John Redmond and Home Rule

Eleanor Hull
John Redmond and Home Rule

Into the wild hurricane of passions which were let loose both in Ireland and in England by the downfall of Parnell it is unnecessary to enter. The negotiations before his death between himself and the other members of the Parliamentary party in “Room 15” at Westminster and at Boulogne had forced on Parnell the necessity of retirement from the leadership of the party. Sexton and Healy on one side and Redmond on Parnell’s side argued with much gravity the position of the Home Rule cause in the new circumstances.

“When it becomes a question of selling our leader to buy an alliance,” said John Redmond, “it would be well to see what we are getting for the price.” “It is true that I have a feeling of personal loyalty,” he added, addressing Parnell, “but it is not a personal motive that animates me; it is because I believe that your maintenance is necessary to the success of our cause.”[1]

In Ireland there had been at first a disposition to overlook the private delinquencies of the leader and to reaffirm confidence in his statesmanship. To a large number of his followers Parnell had, in Mr. Healy’s words, become “not so much a man as an institution.”

A mass meeting in Dublin, addressed by Redmond, declared that his continuance as leader was essential to the Home Rule cause. But three influences worked to render his return impossible. The first was Parnell’s own manifesto, which was couched in a fighting tone, and was disapproved by several members of his party, who declared themselves unable to support it; the second was the vehement attack made on him by the Irish bishops, on the ground that his private life unfitted him to hold the post of political leader; the final cause was the declaration of Gladstone that he would not enter into negotiations with the party while Parnell remained as its chief.

It was this decision of Gladstone’s, forced on him by the Nonconformist supporters of the Liberal party, which split the Parnellite group and ended in the withdrawal of forty-four members, led by Justin McCarthy, William O’Brien, Davitt, Sexton, and Healy.

Parnell’s last days were spent in rushing backward and forward between Ireland and Brighton, fighting the bishops and priests, and vainly endeavouring to rally his scattered adherents. The fierce struggle hastened his end, and all parties were struck with horror as the news of his death went abroad.

One of those vast funeral assemblies in which it was becoming the custom for Irish sentiment to manifest itself [2] accompanied the remains of Parnell to his grave at Glasnevin Cemetery, and in New York all flags were flown at half-mast. A message from that city expressed one of the opinions dominant at the moment:

“There can never be union between the two factions until the priests of Ireland are driven from the platform back to their pulpits.”[3]

The question who was to succeed Parnell was one of great importance. Whoever was chosen had a hard task before him. He had to face violent opposition from the public in England and a doubtful support from the hitherto friendly Liberal party. Behind were the divided forces of the Parnellites and anti-Parnellites, hurling fierce epithets at each other across the fresh grave of the chief, and contesting seats against each other at the polls.

John Redmond was beaten at “rebel Cork,” Parnell’s old constituency, but was elected for Waterford against Davitt. He had been closely connected with the last days of the leader and had organized Parnell’s funeral, but he was, to a large extent, an untried man; even Parnell had recognized in him no outstanding capacity for leadership. Redmond came to the front chiefly because of his fidelity to the dead chief, but with little prestige or promise of support.

The elections of 1892 left him with only ten followers at Westminster, after a squalid faction fight, and of the eighty-five Home Rulers of all parties who were returned to Parliament, one of them says that the “one-man power” of Parnell was replaced by “eighty-man powerlessness under, not one leader, but a dozen.”

It was not an encouraging prospect for an inexperienced man. But Redmond, in spite of the forebodings of his enemies, quickly showed that he had unsuspected powers. He had reason to fear that Gladstone, in the new circumstances, would take up a mild policy with regard to Home Rule, in order to disarm his followers, but Redmond demanded a thorough and final settlement which would prove satisfactory to the Irish people.

His speech on Gladstone’s second Home Rule Bill, introduced on February 13, 1893, which only differed from his first Bill of 1886 in retaining the Irish Members in the Imperial Parliament, was, says Sir Henry Lucy, the Parliamentary chronicler, “a revelation. … To-day he strode into the front rank of Parliamentary debaters … Mr. Redmond’s oratorical style, as the House discovered, is based on a substratum of solid knowledge, sound commonsense, and a statesmanlike capacity to review a complicated situation.”

