In recent years the historical figure of John Redmond MP, the head of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) and self-declared “leader of Nationalist Ireland” during the early stages of the 1916-23 revolution, has been elevated to the status of a contra-republican icon by the neo-unionist tendency of Irish journalism and politics. In the run-up to the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising all sorts of risible claims have been offered about the Wexford-born politician, notably by perennial British apologist John Bruton (one-time Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader). These have served to boost Redmond’s newly contrived image as a sort of pheasant-hunting Gandhi, a pacifist politician with a ballot box in one hand and ivory-topped cane in the other. As we have seen here on ASF these counterfactual conceits quickly fall asunder when compared to the known historical record of the period. During the most important decade of his career John Redmond proved himself every bit as ruthless in the use of violence or the threat of violence to serve the needs of his party and his class as any of his opponents.
In June 1914 he and his cohorts effectively stage-managed a coup within the Irish Volunteers or IV, an independent paramilitary force created in late November of 1913 to pressure Britain into proceeding with legislation on so-called “home rule” or regional autonomy for Ireland within the UK. The IV itself was a direct counter to the formation in January of 1913 of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a paramilitary grouping from within the British unionist minority in the country, principally in the north-eastern counties of Ulster, which violently opposed self-government in Ireland of any kind. While Redmond had initially dismissed the IV movement by the early summer he had realised his tactical error as their numbers and influence soared, and he was determined to rectify the mistake. Within weeks of seizing part-control of the IV organisation the then Waterford MP had secured key positions throughout the movement for his supporters while squeezing out his political rivals and opponents. Unsurprisingly many of those were republicans, especially those allied to the revolutionary Irish Republican Brotherhood whose aim of a sovereign and independent nation-state of Ireland ran contrary to the IPP’s own objectives of limited autonomy for the country as part of the so-called “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland” (while some of his MPs favoured “dominion status” outside the UK but inside the British Empire John Redmond, a committed Anglo-Irish imperialist, strongly opposed full Irish independence).
It was during July and August that Redmond – from his stately residence in London – conspired with others to import weapons from the Continent to Ireland to equip those IV units he considered loyal to himself and the IPP. Since he was already making overtures to the imperial government suggesting that the Irish Volunteers could act as a defensive force to free up military garrisons in Ireland for the recently erupted conflict in Europe it cannot have been to wage an armed campaign to ensure self-governance in the country. The UK had declared war on Germany at the start of August 1914 and many of the MPs of the Irish Parliamentary Party had proved themselves the equal of their English (and Irish unionist) counterparts in their jingoistic support of the declaration. John Redmond was particularly effusive in encouraging Irish participation in the British war effort through speeches at Westminster and during his rare forays back to Dublin or his constituency in the south-east. Nor was it to seek a confrontation with the violent separatist forces of the unionist minority in the north-east who now opposed any form of home rule that did not include the partition of Ireland and the creation of an ethno-religious state in the entirety of the province of Ulster (a demand Redmond effectively surrendered to between July and September of 1914, following April’s very public importation from Germany of tons of munitions by the UVF, with the acknowledged connivance of some in the British military and government).
It seems instead that a more likely objective was to ensure that the “Redmondite” faction of the Irish Volunteers was appropriately equipped so that any post-Great War negotiations with the British state (the European conflict being widely expected to last mere months) or confrontations with “dissident” nationalists at home, especially those of the republican strand, could be successfully dealt with. Indeed it may well have been in John Redmond’s mind that if the UK allowed the Volunteers to act as a “home garrison” he would need a fully armed force to suppress any active opposition domestically. Which suggests that if a form of home rule was implemented that did not meet with universal support in Ireland those who dissented would have faced a militia formed of former IV units controlled by an IPP devolved government in Dublin.
“…extremely important letter sent from John Redmond, chairman of the Irish Parliamentary Party and leader of nationalist Ireland to his trusted agent, Tom Kettle, who was then travelling between England and Belgium attempting to procure arms for the Irish Volunteers.
What this month’s document does, more so than arguably any other surviving letter in John Redmond’s hand, is to put his fingerprints on gun-running and to reveal a less often discussed side to his legacy, one that is highly significant and pivotal to understanding the wider politics of Ireland and beyond in the late-summer of 1914.
…to fully understand John Redmond, the darker, more opportunistic, and even more Machiavellian aspects of his legacy must be encountered and grappled with. Historians must ask: why is it that, during 1914, John Redmond descended from the moral high ground and emulated Edward Carson, first in taking control of a private paramilitary army, secondly in participating in arming that army, and finally in moving towards the use, or threat of, violence at home and abroad in the fulfilment of policy objectives?”
The letter itself reads:
“T.M. Kettle Esq.
My dear Kettle,
I congratulate you on the success of your efforts to obtain the rifles.
Please store them all at the North Wall in my name with instructions to deliver them only to my written order.
Very truly yours,
25 Aug. 1914”
Eventually over twenty tons of munitions were smuggled to Ireland and into the hands of Redmondite wing of the Irish Volunteers. The majority of these armaments were retained by that faction when it split from the IV in late September 1914 and John Redmond established himself as the commander-in-chief of his own private army, the Irish National Volunteers or INV, which functioned as the military wing of the Irish Parliamentary Party. A few of those weapons were to see action during the War of Independence, some seized by the Irish Republican Army (Irish Volunteers) and used against the British Occupation Forces (including weapons taken from the INV’s 1914 arms dump in the North Wall). Others were used by the supporters of the IPP, former or serving members of the INV and pro-IPP Ancient Order of Hibernians, to attack the Irish Republican Army and Sinn Féin during the tumultuous years of 1916-23.
