Redmond pledge that nationalists and unionists would fight together in first World War

The response in the south at the outset of the first World War was one of support for the British war effort

Leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party John Redmond (1856 - 1918, left) with Irish nationalist politician John Dillon (1851 - 1927), circa 1910. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As war erupted throughout Europe, Ireland was in the midst of her own major political crisis over home rule. The Third Home Rule (Government of Ireland) Bill was being fiercely resisted by unionists. In 1913 they had created and armed the Ulster Volunteer Force to resist the implementation of Home Rule or to exclude Ulster from the settlement.

Nationalists in southern Ireland responded by forming a rival militia, the Irish Volunteers. Conflict between these two armed forces seemed inevitable in the early months of 1914 but the outbreak of the first World War temporarily defused this crisis.

On August 3rd 1914, the eve of Britain's declaration of war on Germany, John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, rose in the House of Commons and, in response to speeches by prime minister HH Asquith and foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey, said: "I say to the government that they may tomorrow withdraw every one of their troops from Ireland.

“I say that the coast of Ireland will be defended from foreign invasion by her armed sons, and for this purpose armed nationalist Catholics in the south will be only too glad to join arms with the armed Protestant Ulstermen in the North.


“Is it too much to hope that out of this situation there may spring a result which will be good not merely for the Empire, but good for the future welfare and integrity of the Irish nation?”

Redmond had seized an opportunity to suggest a consolidation of the Ulster and Irish volunteer movements to demonstrate that patriotic feeling in nationalist Ireland was equal to the more recognised patriotism of Ulster unionists.

In taking this opportunity, Redmond expressed nationalist Ireland's support early and before Edward Carson, leader of the Ulster unionists, had a chance to make an announcement in the Commons.

He gambled on the chance that his offer of support for Britain’s war effort would secure a positive response from all MPs, even from the most ardent unionists.

He was right. As he sat down most of the house, including many unionists, stood to applaud. Redmond had managed to address a broad audience to demonstrate that nationalist Ireland could collaborate with the Empire at times of dire need.

Nationalist attitudes to Redmond's speech were reflected in many of the regional newspapers in August 1914. The Nationalist and Leinster Times said it was "received with feelings of delight in south Kildare" and it accepted that Ireland's destiny was intertwined with the British Empire, commenting that the speech had done more for a "really united Ireland" than any of his predecessors in national leadership.

The Drogheda Independent saw Redmond's offer as the practical manifestation of the "union of hearts" and the beginning of Young Irelander, Thomas Davis's dream that the "union of Orange and Green" would portray to the world the "vision of a United Ireland".

The Clare Champion hoped that Irish unionists and Irish nationalists would have it within their power to change not only Ireland, but win by "national unity a greater measure of Irish self-government".

The Cork Examiner believed it would convince unionists that "when they rely on Ireland's honour they can rest assured that she will keep her compact".

It accepted that it would be unreasonable to suggest that unionists would become home rulers or that political differences would cease, but hoped that Irishmen working together to defend her shores might ultimately regenerate Ireland to work together for the greater good under an Irish parliament.

The Limerick Leader called the speech a "master stroke of tact, patriotism and statesmanship", believing it would make home rule inevitable with north-south unity likely in the near future.

The Freeman's Journal proclaimed a "chorus of approval from all parts of Ireland" and published several telegrams from political interests and private citizens telling Redmond that they "heartily approve of and congratulate you on your action . . . in the House of Commons. We are confident that you have the country behind you" and that "your patriotic action has the support of all responsible and sober-minded Irishmen".

In unionist circles opinion was expressed in letters to the editor of The Irish Times. Bryan Cooper, an ex-unionist MP for South County Dublin stated, "I am this day joining the National [Irish] Volunteers and I urge every unionist who is physically fit to do the same".

Lord Bessborough and Lord Monteagle, also in letters to the editor, both urged support for the volunteer movement.

The Kilkenny Moderator described Redmond's attitude as "phenomenal", stating, "there was in fact, but one mind and one heart in regard to England in her present conflict with Germany . . . The Irishman is earnest, determined, enthusiastic . . . fanatically loyal to England in this gigantic struggle". For many unionists in the south, Redmond's speech certainly allayed fears and proved that the Irish party was sincere in its professions of loyalty to the Empire.

Support was by no means unanimous, however. Sinn Féin warned that a victorious England in the war would be more powerful and Ireland's claim for home rule more easily dismissed. Further speeches by Redmond on Ireland's involvement in the war effort would lead to a rift by some within the Irish Volunteer movement.

Historian JJ Lee highlights that Redmond’s objectives for participation in the war were: to secure the operation of home rule, unite nationalists and unionists in shared war-time comradeship, and secure better arms and training for the national volunteers. Ultimately Redmond’s agenda remained unchanged.

For him, the war did make England's difficulty Ireland's opportunity as the anticipated sine qua non of his support for Britain in the war effort was the realisation of home rule for Ireland.