To the position which Redmond took up on that occasion he remained true throughout his career. He did not stand on the same platform as that of his old chief.

Redmond was never a separatist, as Parnell was at heart, but he believed that the measure of Home Rule to be given to Ireland should be full and free. “I challenge anyone in this House,” he exclaimed in one of his speeches, “to quote a statement of mine … that so long as we remain partners in the Empire at all, and so long as the Act of Union remains unrepealed, the supremacy of the Imperial Parliament is to be or can be abrogated. We have maintained that the concession of free institutions in Ireland means that you have put trust in the Irish people, and that the interference of this Parliament in the working of those institutions would be absolutely inconsistent. … The issue is,” he said earlier in the debate, “whether this Parliament will confer on Ireland the management of her own affairs.”[4]

As a Nationalist, he did not regard with favour the idea of the exclusion of Ireland’s voice from the councils of an Empire “which the genius and valour of her sons have done so much to build up, and of which she is to remain a part.” At a later date he used even more forcible words with regard to separation. “To talk about Ireland separating from the Empire,” he declared, “is the most utter nonsense. We are not asking for separation.” “Separation,” he said again, “is impossible; if it were not impossible, it is undesirable.” In these utterances we find a new note, very unlike the rigid insularity of Parnell’s views.

In Redmond’s outlook there was something of the Imperialist, of the travelled man, who saw Ireland in relation to the larger world, not with the narrower vision of the home-reared politician. A free and self-governing Ireland, with full control of its own affairs, but in which Imperial interests would be safeguarded, was the ideal which filled his mind, and which at times, as at the moment when he offered the aid of Ireland in the Great War, startled even England with the note of sincerity which rang through its utterance. The Canadian position was always present to his mind, and he looked forward to an autonomous and prosperous Ireland on similar lines, bound by ties of mutual benefit to the neighbouring country.

The circumstances of Redmond’s early life partly explain this attitude. He was the descendant of an old Norman house, the Raymonds of Strongbow’s invasion, and his father, William Archer Redmond, a man of polished manners and natural capacity, was a Wexford landlord who had represented his constituency as a Home Ruler in the Parliament of 1872. His mother was a daughter of General Hoey.

John Redmond, who was born in 1857, and his father had both entered Trinity College, Dublin, after receiving their school education, the father at Stonyhurst, the son at Clongowes College. The family had many connexions with the Army and the elder Redmond lived, as did many others, an ordinary country gentleman’s life, proud of his country and fond of farming, fishing, and literature.

When young Redmond threw in his lot with the Land League it was something of a shock to his relations, who kept aloof from the extremists of the popular party.

The family belonged to that very considerable body of Irish Catholic country gentlemen and proprietors whose allegiance to the Crown was never disputed and who, with the merchants and professional men of the middle classes, kept the country quiet in the midst of many attempts to disturb it. The existence of this conservative body of Catholic opinion has too often been ignored by writers on Irish affairs, but it has been an important factor in the history of the country.[5]

John Redmond’s early Parliamentary experiences were of a stirring description. He entered the House of Commons for the first time as Member for New Ross on that eventful night when, after a sitting of forty-one hours, the closure was first applied. Parnell was on his legs “with pale cheeks and drawn face, his hands clenched behind his back, facing without flinching a continuous roar of interruptions.” It was between seven and eight o’clock on a dark and cold winter’s morning. No one knew what was going to happen. But at eight o’clock the Speaker ordered the debate to end; and the Irish Members, after protests, left the Chamber in a body.

The following day Redmond had an experience absolutely unique in Parliamentary history. He took his oath and seat, made his maiden speech, and was suspended and expelled from the House all on the same evening, along with thirty-seven other Irish Members.[6] Hardly less disturbing was his reception in Australia, to which country he was sent by Parnell on a Nationalist organizing tour with his brother, William Redmond, while Parnell was imprisoned in Kilmainham. They arrived at the moment when the examiners of the informer, Carey, after the Phœnix Park murders, had endeavoured to establish a connexion between these crimes and certain prominent Land Leaguers. So strong was the feeling excited in the Dominion that all halls were closed to the emissaries, and Redmond was threatened with expulsion from the colonies. It was only the Irish working men and the Fenians that made the mission a success.

