- Redmond: The Parnellite
John Redmond is a name known to every Irish historian. He stood by Parnell during the split in the 1890s, led the reunified Irish Parliamentary Party in 1900, steered the Home Rule bill through the parliament between 1910 and 1914, and then was swept aside by the Great War and the Easter Rebellion of 1916. Although he appeared poised to become the first prime minister of an Irish government since the eighteenth century, history has not been kind to Redmond. His dubious status was characterized some twenty years ago, when he was featured in a Thomas Davis lecture series titled Worsted in the Game: Losers in Irish History (1989). In fact, an essay by Michael Laffan in that book and a brief Historical Association of Ireland booklet, John Redmond, by Paul [End Page 155] Bew in 1996, were the first serious biographical studies since Denis Gwynn’s The Life of John Redmond in 1932. Dermot Meleady has attempted to re-establish Redmond as a major figure in Irish history with this biography of his early years, distinguished by his leadership of the Parnellites. This is a meticulously researched biography based on extensive work in private papers and close readings of Redmond’s speeches and writings. Meleady does not make clear whether he plans a second volume about John Redmond, the Home Rule leader, although it was from 1900 to 1914 that Redmond rose to a position of great national leadership in Ireland and enormous power and responsibility in parliament. These are the years of his moment in Irish history, and of his undoing.
Born into a prosperous Wexford family, young John Redmond was sent to Clongowes Wood College, where his leadership qualities stood out and where his literary and speaking skills developed. Redmond trained for the bar while following in the footsteps of his great-uncle and father in the House of Commons. After the death of his father he sought a seat in parliament, becoming a loyal supporter of Parnell. Although something of a junior figure among the members of the Irish Parliamentary Party, Redmond did crucial work. Sent on a ten-month trip to Australia, Redmond worked to raise funds and to promote the ideals of the party among the Irish community there; his eloquence and his ability to take the measure of his audience enabled him to win public support in the face of formidable criticism. In the House of Commons, he emerged as both a skilful parliamentarian and an increasingly brilliant speaker; many regarded Redmond as one of the most effective orators in parliament.
When the split in the Irish party came over Parnell’s relations with Katherine O’Shea, the divorce, and his subsequent marriage—as well as Prime Minister Gladstone’s announcement that he could no longer work with Parnell—Redmond and a handful of others gave their continued support to Parnell. A majority of Irish MPs followed John Dillon in allying themselves with Gladstone and the Liberal Party. Parnell’s death in 1891 did not heal the wounds generated by the split, and Irish political life went through a decade of bitter and fruitless animosity. It was during this period, while Redmond was the leader of the rump faction of Parnellites, that he emerged as the most generous, dignified, and able figure among the Irish MPs. While not without criticism from among his Irish colleagues, Redmond was really the only factional leader who could be acceptable to a sufficient proportion of Irish members to lead a reunited party.
Meleady notes that, while very much a man of principle (shown by his loyalty to Parnell), Redmond had a capacity to reach out to people and groups with views different from his own. Never actually a physical force advocate, [End Page 156] Redmond nonetheless worked hard to obtain amnesty for Fenian and Land War prisoners, and his speeches often praised and explained the motives of those involved in violent political action; Meleady concludes that Redmond probably met John Devoy on one of his visits to the...