Opinions & Ideas


Speech by John Bruton, former Taoiseach, in the Home Rule Club in John’s Quay Kilkenny City at 8 .30pm on Tuesday 4 June 2019

I am greatly honoured to be invited to speak here in The Home Rule Club.

It is a sign that John Redmond is not forgotten, that the cause to which he devoted his entire life, Home Rule, is still remembered in the name of this Club. In his lifetime, John Redmond was awarded the Freedom of Kilkenny City in 1916.

This Club was formed in 1894 in the wake of the Parnell split, of which I will say a little later on.

John Redmond had a political career of 39 years, and became an MP in January 1881, at the age of 25, at the height of the agitation for land reform.

Previous to becoming an MP, he had worked as a clerk in the House of Commons where his father had been a member. 

When his father died in 1880, Redmond had hoped to contest his father’s seat in Wexford town. The new Leader of the Irish Party, Charles Stewart Parnell, ironically as events turned out, preferred to have Tim Healy (later a bitter opponent of Parnell) contest the Wexford seat rather than John Redmond ( subsequently one of his most loyal supporters).

Not long after losing the Wexford town nomination, Redmond did secure a seat in Parliament, representing New Ross.

In 1885, he was re elected to Parliament, representing Wexford North.

In 1890, the Irish Party split, when Gladstone and the Liberal Party refused to do business with an Irish Party under Parnell’s leadership, because of Parnell’s extra marital affair with Katherine O Shea, and the bad impact that affair had had on some of the Liberal support base, on whom Gladstone depended to pass Home Rule.

Redmond was one of the minority of Irish Party MPs, who supported Parnell, in the split that resulted from Gladstone’s decision.

Redmond appears to have been motivated by personal loyalty rather than political calculation.

There is some evidence that Redmond tried to persuade Parnell to retire, voluntarily and temporarily, for the sake of the greater cause, but when Parnell declined to do so, Redmond gave him unqualified support.

He said that to sell out the leader, simply to preserve the Liberal Alliance, would compromise the independence of the Irish Party.

The resultant split was deep and bitter…a clash between loyalty and pragmatism.

After the split, the first test of Parnell’s support was in a by Election on North Kilkenny.

John Redmond spoke in support of Parnell’s candidate, Vincent Scully, but used conciliatory language, trying to heal the divide.

Michael Davitt organised the anti Parnellite campaign in favour of their candidate, Sir John Pope Hennessy, and, at one stage, Parnell had lime thrown in his eye when campaigning in Castlecomer.

Pope Hennessy won twice as many votes as Vincent Scully, and Parnell, and Redmond, thus suffered a major defeat.

When, less than a year later, Parnell died, in October 1891, Redmond decided to uphold Parnell’s memory by contesting his dead leader’s seat in Cork City. He lost, and was out of Parliament.

But, in July 1892, Redmond, as a Parnellite, contested and won a seat in Waterford City, against Michael Davitt, who was standing as an anti Parnellite. Redmond was to retain that Waterford seat to the end of his life, in March 1918.

What were the sources of Redmond’s interest in politics?

Obviously, the fact that his father and grand uncle had been MPs would have played a part.

At boarding school in Clongowes, from 1868 to 1874, Redmond excelled in drama and debating.

He went from Clongowes to Trinity College, but dropped out after two years.

He then worked as a clerk in the House of Commons, before becoming an MP himself. He later qualified as a barrister, and was called to the Bar in 1887, while already an MP.

His parents were separated, something that was uncommon, and difficult, at that time. Redmond, as the eldest son, often had to act as a conciliator between his parents, thereby developing diplomatic skills, along with a certain solitariness, characteristics that were to mark his political career. Redmond’s mother had come from Protestant and Unionist stock, although she converted to Catholicism on marrying Redmond’s father.

John Redmond made few close friends, and even his close relationship with his long time deputy, John Dillon, was marked by formality and reticence.

His closest political friend was the MP for Kilkenny City, Pat O Brien, a native of Tullamore, who became MP here in 1895 and served the City up to his death in 1917.

Pat O Brien was almost a member of the Redmond family, staying with Redmond in his home in Wicklow for lengthy periods, including staying for ten days to console Redmond after the death of Redmond’s brother Willie.  When O Brien himself died shortly afterwards, Redmond broke down at the funeral.