In Australia John Redmond and his brother met their future wives, and it is to these experiences that we may very possibly ascribe the future Irish leader’s widened views. We find, from his speeches, that the position of Australia and Canada had made a great impression on his mind, and led him to look to a similar agreement as the best solution of the Irish question. But he had a difficult team to drive. An adherent of Parnell, closely associated with his Parliamentary career, says of Parnell’s party in the House that he had as active a band of supporters as it had ever been the fortune of any Irish political leader to command.

“They are always on the spot, whenever their presence is required and often when it is not. They never lose an opportunity of striking a blow for ‘the cause.’ They are independent, persistent, courageous. They have no respect for persons or for things. Genius has no charms for them and rank no allurement. … The study of political history they consider a waste of time. … They talk frequently and often well. They denounce freely and abuse without stint. In all they say and do they keep one object ever in sight, … the ‘smashing’ of the House of Commons as the sole means of securing the legislative independence of Ireland.”[7]

Parnell’s solid destructive party was now to be broken into three, each with its own organization and its own Press, Dillon controlling the Freeman, Healy the Daily Nation, and Redmond the Independent, while behind and somewhat apart from all three was William O’Brien’s “United Irish League,” established in Westport in 1898, which was destined to become a power in the constituencies. The latter was a democratic movement directed to making the people of each constituency self-governing within their own bounds, and as such it attracted the approval of Davitt, who saw in it a means of lay control of the polls and of restoring the demoralized Parliamentary party to new life and vigour.[8]

The three still outstanding questions relating to Ireland which Redmond had to face were the Land, Education, and Home Rule. The second Home Rule Bill of Gladstone had been rejected by the Lords and Gladstone had retired from public life. He was succeeded by Lord Rosebery, who ‘hung up’ the question and who was shortly to be replaced by a Unionist administration, under which Gerald Balfour went to the Irish Office with a policy of internal reform which came to be humorously described as “killing Home Rule with kindness.”

Henceforth it was not to be contended that reforms were to be obtained for Ireland only by agitation and turbulence, for Ireland was comparatively peaceful. It was, moreover, determined that instead of imposing measures for the benefit of Ireland from outside, Irish leaders of opinion should themselves advise as to the best means of advancing local government and land legislation. Some beginnings had already been made in this direction.

From the year 1889 a few Irishmen had set themselves to arouse the rural population and direct it along new lines of self-help and industrial effort. To bring their produce up to a high standard of quality and to secure its rapid distribution, above all, to reduce the takings of the distributors or middlemen within reasonable dimensions and so secure more remunerative returns to the farmer, was the beneficial programme taken up by a number of gentlemen, among whom the names of Lord Monteagle, Sir Horace Plunkett, Mr. R. A. Anderson, and Mr. George Russell, better known as “A. E.,” will always be honourably remembered.

Their long and arduous labours, founded upon a study of agricultural conditions in such largely agricultural countries as Denmark and Sweden, and the introduction of improved machinery and implements, promised a revival of agriculture under more remunerative conditions.

Above all, the system adopted by them from abroad of co-operative banks and creameries, established on a considerable scale, promised relief from the ‘gombeen man’ who, by his loans and exactions, held a large part of the peasant population in a ruinous sort of slavery. By the year 1894 the movement had gathered volume to such an extent that the Irish Agricultural Organization Society was formed, of which Sir Horace Plunkett was elected first President, with the assistance of Lord Monteagle and the Rev. T. A. Finlay, S.J., to propagate economic principles and assist the agricultural population with advice and practical help.

The movement, in spite of denunciations by enemies of all sorts, ‘caught on,’ and by 1903 over eight hundred societies had been formed all over the country, and the trade turnover had been reached of nearly £2,000,000 a year. The lessons of self-help and business independence learned by the small farmers through the co-operative system, which was conducted by themselves, cannot be reckoned in any terms of actual money profit; it was incalculable.

