Was it still possible to reconstruct the Parliamentary Movement?

For six months before the Convention came into being, the question whether the Parliamentary Movement could be preserved or was worth preserving had been agitating the minds of my colleagues and myself.

When the constancy of Cork—unique, so far as I know, in the electoral history of any country—compelled me to return to public life, against all my natural cravings to be once for all free from those little villainies of politics which no party and no country can hope altogether to shake off, I pledged myself not to withdraw again so long as Cork might want me. Events now succeeded each other which might well seem to absolve me from the pledge, and to show that the suppression of free speech by physical violence and in the newspapers which had drowned my voice in the rest of the country was beginning to invade the free field still left to me within the broad boundaries of the county and city of Cork. The City Municipal elections, the Co. Council elections, even the Parliamentary elections were beginning to go against the All-for-Ireland League. These petty choppings and changings never disturbed in its depths the almost mystic bond between the masses of the people and myself, which indeed survives all permutations and revolutions to this hour, if a thousand tender indications are not deceptive. An unpopularity which had to be laboriously organized and subsidised to make the slightest show and which in all these years did not succeed in seducing half a dozen renagadoes from our ranks whose names are worth recalling from oblivion was, for those who knew, a matter of infinitely small concern in itself. It, however, achieved two or three local successes sufficiently boisterous to enable malice, with some show of reason, to persuade the opportunists of Britain that the half-a-million of pur sang Nationalists of the South who had hitherto stood fast by the policy of "Conference, Conciliation and Consent" against a world of discouragements, were at long last deserting their standard.

How lying was the pretence, I took the first opportunity of putting to the test. Owing to intricacies of corrupt ward politics too scurvy for explanation here, the All-for-Ireland majority of the Corporation of Cork was displaced at the Municipal Elections in the beginning of 1914 and the victors in their intoxication boasted that Cork had gone over to the Hibernians and challenged me, in language of incredible scurrility to resign my seat and test at the polls whether the confidence of the people of Cork in me was not gone for ever. Under ordinary conditions, of course, the challenge would be dismissed with a smile. So effectual, however, had become for years the obstruction of the ordinary channels of public opinion that no means short of the figures at a contested election, or the verdict of a jury in an action for libel, were open to me to establish, in the eyes of the country at large, the falsehood of any specific accusation amongst the imputations and insinuations daily showered upon my head. My readiness to avail myself of the most Democratic of all tests—that of an appeal to my constituents, since no other was left to me—actually came to be imputed as the most heinous item in my table of sins. This time, however, their tipsy insolence betrayed my adversaries into being themselves the challengers, and there was but one answer. I resigned my seat and presented myself for re-election on a programme expressly reiterating in every particular our proposals for the appeasement of Ulster. The vaunting challengers of a week before crept abjectly back into their burrows, and the great constituency of Cork—the largest and (perhaps not on that account alone) the most coveted in the country—re-elected me without an opposing voice.

In the summer of the same year followed the elections for the Co. Councils and the District Councils—that is to say a few weeks after the representatives of Ireland had by their votes accepted the Amending Bill for the separation of the Six Counties and the All-for-Ireland group had made the one solitary protest that was heard from Ireland. Any one acquainted with all that the Irish people now know might suppose that it would be those who had just finally voted for Partition who would appear before their countrymen in sackcloth and ashes, and those whose protest had at least saved for the future Ireland's honour as a nation who would be greeted with the nation's gratitude. In the country's dire ignorance of what happened, it was the other way about. It was "The Party" red-handed from the crime of Partition who were acclaimed as the saviours of the country; it was on the strength of the diabolical lie that we had "voted against Home Rule" that some six hundred of our friends in the Co. Councils and District Councils of the South were arraigned as "factionists" and "traitors"; and to the shame of Irish gullibility it was this outrageous electoral fraud that carried the day. The cry was only raised at the last moment when it was too late to make the bewildered electors aware of the truth, and by a verdict which the universal Irish race would now remorsefully recant, it was the mutilators of Ireland who were held justified, and it was the candidates of the group who alone had lifted a voice against the infamy who were borne down as traitors. The success of the Hibernians was of the narrowest, and could not have been achieved at all without the countenance of some half-a-dozen powerful Catholic dignitaries who must have been sufficiently punished if they discovered the practices of the corrupt secret tyranny of which they made themselves the unconscious ministers.[44] But the mischief was done of persuading the rest of Ireland and the watchful politicians at Westminster that the last fortresses, hitherto immune from the power of the Board of Erin, had fallen. By no matter how narrow a majority, the local government of vast regions of the South was placed for the next seven years at the mercy of men who refused the smallest honour or office which their votes could deny to their brother Nationalists and more mischievously still, deprived the 30,000 Protestants of Cork of their solitary representative on the Co. Council—an All-for-Irelander of much local usefulness—who was ejected to the cry of "Cromwellian Spawn!" and "Orange Dog!" The saddest thought of all was that results like this were a wicked libel upon the mass of the Southern Catholics who were, and are, kindliness and religious tolerance incarnate.

