An Irishman's Diary

 

History, it is said, is written for and by the winners. But in Ireland, a tragic failure also guarantees you a place in the national narrative. Parnell and the men of 1916 are obvious examples, writes Ronan O'Brien.

Others who laboured long and hard in Ireland's cause but ultimately fell short have been largely forgotten. Many of the Home Rulers, the last generation of nationalist leaders who refused to accept the division of Ireland have, in relative terms, been written out of history. For example, there has been no substantive biography of John Redmond, Ireland's national leader of 20 years, written since 1932.

One of the most interesting but least recalled figures from this period is a man named Edward Blake, who was a key figure in the Irish Party both before and after its unification under Redmond in 1900.

Blake's uniqueness is that he was a Canadian, born in that country in 1833, a year after his parents' emigration. His father, William "Hume" Blake and his mother, Catherine, were first cousins, both born in Kiltegan, Co Wicklow. They were strict Anglicans. Like Abe Lincoln, Edward Blake was born in a log cabin - on his father's farm in Middlesex, Upper Canada. His father, never a farmer, went on to be both a lawyer and a prominent reform politician.

But Hume Blake's successes were far surpassed by those of his son. By 1892, when he accepted the invitation from the anti-Parnellites to stand for the Imperial Parliament, Edward Blake had already served as premier of Ontario (1871-72), as federal minister for justice (1875-77) and leader of the opposition Liberal Party in the Canadian House of Commons (1880-87). Notwithstanding the considerable achievements of the Irish Party to that point, Blake became its most experienced statesman.

Blake had first visited Ireland as a two-year-old child and his support for the Irish cause as a Canadian politician was widely known. In 1882 he spoke in the Canadian House of Commons in favour of Home Rule. In 1886, he moved a motion welcoming Gladstone's first Home Rule Bill.

Having ceded the leadership of the Canadian Liberals to Sir Wilfred Laurier in 1887 due to ill health, Blake declined to contest the 1891 election following policy differences with the party. The Anti-Parnellites saw their chance. In June 1892 a cable from Davitt, Dillon, Healy and O'Brien invited Blake to contest a seat in south Co Down. Blake's acceptance was conditional on his being found a safe seat. Accordingly, on June 18th he was offered the candidacy in South Longford on the basis that the costs associated with winning the seat were "under £300".

Despite the political difficulties associated with the split in the Irish Party, 1892-93 was a period of some optimism in Irish politics. At that time, it was widely expected that Gladstone's Liberals would win the general election of 1892 and introduce a further Home Rule Bill.

Blake's immediate attractiveness to the Irish parliamentarians was his expertise on the Canadian constitution following its confederation in 1867. He was an active participant in the Irish Party committee consulted by the Liberals before publication of the 1893 Home Rule Bill. Gladstone was particularly interested in the Canadian settlement.

As somebody not directly involved in the split of 1890, Blake was even touted as a possible leader of a united

Irish party. While he himself never harboured such ambitions, always believing himself to be an inexperienced outsider, his contribution to the Irish cause over the next 20 years was significant - not least his fundraising efforts, particularly in Canada and the US, which helped keep the party afloat.

Like many contemporaries Blake favoured a federal solution to the Home Rule question, involving national parliaments in the individual nations of the United Kingdom, subordinate to the imperial parliament. He had previously supported dominion representation in the imperial parliament. However, he knew that the Irish demand could not wait for the development of national sentiment in Scotland and Wales. As the Toronto Star stated after this death, he was "that odd combination, an imperialist and an Irish Nationalist", though that phenomenon was not as odd then as it sounds now: many Home Rulers looked to the achievements of Irishmen in the colonies as inspiration for their own efforts.

Blake was not without his quirks. His Canadian and Irish careers are punctuated periods of ill health. He was believed to suffer from neurasthenia. His pattern of resigning from positions in Canada was not precisely mirrored in his Irish career. Here he threatened more than acted. As FSL Lyons puts it in his biography of John Dillon, "the Irish Party in these years of dissension was hardly the place for a man with a chronic urge to resign." Yet Blake was always dissuaded.

In 1895 Blake served prominently on the Royal Commission on the Financial Relations between Great Britain and Ireland, which reinforced nationalist claims that the Act of Union had ushered in a period of over-taxation of Ireland.

Perhaps his most significant intervention in Irish politics was Blake's decision in 1900 to attend the unification conference of the Parnellite and anti-Parnellite factions on January 30th, 1900, which forced his allies Dillon and TP O'Connor to attend also. Previously Dillon had feared an alliance between Redmond and Healy to his disadvantage, but Blake's decision to attend the conference forced his hand.

Blake never expected to stay in Ireland as long as he did. Indeed, he was offered prominent Canadian judicial positions during his tenure at Westminster but always refused. His commitment to the Irish cause was principled and genuine.

He retired from Irish politics 100 years ago this year following a stroke and died in Canada five years later. He had done both Canada and Ireland considerable service.