Triumph soon turns to failure
By delivering the promise of Home Rule, John Redmond achieved what O'Connell and Parnell had failed to do, but died early disappointed, on the wrong side of history
John Redmond: "Do not give your heart to Ireland, for if you do you will die of a broken heart," he advised Lady Fingall not long before his death. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
In April 1912, John Redmond had arrived at the summit of his political life. With the publication of the Third Home Rule Bill, he had achieved what O’Connell and Parnell had failed to do: he was about to deliver Home Rule for Ireland.
A vast throng, numbering up to half a million by some estimates, gathered in O’Connell Street on March 31st, 1912, to acclaim his triumph a few days before the publication of the Bill. Addressing the crowd, Redmond referred to it as “a great treaty of peace between Ireland, England and the Empire”.
Just six years later, in March, 1918, Redmond died a political failure and a broken man. In the years after his death, the tolerant values of parliamentary politics he epitomised were pushed aside by rivals committed to revolutionary violence.
In the years since then Redmond, as his modern biographer Dermot Meleady points out, has managed “the difficult feat of becoming at once a neglected and controversial figure”.
John Redmond was born in south Wexford at Ballytrent House near Carne on September 1st, 1856, the eldest son of William Archer Redmond, a nationalist MP. He was educated at Clongowes and Trinity College Dublin before going to London to assist his father and, for a time, becoming a clerk in the Commons.
At the age of 24, he was selected as a candidate for New Ross and elected to the Commons in 1881. An able speaker, he quickly established a reputation for himself as a solid performer, but was not immediately admitted to the front rank of a very talented party.
He made his reputation during a successful fundraising trip to Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand during which he spelled out a compelling argument for constitutional nationalism and raised a considerable sum for the Irish party. It was also a success on a personal level as it was in Australia that he met his first wife, Johanna Dalton.
While he took part in the Land War and Plan of Campaign and was briefly imprisoned in 1888 for incitement, Redmond always opposed the use of violence to achieve political ends. He had a deep respect for the House of Commons and its traditions and was naturally an enthusiastic supporter of Gladstone’s First Home Rule Bill.
“He did not easily adopt the role of the rebel or fanatic; his natural pose was that of the 18th-century patriot, a Grattan or a Flood,” according to his obituary in the London Times. His ambition at all stages of his political career was Irish self-government as part of the British Empire, with acceptance of the Crown as head of state. The heady sensations generated by Gladstone’s First Home Rule Bill in 1886 gave Redmond the conviction that his goal was achievable and it sustained him though the barren years that followed.
After the bitter Parnell split and the death of “the Chief”, Redmond emerged as the leader of the minority Parnellite wing of the Irish Party. While he was widely regarded as a fine speaker, his reserved personality meant that he remained aloof from the squabbles that divided the Irish MPs in the 1890s.
When the Irish Party was reunited in 1900, Redmond, with the grudging support of the more truculent John Dillon, the leading figure in the anti-Parnellite wing, became leader. The very qualities that made him remote from many of his colleagues were the ones that also made him into a leader all of them could accept. A heavyset man of imposing appearance, described by an English contemporary as “a dignified, handsome man with the nose of a Roman senator”, Redmond generally divided his time between London and his home in Aughavanagh, Co Wicklow, where he lived in Parnell’s old hunting lodge. In winter, the building was often cut off by snowdrifts, but he enjoyed the country life taking long walks through the Wicklow hills and shooting grouse.
His first wife died tragically young in 1889, leaving him with three children. A decade later Ada Beelsey from Warwickshire became his second wife.
When the Liberals came to power in the general election of 1906, Redmond and his party were able to exercise a considerable influence over policy for Ireland. It was widely said that the country was effectively ruled for the following decade by the Chief Secretary Augustine Birrell in conjunction with Redmond.
Despite his gentlemanly reputation, in the Commons when the Irish Party achieved the balance of power in 1910, he used his position of strength ruthlessly to insist that the Liberal Government deliver on Home Rule.
The introduction of the Third Home Rule Bill marked the high point of his career, but having achieved his goal he totally underestimated the strength of Ulster resistance.
The outbreak of war in 1914 changed everything. Redmond backed the war effort in the belief that it would help deliver a united Home Rule Ireland when hostilities ceased. Like most people, he believed the war would be over by Christmas. It was a major miscalculation that destroyed his political strategy.
In 1915, the political situation changed dramatically and the Conservatives joined the Liberals in a coalition government. Redmond was offered a cabinet post but declined, while Ulster Unionist leader, Edward Carson, joined the cabinet and became an influential member.
With his influence already declining, Redmond was shattered by the 1916 Rising, which came as much of a surprise to him as to the British Government. As the London Times noted, the Sinn Féin movement “from the first was directed as much against Mr Redmond and the nationalist Party as against Great Britain”.
The byelections that followed in 1917 revealed that Sinn Féin was getting the upper hand and Redmond realised that his party was doomed. His brother Major Willie Redmond, an MP for Clare, was killed on the Western front and, to make matters worse, the resultant byelection was won by Eamon de Valera, the senior surviving commandant from the Rising.
By the time he died prematurely at the age of 61 in March 1918, Redmond had no illusions that everything he stood for was about to be swept away. Speaking to Lady Fingall not long before his death, he advised her: “Do not give your heart to Ireland, for if you do you will die of a broken heart.”
On the face of it, Redmond exemplifies the dictum that all political careers end in failure. Yet for all that it is arguable that modern democratic Ireland is far closer to his political dream than it is to the messianic visions of the 1916 leaders. As his old ally Birrell wrote in the 1920s. “These young men entered into their inheritance by the efforts and great personal sacrifice of that Irish Parliamentary Party they have since flung upon the scrap heap. Politicians seldom deserve gratitude and never get it.”