Our Parliamentary strongholds remained impregnable, but were not to remain so long. Our band at Westminster, thin as were its ranks, had all the advantages that compactness, mutual loyalty, and self abnegation could give it. Ours was a blithe and dauntless company whose beadroll it will always be a comfort to tell—the two Healys, Tim and Maurice, Parliament men of the first rank, who need play second to no living men, Irish or English, on the benches of the House of Commons—the one for brilliancy and the other for solidity; Captain D. D. Sheehan, one who had turned more farmers into proprietors than the whole Hibernian Party put together, and had been one of the prime movers in the settlement of 50,000 labourers in cosy cottages and allotments; James Gilhooly, of Bantry, who represented the finest traditions of the old Fenian days, and had a place in the hearts of his constituents from which it used to be truly said, all the united power of Parnell and his captains could not dislodge him, had they ever chosen to try; Eugene Crean, in whom the bitterest of our adversaries was ready to recognise "the heart's blood of an honest man," one with the tenderheartedness of a child and the fearlessness of a Nemean lion; John Walsh, a merchant of eminence, with an unsurpassable knowledge of the people and of their affairs; and "Paddy" Guiney, who brought into the movement the rough-rider breeziness and "pep" of American Democracy. Among the non-parliamentarians as well we were able to count upon towers of strength—Father Richard Barrett, the foremost of our clerical friends in mind and heart, who was untimely stricken with blindness, but to the day of his death remained for us a sort of sanctuary lamp whose internal light was one not to be extinguished; Alderman J. C. Forde, who for twenty years had been the mainstay of Nationality in Cork in its successive phases—in arms or in the broadest spirit of Conciliation—and in all its phases was the organizer of victory, who never advertised, and the unshakeable friend, who was as constant when the heavens frowned as when the sun was at its meridian; Jerry Howard and William McDonald, in turn chairmen of County Council, who were the real rulers of a province and were governing its affairs with a wisdom and geniality full of joyous promise for the new race of native owners who were beginning to be the possessors of the land; Mr. Joseph Hosford, the typical Protestant All-for-Irelander, whose steadfastness justified my warmest faith in our Protestant countrymen, had they only imitated his outspokenness in the acceptable time; Mr. Laurence Casey, the founder of the National Insurance Association in Dublin, reliable as his ancestral "Boys of Wexford," who made the name of 'Ninety-Eight immortal and straight as the pikestaffs twelve feet long with which they drove home their thrusts; Mr. Dan O'Donovan of Limerick, afterwards barbarously murdered by the Black-and-Tans—where am I to stop in a gazette that can only contain one out of as many thousands of devoted friends, the bare echo of whose names makes my pulses still tingle?

So long as, with such auxiliaries as these, our title to speak for the fairest region of Nationalist Ireland—that which had been the focus of all previous struggles and was to be again the focus of the struggle that followed—could not be disputed, it was a duty to labour on against all odds until the remainder of the country could have an opportunity of understanding. In the midst of our own camp that title was now to be seriously compromised. The deaths of two of our members created vacancies during the critical months that followed our reverses at the County and District elections. In the first of these constituencies, none but an All-for-Irelander had any prospect of being elected; but the evil Hibernian habit of regarding seats in Parliament as hereditary possessions had so far eaten its way into our own ranks, that the candidate returned, although an All-for-Irelander like his deceased brother, represented not so much a principle as the predominance of "a long-tailed family." A more calamitous breach was to follow before many months, and—a wayward fate would have it—as the result of the death of the member for West Cork, James Gilhooly, who was a friend as true as ever poet, sang of, and, like the old Fenian hero that he was, would have given his blood drop by drop rather than that the scramble for his seat should add to our thickening troubles. The absurd thing was that the chief disturber was a medical student from a Mental Hospital in Birmingham, who was an All-for-Irelander more orthodox than myself, and in that infallible faith proceeded to split the All-for-Ireland vote by standing motu proprio as a candidate himself. This, as the son of a doctor of much popularity in one of our most solid voting places (Schull), he was unfortunately in a position to do.

