John Redmond’s finest hour

In March 1912 more than 100,000 people gathered on O’Connell Street in Dublin to hear the MP herald London’s introduction of a new Home Rule Bill

Thronged: John Redmond at the Parnell monumnet on O’Connell Street in 1912. Photograph courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

Thronged: John Redmond at the Parnell monumnet on O’Connell Street in 1912. Photograph courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

 

Sunday, March 31st, 1912. O’Connell Street in Dublin has never seen anything like this. Since mid-morning, when the 64 special trains bringing people from all over the country began to arrive in the capital, its main thoroughfare has been filling from end to end. By early afternoon the street is so tightly packed that you could, as one observer put it, walk from one end to the other on the shoulders of the people.

Many of those present have marched into the city centre to the martial airs of pipers’ bands leading the way from the train stations at Kingsbridge, Amiens Street, Broadstone, Harcourt Street and Westland Row. Thousands of others have arrived on the city’s tram lines.

The atmosphere is one of excitement, good cheer and expectancy, not just for the tumultuous day ahead, which nobody present will forget, but for the great transformation in Ireland’s fortunes that is about to come. A new Home Rule Bill is to be introduced by the British government within days and, after decades of struggle by Irish MPs in the House of Commons, and numerous setbacks, Ireland is once again to have its independence.

For the first time since the Act of Union came into effect, in 1801, when London assumed direct control of Irish affairs, Dublin is to have its own parliament and Ireland is to be – in the words of Thomas Davis’s song, which will get many vigorous airings today – a nation once again.

Four speakers’ platforms have been erected for the occasion, each colourfully decked out and with a canvas backdrop making the bold assertion “Ireland A Nation”, echoing Davis’s now nearly 70-year-old refrain. The same three words are emblazoned on a white scroll spanning the vast width of the thoroughfare at its northern end near the Parnell monument.

Houses along the street are bright with flags and banners fluttering in the light breeze, many of them bearing the simply expressed demand of all those present, estimated to number between 100,000 and 150,000: “We Want Home Rule”.

The occasion is a boon for city-centre businesses. Some pubs have closed for fear of being unable to manage the crowds, but hotels and restaurants have taken on extra staff for the day and street vendors are doing a spectacularly lively trade, particularly in Home Rule badges and green walking canes. The “Home Rule oranges” are also going down well. “On Saturday they were ordinary oranges, of course,” the following day’s Irish Independent will wryly observe.

 

Bands of suffragettes

The only discordant note is struck by the small, brave bands of suffragettes, who attempt to walk through the throngs carrying sandwich boards with inscriptions such as “Down With Government Coercion”, “Irish Women Want the Vote” and “Self-Government Means Government By Men and Women”.

 

They are generally regarded as an amusing and harmless diversion, though in one unsavoury incident outside the Mansion House, where a reception is being held for the day’s keynote speakers, policemen intervene after a group of the women have their sandwich boards torn from them and smashed. The Independent, reporting that some of the suffragettes lost their hats and had their hair dishevelled, finds the incident “exciting, though partly amusing”.

As the time for the speeches approaches, Sackville Street, as it is still officially known – although “O’Connell Street” is already in common usage – can no longer hold the still-swelling crowds, who now stretch all the way across O’Connell Bridge and on to Westmoreland Street and D’Olier Street. Thousands of others spill into the side streets.

Those closest to the “students’ platform” erected in the shadow of the Daniel O’Connell statue at the south end of the street will give their loudest cheers to young Michael Davitt, son of the great land-rights campaigner of the same name, who died six years ago, in 1906. At a second platform, by the Father Mathew statue, John Dillon, the veteran nationalist MP from Dublin, will make the principal speech. Joe Devlin, his Belfast-based colleague in the Irish Parliamentary Party, will lead the speakers at the platform sited at the junction with Middle Abbey Street.

The early-comers, however, have gathered at the “No 1 platform”, the main stage, erected close to the recently unveiled monument to the revered nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell. There, the man who was chiefly responsible for having that monument erected, and who has done most to maintain Parnell’s legacy since his mentor’s fall from grace and premature death three decades previously, is to be the keynote speaker. And there are few better public speakers around than John Redmond.

Although not given to undue expressions of emotion, the MP for Waterford can be forgiven for feeling exultant. A member of the House of Commons since 1881, and undisputed leader of the Irish nationalist movement for the past 12 years, Redmond has devoted his political career to the cause of self-government for Ireland. And now his life’s work is about to come to fruition.

His achievement in bringing Home Rule within touching distance, through a combination of political acumen and perseverance, has made him the most popular politician in Ireland and one of the most respected by all parties in the British parliament.

 

Horse-drawn carriages

At 1.50pm, Redmond and his wife, Amy, leave the Mansion House to begin their short journey to O’Connell Street, via St Stephen’s Green, Grafton Street, College Green and Westmoreland Street. The pair, accompanied by the lord mayor of Dublin, Lorcan Sherlock, are in the first of a procession of horse-drawn carriages that is greeted by ever-louder cheers from the masses as it gets closer to its destination.

 

The cavalcade is led by two bands and accompanied by a group of hurley-wielding members of the GAA, as well as representatives, clad in green and white, of the Irish National Foresters, a benefit society that supports the nationalist cause.

The procession that follows includes long lines of members of the United Irish League, the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the National Foresters, marching in branches and accompanied by some 170 pipers’ bands and brass bands. The weather is almost summery, the morning’s ominous black clouds having given way to afternoon sunshine.

