Sunday 23 October 2016

How Easter 1916 destroyed the Home Rule dream for good


John Redmond
John Redmond

When it first became clear that the Easter Rising leaders would all be shot, few people were more horrified than John Redmond's Irish Home Rule Party.

In an emotional speech to the House of Commons, deputy leader John Dillon warned the British Government that it was making a terrible mistake.

"I say I am proud of their courage, and if you were not so dense and so stupid as some of you English people are, you could have had them fighting for you," he declared. "You are washing out our whole life's work in a sea of blood!"

Dillon turned out to be exactly right. "A terrible beauty is born," was W.B. Yeats's famous description of the 1916 rebellion, but he might have added that something else died in the process.

Britain's heavy-handed response unwittingly destroyed the Home Rule movement that had dominated Irish politics for half a century - just when it seemed to be on the verge of triumph.


Before the Rising, John Redmond was the closest thing that Ireland had to a national hero. In 1912 he had become the man who succeeded where Charles Stewart Parnell failed by passing a Home Rule bill through the House of Commons.

With a new Irish parliament on the way, this Wexford-born barrister looked set to be Ireland's first Prime Minister.

Unfortunately for Redmond, extreme nationalists and unionists were already plotting to destroy him. In the north, Edward Carson began recruiting a resistance force called the Ulster Volunteers.

In Dublin, meanwhile, old Fenians such as Tom Clarke regarded Home Rule as nothing but an insult. They were also afraid that it would be accepted by most Irish people, making it impossible for the country to ever achieve full independence.

As a result, Clarke and his comrades in the Irish Republican Brotherhood were now in a race against time - to organise a full-blown rebellion before it was too late.

John Redmond totally underestimated these dangers. The Home Rule leader was an idealistic patriot, but he spent most of his time in London and knew little about how ordinary Irish people lived.

At times of stress he would retreat to his stately home in the Wicklow mountains and go fishing for trout.

The outbreak of World War I in August 1914 changed everything. Redmond agreed that Home Rule should be suspended until the fighting was over. The legislation was rushed through parliament in just seven minutes.

Redmond naively hoped that the war would help to unite his country. In a speech at Woodenbridge in Co Wicklow that seems to have been made off the top of his head, he urged Irishmen to join the British army.

This, of course, put him on a collision course with radical republicans who took the opposite attitude that "England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity".

The Easter Rising took both Redmond and the British Government completely by surprise. After some initial confusion, public opinion swung behind the rebels who had made Redmond's party look lily-livered by comparison.


When it was all over, the Prime Minister tried to salvage some dignity by declaring that here was an "ideal opportunity" to solve the Irish question and ordering Home Rule to be implemented right away.

This initiative turned out to be a miserable failure. Once again, Home Rule foundered because nobody could agree on what to do with Ulster.

The negotiations were handled by Asquith's devious colleague David Lloyd George, who seems to have deliberately misled both Redmond and the unionists about what was politically possible.

By mid-1917, it was clear which way the wind was blowing. Redmond's brother Willie, also an MP, was killed while fighting on the Western Front.

The by-election in Clare was won by Sinn Fein's Eamon de Valera - already a legendary figure thanks to his status as the only Easter Rising commandant not to be shot.

To his great distress, Redmond had become a hate figure and his health began to fail. The 15-year-old republican Todd Andrews saw him jeered on the streets of Dublin and later wrote: "I am quite sure that if any of the mob had offered physical violence to him I would have joined in."

Redmond died after an operation for gallstones in March 1918, just a few months before the general election in which Sinn Fein destroyed the Home Rule movement for good. In one of his last letters, he wrote: "Do not give your heart to Ireland, for if you do you will die of a broken heart."

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