Ireland’s Wars: A New Departure

Having spent a great deal of time recently in America discussing the actions of Irish nationalist movements and organisations there, the time has come to swing back to the other side of the Atlantic, to have a look at affairs in Ireland itself. When we last were there, the Irish Republican Brotherhood rebellion of 1867 had ignominiously collapsed shortly after it had begun, leaving that entity in turmoil, and British control of the island as strong as ever.

The 1870’s is when the political side of things really took over and, to a large extent, the struggle for Irish independence was a political one primarily, all the way up to 1916. Those societies still committed to violent action continued to exist – and would continue to take violent action – but the period from 1867 to 1916 is one less synonymous with the word “rebellion”, and more associated with the words “home rule”.

Home rule was the catch-all term for Irish self-government, essentially the re-introduction of an Irish Parliament with firm, albeit limited, control over Irish affairs, while Ireland itself remained under the aegis of Britain. The quest for it would birth numerous political entities, spawn many political crises and prove one of the most divisive events in Irish history when it eventually came close to being implemented.

From the ashes of Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal movement, the Home Rule movement rose, largely spearheaded by Donegal born barrister and MP Isaac Butt. Butt defended Fenians in the aftermath of 1867, but the failure of that rising convinced him that Irish nationalism had hit a dead-end militarily. Instead, he envisioned a federal system for Great Britain, where Ireland would have control of its domestic affairs while imperial matters were left to the control of London. In 1870, Butt founded the “Home Rule Association” to promote this view, using a term that had been first bandied about in the previous decade. In 1873, Butt replaced his Association with the more well-known, and more successful “Home Rule League”.

Butt wanted the League to be more of a pressure group than a political party, but events soon overtook his conservative views. The League proved to be resoundingly popular with the Irish electorate, winning the majority of Irish seats in the 1874 election, the first to take place with secret ballot rules, taking 59 of the 101 available, mostly at the expense of Liberal politicians. In Parliament itself, this amounted to just over 9% of the total representation, making the Home Rulers the first legitimate third party in British history. One year later, in a Meath by-election, a 29 year old Wicklow landowner was elected for the League. His name was Charles Stewart Parnell.

Parnell is an unlikely figurehead for Irish nationalism if one looks at his background. The son of an Eton educated cricketeer and his American wife – with connections to the British royal family – and raised a Protestant, before his election Parnell was mostly known as a well-regarded landlord who had served as the High Sheriff of Wicklow, and later testimonies claim that he never had any great attachment to the history of Irish rebellions and nationalism. Yet this hither-to unremarkable man would go down in history as synonymous with the quest for Home Rule, the “Uncrowned King of Ireland”.

Possibly due to anti-Irish feelings he encountered during his school days, or the fierce anti-English feelings of his mother, Parnell latched on to the Home Rule movement, and his star rose rapidly, aided by the fact that the Home Rule League was not a strictly disciplined political grouping, essentially acting as a loose confederation of mostly like-minded individuals. Butt represented the gentlemanly conservative side of things, who would try and fail to win concessions from the British government for Ireland. Parnell, somewhat of a firebrand, would become the poster-boy for the more radical side of the League, who were willing to try new methods to get the British authorities to listen to their demands.

This amounted to the famous policy of obstructionism that Parnell and others carried out, making lengthy speeches of little relevance or consequence in the Parliament chambers, that significantly reduced the ability of the legislature to get its work done in the limited time it had for sittings. This behaviour horrified Butt, but did successfully get the “Irish Question” on the agenda. Moreover, and connected to the entire point of this post series, it got Parnell and his friends the attention of the IRB.

The Fenians were not blind to both the opportunities presented by the Home Rule movement, and the limitations of their oft-defeated military struggle, and as far back as 1868 some of them had been working to pursue a dual strategy, where the Fenians and the Home Rule associations would work concurrently, independent of one another, but both pursuing the same basic goal of greater freedom for Ireland. The practical effects were obvious: Fenians, while continuing the stashing of arms, the fermentation of uprisings and the training of men, could prove able campaigners and, indeed, candidates for the Home Rule movement. A fight for Irish freedom in secret, and a fight in public.

This alliance of convenience was not without its hiccups, and by 1876 the leadership of the IRB – which included Home Rule MPs like Joseph Bigger – had grown impatient with the lack of practical results that the Home Rule League had been able to win, especially the conservative side of the movement led by Isaac Butt. That year, the Supreme Council ended any agreement it had had with elements of the Home Rule League, ordering its membership to sever ties and expelling Home Rule members from their own ranks.

But the split was only temporary, thanks to the more high-profile actions of Parnell and his radicals, which was exactly what the IRB liked to see. In 1877 Parnell had meetings with Fenians while on a visit to Paris, which paved the way, in early 1878,  for further meeting between Parnell and members of both the IRB and Clan na Gael, discussions that eventually included John Devoy. Devoy and others were impressed by what Parnell and his radicals had to offer, even if Parnell was reluctant to commit to any kind of arrangement with the Fenians or Clan na Gael.

In October 1878 Devoy summed up the ideas behind this movement for a marriage of convenience between the militant and the constitutional, in an op-ed for the New York Herald. Devoy used the term “new departure” to describe the Clan’s willingness to continue their operations, while supporting like-minded candidates for the British legislature.

In 1879, Devoy, in personal meetings with Parnell and others, was able to form a more formal arrangement, though Parnell and others were careful to never commit to anything on paper. The “New Departure” was sealed, with the Clan unofficially committed to supporting the Home Rule League politically, provided the candidates met with their approval. One of the key things was that the aim of a federalised structure be dropped in favour of more all-out self-government for Ireland, and that the Home Rulers take a harder stance on the all-crucial land question (a subject for another entry).

The partnership was unofficial, and resisted by elements of the IRB. But the mutual benefits were obvious, and soon Parnell, in his speeches, was carrying a harder line on the topics of Irish self-government and the divisive land question.

The New Departure was a true stand-alone moment in Irish history, when a variety of factions – conservative nationalists, revolutionary nationalists, pragmatic Home Rulers, constitutionalists and even elements of the Catholic Church – all suddenly found themselves on the same page, fighting a common cause, and making headway. Their activities would become ingrained with that of the Land War, but also helped to catapult the question of Home Rule into the position where it came close to causing a civil war in Ireland a few decades later. The creation of any kind of working relationship between the militant and the political, in Ireland, is something to note. But hard battles, in the fields and in the legislature, would test that new friendship severely.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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8 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: A New Departure

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