John Redmond’s Woodenbridge Speech

Published in Issue 5 (September/October), Reviews, Volume 22

John Redmond inspects Irish National Volunteers. (NLI)

John Redmond inspects Irish National Volunteers. (NLI)

When the First World War started, John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, came to a decision aimed at delivering Home Rule at the war’s end. After the foreign secretary, Edward Grey, made his famous speech in the Commons about ‘the lamps going out all over Europe’, Redmond intervened in the debate:

‘I say to the government that they may tomorrow withdraw every one of their troops from Ireland. I say that the coast of Ireland will be defended from foreign invasion by her armed sons and for this purpose armed nationalist Catholics in the South will be only too glad to join arms with the armed Protestant Ulstermen in the North.’

The speech electrified the Commons and Redmond was applauded on all sides.
On Sunday 20 September 1914, Redmond spoke to a meeting of Volunteers in Woodenbridge, Co. Wicklow. He encouraged members of the Irish Volunteers to join the British army and again he pledged his support for the Allied cause:

‘. . . remember this country at this moment is in a state of war, and your duty is twofold. The duty of the manhood of Ireland is twofold. Its duty is at all costs to defend the shores of Ireland against foreign invasion; it is the duty more than that of taking care that Irish valour proves itself on the field of war [as] it has always proved itself in the past. The interests of Ireland, of the whole of Ireland, are at stake in this war. This war is undertaken in the defence of the highest principles of religion and morality and right, and it would be a disgrace forever to our country, and a reproach to her manhood, and a denial of the lessons of our history, if young Ireland confined her efforts to remaining at home to defend the shores of Ireland from an unlikely invasion and to shrink from the duty of approval on the field of battle of that gallantry and courage which has distinguished our race through its history . . .’

Redmond genuinely believed that the war provided an opportunity to heal the divisions between unionists and nationalists, as both groups could cooperate in helping Britain to win the war. Significantly, the good relations that developed between nationalists and southern unionists during the early phase of the war demonstrated that this was not mere wishful thinking.
Redmond’s encouragement to support Britain’s war effort was vigorously opposed, however, by the founding members of the Irish Volunteers. Eoin MacNeill issued the following statement on behalf of the original Volunteer committee:

‘Mr Redmond, addressing a body of Irish Volunteers last Sunday, has now announced for the Irish Volunteers a policy and programme fundamentally at variance with their own published and accepted aims and pledges . . . He has declared it to be the duty of the Irish Volunteers to take foreign service under a government which is not Irish. He has made his announcement without consulting the provisional committee, the Volunteers themselves or the people of Ireland, to whose service alone they are devoted.’

The Volunteers immediately split, and those supporting Redmond’s call to join up for the war thereafter were called the ‘Irish National Volunteers’. A minority continued under Eoin MacNeill’s leadership, reverted to their former name, ‘Irish Volunteers’, and called for Irish neutrality in the war, determined not to fight for the British. The National Volunteers numbered about 175,000 at the time, while the Irish Volunteers were reduced to about 13,500 men.
The split proved most advantageous to the IRB, whose leaders were now even more firmly in control of the Irish Volunteers. Those who fought in the 1916 Rising came predominantly from these Irish Volunteers.

Joseph E.A. Connell Jr is the author of Dublin in rebellion: a directory, 1913–1923 (Lilliput Press, 2006).

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