Indeed, his life was marked by tragedies.

His first wife, Johanna Dalton, died in childbirth in 1889, after only six years of marriage.

Redmond had met Johanna, a native Australian, while fundraising for the National Land League in Australia shortly after he became an MP.

One of his daughters died as a young adult.

His brother, and close political lieutenant, Willie (MP for Clare) was killed in the Great War in 1917, at a difficult moment in Redmond’s career, when his brothers presence would have been of great support to him.

This loss was soon to be followed by the death of Pat O Brien.

John Redmond, a widower, married Ada Beesley in 1899, ten years after the death of his first wife.  Ada was English and, like Redmond’s mother prior to her marriage, a Protestant.

The fact that both his mother, and his second wife, came from Protestant backgrounds may explain why Redmond took a conciliatory line in respect of differences in Ireland which had religious roots.

Redmond also demonstrated a broad minded view in his condemnation of anti Semitism in Limerick in 1904, whereas others, like the Fenian, John Devoy were openly anti Semitic.

As I will argue, the crowning achievement of John Redmond’s career was the enactment into law of Irish Home Rule on 18 September 1914.

Other achievements with which he was closely associated were

+ the settlement on the land question, in a way which transferred ownership of the land of Ireland to those who were actually farming it,

+ the achievement of democratic Local Government in 1898,

+ the Universities Act of 1908 which established NUI,  

+ the beginnings of the welfare state, with the introduction of old age pension and social security, in 1909, and

+   the continuation of state support for denominational (Catholic and C of E) schools in England,

Apart from these legislative achievements, Redmond played a crucial role in 1900 in reuniting the Irish Party, after the Parnell split of 1891.

 John Dillon, who had been on the other side of that split from Redmond, described this work of reuniting the party, at a banquet in Redmond’s honour in 1908, as “one of the greatest works of reconciliation ever wrought for Ireland”.

Redmond’s conciliatory and consensual approach was the key to maintaining unity among a talented, but fractious, group of men.

Redmond did not have the same control over candidate selection as Parnell had had, because of the circumstances in which he became leader of the reunited Party in 1900. So his achievement in maintaining a reasonable degree of Party unity is all the greater.

As I have said, Redmond’s most important achievement was the passage into law of Home Rule for Ireland on 18 September 1914.

Before I turn to that, I would like to say a little more about the other achievements with which he was associated.

Land Reform was crucial.

The Land Act of 1881, enacted shortly after Redmond became an MP, was the first step towards the eventual transfer of land ownership, with compensation, from landlords to tenants, giving this numerous body of people, the former tenants, a stake in the country, a sense of shared ownership of Ireland.

It was really important that this was done, before Ireland became independent. It shaped the politics of independent Ireland.

To have tried to solve the land question after independence would have put an immense strain on Irish democracy.

It would have been either deeply divisive, or financially costly, or both.

It was easier to pay for Irish land reform drawing on the resources of the much larger UK Treasury, than it would have been if the cost of compensating landlords had to be borne by the much smaller Irish tax base.

Land Reform in Ireland was predominantly an achievement of parliamentary politics, not of physical force.

The introduction of social insurance in 1907, by the Liberal government had the support of the Irish Party.  It was intended to provide financial support for workers, who could not work because of illness or lack of a job. It was very advanced for its time.

Old Age Pensions were also introduced at this time, and Ireland benefitted more than most, because there were a disproportionate number of older people in Ireland, compared to the rest of the then United Kingdom.

Of course, this posed a problem for Home Rule advocates, in the sense that the pensions could more easily be afforded, if they were being paid for out of the larger UK wide tax base, than if they had had to be met from the much smaller tax base of a Home Rule Ireland.

This same type of dilemma arises today in respect of suggestions that Northern Ireland might opt to transfer sovereignty from London to Dublin by a referendum called under the terms of the Belfast Agreement.

The smaller Irish tax base would have greater difficulty, than the larger UK wide tax base, in supporting the external subvention of public services in Northern Ireland, which now brings in, from outside, 25% of the Northern Ireland GDP, as against the mere 7% of GDP that had to be brought in from outside to maintain NI public services in 1960.

