Book Review: John Redmond: Selected Letters and Memoranda, 1880-1918, edited by Dermot Meleady (2018)

9781785371554John Morley was a worried man despite his recent elevation. He had just been appointed as Irish Chief Secretary, a role he was regarding with considerable dubiety. This he sought to assuage by a talk, on the 17th October 1892, with a man who had his ear to the ground of that troubled – and, from the point of view of many in the British Government, troublesome – quarter of the United Kingdom.

John Redmond was only too keen to respond to Morley’s urgent invitation and got straight to the point: “How do you regard the prospects of this winter?”

Not good, the Chief Secretary-to-be admitted. “If I can’t rule Ireland this winter with success, it means destruction.”

While Morley dismissed rumours of secret societies, he was all too aware of how politics on that island were of a tempestuous sort, fully capable of wrecking any public career – such as his – on its rocks. With that in mind, he was equally direct with Redmond: “Can you give me any hope on this point?”

Redmond could, while leaving the onus on Morley. “It depends on yourself,” he replied. “If you are thorough, you can disarm hostility. In the first place, release the prisoners.”

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John Morley

“Do you mean the Dynamiters?” Morley asked, referring to the Fenian bombing campaign in England. While the minutes of this conversation do not convey tone, it is clear that Morley was hesitant about such a step but it was something Redmond felt strongly about, particularly if the other man wanted a quiet winter. “Amnesty – Amnesty – Amnesty!” he stressed, in case Morley missed it the first time.

As the conversation passed through a number of other topics, Morley expressed incredulity on one in particular while, in doing so, exposing the depths of his naivety:

Morley: Do you really want Home Rule?

Redmond: Certainly – genuine Home Rule.

Morley: Then don’t destroy our chances of giving it to you.

Redmond would show just how much he wanted Home Rule – of the genuine sort – by refusing to sit idly by for it to be granted. But it was not enough and the subsequent generation was to push him and his Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) aside, impatient to take rather than wait. All political careers may end in failure, but Redmond’s failed harder than most, leaving not so much a legacy as an embarrassment.

“The caricature of Redmond that has come down to us from the Sinn Féin-permeated political culture,” as historian Dermot Meleady puts it, has him as:

…out of touch with the Irish people and Irish culture, too much time spent in London, too trusting of British politicians, his tendency to ‘compliance’ where Parnell had embodied ‘defiance’.

The reader is invited to judge the truth of this image for themselves from this selection of correspondence, stretching four decades, from 1880, when Redmond first entered the political game, to his final year of 1918:

The letters in general are courteously businesslike in style and content, conveying in their neatness of handwriting and conciseness of style, a strong impression of self-discipline. Little emotion is revealed.

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William O’Brien

This stoicism served Redmond well during his tenure as IPP Chairman, buffeted as he was by one squall after another. No sooner had he been elected leader in 1900, in a move to bind the wounds of the Parnell Split, then he was faced with another feud that threatened to undo all the work of reuniting the Irish Party, this time between the prima donnas: William O’Brien and Timothy Healy.

“The only thing on which I am quite clear and which for me will involve the question of my membership of the Party,” O’Brien wrote to Redmond in November 1900, “is that the Convention ought specifically to direct Healy’s exclusion from the Party.”

O’Brien had his way in that regard, and the IPP began the following year by re-entering the Land Struggle as they agitated for land purchases, alongside the tactics of intimidation and boycotts, while staying short of violence. It was a delicate balance, and O’Brien’s push for an escalation alarmed Redmond, as it did his deputy, John Dillon.

This led to a three-way exchange of letters, as Redmond and Dillon strove to reign in their headstrong colleague. “I am…in complete agreement with you in thinking there is need at this moment for renewed activity,” Redmond told O’Brien soothingly. “What I differ from you is as to the means.”

Which was exactly Redmond’s style: calm, measured, in polite disagreement if need be while giving every impression that he was otherwise on your side. The emergence of the Irish Volunteers in 1913, a consequence of the Home Rule Crisis, put his powers of diplomacy to the test.

