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Monday 22 October 2018

A Wexford political tradition: John Redmond and his native county

Renowned historian and academic director of the Parnell Summer School, Dr Martin O'Donoghue, looks at the Wexford links to the early 20th century political leader

John Redmond
John Redmond

On October 4, 1914 and just over a month after the passage of a home rule act for Ireland in Westminster, Irish Party leader John Redmond addressed a crowd of supporters in Wexford town. Receiving numerous congratulations and many cheers, he declared if it was not for the dark and menacing cloud of the war in Europe, he would say it was the happiest day of his life.

Although home rule legislation was suspended for the duration of the war, (with provision for a specific arrangement concerning Ulster unionist opposition) Redmond appeared on the verge of his crowning glory: home rule for Ireland.

As unlikely as it appeared on that day, a new generation of Irish nationalists would soon take centre stage as the Easter Rising transformed public opinion, exacerbating the political difficulties facing Redmond since 1912. However, when the Irish Party leader passed away on March 16, 918, he still remembered fondly by many loyal followers. Nowhere was this was more obvious than in his native Wexford where his funeral was a sombre and wide scale affair with windows were draped in black and huge crowds in attendance.

Hailing from a prominent Wexford family, Redmond was the third generation of the family to represent parliament. He became a devoted follower of Charles Stewart Parnell, served time in jail as part of the Irish Party's support for land agitation and represented Irish nationalism on tours of Australia and the United States. After Parnell's passing, Redmond led the Parnellite minority before becoming chairman of the reunited Irish Party in 1900.

By 1912, this party had won a measure of home rule from the Liberal government although Redmond had to wait two years for it to become reality as the House of Lords delayed the bill. In the intervening time, unionists and nationalists both formed volunteer forces as divisions over home rule hardened. Nationalist fears, however, were eased somewhat with the passing of the home rule bill onto the statute book on September 18, 1914. Even Redmond's move two days later at Woodenbridge, Co. Wicklow to commit Irishmen to join the British army in the war seemed to do little to affect his standing initially either in his native county or nationally.

The split in the Irish Volunteers saw an overwhelming majority support Redmond while only around 12,000 remained with Eoin MacNeill. Although neither of the Wexford MPs (Thomas Henry Grattan Esmonde and Peter Ffrench) were prominent recruiters, both persistently supported the Redmondite Volunteers. As in most counties, Redmond could also count on the support of the almost universally pro-home rule local government boards.

It is true that even in Wexford some were dissatisfied with Redmond and the War - the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) was small but active and in Enniscorthy, the Echo, edited by William Sears, was considered an extreme publication by the British authorities. At Easter 1916, Volunteers gathered in Enniscorthy, mobilising on Thursday, April 27, and occupying the Athenaeum theatre before the surrender of the rebels in Dublin left them with no option but to follow suit on April 30. Already vulnerable to the threat of partition and the deaths of Irishmen on the battlefields of Europe, the aftermath of the Rising proved devastating for the Irish Party. The executions of the leaders provoked an outpouring of grief while the collapse of home rule negotiations that summer damaged Redmond and his party still further.

Ever the conciliator, Redmond sought another settlement in the Irish Convention bringing together nationalists and unionists. Yet the convention, boycotted by the resurgent Sinn Féin party, failed to reach an agreement as the Irish Party lost ground. Redmond's health was failing by this time and he resigned the chairmanship of the party to have surgery before passing away on March 6, 1918.

Amid fears of hostility in Dublin, Redmond's remains were brought back to the warm embrace of his native Wexford for his funeral. Nine months later, the Irish Party was decisively defeated in a general election. Although the party polled strongly in Wexford (French was defeated by less than 600 votes), as elsewhere, Sinn Féin emerged victorious. Only in Ulster and in John Redmond's old constituency seat of Waterford where his son Capt. William took his seat, was the Irish Party able to stem the tide.

Devotion to Redmond and the home rule tradition persisted, however, especially in Waterford and Wexford. There was a largely attended memorial to Redmond on the anniversary of his death in 1919 while in 1924 and 1925, there were major national commemorations with crowds of around 20,000 people coming to the south east to pay tribute to Redmond's memory.

Even in later years, Wexford did not forget its most famous political son. On the centenary of Redmond's birth in September 1956, a major symposium on his life was held in Wexford town. Attended by historians such as F.S.L Lyons, Mary Donovan O'Sullivan and Denis Gwynn as well as Éamon de Valera, the event attracted much coverage in the local and national press. A special commemorative stamp was also released - an honour repeated in 2018.

Indeed as the events of this year have shown, the Government, civic bodies such as Wexford County Council and individuals have worked hard to mark the centenary of a leader who even his political opponent de Valera described as 'a great Wexfordman' who had ' worked unselfishly according to his views for the welfare of this country'.

Martin O'Donoghue is the Academic Director of the Parnell Summer School.The Parnell Summer School runs from August 12-16 in Rathdrum, Co Wicklow. Details of the schedule, speakers and paper titles can be found at www.parnellsociety.com.

Parnell society to mark 100th anniversary of Redmond's death

The centenary of John Redmond's death will be marked later this month by the Parnell Society as part of its 28th annual Summer School.

At the time of his death Redmond was the then leader of the Irish Party and successor to Parnell's, and the nations, then political ambition.

On Tuesday, August 14, at 3.30 p.m. the Parnell Society will commemorate his life and work with a short graveside ceremony in St John's graveyard.

There will also be a brief graveside oration from society president, Professor Donal McCartney.

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