Also in the 1906/08 period, the Liberal Party government wanted to abolish public support for denominational schools in England.  John Redmond and the Irish Party successfully joined with the Conservatives to oppose this, and, as a result, denominational schools continue to exist in England up to this day. The interests of the children of recent Irish immigrants to England were a concern for the Irish Party.

From an Irish perspective, the creation of the National University in 1908 was also a major achievement for Redmond and his Party. It’s very name, “National University”, underlines its importance in the progression towards economic and cultural independence.

The passage into law of Home Rule for Ireland in September 1914 was, of course, an Irish parliamentary achievement without equal in the preceding 200 years.

 Redmond, as Irish Party Leader, achieved something that had eluded previous Irish leaders like O Connell, Butt, Shaw and Parnell.

Home Rule granted Ireland its own legislature, something denied it since 1800. And that was won without violence, but in the face of threats of violence from those who opposed it.

The enactment of Home Rule may have been a purely peaceful achievement, but this is not to suggest that those who obtained it, the Irish Parliamentary Party of John Redmond and John Dillon, were mild mannered and non confrontational.

Two previous attempts to obtain Home Rule had failed, the first in the 1880’s because it was defeated in the House of Commons, and the second in the 1890’s because it was vetoed in the House of Lords. 

To get Home Rule onto the statute book in 1914, John Redmond had to

+ get a majority for Home Rule in the House of Commons, and also

+ get the British constitutional arrangements changed to remove the House of Lords veto. This veto applied to all legislation, and this veto could only be removed with the consent of the House of Lords itself. 

Before that, in the House of Commons, the Liberal party,  also had to be won back to the cause of Home Rule for Ireland. It had been committed to Home Rule under Gladstone, but had moved away from it under Lord Rosebery, Henry Campbell Bannerman, and Herbert Asquith.

In a masterly exercise of parliamentary leverage and constructive opportunism, Redmond achieved all these goals, in a very short space of time. 

He withheld Irish Party support for the radical 1909 Budget, unless and until there was a commitment both to remove the Lords veto and to introduce Home Rule.

He also, in effect, exercised pressure on the King, because the Lords eventually only were persuaded to pass the legislation to remove their own veto, by a threat by a reluctant King to swamp the House of Lords with new, Home Rule supporting, Lords.

This shows what Irish MPs can do by taking their seats, and using their votes, when the government of the day is in a minority….a lesson that seems to have been forgotten by nationalist voters in Northern Ireland.

All this was achieved from the position of being a minority party in the House, albeit a party whose votes were needed to avoid a General Election, which the Liberal Government feared they would lose.

Brinksmanship was involved, because, if the Liberals had to call an election and lost, the cause of Home Rule would be lost too.

Redmond did not have all the trump cards. He just played the cards he had very well .

On the other side of the House, the Irish Party faced a Conservative Party that was determined to force a General Election, and to that end, was prepared to incite Ulster Unionists to military insurrection, and to connive with elements in the British military to ensure that such an insurrection would not be prevented.

In Britain itself, Home Rulers had to overcome deep anti Irish, and anti Catholic, sentiment is some sections of opinion.  To counter this, Redmond had toured Britain, over 30 years, gradually preparing British opinion to accept Irish legislative independence.

In face of all these difficulties, getting Home Rule onto the statute book, without the loss of a single life, really was a remarkable parliamentary achievement. I believe the Irish state should have properly commemorated the centenary of that achievement on 18 September 2014.

Redmond had entered politics a relatively well off man, with substantial land holdings in Wexford, but had to sell off properties to meet the expenses of his political life as an MP. He died, at the age of 61 in March 1918, leaving an estate valued at just £1,878.00.

Was Redmond right to urge his supporters to volunteer to fight in the Great War?

The Woodenbridge speech of John Redmond, on 20 September 1914, urging Irish men to join the Allied cause in the Great War that had broken out six weeks previously, must be seen  against the background that Home Rule had at last been placed on the statute book, just two days previously.

Home Rule was law, but the implementation of it was simply postponed until the end of what most people expected would be a short war.

Redmond’s address to the Volunteers at Woodenbridge was not just a thank you for the passage of Home Rule.

Redmond also wanted to show that the passage of Home Rule into law had inaugurated a new and better relationship within Ireland, and between Ireland and its neighbouring island.

He wanted to show everybody, including Ulster Unionists, that things had changed.