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John Redmond at a parade of the Irish Volunteers

“I can assure you I am extremely anxious that we should come to some understanding,” he wrote to Eoin MacNeill, the Chief of Staff of the armed new movement, on the issue of IPP personnel on its ruling body. It was a question of control, something which MacNeill was reluctant to surrender, but Redmond was nothing if not persistent.

“Why this moderate demand of ours was not conceded at once, I cannot understand,” he told MacNeill, rather passive-aggressively. “The present Committee [of the Irish Volunteers] is purely provisional, self-elected and includes no representative of the Irish Party.”

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Eoin MacNeill

Between themselves, the IPP leaders were not overly impressed with their new rival. “My interview with MacNeill left me the impression that he is extremely muddle-headed,” complained Dillon. MacNeill showed some of his strain in a reply to Redmond: “I am sorry that I have not been able to make the position clear to you.”

When the tenuous peace between the political and the paramilitary cracked with the Volunteer split in September 1914, and the majority sided with the IPP, Redmond indulged in some uncharacteristic ‘tough talk’. The remnants of the Volunteers who had stayed with MacNeill’s faction were “to be fought vigorously and remorselessly by us, who believe in the constitutional movement and in Home Rule as a settlement of the Irish question.”

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John Dillon

At the end, the Irish question would be settled, vigorously and remorselessly, by a very different set of tactics. When the Easter Rising of 1916 broke out, Redmond was in London, cut off from the rapid turn of events, while Dillon did his best to relay news to his Chairman from the warzone.

“Dublin is full of the most extraordinary rumours,” he wrote on the Easter Sunday, the 23rd April. “What it is I cannot make out.”

By Wednesday, Dillon had made out a little more, if barely. “The situation here is terrible,” he lamented. “We are in absolute ignorance of what has been going on, beyond the fact that fierce fighting has been in progress in many parts of the city.”

Irland, Osteraufstand in Dublin 1916
The Easter Rising in Dublin at night

While always engaging, the book turns particularly gripping from here, as the IPP struggled to come to terms with an Ireland that had been turned on its head by the end of the six days over Easter Week. Dillon provided the voice of reason, warning Redmond that the resulting executions would be a PR disaster, both for the British Government and themselves.

In that, he was entirely correct. The correspondence from then on presents a picture of ‘death by a thousand cuts’ as the constitutional cause was rejected by the voters, first in a quartet of by-elections in 1917, and then in the 1918 General Election, in which the Irish Parliamentary Party was wiped off the political map.

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Cartoon of John Redmond, following the IPP’s electoral loss in South Longford, May 1917

Its erstwhile Chairman was dead by then, the victim of a heart attack in March 1918. “What a terrible thing that poor Redmond should be taken from his people just at this time,” T.P. O’Connor wrote as he commiserated with Dillon. “However, personally, I think that the inability of his heart to respond was not due to any other cause than that it was broken.”

Eagle-eyed readers with a keen memory will recall how, earlier in the book and the year 1895, Redmond had received a report assessing the state of the ‘Dynamiters’ held in Portland Prison, the same men on whose behalf he had lobbied John Morley. That Redmond wrote out the findings showed his abiding interest.

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Tom Clarke

Health-wise, the inmates were a mixed bag. Duff – “Insane”, Dalton – “Sound in mind and body”, McDermot – “Ditto.” One in particular showed “symptoms of valvular disease” and indigestion but otherwise was also of “sound mind.” That mind belonged to a certain Tom Clarke, who went on to overturn everything his benefactor had been working on with the Easter Rising, twenty-one years later.

If history goes in cycles, then nowhere is that truer than of the Irish variety, where today’s heroes could become tomorrow’s failures, and the prisoners of now end up shaping the future; just one of the many lessons this book can provide.

Publisher’s Website: Irish Academic Press

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