Prolonged cheers greet the arrival of Redmond’s carriage at the platform at 2.20pm. The crowd is so dense that many of those who have tickets to join him on the stage – mainly members of Dublin Corporation – have trouble getting access. Nevertheless, proceedings begin 15 minutes ahead of schedule when, at 2.45pm, the baritone JC Browner steps to the front of the stage to begin a rendition of A Nation Once Again. The tens of thousands gathered there take up the chorus with enthusiasm:

A nation once again
A nation once again
And Ireland, long a province, be
A nation once again!

 

Roars of approval

When the singing finishes, the crowd cheers. And then cheers again. Then the lord mayor steps forward to introduce the star turn. Have they confidence in John Redmond, he asks, to loud roars of approval. Do they trust “his wisdom, his sagacity, his patriotism”? The response is more loud cheers.

 

When Redmond takes the stage, he has to wait for the cheering to subside before he can begin. All the roadblocks, frustrations and setbacks he has encountered in his long pursuit of his goal can only add to the sweetness of the moment.

All the striving for recognition that marked the early years of his political career, such as when Parnell overlooked him for the Wexford seat held by his late father, is now surely an inconsequential memory. His short stint in jail over his support for an evicted tenant farmer probably seems amusing from where he is standing now.

Standing before his people, on the cusp of this crowning achievement, Redmond might also be forgiven for thinking that his place in history among the great Irish leaders is secure. Ever the pragmatic politician, he is more likely thinking about the negotiations with the British government on the contents of the Home Rule Bill that have been taking place behind the scenes.

Nevertheless, he cannot resist drawing a parallel between his own position and that of another great orator, Daniel O’Connell. “This gathering, its vastness, its good order, its enthusiasm and its unity are unparalleled in the modern history of Ireland. In point of numbers it recalls the monster meetings of O’Connell, but never, at the best of his days, did he assemble a gathering so representative of all Ireland as this meeting today,” he declares.

“Every class is represented here, landlords and tenants, labourers and artisans, the professions of Ireland, Irish commerce, Irish learning and art, Irish literature, are all represented at this meeting.” There are cheers. “In fact it is no exaggeration to say that this meeting is Ireland.” More cheers.

But Redmond knows that not all of Ireland is represented at this assembly. In the northeast, Protestants loyal to the British crown have organised themselves to resist Home Rule by whatever means necessary.

Six months earlier, 100,000 of them gathered at a rally in Craigavon, in Co Armagh, to hear their new leader, Sir Edward Carson, tell them: “We will yet defeat the most nefarious conspiracy that has ever been hatched against a free people.”

 

Military drilling

Since then, amid increasing tension, steps have been taken to set up a provisional government for Ulster in the event of Home Rule being enacted. The newly established Ulster Volunteer Force has begun military drilling. It is not yet fully armed, but before long it will be. And it has the full backing of Britain’s opposition Conservative Party.

 

It is against this background that Redmond makes a fresh appeal in his speech, which at just under 20 minutes is unusually short, to the northern unionists.

Referring to the “one gap in our ranks, one body of our fellow countrymen [who] are absent today”, he asks his audience: “What have I to say to them today? I say that for them in this hour of triumph for Ireland a nation we have not one word of reproach nor one trace of bitter feeling.” The crowd cheers in response.

“We have one feeling only in our hearts, and that is an earnest longing for the arrival of the day of reconciliation.

” After someone shouts “Hear, hear”, Redmond continues: “I say to these fellow countrymen of ours, they may repudiate Ireland. Ireland will never repudiate them, and we today look forward with absolute confidence, in the certainty of the near approach of that day when they will form a powerful and respected portion of a self-governed Irish nation, that they will have an opportunity of reviving once more the glories of their own ancestors, the Protestant patriots of Grattan’s parliament.”

Once more, the cheers go up. They increase in volume as Redmond goes on to make a confident declaration: “Believe me, Home Rule is winning. We will have a parliament sitting in College Green sooner than the most sanguine and enthusiastic man in this crowd believes.”

With the finishing line so close, and the political wind so strongly at his back, surely nobody now, not even Edward Carson and his putative army, can wreck John Redmond’s dream of delivering self-governance to Ireland, and doing so by entirely peaceful and constitutional means.

A few hundred yards from where Redmond is speaking, another man takes the stage. His speech, from Joe Devlin’s platform at the junction of O’Connell Street and Middle Abbey Street, gets no attention in the following day’s national newspapers. This may be because he is too little known or is considered of no importance. It probably doesn’t help that he delivers some of his speech in Irish.

 

Headmaster

Patrick Pearse, the headmaster of St Enda’s School in Rathfarnham, on the southeastern edge of the city, tells his listeners that many present desire more than Home Rule within the British Empire, which is what is currently on offer. They would destroy the empire if they could, but he accepts that Home Rule would be for the good of Ireland, which would be stronger with it than without it.

 

“Let us unite and win a good Act from the British,” he exhorts the crowd. “I think it can be done. But if we are tricked this time, there is a party in Ireland, and I am one of them, that will advise the Gael to have no counsel or dealings with the Gall [the foreigner] for ever again but to answer them henceforward with the strong hand and the sword’s edge. Let the Gall understand that if we are cheated once more, there will be red war in Ireland.”

These are not views to which John Redmond would subscribe, but if he is told of Pearse’s speech it is unlikely to concern him. He knows there is little appetite in Ireland for the extreme views held by a small minority of men such as Patrick Pearse.

This is an extract from Redmond: A Life Undone, by Chris Dooley, published by Gill & Macmillan

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