Skip to main content

Three Major Irish Constitutional Leaders

         Three Major Irish Constitutional Leaders            Gerry OShea

Daniel O’Connell, Charles Parnell and John Redmond are correctly considered the three foremost Irish parliamentary leaders in the 19th century, with Mr. Redmond’s time extending into the important early decades of the 1900’s. The main goal of all three centered on the abolition of the Act of Union which was passed in Westminster in 1801.

After that date all administrative and political decisions involving Ireland were made by the London government. Those assigned the top jobs were appointed by the British prime minister or his henchmen. These powerful administrators working from the various lodges and power centers in Dublin made the decisions that impacted the lives of Irish people in every corner of the island.

From an Irish perspective this amalgamation of the two kingdoms was a highly unacceptable arrangement. Bureaucrats with only tangential contact with the local population made all the calls regarding land use, court adjudications and police enforcement. People with an appreciation of the local culture and customs were excluded from the top echelons of government authority.

This power arrangement was fully congruent with the colonial mentality. The English convinced themselves that the Irish were incapable of self-rule. This shallow and supercilious attitude extended to all facets of culture. Their language, their literature, their games and their religion were inherently superior to the sub-standard beliefs and lifestyle of their Irish subjects.

After playing a leading role in achieving Catholic Emancipation in 1829, Daniel O’Connell, widely known as The Liberator, started the Repeal Movement whose goal was the restoration of a functioning government in Dublin. The previous one, known as Grattan’s Parliament, operated for twenty years until it was prorogued by the Act of Union in 1801.

O’Connell had massive support for achieving his worthy goal from people all over the country and he named 1843 as the Repeal Year. On August 15th he addressed a massive crowd – estimated at a million – in the Hill of Tara, home in past centuries of the King of Ireland. O’Connell was highlighting the moral force of a mass movement in achieving major political change. He encouraged his audience to think positively, “The time is coming when you may have the option to die as slaves or live as free men.”

The English rulers feared what this new populism might presage, especially at a time of violent conflagrations in some European capitals. When the Liberator called another huge meeting for Clontarf on October 8th of that year, they banned it and sent troops to the proposed gathering area in Dublin. O’Connell cancelled the mass gathering because of the danger of violence while re-affirming his total opposition to the idea that Ireland should assert its liberty by force of arms.

Charles Parnell also rejected any political proclamations that included warlike threats against the established order although to achieve land reform he flirted with Fenianism and enlisted the support of Michael Davitt who was jailed as a young man for his rebel activities. In the later years of the 19th century, he was spoken of as the uncrowned king of Ireland – an exceptional achievement for a Protestant landlord of aristocratic lineage from County Wicklow.

 At the height of his power, Parnell declared that: “none of us will be satisfied until we have destroyed the last link which keeps Ireland bound to England.”

He dominated Irish politics during the decade of the 1880’s. A brilliant parliamentarian, he worked with Prime Minister Gladstone to pass a Home Rule bill for Ireland, but they were blocked by internal divisions in the Liberal Party and by the bastion of conservatism, the House of Lords. While he did not achieve his goal of instituting a system of self-government for Ireland, he certainly brought the issue to the very center of British politics. 

His adulterous relationship with Katherine O’Shea split the party and the country with nearly all the bishops condemning his behavior in the strongest terms. Tragically, Parnell died in the arms of his wife in Dublin on October 6th, 1891, at the early age of 45. His funeral in Glasnevin Cemetery was attended by over 200,000 people.

The Irish Party in Westminster was riven for the next decade between supporters and opponents of Parnell. John Redmond stood with the man he called the Chief and so did a minority of the Irish MP’s. However, he was respected by most of his internal opponents as a leader of vision and integrity, and he was elected to head the united group in 1900. 

The victory of the Liberals in the 1906 general election ended more than a decade of Conservative domination of British politics. The new government was well disposed to Ireland, and this was reflected in the policies of the new Chief Secretary, Augustine Birrell, who introduced several consequential reforms including a new land act and the establishment of the National University of Ireland.

