Nationalists and Catholics taking the British dole. With respect you sound like a DUP pamphlet. Or the Cruiser risen from the grave. C’mon.

      1. “Again you simply hark back to a colonial “Golden Age” before the natives took over. The same phenomenon has been observed in many other post-colonial situations, especially where there are those who identify more with the coloniser than the colonised. India has it, Algeria has it, and so on.”

        No I don’t.

      2. ” It is universally accepted as an SF majority vote and a sea-change in Irish politics representing the greater numbers of eligible voters, changing demographics etc. It was a “generational vote”.

        Can’t argue with that: The Nationalist Party were by 1918 fairly sclerotic: too middle aged middle class and middle everything else to appeal to the newly enfranchised classes: women, the young, the urban poor: but, at the risk of repetition, (a) 75% of the eligible electorate did not put an x next to the name of a Sinn Fein candidate, and (b) the Catholic middle class basically remained loyal to Redmond’s Party. Had there been sometype of PR system in place at the time, Unionists and Nationalists would, between them, have got a clear majority of seats. Final score woulda been more like Sinn Fein 50, Unionists 35, Nats 25

        1. In truth the most important thing for the people of Ireland in 1918 was not the general election but the great flu pandemic (the so-called “Spanish flu”). The election coincided with the second (and worse) wave of the outbreak on our island nation with some regions experiencing over 250 deaths a month. That is a mortality rate not seen since the Great Famine and it left some 23000 dead by the end of 1919. That is a truly astonishing number. Disproportionately it effected serving or former members of the British Forces and their families, the garrison towns or barracks’ areas having higher incidences. In some parishes and towns community life all but ceased for weeks at a time as people stayed at home, out of fear or incapacity. Social and commercial activity plummeted. This too had a direct impact upon the December general election.

          In addition many people stayed away from the voting booths because of fears of being seen as politically active in a society riddled with networks of informers and police spies. Worries about people’s votes being made known were widely held. Rumours and conspiracy theories were rife (which the IPP encouraged in more gullible rural regions as well as leading some people to believe that they had no legal right to vote). Oppression and crisis was in the air, thousands were imprisoned, under arrest or exiled.

          It is only by placing the events of 1916-23 in a wider context that we can understand them.

          Speculations about electoral systems and votes that never happened is a Fergusonian waste of time.

  4. P.s its extraordinary Redmond and his like were never charged with treason. Much to Ireland’s shame.

    Charged by whom?

  5. A treason trial for Redmond might have been an interesting spectacle, since he had died in March 1918. Presumably the 200,000 or so people who voted for his party should also have been charged?

  6. Men,
    I’m enjoying this debate. Don’t quit now please 😉

    John:

    Re: “when the nasty evil exploitative imperialist Brits pulled out of the 26 Counties in 1922, Ireland had the fifth or sixth highest per capita income in Europe….”

    After independence didnt many of the wealthy aristocracy pull back permanently to the UK taking their resources with them? And i know from a local perspective (monaghan) that industrialists who found themselves on the wrong side of the border in the new republic suddenly found their produce excluded from the Northern Irish and UK markets, and hence relocated to within the “Great Britain” market, closing factories behind them. Maybe that might somewhat explain the drop in per capita income? I.e., removing the incomes of the rich exposed the actual income levels of the base population?

    Certainly, asking the average Irish potatoe farmer to continue to endue colonialst rule just to keep the stats looking good was never going to work…. Or espousing a belief that “we’d have been better off if we had stayed with the Ruler” is to dismiss the injustices and inequalities that existed in Irish society at the time by looking back with revisionist glasses.

    Equally to level a charge of “awe inspiring levels of corruption, incompetence, nepotism, and economic mismanagemen” solely at the doors of the Irish Government while disregarding what the Ruler had been doing in Ireland for generations is a very very weak argument.

    The opportunity to develop our own democracy, and make our own mistakes is something every nation deserves. And were by no means the worst by a long shot.

    But John on the other hand, I believe you were right to draw attention to the bloggers blanket charges against Redmond (re: sending Irish men to death), when as you rightly point out, many were already reservists etc. Equally, quite correct, womens lib was by no means a done deal.

    On the whole I think the Sionnach does injustice to many of his very valid points by sensationalist portrayal of facts – a more balanced view is provided by Johns comments. Maybe you two could join forces? Double Act Blog?

