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Dermot Meleady, John Redmond: The National Leader.

Dermot Meleady, John Redmond: The National Leader, vol. 2 (Dublin: Merrion, 2013, 494 pp., 33.35[euro] hardback)

County Wexford has produced leaders of two political parties: Brendan Corish the leader of the Labour Party and John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party. Both had a long record of dedicated work for Ireland in the fields of housing, employment and general social development. Both came from families with a long history of political involvement. Both, during their careers were much liked and respected outside their own political parties. Brendan Corish is widely remembered with affection and respect. But history, up until recently, had treated John Redmond's memory cruelly. At best he was airbrushed out of political and social memory. At worst he was treated in some way as a traitor.

In 2005 Dermot Meleady produced Volume 1 of his two-part work on John Redmond and received very positive reviews. Volume 2 follows eight years later. Redmond deserves a detailed and up-to-date biography as the last major work on Redmond was Denis Gwynn's 1932 The Life of John Redmond (with the notable exception of Paul Bew's slim 1996 study). Dermot Meleady has undertaken exhaustive research for well over a decade into the personal papers of Redmond's that are available and other sources, such as the papers of John Dillon, Herbert Asquith, Lloyd George and Edward Carson. The books also include previously unpublished photographs from the Redmond family archive. The time span of this volume is the crucial period 1901-18. In his own time he was seen as the outstanding public figure in the early years of the twentieth century - an accepted leader at home and a key player at Westminster (he was offered a Cabinet post). Lloyd George's view was that 'Redmond possessed elements of statesmanship of a high order. The fact that he was given no chance to apply these qualities in the rebuilding of his native land is one of the myriad tragedies of Irish history.'

This volume begins with Redmond's election as Party Leader and his success in reuniting the Irish Parliamentary Party after the extremely bitter Parnellite split. The legacy of that split created huge pressure for Redmond, who also had to deal with two formidable Prime Ministers, Henry Asquith and David Lloyd George as well as the two Unionist Leaders, Edward Carson and James Craig.

The achievements of the Irish Parliamentary Party apart from the flagship success of the 1914 passage of Home Rule were considerable. They included notably the transferral of effective land ownership to those who worked it (1903 Land Act) and Democratic Local Government for Ireland; in addition, the development of Irish controlled Higher Education (Universities Act 1908), the beginning of public housing, the introduction of Old Age Pensions in 1908 and National Insurance 1911, and persuading England public opinion of the need for self-government for Ireland.

Three major issues undermined Redmond and were used by some (unfairly, in this reviewer's opinion) to blacken his name: the 1916 Rising, Partition and the Great War. Meleady shows that Redmond seriously misjudged the Rising and was deeply saddened by its aftermath. The Rising and subsequent events sidelined Home Rule and radical separatism moved centre stage. Redmond was reluctant to accept partition and regarded it only as a temporary solution. He tried in his final years to come to some accommodation on the Ulster question. It seems very clear now that those who attacked him had no better plan to avert partition and those who succeeded him had no plan for undoing it. Meleady highlights the major role that the Irish Independent and William Martin Murphy had in undermining Redmond as far as the Great War was concerned. Redmond certainly deeply believed that the Irish should play their part in what he saw as a just struggle against atrocity and tyranny and forcefully encouraged the Volunteers to join the British Army. He also believed that involvement jointly with Ulster Volunteers in the war effort would copper- fasten Home Rule and that a new bonding between North and South would develop from fighting side by side.

Redmond could not foresee the length of the struggle or the extent of the slaughter. Accordingly, he paid a high political price and by the end of his life was humiliated and isolated. Redmond himself realised that the movement and the methods to which he had given his life were finished. There is a very sad and poignant incident a few months before his death on 6 March 1918, while making his way to conciliate the Unionists at the Irish Convention in Trinity College. Redmond was verbally and physically threatened by Sinn Fein activists and had to take refuge in the Irish Times offices. What a contrast to the situation just four years earlier. Meleady, in an honest, balanced, well-grounded way documents the triumphs and failures of John Redmond's life; what he achieved and what he failed to achieve. It certainly underscores Redmond's significance in the long process that led to Irish self-determination.

Redmond's local reputation was a different matter. John's only son was elected for Waterford city in 1918. He was one of only a few politicians to have served as an MP and as a TD. On his early death in 1932 his wife Bridget succeeded him in Dail Eireann and held the seat for six General Elections, often topping the poll until her death in 1952.

I warmly congratulate Dermot Meleady and strongly recommend this book. Taken together these volumes represent a magisterial achievement and for long will be the definitive account of one of the most overlooked figures in modern Irish History.

Walter Forde

Byrne/Perry Summer School
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Author:Forde, Walter
Publication:Irish Economic and Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2014
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