John Redmond has long been neglected. With an anniversary event to take place, Niall Murray looks at his legacy
THE landmark 1918 general election, the centenary of which will be marked later this year, marked not just the elevation of Sinn Féin, but the final nail in the coffin of the Irish Parliamentary Party.
Its demise may have come after a relatively short illness, but it was also foreshadowed by the death 100 years ago next week of its leader John Redmond.
A symposium about his life and legacy next week will hear contributions about Redmond himself, but also on the history of the Irish Parliamentary Party.
Redmond is the subject of several new books this year, including a dual biography of him and Ulster unionist leader Edward Carson by Professor Alvin Jackson of the University of Edinburgh. It will be launched as the final element of events next Tuesday at the historic premises of the book’s publisher, the Royal Irish Academy, which was due to have hosted the day-long symposium. The level of interest in the proceedings saw organisers move it to a larger space in the nearby National Gallery, and there is a waiting list for any late places that may open up.
The three keynote speakers are Queen’s University Belfast historians Margaret O’Callaghan and Margaret Ward and Professor Paul Bew. University College Dublin (UCD) historian Conor Mulvagh, author of a recent study of the Irish party under Redmond’s leadership from 1900, will speak about leadership, obedience and political activity during those 18 years.
After being defeated in several Westminster byelections in 1917 by Sinn Féin candidates, including the party’s emerging leader, Eamon de Valera, the IPP looked potentially doomed. But the reversal of one of those in an Armagh byelections in February 1918 might have given John Redmond hope of a reprise.
But although his own son William retained the family and party seat within weeks of his own funeral, and a consequent byelection saw it keep a seat in East Tyrone, the IPP failed to stop further Sinn Féin victories by Patrick MacCartan and Arthur Griffith in Offaly and Cavan in the following months.
The writing was on the wall and the party now led by John Dillon won just six constituencies in a December 1918 general election, mostly in areas where Sinn Féin ran no candidates to avoid unionists benefiting from a split nationalist vote. The same election confirmed Sinn Féin’s dominance of an expanded electorate, emerging with all but 10 of the 83 Irish seats that were not won by unionist candidates
Those 73 victors — some of them elected without contest — went on to form the first Dáil Éireann. Those members who were not in English jails or on the run convened its first meeting in January 1919.
The rationale for next week’s event is that Redmond should be remembered for his long service to Irish nationalism, eventually securing British government approval for constitutionalists’ ambition for Home Rule in 1913. While its implementation would be delayed by what nobody had anticipated would be a four-year European war, the swing in public opinion towards the more separatist elements who undertook the Rising of Easter 1916 put paid to those ambitions.
The symposium will be opened by Maurice Manning, chancellor of the NUI, itself one of the often-forgotten achievements of the IPP.
“The establishment of a Catholic national university in 1908, a range of land reform acts, local government and agricultural reforms, all happened thanks to the Irish Party. But then history changed and 1916 simply wiped all of that out,” he said.
“There was nothing inevitable about the party’s collapse but sometimes there’s just a tidal wave that wipes everything out, in this case the many years of one group’s domination of Irish politics,” said Mr Manning.
He said it was appropriate, given that even those who set up Dáil Éireann had learned their politics from that parliamentary tradition, that next week’s symposium will commence with an address by the Dáil’s current chair, Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl.
Mr Manning, a former Fine Gael senator, also chairs the advisory committee to the Government on the decade of centenaries. He pointed out that the first official commemorative event was five years ago in Redmond’s native Waterford to mark 100 years since the passing of the third Home Rule Bill.
A mini-furore erupted in 2016 over Dublin City Council’s display of an image of John Redmond among large banners of constitutional parliamentarians at College Green, but Mr Manning described it as nothing more than a bit of play-acting.
He said the work of the committee was merely advisory and the principle has always been to follow events in a chronological way. Despite arguments by some — including one of next week’s speakers, ex-taoiseach John Bruton — that Redmond should have been better commemorated two years ago, the impact of the 1916 Rising meant it was maintained as the singular focus.
“At the same time, we said that there would need to be a big commemoration of John Redmond and the Irish Party,” Mr Manning explained.
Mr Bruton will chair the opening session on the centenary date of Mr Redmond’s death. The event is a joint venture between the RIA, National University of Ireland, Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, and UCD’s school of history.
Topics such as the party’s approach to World War I, women’s suffrage and the contradictions of Redmondism are also on the agenda.
Margaret O’Callaghan and Conor Mulvagh will join Redmond biographer Dermot Meleady and historian Brian Hanley in the latest of History Ireland magazine’s latest “hedge school” event, which is also focused on the former Irish Party leader. It takes place this Thursday evening at Custume Barracks in Athlone.
Details of registration for next Tuesday’s symposium at the National Gallery are on nui.ie