Reimagining the Irish revolutionary decade

Opinion: We need to focus on those Redmond viewed as unthinking blackguards

‘Too much of the discussion of the impact of John Redmond (above), however, is still informed by reflections on the (admittedly fascinating) high politics of the home rule crisis.’ Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

‘Too much of the discussion of the impact of John Redmond (above), however, is still informed by reflections on the (admittedly fascinating) high politics of the home rule crisis.’ Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Sat, Aug 30, 2014, 00:01

In 2002, the late Canadian historian Peter Hart, who specialised in the history of the War of Independence, made an appeal for the Irish revolutionary decade of 1912 to 1923 to be reconceptualised, and to have “all the myriad assumptions underlying its standard narratives interrogated”. He suggested such an approach needed to include an examination of “gender, class, community, elites and masses, religion and ethnicity, the nature of violence and power”. Hart’s observations are particularly relevant to the current decade of commemoration of the revolution, and I was reminded of his plea over the course of this summer as debates were hosted, in this newspaper and elsewhere, about Ireland in 1914, the impact of the outbreak of the First World War and the legacy of John Redmond.

Too much of the discussion of Redmond’s impact, however, is still informed by reflections on the (admittedly fascinating) high politics of the home rule crisis, and the dealings of Irish constitutional nationalists with British politicians as they sought to bring the home rule campaign to a successful conclusion. Home rule reached the statute books 100 years ago next month; this development was the culmination of a historically important campaign that included many worthy players, but it was also a pyrrhic victory, as its implementation was suspended. Former taoiseach John Bruton has consistently argued over the years that Redmond’s achievement has been unjustly neglected, insisting two years ago that while Redmond was “a realist” some of his successors were not. More recently, he argued that Redmond and his colleagues in the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) resisted pressure and prejudice to achieve the home rule act; they emerge in Bruton’s version as cool, clean, constitutional heroes, “a small minority in Westminster and far from home”.

Distance

One of the relevant points about the limitations and decline of Redmond, however, is precisely this distance. Redmond became increasingly out of touch during the war, rarely leaving London except for breaks in Aughavanagh, a former military barracks in the hills of Wicklow, which he deliberately chose as a retreat because it was remote and kept him out of reach. There, Redmond could shoot grouse, live as a country squire and bemoan the ingratitude of those who took advantage of the war to challenge his political strategy.

As things went from bad to worse for Redmond after the 1916 Rising and towards the 1918 general election, his reaction was one of frustration, laced with a panicked snobbery, which was evident in one of the last letters he wrote before his death in March 1918. Criticising the failure of his party to unite around him as Sinn Féin sought to demolish it, he suggested the result of such disloyalty would be “universal anarchy, and, I am greatly afraid, the spread of violence and crime of all sorts, when every blackguard who wants to commit an outrage will simply call himself a Sinn Féiner and thereby get the sympathy of the unthinking crowd.” The mistake here was in asserting that those embracing the new politics and resistance were dupes; they were in reality far from “unthinking”; they were young, purposeful, informed and determined to reject Redmond’s generation and its politics.

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