Redmond and the National Volunteers

Published in Issue 2 (March/April 2018), Letters, Volume 26

Sir,—I read with interest the article ‘What happened to Redmond’s National  Volunteers?’ (HI 26.1, Jan./Feb. 2018). The article seemed to be preoccupied with the internal administration of the movement. References to the movement in Dooley’s, Finnan’s and Meleady’s biographies of John Redmond paint a different picture of his efforts to use the Volunteer movement to improve relations between North and South, to use the Volunteers as a force to provide Ireland, together with the Ulster Volunteers, with security and so realise 20,000 British soldiers for duty in Flanders, and finally to use the movement as a recruitment agency for the British Army.

British Prime Minster Asquith visited Dublin on 26 September 1914 and shared a platform with Redmond and Dillon. He clearly indicated that he had accepted the demands made by Redmond for an Irish brigade. The prime minister went further and supported the formation of an Irish Army Corps. As usual, despite the friendly overtures that Redmond made to the unionist population, in Britain’s hour of need they marched to a different beat. The Home Rule Act was just a piece of paper and their provisional government as far as Ulster was concerned would ‘tear it up in ten minutes’. When the war ended and the troops returned, ‘they would attack and relegate Home Rule to the devil’.

At a meeting held in Wexford Redmond said: ‘I pray with all my heart that [in spite of] this terrible war with all its bloodshed one blessed result may come to Ireland that Catholics and Protestants fighting side by side may prove to be the seal of future unity of our Irish nation’. Despite the promises made by the prime minister and the appointment by Lord Kitchener of Sir Lawrence Parsons (of Birr) to lead the 16th Division of the new army, Redmond’s path to be helpful to the UK in their hour of need was not easy. Parsons claimed that ‘because I am an Irishman the division has every claim to be called Irish. I have spent a considerable amount of time selecting officers who are almost all Irishmen of every political religious creed except Jews.’

Redmond had trouble from the start with the War Office but his principal antagonist was Sir Lawrence, who at once objected to an emblem on the uniform denoting that the troops were Irish. When Redmond suggested that the thousands of Irishmen in the UK should be recruited into the division, Sir Lawrence replied that he did not wish to fill his ranks with Irish from Glasgow, Liverpool and Cardiff who are ‘only slum birds’.

Redmond’s one wish, apart from Home Rule, was to have an Irish army, or at least an Irish division, in the First World War. In his introduction to Michael McDonagh’s The Irish at the front, Redmond stated that ‘the Irish people have for the first time in their history put a national army in the field … No people can be said to have rightly proved their nationhood and their power to maintain it until they have demonstrated their military prowess and although Irish blood has reddened the earth in every continent never until now have we put a national army in the field.’ After 1916 Redmond conceded that the organisation had become politically useless. He merely wanted to ensure that the group did not create any more problems for the Irish Parliamentary Party and for this reason exercised his remaining authority to stop the Volunteer committee from holding a meeting on Easter Monday 1917.—Yours etc.,

Cleggan, Co. Galway


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