On another side, women of all classes associated themselves to teach thrift, cooking, and the care of the home and children to the poorer classes in the country, while the Gaelic League, which had been founded in 1893 and which was now beginning to be heard of, not only interested the people in the revival of their own language, but made rural life happier by the restoration of the native music and dances and by encouraging libraries and lectures in the scattered villages. An immense interest in the betterment of both urban and rural life began to unite all classes in a common sense of nationality.

One result of the new movement was to bring the much and often unjustly abused landlords again into touch with actual life. The moment the way of definite usefulness was opened to them a number of these educated and experienced Irishmen sprang into the gap. Most of them lived on their properties and knew the actual conditions of life. They showed themselves just, moderate, and sagacious in the matters now to be brought before them. Under Gerald Balfour a number of important committees were formed to deal with the development of Irish agricultural and industrial resources.

The most important in its results was the Recess Committee, so-called because it met during the Parliamentary recess; it was summoned by a letter from Sir Horace Plunkett setting out the general scope and purpose of the scheme. It was to consist of men of all political parties, and was to include alike representatives of the landlord class and of the farmers and merchants, practical men of business. Unfortunately the invitation suggested that if the effort to make the people happy and successful should prove effective the desire and demand for Home Rule would probably cease.

Plunkett belonged by birth and tradition to the Unionist party, and at that time held that Home Rule, far from solving the country’s problems, would only increase them. This view, though it was the one adopted at the moment by the Government, was not likely to commend itself to the Home Rule party. The Dillonites were suspicious, and Justin McCarthy refused to take any part in the conference.

On the other hand, Colonel Saunderson, the leader of the Ulster Unionists, declared that he would not sit on a committee with Redmond. It looked like a deadlock. But John Redmond, who acted throughout, as Sir Horace says, “in a manner that was broad, statesmanlike, conciliatory, and as generous as it was courageous,” wrote that he was unwilling to take the responsibility of declining to aid in any effort to promote useful legislation for Ireland; he joined the committee with his small following, along with Unionists like The O’Conor Don and Lord Mayo, and he supported its recommendations in Parliament.[9]

The committee, when formed, included men of the most diverse shades of political and religious opinion, who probably would never in other circumstances have met on any platform. The material outcome of their deliberations was the formation of the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction, under whose auspices a number of existing agricultural, artistic, and scientific departments were re-grouped, and to which special branches for the protection of fisheries and other industries were added. In the more far-reaching domain of social life, it united in a common effort for the benefit of their country Irishmen drawn from different ranks of life and of very various political views.

They learned to appreciate and understand each other and many crude hereditary prejudices were modified; and it proved that the sense of a national life was not confined to any one party, but was the common heritage of all as Irishmen.

The Department set vigorously to work, instructing, advising, and assisting the small farmer, and introducing better methods to those working on a larger scale; it endeavoured to stimulate co-operation instead of competition, and led, by its co-operative banks, to greater thrift and economy in working. It worked in connexion with the Congested Districts Board, which had been established during Arthur Balfour’s short term of office as Chief Secretary with the object of securing plots of good land or waste pasturage for tenants with very small holdings and removing them, where necessary, from economically hopeless positions to better lands.

The title of the Board was ludicrously inappropriate; there were and are plenty of congested areas in towns like Dublin or Belfast; there certainly were none in the sparsely populated wilds of Connacht. The population of Connacht was decreasing with terrible rapidity; and miles of empty country that might have sustained existence were lying waste. But the intention of the scheme, to watch over the conditions of industry and assist the peasants in the most forlorn districts in the west of Ireland, was excellent; and long after Lord Balfour’s severe coercion laws are forgotten men will remember his efforts to open up the poverty-stricken districts on the western seaboards by the creation of light railways; to encourage fisheries; and to ameliorate the lot of the worst-housed cottiers by more sanitary and better-built habitations.

The fault of the system, as it was worked, was that it made the people too dependent on outside help; but this was a fault in the local administration, not in the design. After a long experience of industrial reorganization it was the belief of the man who has been well described as “the brain of the movement” for the rebuilding of rural Ireland from within, that not only is self-help a necessity, but “that the poorer a community is, the more essential is it to throw it as much as possible on its own resources, in order to develop self-reliance.”[10]