    1. Thanks for the (mixed) Comment, Diarmuid 😉

      Though we cannot be sure it is likely that 100,000 men from Ireland were recruited into the British Armed Forces 1914-1918, joining some 50,000 already serving. At least 20,000 of the new recruits came from the ranks of the Irish National Volunteers, the paramilitary wing of the IPP under John Redmond’s control. Many thousands of others came from constituencies dominated by the IPP/AOH machine and IPP MPs and councillors.

      So undoubtedly John Redmond did indeed cajole, persuade, instruct and bully thousands of Irish men into serving with the British forces. Many of whom, of course, perished in that service. The phenomenon of white feathers was not confined to Britain nor were social, extended family, peer and class pressures, ostracising, etc. fostered by pillars of society like Redmond and the Redmondite press.

      The truth is out there!

    2. “After independence didnt many of the wealthy aristocracy pull back permanently to the UK taking their resources with them? And i know from a local perspective (monaghan) that industrialists who found themselves on the wrong side of the border in the new republic suddenly found their produce excluded from the Northern Irish and UK markets, and hence relocated to within the “Great Britain” market, closing factories behind them. Maybe that might somewhat explain the drop in per capita income? I.e., removing the incomes of the rich exposed the actual income levels of the base population?”

      Definitely. My mother was born in Cavan, where her father was a Garda officer. (He once had to go out and reassemble a bunch of IRA men who blew themselves up in a premature explosion during the “Border Campaign”) – the place was an economic wasteland until Sean Quinn came along, which explains why, for all hi sins, he is still very popular there.

      There was also the Anti-treaty forces blowing up every road, bridge and railway in 23-24 in an apparent attempt to bomb their own country back to the stone age.

  7. Thanks guys.

    Sionnach; i think you are misrepresenting both Ronan O Brien and Redmond, but certainly both are open to criticism.

    However clearly in the early 1900’s and 1910’s there was disillusionment among the Irish electorate after the IPP failed to make the peaceful democratic progress in Ireland which they sought. And we know that the IPP failed in part due to the cynical politics in the House of Commons and the undemocratic use of VETO in the house of Lords.

    Despite the above I’m not sure Redmond should be wholly castigated for wishing to push parliamentary politics and thereby avoid violent revolution against a much stronger neighbour (with whom we shared and continue to share strong social and cultural bonds), ensure the continued benefits of a strong trading partner, and importantly, avoid turning Ireland into a sectarian and political bloodbath which we experienced in the later Troubles.

    But ultimately, Redmond proved that “jaw jaw” wasnt as effective as “war war” and this is where he played a huge role in what came after. So surely the failure of parliamentary politics to secure Home Rule is what drove many Republicans to take the move to Armed Revolution? Didnt Revolutionaries feel highly justified that violence was the only option given the years and years and years of neglible progress and broken promises at a political level? Had Home Rule been achieved, the Rising and progress of old Sinn Fein may never have even happened.

    So therefore Redmond had a huge part.

    1. We all have our opinions (interpretations?) but thanks for yours 🙂

      You are certainly correct that the repeated failures to gain/implement Home Rule encouraged more revolutionary attitudes. The classic example is Patrick Pearse who went from politically interested home ruler to politically committed republican. There was also the reverse case in previous decades with many IPP politicians having roots in the Fenian Brotherhood.

      I suspect that some sort of revolution was inevitable even with Home Rule given ongoing demographic changes and global influences, and probably a violent one. After all “Home Rule” was interpreted in many different ways by many different people, from Redmond’s minimalist approach to more progressive templates.

      John Redmond’s part was important in the times he lived but certainly not deserving of the redactive plaudits heaped upon him by the revisionist/apologist school. He was not a pacifist, he was a committed imperialist quite at ease with military violence and the use of war as a tool of state (and against domestic political opponents or rivals), was opposed to suffrage and the opening up of voting rights to all classes, antagonistic to employee rights and trade unions, etc. He was a glorified Tory grandee in Irish dress, for heaven’s sake.

      Ireland putting his face on a stamp is like France putting Philippe Pétain on one. He is simply not worthy of laudatory remembrance.

  8. Joe Devlin, Redmond’s man in the six counties lived on until 1934 as the leader of Northern Nationalism.

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