But the golden grail of Home Rule remained on the long finger until the two general elections of 1910 resulted in a political stalemate that put Redmond and his party in a pivotal position in British politics. The Irish Party held the balance of power and it helped that Liberal Prime Minister Asquith was committed to abolishing the legislative veto of the House of Lords and to passing a Home Rule bill for Ireland.

The passage of that legislation in 1912 was the high point of John Redmond’s career. It was a modest bill, granting a parliament in Dublin which would legislate for local issues only while Westminster still decided on taxation and foreign policy.

 Proponents pointed out that the bill was the culmination of efforts for this reform going back eighty years to the Liberator. They argued that it should be seen as a first step towards fuller independence – exactly the argument that was made favoring the Treaty nine years later.

A massive crowd welcomed Mr. Redmond home to Dublin after the final passage of the bill. His success was hailed by Patrick Pearse and the aging Fenian Diarmuid O’Donovan Rossa.

However, the Unionists in the Belfast area made clear that they would never accept legislation originating in Dublin. They formed a militia with over 100,000 men willing to die rather than go along with what they called Rome rule. Most of the army leaders in the Curragh in an unprecedented action advised their leaders that they would not obey an order to take on the Unionists.

John Redmond protested vigorously but finally consented to a bill that allowed the six counties in Ulster to have a parliament in Belfast for six years.

He supported the British war effort in the Great War which was estimated to last just a few months, but which dragged on for four years. He dismissed the 1916 Rebellion as a pro-German revolution. Anyway, he was the ultimate constitutionalist committed to parliamentary democracy with no place for the bomb or bullet.

By 1918 Home Rule was off the table as more aggressive and belligerent nationalists took over, winning by-elections and sweeping the board in the November Westminster elections that year. 

John Redmond, a sincere patriot, died a broken man six months before that historic election.

Gerry OShea blogs at


Popular posts from this blog

Reflections of an Immigrant

  Reflections of an Immigrant             Gerry OShea I came to America on a student visa in the summer of 1968. I travelled with a college friend, Ignatius Coffey, who hails from Labasheeda in County Clare. We were attending University College Dublin (UCD) after completing a second year studying the Arts curriculum. As evening students we were making our way by working in various jobs because our parents could not afford to cover our living expenses. So, we arrived in New York on the last day of May with very few dollars in the back pocket wondering if this new country would give us a break. I had uncles and aunts in New York who were a big help in providing meals and subsistence. A first cousin’s husband, who worked in Woolworth’s warehouse in Harlem and who was one of about six shop stewards in the Teamsters Union there, found us a job in his place, despite the line of American students knocking at the door. The pay was good and we worked every hour of overtime that we could

Mary Magdalene

  Mary Magdalene                        Gerry OShea After the crucifixion the fledgling movement of Christians commemorated the life and death of a man who had deeply impacted their lives and who they firmly believed had come back from the dead   for reasons they didn’t understand but which included his love for them. The records we have of those times reveal that his early followers met in small groups to support each other in prayer and community as they tried to come to terms with the monumental events that they had witnessed, and this process continued into the generations that followed. The four gospels were mostly written late in the first century, probably completed in the early years of the following one. There is evidence of women playing leadership roles in the deliberations and ceremonial practices in those early centuries. However, as time went on the leadership structure reflected more and more the male-dominated culture that consigned women to minor ecclesial roles

The Ordination of Women

  The Ordination of Women         Gerry OShea About seven years ago, my wife and I participated in a mass in San Antonio, Texas, where the main celebrant was a woman. We were part of about three hundred people attending a conference under the auspices of Call to Action, a Catholic organization that takes a jaundiced view of how women are treated in the church and which rejects some traditional Vatican pronouncements especially in the area of sexuality. The mass was a memorable event with a pervasive sense of community, and the priest who preached the sermon did a masterful job. We were staying with a priest friend who worked in a parish nearby. At breakfast the following morning we shared our positive reaction with him and two of his colleagues. He and a younger man responded positively saying that, of course, women priests would be a big plus for the ecclesial community. The third man had a different perspective. He pointed out that the “so-called priests” were excommunicated,