On September 15th 1914, Redmond, in the House of Commons, said: “Catholic nationalist Irishmen and Protestant unionist Irishmen from the north of Ireland will be fighting side by side on the battlefields on the Continent, and shedding their blood side by side,” perhaps suggesting, at this stage, that he was considering the possibility of Irish volunteers enlisting in the British army to serve overseas.

Redmond’s long-time adversary, TM Healy (MP for North Louth) responded approvingly: “I wish to say that we shall heartily second his endeavours in regard to the war and I believe the Irish people, and certainly their representatives, will be behind this government to a man during the course of this war.”

William O’Brien told a volunteer meeting in Cork that “in fighting England’s battle in the particular circumstances of war . . . they were fighting the most effective battle for Ireland’s liberty”.

The possibility of Irish volunteers serving overseas had been alluded to by Redmond in his speech to 2,000 volunteers at Maryborough, now Portlaoise, in Queen’s County (Laois) on August 16th : “The sons of Ireland themselves, north and south, Catholic and Protestant, and whatever the origin of their race might have been – Williamite, Cromwellian or Old Celtic – standing shoulder to shoulder, would defend the good order and peace of Ireland, and defend her shores against foreign foe.”

Irish nationalists who enlisted for the first World War were volunteers who willingly went to the battlefields of Europe, and did so for a variety of reasons. While unemployment, economic reasons and lack of emigration opportunities may have encouraged some to enlist, they also joined up to serve in the war because they believed in Redmond’s “moral obligation” argument, to fight in defence of the higher principles of religion and morality and right.

The historian David Fitzpatrick argues that family precedent also provided a strong impulse to sign up for service and we can see this in Redmond’s recruiting vocabulary when he refers to the volunteers sharing the dangers with their “kith and kin” on the “shores of France”.

Fitzpatrick also states that those belonging to militias, fraternities or sporting clubs were susceptible to collective pressure and to the maintenance of bonds of friendship formed in peace time which may have fostered group movements into the army. A desire for adventure may have been a further motivating factor.

Subsequent to the passing of the Home Rule Bill into law on September 17th 1914 (albeit with a suspensory bill and clause for Ulster) Redmond at Woodenbridge, Co Wicklow, stressed again that the primary duty of Ireland’s manhood was to defend the shores of Ireland.

But here he went a step further by encouraging the volunteers to “account yourselves as men not only in Ireland itself, but wherever the firing line extends”.

In broadening the mandate of the volunteers, Redmond verbalised his previous intimations in his Commons speech in the hope of creating a universal sentiment of “Irishness”, which would be forged through a common sacrifice on the battlefields of Europe.

He believed that in performing its moral duty in the war Ireland would benefit politically. He also believed that if Ireland “seized the opportunity to stab her [Britain] in the back, the Home Rule settlement would not be worth an hour’s purchase” as Ireland would be dishonoured before the world.

Redmond’s encouragement of volunteers to enlist and fight “wherever the firing line extends” would cause alarm among members of the original committee of the Irish Volunteers. They issued a manifesto declaring that Redmond had announced a policy that was “fundamentally at variance with their own published and accepted aims and objectives”. This caused a split in the Irish volunteer movement.

Before the split the numbers enrolled in the volunteers totalled about 160,000; of this, 12,000 adhered to the original Provisional Committee. (There are variations in these figures cited by different authorities, however the overall ratios are similar).

That 140,000 stood with Redmond and the National Volunteers suggests that the majority of Irish opinion backed Redmond. And, while the 12,000 who joined the ranks of Eoin MacNeill is not an inconsequential number, it is small by comparison to those who joined the ranks of Redmond's National Volunteers.

According to figures provided by Keith Jeffery in Ireland and the Great War, the best estimate for recruitment in Ireland after mobilisation indicates that the army secured about 50,107 volunteers from August 4th 1914 to February 1915 (although the rate of enlistment declines after this, but in similar proportions to that seen in England, Scotland and Wales up to 1916. After this comparison is difficult because conscription was introduced in Great Britain).

Ireland’s aggregate male contribution to the war forces in total, according to Prof David Fitzpatrick, was about 210,000, but this does not include natives of Ireland who joined units in Britain, the Empire or the US.

Reports of German atrocities would strengthen the nationalist commitment to the war effort. In a recruiting meeting in 1915 Willie Redmond (John Redmond's brother and MP for East Clare) asked "who had destroyed Belgium, who had burned God's house, who had slaughtered, in cold blood, the men and the women, who, as priests and nuns, wore the livery of God?"

The Freeman's Journal reported on the Germans' use of poison gas in April 1915 as a violation of the Hague Convention, calling it "another 'little scrap of paper' torn up". And after the sinking of the Lusitania passenger ship off the south coast of Ireland, the newspaper stated that it was Germany's "last great violation of the laws of humanity".

In 1914 the Irish Parliamentary Party’s political supremacy was unchallenged in most parts of the country, the Catholic Church was supportive under the slogan of “Save Catholic Belgium”, and the majority of Irish opinion backed Redmond.

However, the heavy death toll on the Western Front, along with difficulties at home, would create a variety of problems for Redmond that would lead to decreased recruits in what would become a prolonged war.