We are well into the swing of things when it comes to the centenary decade’s focus on World War One, and with that is bound to come some continued discussion of John Redmond. A hundred years ago, he was busy putting the final work into the passing of the Home Rule Bill, facing the reality that it would not be implemented as scheduled, but instead deferred for the duration of the struggle in the continent.
These days, a hundred years ago, saw the Volunteer movement begin its fracture. Redmond did not begin this process singlehanded – members of the militia were already signing up for the British Armed Forces before hand – but he is commonly seen, in popular remembrance, as the driving force behind the movement to turn the National Volunteers into either British soldiers or a direct extension of the British Armed Forces.
A lot of this is based around the Woodenbridge speech, delivered by Redmond on the 20th of September 1914 to a group of the National Volunteers in Wicklow, a speech perceived as the beginning of Redmond’s recruitment drive, and a signal on the inevitable breakup of the Volunteers.
For a speech that is so widely noted as being a defining moment in Redmond’s political career, that inspired this oft shared propaganda image of bobblehead Redmond, it surprises me that so many people are not aware of what the actual speech entailed. Here’s the full text:
Fellow countrymen, it was indeed fortunate chance that enabled me to be present here today. I was motoring past, and I did not know until I arrived here that this gathering of the Volunteers was to take place at Woodenbridge. I could not deny myself the pleasure and honour of waiting to meet you, to meet so many of those whom I have personally known for many long years, and to see them fulfilling a high duty to their country. I have no intention of making a speech. All I desire to say to you is that I congratulate you upon the favourable beginning of the work you have made.
You have only barely made a beginning. You will yet have hard work before you can call yourselves efficient soldiers, and you will have to have in your hand – every man – as efficient weapons as I am glad to see in hands of some, at any rate, of your numbers. Looking back as I naturally do, upon the history of Wicklow I know that you will make efficient soldiers. Efficient soldiers for what?
Wicklow Volunteers, in spite of the peaceful happiness and beauty of the scene in which we stand, remember this country at this moment is in a state of war, and your duty is a twofold Duty. 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 a duty more than that of taking care that Irish valour proves itself: on the field of war 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 for ever to our country and a reproach to her manhood and a denial of the lessons of her history if young Ireland confined their efforts to remaining at home to defend the shores of Ireland from an unlikely invasion, and to shrinking from the duty of proving on the field of battle that gallantry and courage which has distinguished our race all through its history. I say to you therefore, your duty is twofold. I am glad to see such magnificent material for soldiers around me, and I say to you – Go on drilling and make yourself efficient for the Work, and then account yourselves as men, not only for Ireland itself, but wherever the fighting line extends, in defence of right, of freedom and religion in this war.
It’s only 444 words in length, and would have taken just a couple of minutes to deliver, which might surprise you considering the weight that is normally attached to it. There are a few thoughts when I think about the Woodenbridge speech.
The first is that it was almost certainly a direct response to the passing of the Home Rule bill into law, albeit deferred, which had taken place just two days earlier. Here was a moment of reciprocation from John Redmond, backing the Crown’s fight because Home Rule was non-literal inches from implementation, with only a war so many thought would not last too long was in the way. Redmond must have been thinking Home Rule within a year, not four.
The second, and much more important, is that the Woodenbridge speech was spontaneous in its timing, though not in its content. It was literally John Redmond driving through Wicklow and stumbling into a Volunteer meeting, which he was then given an impromptu opportunity to address, a situation that would explain the short nature of the speech and the slightly clipped aspect of its wording. Knowing that the speech was spontaneous, we might feel a bit more sympathy for Redmond, who presumably had no idea that his words would be taken, a century hence, to be the beginning of the Volunteer split and as his cast iron declaration of support for the World War One cause ever after. That is not to say that the sentiment expressed in the speech was spontaneous of course: Redmond, and others in the IPP, had already publically expressed a support for Irish enlistment to fight Germany before Woodenbridge, I just think it is important to recognise what Woodenbridge was, which was not Redmond’s declarative speech of intent for the Volunteers.
Third, I’m struck by how, even though this speaking opportunity occurred quickly, Redmond is still careful to pick his words in some respects. “British”, “English”, “King”, “Crown” are all words that do not appear, with Redmond treating the Volunteers almost as if they are the army of a sovereign nation that happens to be fighting Germany alongside Britain, and not as part of it. Even here, there is that peculiar brand of nationalism, a vision of what might be, an Irish state with its own armed forces, whose first duty will be to defend its own shores from invasion. He is repeating the talking points with the Allied justifications for the conflict though: the feeling of being “right” to the Central Powers wrong, the defence of freedom and the defence of religious liberty, in relation to the unmentioned Belgium you would presume. Redmond knew his audience, and knew that actually mentioning the name of the army he was advocating they join might not be the best course. He was still a politician.
Lastly, I think it is clear that Redmond was still committed to the Volunteers and what they represented. He wants them to keep drilling, he wants them to arm themselves better, he wants them to maintain their given duty of defending Ireland, something he mentions before any talk of the fight on the continent. He hasn’t suddenly become a British stooge, or an Irish version of Lord Kitchener.
It’s just some things worth thinking about. Redmond, and the Woodenbridge speech, are more complicated than how some would chose to portray them. That complexity is something to be embraced.