The divisions of September 1914 and the events leading up to them are also examined on History Hub, including the statement announcing the ejection of the Redmondite faction from the Irish Volunteers. Below is my transcription of that document which is remarkable for the number of now well-known revolutionary names and the list of demands which anticipated in some ways the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic two years later:
“41 Kildare Street,
Thursday, 24th September, 1914.
TO THE IRISH VOLUNTEERS
Ten months ago the Provisional Committee commenced the Irish Volunteer movement with the sole purpose of securing and defending the Rights and Liberties of the Irish people. The movement on these lines, though thwarted and opposed for a time, obtained the support of the Irish Nation. When the Volunteer movement had become the main factor in the National position, Mr. Redmond decided to acknowledge it and to endeavour to bring it under his control.
Three months ago he put forward the claim to send twenty-five nominees to the Provisional Committee of the Irish Volunteers. He threatened, if the claim was not conceded, to proceed to the dismemberment of the Irish Volunteer organisation.
It is clear that this proposal to throw the country into turmoil and destroy the chances of a Home Rule measure in the near future must have been forced upon Mr. Redmond. Already, ignoring the Irish Volunteers as a factor in the National position, Mr. Redmond had consented to the dismemberment of Ireland which could be made permanent by the same agencies that forced him to accept it as temporary. He was now prepared to risk another disruption and the wreck of the cause entrusted him.
The Provisional Committee, while recognising that the responsibility in that case would be altogether Mr. Redmond’s, decided to risk the lesser evil and to admit his nominees to sit and act on the Committee. The Committee made no representations as to the persons nominated, and when the nominations were received, the Committee raised no questions as to how far Mr. Redmond had fulfilled his public undertaking to nominate “representative men from different parts of the country”. Mr. Redmond’s nominees were admitted purely and simply as his nominees and without co-option.
Mr. Redmond address to a body of Volunteers on last Sunday, has now announced for the Irish Volunteers a policy and programme fundamentally at variance with their own published and accepted aims and pledges, but which his nominees are, of course, identified. He has declared it to be the duty of the Irish Volunteers to take foreign service under a government which is not Irish. He has made this announcement without consulting the Provisional Committee, the Volunteers themselves, or the people of Ireland to whose service alone they are devoted.
Having thus disregarded the Irish Volunteers and their solemn engagements, Mr. Redmond is no longer entitled, through his nominees, to any place in the administration and guidance of the Irish Volunteer Organisation. Those who, by virtue of Mr. Redmond’s nomination, have heretofore been admitted to act on the Provisional Committee, accordingly cease henceforth to belong to that body, and from this date until the holding of an Irish Volunteer Convention the Provisional Committee consists of those only whom it compromised before the admission of Mr. Redmond’s nominees.
At the next meeting of the Provisional Committee we shall propose:-
- To call a Convention of the Irish Volunteers for Wednesday, 25th November, 1914, the anniversary of the inaugural meeting of the Irish Volunteers in Dublin.
- To re-affirm without qualification the Manifesto proposed and accepted at the inaugural meeting.
- To oppose any diminution of the measure of Irish self-government which now exists as a Statute on paper and which would not now have reached that stage but for the Irish Volunteers.
- To repudiate any undertaking, by whomsoever given, to consent to the legislative dismemberment of Ireland; and to protest against the attitude of the present Government, who under the pretence that “Ulster cannot be coerced”, avow themselves to coerce the Nationalists of Ulster.
- To declare that Ireland cannot, with honour or safety, take part in foreign quarrels otherwise than through the free action of a National Government of her own; and to repudiate the claim of any man to offer up the blood and lives of the sons of Irishmen and Irishwomen to the service of the British empire, while no National Government which could speak and act for the people of Ireland is allowed to exist.
- To demand that the present system of governing Ireland through Dublin Castle and the British military power, a system responsible for the recent outrages in Dublin, be abolished without delay, and that a National Government be forthwith established in its place.
The signatories of this Statement are the great majority of the members of the Provisional Committee of the Irish Volunteers, apart from the nominees of Mr. Redmond who are no longer members of the Committee. We regret the absence of Sir Roger Casement in America prevents him from being a signatory with us.
(SIGNED) :- Eoin Mac Néill,
Chairman – Provisional Committee.
Treasurer – Provisional Committee.
Michael J. Judge,
Pete Paul Macken, Ex-Ald.
Seán Mac Giobúin,
P. H. Pearse,
Pádraic Ó Riain,
Conchúir Ó Colbáird,
Séamas Ó Conchúir,
Colm Ó Lochlainn,
Liam Ó Cógáin,
The struggle to control the leadership of the Irish Volunteers during 1914 was in many ways the first great contest of the 20th century between two competing – if related – political philosophies in Ireland. On one side was the entrenched Irish Nationalist establishment represented by the Irish Parliamentary Party, the Roman Catholic Church, the burgeoning business elites and the Anglo-Irish or Anglicised Irish Catholic and Protestant faux gentry, of which John Redmond was a stereotypical example. This strand of Irish life had long made its peace with British colonial rule and indeed prospered from it. While many believed in some form of “home rule” few desired to see genuine independence for Ireland, or indeed an expansion of the voting franchise to the general adult population. Redmond, the hawkishly conservative patrician, was not alone in fearing the consequences of giving votes to women or men heretofore disqualified because of age or property-rights.
Threatening to drown the old order was the rising tide of Irish Republican opposition, aspirant working- and middle-class men and women no longer willing to leave their futures to the management of others. Where some saw the “Leader of Nationalist Ireland” others saw a grey-haired buffoon, an absentee politician more familiar with the mansions and clubs of London than the tenements of Dublin or huts of Conamara. With the benefit of hindsight we can see that the 1914 “civil war” between Nationalists and Republicans was in many ways simply a dry run for the internecine conflict that was to follow in 1922-23, and between those self-same forces in Irish society.