In January 1917 John Redmond received a cable informing him of the sudden death, in New York, of his elder daughter, Esther, at the age of 32. It was the first in a series of personal tragedies that were to afflict the Irish nationalist leader that year.
Five months after Esther's death came the devastating news that his younger brother, Willie, had been killed in the Great War on the first day of an offensive against German forces on the Messines ridge in West Flanders. Willie's death, at the age of 56, robbed the 60-year-old John not only of a cherished sibling but also of a trusted political supporter and adviser.
Within weeks Redmond would suffer another blow when Pat O’Brien, an MP for Kilkenny and Redmond’s closest friend within the Irish Parliamentary Party, died following a stroke. Redmond, not known for showing his emotions in public, broke down at O’Brien’s funeral and was helped by friends from the graveside.
If 1917 was to prove a tragic year for Redmond personally, it was no less so politically. The Easter Rising and its aftermath had changed the political landscape in Ireland irrevocably, bringing on to the stage a new band of revolutionary leaders to challenge the long-held supremacy of the constitutional nationalist movement led by Redmond for the previous 16 years.
Redmond’s continuing support for the British war effort – widely seen in 1914 as a master stroke designed to secure home rule – was costing him support across nationalist Ireland as the war dragged on, especially in light of the perceived harsh British response to the Rising.
The Irish Parliamentary Party’s days were already numbered, but it was not at all clear at the time that this was the case. Redmond remained widely respected and influential, and day after day newspapers carried reports of local-authority meetings at which attacks on the Irish party leader by supporters of the new “Sinn Féin movement” – the party was not formally constituted as such at the time – were met with vocal resistance from Redmond’s supporters.
The first test of the respective strengths of the two sides came with the North Roscommon byelection in February. The anti-Redmondites put forward as their candidate George Noble Plunkett. The 65-year-old papal count was an unlikely revolutionary: he had once unsuccessfully petitioned Redmond for an Irish party nomination for a seat in the House of Commons, and his campaign suffered a setback when it was revealed that he had twice applied for the position of undersecretary at Dublin Castle.
But Plunkett had a trump card that his Irish party rival Thomas Devine, a local merchant and county councillor, could not hope to match: he was the father of Joseph Plunkett, one of the executed signatories of the Easter proclamation. With the help of an energetic canvassing team that included Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, Plunkett won by 3,022 votes to Devine's 1,708.
A byelection in South Longford followed three months later, and the Irish party, stung by its defeat in Roscommon, threw all its resources into winning this one. A committee including Plunkett, Collins and Griffith selected Joseph McGuinness, a participant in the Rising serving three years’ penal servitude in an English prison, to run for the Sinn Féiners, with the slogan: “Put him in to get him out.”
When the votes were counted at Longford courthouse on May 9th, the Irish party candidate, a local councillor named Patrick McKenna, was declared the winner by a margin of 15, but a supporter of McGuinness raised the very reasonable objection that the combined vote of the only two candidates was 50 short of the total valid poll. McGuinness’s win on a recount, by 1,498 votes to 1,461, was a devastating setback for Redmond and his party.
Further byelection wins for the Sinn Féiners in Clare and Kilkenny, by Éamon de Valera and WT Cosgrave respectively, confirmed the trend: the old guard led by Redmond was gradually being supplanted by the new revolutionary movement.
Nevertheless, Redmond did not give up. He spurned an offer from the British prime minister David Lloyd George of immediate home rule for all but the six counties of northeast Ulster. Redmond had lost much political capital a year earlier when he persuaded northern nationalists to accept such a proposition only to see a deal struck with Lloyd George and Edward Carson unravel in the face of opposition from elements within the British Conservative Party.
Knowing that there was no chance of getting a scheme involving partition approved by nationalists, Redmond persuaded Lloyd George to instead establish a convention representing all interests in Ireland, to be given the task of drawing up a new constitution for the country.
The convention had the active support of southern unionists, and the Ulster unionists also sent a delegation – though in their case more on a watching brief than as committed participants. It was the absence of Sinn Féin, though, that ultimately made the convention’s deliberations redundant. Irish nationalism was now on a new path from which there was to be no turning back.
Chris Dooley is the author of Redmond: A Life Undone, published in 2015 by Gill & Macmillan