‘Don’t go but come with me’

Published in Issue 4 (July/August 2017), News, Volume 25

The life and death of Major William (‘Willie’) Hoey Kearney Redmond (1861–1917) commemorated.

Above: Willie Redmond MP shortly after being commissioned as a captain in the Royal Irish Regiment in 1915.

At the outbreak of the First World War, John Redmond, the Wexford-born politician and leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, called on the Irish Volunteers to enlist in the new British Army in the hope that this would strengthen the cause of implementing the Home Rule Act, suspended for the duration of the war. This caused a split in the Volunteer movement and Willie Redmond, John’s younger brother, who was also an MP, was one of the first to volunteer for the army as a member of the National Volunteers. He addressed vast gatherings throughout Ireland and his catch-phrase was ‘Don’t go but come with me’. He felt that he would serve Ireland best in the firing line.

As an MP Willie Redmond was an outspoken and passionate Irish nationalist. He was one of the first wave of nationalists who sat for an Ulster seat in Westminster. His years as an MP for North Fermanagh deeply affected him and made him realise how difficult it would be for Ulster unionists to accept Home Rule.

Redmond was commissioned as a captain in the Royal Irish Regiment at the age of 53. He went to France with the 16th (Irish) Division in the winter of 1915–16 and was soon in action on the Western Front. He felt undermined by the Easter Rising of 1916 and seemed to realise that the tide was turning away from constitutional nationalism. He became a major in July 1916 but this promoted him away from the firing line, which greatly displeased him. Redmond was convinced that the shared experience of the trenches was bringing Protestant and Catholic Irishmen together and overcoming the differences between unionists and nationalists.

Willie Redmond was killed at the Battle of Messines on 7 June 1917. His death made a greater international impact than the death of any other soldier in the British Army at the time. Almost every newspaper in Britain and Ireland, both local and national, carried news of his death. Among the people who paid tribute to his memory were Pope Benedict XV, King George V and Queen Mary, Unionist MP Sir Edward Carson, General Louis Botha of South Africa and the poet Francis Ledwidge. The French government posthumously awarded him the Légion d’honneur, the highest French order for military and civic merits. He was buried in a grave that stands on its own outside the official war cemetery in Loker, Belgium, where his comrades are buried. Willie Redmond’s own wish was to be buried in the family vault in Wexford town, but this was not to be. Redmond Park, on Wexford’s Spawell Road, was opened in his memory in 1931.

Above: Willie Redmond’s grave in Loker, Belgium, on 19 December 2013, where Taoiseach Enda Kenny laid a laurel wreath (left) and British Prime Minister David Cameron laid a wreath of poppies (right).

Commemorations were held in Wexford in the first week of June. Wexford town library launched an exhibition on the life of Willie Redmond and on 10 June Wexford Historical Society held a seminar to mark the centenary of his death. Among the contributors were John Redmond’s biographer, Dermot Meleady, author and Irish Times journalist Ronan McGreevy, Martin McDonagh (NUI Galway) and local historian and librarian Jarlath Glynn. Among the topics covered were his family background, his political and military careers and his historical legacy. Wexford Borough District Council hosted a ceremony of remembrance and wreath-laying on Sunday 11 June in Redmond Memorial Park. The government was represented by Minister Paul Kehoe, and Dr Mary Green, great-grandniece of Major Willie Redmond, represented the Redmond family. The mayor of Wexford, Councillor Frank Staples, ended his speech by quoting from a memorandum to Willie Redmond’s will in which he said:

‘I should like all my friends in Ireland to know that in joining the Irish Brigade and going to France I sincerely believed, as all the Irish soldiers do, that I was doing my best for the welfare of Ireland.’

To many, Willie Redmond now appears the most tragic representative of the thousands of Irish nationalists who served in 1914–18.

'


Copyright © 2021 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568