Ancestral Voices in Irish Politics — the architects of nationalism

During the early weeks of May 1916 the seven signatories to the Proclamation of the Irish Republic and eight of their co-conspirators in Dublin’s Easter Rising were summarily executed by the British military. Ireland was set on a course for independence.

The British authorities, the nationalist leader John Dillon raged in the House of Commons, were guilty of “washing out our life’s work in a sea of blood”. Dillon had laboured for more than three decades on the cause of constitutional nationalism, which would have given Ireland home rule within the empire. In their act of vengeance, the British had created a pantheon of martyrs to the cause of violent insurrection. A clumsy, and thinly supported, attempt at armed uprising had been sanctified as an irreversible step on the road to Irish nationhood.

In 1914, on the eve of war with Germany, decades of parliamentary deadlock at Westminster had ended with the passage of a bill granting home rule for Ireland. By 1918, in the wake of Germany’s defeat, Irish nationalism had hardened into uncompromising republicanism. The hope of a peaceful constitutional settlement between London and Dublin was “washed away” by a sweeping general election victory for Sinn Féin.

Dillon’s was a life devoted to the nationalist cause — first as a lieutenant to the Irish nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell during the battles for self-government of the late 19th century, and latterly as a stalwart supporter of the efforts of Herbert Asquith’s Liberal administration to make good on the promise of home rule.

As Paul Bew’s intricate account of the intertwined political lives of Dillon and Parnell reminds us, nationalism was a broad church. Parnell, who was among the pre-eminent figures in modern Irish nationalism, hailed from the Anglo-Irish Protestant gentry. His father, Bew records, lived the life of an Irish squire “in the open air and with an open house”. His wife would remark that Parnell was at least as English as he was Irish. The Catholic Dillon, from a wealthy merchant family, enjoyed an equally privileged and entitled background. To the extent that religion provided a marker for their politics, Dillon’s was the more emotional commitment to the nationalist cause.

What united and energised the two men through the 1870s and 1880s was the campaign to put an end to the exploitative land tenure laws that imprisoned in poverty the vast number of Ireland’s small tenant farmers. Beyond that was their shared conviction that Ireland could flourish as a self-governing dominion.

An illustration from Vanity Fair in May 1887 of John Dillon by Carlo Pellegrini © Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Both at times flirted with the leaders of Fenian republicanism, and were happy to exploit the ambiguities of nationalism when it suited them. Dillon showed a passion Parnell lacked: after a trip to America, he remarked on his many encounters with those “who had lived through the famine, and who had seen the roadsides filled with the men, women and children starved to death”. But together they held fast to the idea of a constitutional settlement. They wanted for Ireland, as Bew puts it, what Austria had given Hungary.

The public scandal surrounding Parnell’s long affair with Kitty O’Shea and his premature death in 1891 split the nationalists and might have marked the end of the movement for home rule. But the Liberals’ return to government at Westminster in 1906 saw Dillon, as deputy leader of the Irish party at Westminster, re-emerge as a champion of the home rule law eventually passed in 1914.

Yet all was lost to the martyrdom of the rebels of the Easter Rising. Sinn Féin’s election victory in 1918 made way for the Anglo-Irish war, the Irish free state, the Irish civil war and partition of the north. Dillon, who died in 1927, had followed in Parnell’s footsteps in designing the architecture of Irish nationalism, but he never made peace with the new Irish state.

Ancestral Voices in Irish Politics: Judging Dillon and Parnell by Paul Bew Oxford University Press £25, 244 pages

Philip Stephens is an FT contributing editor

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