As let us not forget, he was still aiming to persuade Ulster Unionists to come in under Home rule.  He felt he needed to say what he said about support for recruitment, if there was to be any chance at all that Ulster Unionists would, when the War was over, voluntarily take part in a Home Rule Parliament in Dublin.

He wanted to show to Ulster Unionists that, in existential matters, Unionists and Nationalists were now “on the same side”………something we have not yet achieved a century later.

Was Redmond’s call for volunteers crucial?

Irish men had fought in the British Army in the Boer War, notwithstanding Redmond’s and the Irish Party’s opposition to that war.  Many of the Irish men who volunteered to fight in 1914, 1915 and 1916, in what turned out to be the Great War, would have done so anyway, whether Redmond asked them to do so, or not.

Suppose Redmond had taken a different tack at Woodenbridge.

Imagine what would have been the reaction if , two days after Home Rule had been passed into law and signed by the King, Redmond had chosen instead to advise the Volunteers in Woodenbridge not to join the forces to defend neutral Belgium.

Belgium had been invaded by Germany a month previously.

Those in Britain and in Ulster, who had opposed Home Rule would then have felt they had been vindicated in their opposition to Home Rule, and that the Irish could not be trusted.

Some have criticised the limitations of the initial Home Rule Act of 1914, even though, unlike independence, it was achieved without loss of life.

 The powers were limited, in part, because Home Rule, as initially presented to Parliament, was designed to apply to all 32 counties of Ireland, encompassing thereby a reluctant Unionist minority.

And to get around the Lord’s veto under the Parliament Act of 1911, the Home Rule Bill had to be passed in the House of Commons in three successive years, in identical terms. Not a comma could be changed.

Although the possibility of temporary exclusion of some Ulster counties was conceded, by the time the Home Rule Act finally came to be passed a third time,  the Bill had to adhere to the exact form in which it had been framed originally, when it was to apply, from the outset , to all 32 counties of Ireland. Any temporary exclusion was to be provided for in subsequent amending legislation.

In the hope of Ulster Unionist acquiescence to coming in under Home Rule, either immediately or later, safeguards and limitations were deliberately inserted to protect or reassure the Ulster Protestant minority.

For example a provision was inserted whereby the Home Rule Government “could not endow any religion”. This safeguard was actually a worry to the Catholic hierarchy, who feared it might affect existing state funding for Catholic teacher training colleges, but it was put there to reassure Protestants in a 32 county Ireland.

For the same reason, marriage law was to be kept at Westminster, because the Vatican’s “Ne Temere” decree of 1907 on mixed marriages had caused alarm among Protestants.

Likewise, limitations were placed on the on the imposition of tariffs and customs duties by the Home Rule Government of a 32 county Ireland.

These were put there to assure the industrial interests in Ulster, that their trade interests would not be sacrificed to those of the majority, predominantly agricultural, economy of the rest of the country.

 In other words, to get Home Rule through, Redmond agreed that Ireland would stay in the UK wide Customs Union. So, under Home Rule, there would have been no customs posts between Britain and Ireland, or on any border there might be in Ireland.

Was that all that unreasonable?

Yes, we did take the power to impose customs duties under the Treaty of 1921, which Treaty also accepted the exclusion of the six counties. So the result, between 1920’s and the 1960s, were customs posts all along the border, and between this state and Britain, put there by an Irish government.

These customs controls, which would not have applied under Home Rule, led to higher prices, inconvenience, and economic under performance.

As it transpired, the safeguards, offered in the original Home Rule Bill of 1911 to Unionists, and retained in the final Bill that became law in 1914, were not enough to persuade them to be part of a Home Rule Ireland.

They continued to insist on exclusion from the whole Home Rule system, and backed their demand with the threat of force.

 Modern critics may claim Home Rule Act of 1914 was too limited. The Ulster Unionists of the time clearly did not think so! 

If John Redmond had wanted to maximise the powers of the Home Rule Government in Dublin, he could, perhaps early on, have accepted the exclusion from Home Rule of the 4 Ulster counties where there was a Unionist majority.

 Even the Conservatives would have given the Home Rule Parliament more powers on that basis

Redmond, unlike those who negotiated the Treaty,  the Anglo Irish Agreement of 1938, and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998  for that matter, felt he could not accept any open ended exclusion from Home Rule of any part of Ireland.

