John Redmond

At the beginning of the Great War in 1914, Ireland was part of the United Kingdom governed from Westminster. Ireland was represented in the Parliament by 105 MP's, one third of whom were Unionists and generally supported the Conservative Party. The majority of Irish MP's were members of the Home Rule party which had been campaigning for nearly forty years for the right to have their own Parliament in Dublin to take care of domestic affairs but still maintain the link with Britain. The leader of this party in 1914 was John Redmond and when war broke out in August of that year he was to be influential in urging Irishmen to support the British war effort.

John Redmond had been leader of the Home Rule party since 1900. At that time the Party recognised that the biggest obstacles to Home Rule came from the House of Lords, the Conservative party and the Unionist Party itself. The second Home Rule Bill had been passed in the Commons in 1893 but rejected by the Lords. However, the rejection of Lloyd George's "People's Budget" by the Lords in 1910 was to be of great significance to the Home Rule Party. A General Election was called which resulted in a victory for the liberals but they were dependent upon the support of Redmond and his party. Then came the Parliament Act of 1911 which meant that the Lords could delay the passage of Home Rule but could not veto it.

The Third Home Rule Bill was introduced in April 1912 and this was to mark a high point in the political career of John Redmond. Home Rule was now only a matter of time. However, Unionists in Ireland mounted strong opposition to the Bill. In September 1912 the Ulster Covenant was signed by 471,414 men and women who pledged to use "all means that may be necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule parliament in Ireland". In 1913 the Ulster Volunteer Army was set up to defy the government by force of arms if necessary. In 1914 the UVF successfully brought in a large consignment of guns and ammunition from Germany. 1913 also witnessed the formation of yet another private army in Ireland, namely the Irish Volunteers. They were under the leadership of the Nationalist, Eoin MacNeill and were totally committed to the cause of securing Home Rule for Ireland.

As 1914 began, Ireland seemed to be moving closer and closer to a civil war between the Ulster Volunteers and the Irish Volunteers. By the summer of that year the Third Home Rule bill was indeed on the Statute Book but with the outbreak of war, it's operation was suspended until after the war. In August 1914, thousands of Ulster Volunteers flocked to join the British army in order to demonstrate their complete loyalty to Britain and in this way succeed in having Home Rule abandoned completely. In order to ensure that Home Rule would be granted, John Redmond believed that members of the Irish Volunteers should also join the British army and in a speech in Co. Wicklow in September 1914 he pledged his support for the Allied cause and urged the Irish Volunteers to "account yourselves as men not only in Ireland but wherever the firing line extends in defence of right, of freedom and religion in this war." The majority of Volunteers heeded the call and by October 1915 there were over 100,000 Irishmen fighting on the side of Britain in the Great War.

John Redmond at a recruitment meeting at Wexford in 1914
John Redmond at a recruitment meeting at Wexford in 1914

It is estimated that around 116,900 Irishmen fought in the war, of whom about 65,000 were Catholic and 53,000 were Protestant. Of these, around 60,000 lost their lives. The largest number died in the Gallipoli campaign and at the battle of the Somme. However, John Redmond was unhappy with the British War Office in their refusal to recognise his ideas of separate and distinct Irish regiments and the distinguishing insignia its members should wear. In 1916 he said that "from the very first hour, our efforts were thwarted, ignored and snubbed". His own brother, Willie Redmond was one of the many who joined up but was killed in action in 1917.

In Ireland a small group of nationalists saw the involvement of Britain in war as an opportunity to start a rebellion. This rebellion took place at Easter in 1916 when key buildings all around the city of Dublin were taken over by Patrick Pearse and his followers. However they were surrounded by British troops and within a few days were forced to surrender. The immediate reaction of most of the Irish public was one of disapproval as over 300 civilians died and millions of pounds worth of damage had been caused. Martial law was declared and the British authorities decided to execute the fifteen leaders of the rebellion. These executions had a dramatic effect on public opinion and aroused great sympathy and support for the rebel cause.

In the two years after the Easter Rebellion, nationalists began to support the Sinn Fein Party which supported complete independence from Britain instead of the Home Rule Party of John Redmond. In the General Election of 1918 the once powerful Home Rule Party was swept aside and the Sinn Fein candidates won an overwhelming victory. In the election the Home Rule Party was reduced to a mere six seats under the new leadership of John Dillon as Redmond had died in early 1918.

Mieke Ryan

Mount Temple School, Dublin