In 2002, the late Canadian historian Peter Hart, who specialised in the history of the War of Independence, made an appeal for the Irish revolutionary decade of 1912 to 1923 to be reconceptualised, and to have “all the myriad assumptions underlying its standard narratives interrogated”. He suggested such an approach needed to include an examination of “gender, class, community, elites and masses, religion and ethnicity, the nature of violence and power”. Hart’s observations are particularly relevant to the current decade of commemoration of the revolution, and I was reminded of his plea over the course of this summer as debates were hosted, in this newspaper and elsewhere, about Ireland in 1914, the impact of the outbreak of the First World War and the legacy of John Redmond.
Too much of the discussion of Redmond’s impact, however, is still informed by reflections on the (admittedly fascinating) high politics of the home rule crisis, and the dealings of Irish constitutional nationalists with British politicians as they sought to bring the home rule campaign to a successful conclusion. Home rule reached the statute books 100 years ago next month; this development was the culmination of a historically important campaign that included many worthy players, but it was also a pyrrhic victory, as its implementation was suspended. Former taoiseach John Bruton has consistently argued over the years that Redmond’s achievement has been unjustly neglected, insisting two years ago that while Redmond was “a realist” some of his successors were not. More recently, he argued that Redmond and his colleagues in the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) resisted pressure and prejudice to achieve the home rule act; they emerge in Bruton’s version as cool, clean, constitutional heroes, “a small minority in Westminster and far from home”.
One of the relevant points about the limitations and decline of Redmond, however, is precisely this distance. Redmond became increasingly out of touch during the war, rarely leaving London except for breaks in Aughavanagh, a former military barracks in the hills of Wicklow, which he deliberately chose as a retreat because it was remote and kept him out of reach. There, Redmond could shoot grouse, live as a country squire and bemoan the ingratitude of those who took advantage of the war to challenge his political strategy.
As things went from bad to worse for Redmond after the 1916 Rising and towards the 1918 general election, his reaction was one of frustration, laced with a panicked snobbery, which was evident in one of the last letters he wrote before his death in March 1918. Criticising the failure of his party to unite around him as Sinn Féin sought to demolish it, he suggested the result of such disloyalty would be “universal anarchy, and, I am greatly afraid, the spread of violence and crime of all sorts, when every blackguard who wants to commit an outrage will simply call himself a Sinn Féiner and thereby get the sympathy of the unthinking crowd.” The mistake here was in asserting that those embracing the new politics and resistance were dupes; they were in reality far from “unthinking”; they were young, purposeful, informed and determined to reject Redmond’s generation and its politics.
The observations of Hart about class, gender and power are particularly relevant to the decline of Redmond’s influence and the rise of Sinn Féin.
Many assertions have been made about the extent to which Redmond represented the views of the majority of Irish nationalists, but those claims need to be accompanied by significant caveats. The Irish electorate in 1910, for example, the year of the last general election before the 1918 one that destroyed the IPP, was only 700,000. By 1918, as a result of the Representation of the People Act, it was 1.9 million, with the vote extended to men of 21 and women over the age of 30 with property qualifications. During that 1918 campaign, Sinn Féin made specific pleas to female and younger voters as well as unfairly and inaccurately lampooning Irish MPs at Westminster as treacherous, and was also determined to present itself as representing the interests of the labour movement. Younger priests were also making their presence felt as part of the republican appeal, and the need for community, not elite mobilisation, was constantly emphasized.
Their revolution was, in turn, while propelled by much idealism and courage, also multilayered, complicated, messy, brutal and sometimes compromised as a result of competing impulses, tension between the labour and republican movements and the use of the revolution as a cloak to try and settle grievances over land, class, the distribution of power and status. For all these reasons, the history of the revolution is complicated. One of the advantages we now have is the variety of source material available to do justice to that complexity. We will not do justice to its evolution, however, unless we focus, not just on Westminster and its back rooms, but on those Redmond viewed as unthinking blackguards.