In that sense, John Redmond, in 1914, could be said to have been more idealistic than the physical force negotiators, who came after him, turned out to be, in 1921, when they reluctantly accepted partition. 

The American historian, Joseph P Finnan in his book, “John Redmond and Irish Unity 1912-1918”, has claimed that Redmond prized Irish unity more than he prized Irish sovereignty.

He said

            “Although he (Redmond) acceded to demands for temporary exclusion of northern counties, he never gave them up for lost. The Irish revolutionaries who negotiated the Anglo Irish Treaty of 1921 did just that. Even the anti Treaty forces led by de Valera based their objections on the loss of the republican ideal, not the loss of the northern nationalist population”

Redmond’s 32 county ideal has not been achieved.


There are many reasons. Fear and suspicion, generated by the use of violence on both sides, played a big role.

Charles Townsend said in his book “Easter 1916”

“The Rebellion played a part in cementing partition”

Indeed, the words of the 1916 Proclamation itself were  “oblivious” to the problem of resistance in parts of Ulster to any form of rule by Dublin.

The 1916 Proclamation said it was

“Oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, who have divided a minority from a majority in the past” 

In effect, the 1916 leaders, like many other nationalists then and since, seemed  to think the Ulster Unionists did not have minds of their own, and were simply tools of the British. Redmond, on the other hand, took them seriously and negotiated with them.

There was nothing in the 1916 Proclamation that dealt with the fears of Ulster Unionists.  The Irish Republic was just deemed to include them. That was it.

Under the agreement by which Home Rule was passed into law in 1914,  its  implementation was postponed for the duration of the war, but there was no doubt but that it would come into effect, once the war was over, either for the whole of Ireland, or, more likely, for 26 or 28 counties.

There was an attempt to bring Home Rule into effect, while the War was still on, in late 1916, after the Rising.

Carson and Redmond were agreeable to this, on the basis that it would apply to 26 Counties initially.

Unfortunately some Conservative members of the War cabinet vetoed it. They were apparently fearful, while still at war with Germany, and in the wake of the 1916 Rebellion which had  had German support, of German influence on a new Dublin Home Rule government.

But, once the War was over, Home Rule was to come into effect. That is clear because the Lloyd George Coalition Government’s re election manifesto in the December 1918 Election stated bluntly

“Home Rule is upon the statute book”.

There was thus no going back on it.  

That was John Redmond’s achievement of 1914, before a shot had been fired in 1916.

He had got all major parties in Britain to accept legislative independence for Ireland…before a single policeman was shot!

One has only to observe the low level of knowledge about Ireland, in current UK politics, to see how great an achievement that was, in 1914.

My belief is that Home Rule, like the Treaty, could have been a stepping stone to full independence, but without the loss of life.

Under the 1914 Home Rule arrangement, if Ulster counties opted out, they would have continued under direct rule from Westminster. 

There would have been no Stormont.

That was not the way things turned out.

The executions following the 1916 Rising, the failure of the negotiations to introduce immediate Home Rule for 26 counties in its immediate aftermath, the failure of the Irish Convention in 1917 to forge an agreement between Unionists and Nationalists on customs controls, and the threat of conscription in 1918, all gradually eroded support for Redmond’s Home Rule policy, and for his party.

But by the end of 1917, John Redmond was already ill. He was contemplating resignation as leader of his Party. He was suffering from gallstones. His doctors advised surgery. The operation was initially a success. But then his heart weakened. He died in the early hours of Wednesday 6th March 1918.

After his death March, in Dublin Corporation, the Sinn Fein member and later President of Ireland, Sean T O Kelly described John Redmond as

“ an honour to his country”.

The leader of the Irish Unionists, Edward Carson, described him as

“invariably an honourable and courteous opponent”

The Freemans Journal described Redmond’s character as

“ a rare combination of  inflexible will and genial humanity”.

It emphasised that “He would have been an ideal first Prime Minister of an Irish Cabinet, skilled in bringing men and parties together”.

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1 Comment

  1. It was most fitting that John Bruton gave this talk on John Redmond in the Home Rule Club Kilkenny. I do not live in Ireland so I could not get home to attend this event. Thank you HRC for making the talk available here on your site.

    To Patsy et al – Keep up your excellent work!

    – Will be able to visit the Home Rule Club llater in the middle of August. Looking forward to it.

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