Nationalism and the Irish Party: provincial Ireland 1910–1916

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Home Rule, Home Rule Crisis, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2006), Reviews, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 14

Nationalism and the Irish Party provincial Ireland 1910–1916 1Nationalism and the Irish Party: provincial Ireland 1910–1916
Michael Wheatley
(Oxford University Press, £50)
ISBN 019927357

One of the difficulties in explaining the collapse of the Irish Parliamentary Party in 1918, after three decades in which it remained virtually unchallenged at the head of Irish nationalism, is that there are so many potential explanations. Was the Easter Rising the most important factor, or the Great War, or Ulster’s mobilisation against home rule? How important were longer-term issues such as the party’s success in achieving land reform, and its association with patronage and jobbery, which left it more vulnerable to the factionalism and social divisions of rural Ireland? Or was it the moderate leadership of John Redmond that set the party adrift from the more assertive nationalism promoted by the rise of the Irish Ireland movement in the late nineteenth century?
These questions form the principal subject-matter of Michael Wheatley’s excellent study of nationalist politics in provincial Ireland. Historians, Wheatley notes, have long differed over whether the Irish Party on the eve of its destruction was ‘rotten’ or ‘representative’. The former interpretation emphasises the decline of the party’s grassroots structures and the gulf between ‘Redmondism’—socially conservative, conciliatory to Unionism, sympathetic to England and empire—and more popular nationalist sentiment. The latter interpretation argues that the party remained a vigorous and successful organisation when the Home Rule bill was introduced in 1912, attributing its subsequent fall to the extraordinary and unpredictable events that occurred between 1913 and 1916, suggesting that the party was primarily a victim of external forces largely beyond its control.
Wheatley employs a close reading of eighteen provincial newspapers, supplemented by police reports and other archival sources, to reconstruct the Irish Party’s fortunes in five Irish counties (Leitrim, Roscommon, Sligo, Longford and Westmeath) between 1910 and 1916. The results allow him to chart the party’s gradual decline in comprehensive and sharp detail. He concludes that the Irish Party was still ‘swimming with the stream’ of modern Irish nationalism in 1913. The United Irish League was in decline but the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) was proving a resilient force, and the party remained a vibrant umbrella movement representative of a broad spectrum of social and political interests. Mainstream nationalism, moreover, continued to coexist comfortably with Irish Ireland organisations such as the GAA and Gaelic League, generally regarding them (contrary to the views of some historians) as neither a political threat nor a potential source of support to be exploited. However, there was a contemporary perception that all was not well with the party, devoid as it was of an issue to mobilise its supporters, who were complacently awaiting the enactment of home rule. In retrospect, given the conciliatory rhetoric of ‘Redmondism’, it was ominous that the explicitly sectarian AOH remained the most vigorous national organisation throughout this period of inertia.
During the summer of 1914, the Irish Party was swept along by the tide of militant nationalism that had resulted in the mobilisation and expansion of the Volunteer movement. That it had succeeded in restricting the growth of the Volunteers during the first half of the year proved that it remained a cohesive force, but the party was now swimming against the tide of popular nationalist opinion, a reality acknowledged by its belated support for the movement. Wheatley contends that the beginnings of the party’s collapse can be traced to the failure of its national leadership to lead this local opinion when the home rule crisis erupted in late 1913. He also observes that the party’s old trick of placing itself at the head of vibrant local organisations, co-opting their lifeblood to its own cause, backfired: after Redmond’s hostile takeover, it was the Volunteer movement, still largely under the control of party opponents, that remained vigorous, while the United Irish League and party activism continued to slump. It is a pity, though, that the Bureau of Military History witness statements, which would have permitted an additional perspective on the Volunteering crisis, were not used to supplement the rich detail provided by the local press.
The party’s embrace of the paramilitary Volunteer movement inevitably undermined Redmond’s conciliatory and imperial home rule project. Resting on these shaky foundations, the party was unable to survive Redmond’s identification with loyal support for Britain’s war effort, another stance ‘emphatically not in tune with popular nationalist opinion’. But while Redmond’s support for recruitment did not help the party’s fortunes, Wheatley appears to suggest that there was little viable alternative: ‘The party was now trapped by the exigency of war into a policy which it could not abandon without destroying home rule, and which it could not continue without alienating its natural supporters’. It was in no position to withstand the impact of 1916 and the destabilising events that followed.
Aside from tracing the party’s decline in convincing detail, this book impresses for other reasons. The reconstruction of social life in small-town Ireland, characterised by its diverse and vibrant cultural, sporting, religious and political societies, dominated (or, more often, contested) by cliques of influential party ‘bosses’, is vivid and revealing. Wheatley’s argument that constitutional nationalists and Gaels did not represent clearly demarcated sections of opinion in provincial Ireland is also persuasive. His micro-study approach also highlights the complexity and breadth of political rhetoric and opinion within constitutional nationalism. Some MPs, such as Sir Walter Nugent, genuinely replicated the conciliatory rhetoric of ‘Redmondism’ in their own constituencies as well as at Westminster, but the strength and pervasiveness of more belligerent, Anglophobic and sectarian rhetoric throughout much of the party is striking, leading Wheatley to conclude that ‘Redmondism’ remained a minority taste for most: ‘political rhetoric was suffused instead with a vocabulary of heroic struggle, suffering, grievance, injustice, and enemies’. This is an important point that helps to explain not only the collapse of the party in 1918 but also its replacement by a political rival whose rhetoric and outlook was not as radical a departure from traditional popular nationalist sentiment as is sometimes assumed.
Fearghal McGarry

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