The candidature of the crank from the Birmingham Mental Hospital was only one of the multiple signs of the demoralization and decomposition of the Parliamentary movement which the West Cork election was to exhibit. To the crazy rival candidate from Birmingham, more Catholic than the Pope—more All-for-Irelander than the All-for-Ireland League—was added a local Hibernian solicitor, who in defiance of Mr. Redmond's expressed public orders, persisted in profiting by the Split for parochial purposes of his own; an Orange Sinn Féiner from Belfast, without any authority from Sinn Féin, who a couple of months afterwards reverted to the bitterest Orangeism; and, to complete the incredible catalogue, a Bishop, more Redmondite than Mr. Redmond, who issued a manifesto insisting that Mr. Redmond had not yet received a sufficiently blind trust from the country, but shortly after the election turned a violent Sinn Féiner himself, and from a violent Sinn Féiner reacted to denounce Sinn Féin more violently still and within the next few years was destined to undergo half a dozen new transmigrations—"everything by turns and nothing long"—from Sinn Féin to Anti-Sinn-Féin and back again in an equally nonsensical manner. To his Lordship belongs the triste glory of striking the last blow at the existence of the Parliamentary movement.

It was Bishop Coholan's ill-advised intervention on the eve of the polling that turned a scale already heavily weighted enough against us. His electioneering harangue was all the more indefensible that it was delivered on the peculiarly solemn day of his Consecration, and on the occasion of a purely religious presentation to him, by a deputation more than half of whom—had he, an eminent Maynooth scholiarch, unversed in the ways of the world or of politics, only known it—were enthusiastic All-for-Irelanders as well as fervid Catholics. How distressing the episode was may be judged from the fact that the Bishop's own elder brother—a Canon of the Diocese and Parish Priest of Bantry—who had been and remained one of the foremost friends of the All-for-Ireland League in West Cork, felt it his duty to quit the assembly while the glorification of an utterly discredited Hibernianism was in progress. The pronouncement of the new Bishop, however, had its effect upon a number of the younger priests who were making up their minds to forsake the falling fortunes of Hibernianism.

Our candidate was Mr. Frank Healy, a barrister still interned in England, who was chosen because he seemed to combine the conciliatory spirit of an All-for-Irelander with something of the romantic charm of Sinn Féin. He had been snapped up in the wild orgy of Martial Law that followed the Rising of Easter Week, although everybody except the Court-martial knew that with that enterprise he had no relations, overt or secret. He was still under the restrictions of a conditional internment in Bournemouth, and his attempt to obtain leave to visit the constituency before the election gave rise to a stroke of governmental foul-play, which was the crowning disgrace of the foul practices from all sides of which we were the victims. That crafty financier, Mr. Herbert Samuel, who had fobbed off the fearful and wonderful finances of the Home Rule Bill on the Hibernian Party, was guilty of a piece of execrably bad taste in an endeavour to compensate them. In collusion with a questioner from the Hibernian benches, he insinuated that, in his application to him, as Home Secretary, for permission to visit West Cork for the election campaign, Mr. Frank Healy had really been putting in an abject petition for mercy, and the calumny was emphasized in scare headings in the Board of Erin Press and placarded at every cross-roads in the constituency. Finally, in this most topsy-turvy of contests, it fell out that the Protestant farmers and their clergymen, who formed a considerable element of the constituency, voted against Mr. Frank Healy because he was a Sinn Féiner and the Sinn Féin priests because he was not.

"For a' that, an' a' that"—the Bishop's unseemly intervention, an' a' that—the votes actually cast for All-for-Ireland were 2,120 as against 1,868 for the candidate of the Board of Erin, being an All-for-Ireland majority of 252. But 370 of the All-for-Ireland votes having been thrown away upon the candidate of the Birmingham Mental Hospital, the Hibernian was enabled to succeed, as a minority member, by a majority of 118. Mr. Redmond (who had deprecated the contest in West Cork) was so transported by this sorry triumph as to brag in England that "there was no longer any alternative policy before the country, nor even an alternative leader"; Mr. Dillon, with the perspicacity that never failed him, saw in the return of the minority member the first flush of a second spring of popularity for "The Party." My own reading of the event, in my remarks at the declaration of the poll in Bantry, if less poetic, was to be more tragically justified:

"They (All-for-Irelanders) had done their part by Ireland so long as even the stump of a sword was left in their hands against a combination of influences from the Extreme Right to the Extreme Left such as might well have discouraged the stoutest hearts. . . . It would be idle to minimise the gravity of the decision of yesterday, although, as the figures proved it was only come to by a minority of the electors who voted, and although it was due to influences which they all understood in Ireland but which would be fatally misunderstood in England. All he could hope was that the result would not mark the end of any honest constitutional movement for our time, and that those electors of West Cork who had done the mischief would not have reason to lament their work for many a bitter year to come."

