The Redmonds: tragedy of Ireland’s first political family
War and illness tore the family apart in the late 19th and early 20th century
There is a photograph in the Redmond family collection which may well be the last one taken of Major Willie Redmond MP.
Redmond, who is wearing his British army major’s uniform, is pictured with his wife Eleanor. He has a haunted look, as if assailed by the horrors he had seen or the fate that lies in store for him. His wife is dressed in black. She is looking away from the camera.
Willie Redmond was killed shortly afterwards at the Battle of Messines Ridge on June 7th, 1917. He was 56, one of the oldest Irish battle fatalities of the first World War.
In his last House of Commons speech delivered in March 1917, Redmond hoped the experience of Catholics and Protestants fighting together in the war would bring reconciliation at home.
It was, says his great-grandniece Mary Green, “an unrealistic aspiration” which took little account of either Unionist or Republican feeling at the time. “However,” she adds, “it was an inclusive aspiration”.
They are, along with John Redmond’s other surviving great-grandchildren, the closest relatives of Willie Redmond, whose only child, also called Willie, died in 1890 aged 2½.
Mary lives in Moor Park, Hertfordshire, to the north of London. Her pride in her Redmond ancestry is evident. On the hall table there is a photograph, a still taken from a film, of her great-grandfather meeting King George V and Queen Mary.
Willie Redmond’s grave in the grounds of an old convent in the Flemish village of Locre is unique. He is one of the few British soldiers on the whole of the Western Front buried outside a military cemetery.
When he died, his wife Eleanor insisted his grave be left in the care of the nuns. Its solitary status was never intended as a protest against the treatment of the leaders of the Easter Rising.
The grave fell into disrepair and the Redmond family supported attempts by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) 50 years ago to move his remains into a military cemetery, but the people of Flanders objected. It remains to this day a grave apart for a man apart.
John and Mary Green will be at Messines Ridge today for the centenary commemorations to remember their great-granduncle.
His death is a reminder of the multiple tragedies that afflicted the Redmond family in those tumultuous years.
In early 1917 Esther Redmond Power, John Redmond’s daughter, died in New York, leaving four children. Her father was so stricken with grief that he retired from public view for a time.
Nine months after Willie was killed at Messines Ridge, John Redmond died in March 1918 in London following a routine operation. He was in failing health and dispirited by the rise of Sinn Féin.
“All political lives end in failure,” Enoch Powell once famously observed, but John Redmond’s ended in tragedy too. He all but wrote his own epitaph. “The life of a politician, especially of an Irish politician is one long series of postponements and compromises and disappointments and disillusions.”
In March 1922, Max Green, the husband of John Redmond’s daughter Johanna, was shot dead on St Stephen’s Green when he went to intercept a robbery. Johanna was ill that day. In December 1922, she too died, leaving her sons orphans at the age of nine.
Mary and John, who were brought up in Birkenhead near Liverpool, were first acquainted with how their great-grandfather is regarded in the country of his birth on a visit to Wexford town in 1963. John Redmond’s mausoleum was locked away from the public, the cemetery around it overgrown and neglected.
There has been a definite shift, Mary believes. His legacy is being looked at again. She wishes that he be remembered as a man who did his best for Ireland and who achieved tangible benefits in the areas of education and land reform before Home Rule was put on the statute books. Home Rule did not work out as the war intervened, but hindsight is a great thing, she points out, and does not diminish the scale of his achievement.
At least people are discussing John Redmond now, though not always in complimentary terms. He is best known as the man who encouraged Irishmen to join the British army and fight in the first World War and for his condemnation of the Easter Rising.
Many objected to an image of him being displayed along with other Irish constitutional leaders on the facade of College Green during the Rising commemorations last year. It was defaced in red paint with the number “35,000”, the most common estimate of the number of Irish who died in that terrible conflict.
John Green says Redmond can hardly be blamed for the 60,000 Irishmen who were already in the British army before the war broke out. He does, however, believe he does bear some responsibility for those who joined up after his Woodenbridge speech of September 1914 in which he encouraged Irishmen to go “wherever the firing line extends in defence of right, of freedom and of religion in this war”.
But, he says, views on John Redmond and the war should be seen in the context of the time as should his opposition to the Rising. Redmond spent a lifetime advocating for the peaceful implementation of Home Rule rather than violent separation from Britain.
“The two approaches were completely different, in the methods they employed and in the envisaged end-point. How could he have done anything else but oppose it?”
The abiding emotion of both Mary and John is regret that the Redmond brothers’ aspirations ended in the mud of Flanders and the rubble of the GPO.
“Sadly the Irish question has not been resolved, some 100 years after their deaths. Whether a more satisfactory resolution could have been achieved by following Redmond’s peaceful approach is an open question,” says Mary.