The West Cork election turned out to be, truly, the death-blow of the Parliamentary movement. It was the last time the chaste war-cry of the Hibernians: "Up, the Mollies!" was ever heard in triumph in the South. A week or two afterwards, Mr. Asquith after long fumbling threw down the reins of power. That extraordinary ménage à trois—Mr. Lloyd George, Mr. Bonar Law and Sir E. Carson—were installed in his room without a protesting voice from the Hibernian benches. The Home Rule of the Gladstone tradition was at an end for ever. It will always be open to debate, whether, had the result in West Cork gone the other way, it might not have been still possible to regenerate what was loosely called "the constitutional movement" by a combination of the principles of Conciliation as between creeds and classes, which was before long to carry all before it in the minds of all enlightened Irishmen, with the young energy and purity of purpose represented by Sinn Féin. The Irish Republic was still unheard of, save for its meteor flight in Easter Week. While the Sinn Féin internees in the English prisons sternly resented any aid from the Parliamentarians whose leader had "expressed his horror and detestation" of the rebels awaiting their doom at the hands of Sir John Maxwell's Courts-martial, I received, while the West Cork campaign was still in progress, two letters signed by the leaders of the 600 internees at Frongoch (among the signatories being those of Mr. Richard J. Mulcahy, the subsequent Minister of Defence in the Republican Cabinet and of the "Head Campleader," Mr. Michael Staines, afterwards one of the members for Dublin in Dáil Eireann) invoking my aid in the exposure of their prison treatment. When one or two Republican madcaps in Cork secretly confederated with the Hibernians in wrecking the candidature of their brother-internee, Mr. Frank Healy, one of the earliest pioneers of Sinn Féin, I received a message from Mr. Arthur Griffith, the future President of the Irish Provisional Government, dated from Reading Jail, where a large body of Sinn Féin prisoners were detained, expressing on behalf of all his brother-prisoners, with one exception, their reprobation of these unholy intrigues.

"Re our friend Frank Healy," Mr. Griffith said, "I think the whole business has been hideously mismanaged by our friends Pim,[45] Tom Curtin and others. Tom Curtin's pronouncement was an entirely unauthorised statement and has caused considerable annoyance among us. I think Sinn Féin should have remained absolutely aloof and I fear that not doing so will be the cause of lamentable confusion and mischief. What I have said concerning Tom Curtin's pronouncement you may convey to all whom it may concern."

Even the hotheads who were ready for any combination against Parliamentarianism were so far from being animated by any personal hostility to myself, that they defended their wrecking morals upon the queer ground that I was the only man of the old school sufficiently respected to give Parliamentarianism another chance with honest Irishmen. As a matter of fact, the young men of the West Cork Division paid no heed to their whispers and remained pathetically true to our beaten side. But looking back more coolly now upon the chaos and distraction of the public mind against which we were contending, one is forced to recognize that the canker had eaten too deeply into Irish public life to be cured except by some sharper surgery than it was any longer in our power to apply. Everywhere the most level-headed of the old believers in Conciliation began to report to us that nothing could prevent their sons from becoming Sinn Féiners, adding as often as not: "And, to tell you the truth, we are becoming a sort of Sinn Féiners ourselves." And so it was everywhere. The youth of the country felt the sap of a glorious springtime fermenting within them. West Cork, which even at that late date would have stood fast by a policy of peaceful conciliation, had not the appointed ministers of peace aimed the last blow at it, gave up the hope to dream of the Republic, even if it had to be sought by meeting England in battle array. The fact tells its own tale that, in the desperate insurrectionary years that were to follow, West Cork was the headquarters of a resistance to the Black-and-Tans and all their bloody aiders and abettors, perhaps more widespread and more unconquerable than in any other district in the country. Mr. Herbert Samuel and his wise brother Ministers crushed the All-for-Ireland League only to be obliged to sue for peace to Michael Collins—himself a West Corkman and a West Cork Deputy—and make him Prime Minister of the country they set out to whip into subjection.

Read "The Irish Revolution" at your leisure

The Irish Revolution

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William O'Brien was a County Cork M.P. who participated in the negotiations for Home Rule in Ireland. In this account, first published in 1923, he provides an insight into the politics and politicians of the time - John Redmond, John Dillon, Arthur Griffith, Sir Edward Carson, Bonar Law, Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, etc. - and gives his analysis of the origins of the Easter Rising of 1916 and the subsequent Irish Civil War. From his own perspective, O'Brien was very much anti-Partition, and was evidently frustrated at the failure to give adequate reassurance to the Northern Unionists.

The ebook is available in .mobi (for Kindle), .epub (for iBooks, etc.), and .pdf formats, and a sample PDF can be downloaded. For more information on the book see details ».


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