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Home Rule: A Mighty Day in Dublin


                Home Rule: A Mighty Day in Dublin     Gerry OShea

Two general elections were held in Great Britain in 1910, which yielded roughly the same results. The two main parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, ended up with similar numbers of seats in parliament, giving John Redmond, leader of the 82 Irish MPs, the balance of power in Westminster.

The Irish contingent supported the Liberal leader Herbert Asquith, who promised to introduce an Irish Home Rule bill that would give Ireland a measure of independence that the two great Irish leaders of the 19th century, Daniel O’Connell and Charles Parnell, had failed to achieve.

Sunday, March 31,1912, was a momentous day in Dublin. Up to 150,000 people from all parts of the island gathered to celebrate the introduction of an Irish Home Rule Bill in Westminster, surely guaranteeing the achievement of the long-sought goal: the restoration of a parliament in Dublin, achieved without resorting to guns or bombs.

For the first time since the Act of Union in 1801, when what was known as Grattan’s Parliament was prorogued and London assumed direct control of Irish affairs, Asquith’s bill gave Dublin its own parliament again. The words of the great Thomas Davis song were proclaimed as a victory statement among the ebullient multitude. Finally, Ireland would become “A Nation Once Again.”

Four speakers’ platforms were erected on Sackville Street, the official name of what Dubliners even then called O’Connell Street. Each was decked out with a canvas backdrop displaying the appropriate message, true to the nationalist motif, “Ireland a Nation.”

The wooden erection at the south end of the street was called the students’ platform. There, the loudest cheers were heard for Michael Davitt, son of the late great Land League campaigner and socialist of the same name from County Mayo.

In another dais near the Father Matthew statue, John Dillon, the veteran Dublin MP, was the premier orator, while his parliamentary colleague from Belfast, Joe Devlin, occupied the speakers’ rostrum erected on the corner of Middle Abbey Street.

 Speaking next to Mr. Devlin was Patrick Pearse, a high school principal and a leader of the growing number of cultural nationalists, who welcomed the development of a parliament in Dublin as a first step towards complete liberation. True to his Fenian beliefs, he suspected that the English might again fail to deliver on their promise and ominously warned that “if we are cheated once more, there will be red war in Ireland.”

Pearse knew that a clear majority in the ruling Establishment in London did not want to cede power from what they called the mother of parliaments to a local assembly in Dublin. This would represent a major defeat for English colonialism, which fostered the idea that all political control emanated from Westminster, the guiding power center of the British Empire.

Bonar Law, leader of the conservative Tory party, made his opposition clear in a widely reported speech about the future of democracy and the union in the Empire: “There are things stronger than parliamentary majorities,” he warned. One commentator, with good reason, accused him of “flirting with sedition.”

Pearse also knew of the depth of opposition to Dublin Home Rule by Ulster Unionists. In fact, he had, rather unwisely, praised them for their obstinate refusal to assent to any version of the government bill. He liked and lauded their defiance of the Westminster rulers.

The largest crowd gathered early around the number one platform located close to the recently completed Parnell monument at the northern end of the street. This statue was erected under the leadership of John Redmond, a parliamentary protégé of Charles Parnell, who wanted to honor the legacy of his distinguished predecessor despite his humiliating fall from grace and premature death. This was the assigned leader’s location for Mr. Redmond’s highly anticipated oration.

At 1.50pm Redmond and his wife, Amy, left the Mansion House after lunch with the Lord Mayor, Lorcan Sherlock, to move to O’Connell Street led by no less than 170 pipers’ and brass bands. Loud and prolonged cheers greeted them as they approached the Parnell platform.

This was the high point of the nationalist day of celebration, and appropriately, it began with a rousing rendering of the national anthem: “And Ireland, long a province, be A Nation Once Again.” All together now, the great Thomas Davis’ powerful demand, “A Nation Once Again!”

John Redmond, a fine public speaker, compares this gathering to Daniel O’Connell’s legendary monster meetings, assuring his audience that “it is no exaggeration to say that this meeting is Ireland.” Great words for the exuberant crowd, but he knows that a significant part of the Irish population is not represented in Dublin, and they are fiercely determined to scupper Home Rule.

A few months before the Dublin celebratory jamboree, over 100,000 marchers listened in Craigavon, near Belfast, to Sir Edward Carson define the Home Rule Bill as “the most nefarious conspiracy ever hatched against a free people.”

The division on the island was along religious lines, with Catholics waving the green nationalist flag and Protestants showing the Union Jack on the opposing side, claiming that in their powerful trope “Home Rule will be Rome rule.” Ironically, some of the top 19th-century nationalist leaders, including Parnell and Davis, came from strong Protestant backgrounds.

The unionists in the North decided that if Westminster passed Home Rule, they would demand similar treatment for Ulster and insist on their own parliament. Redmond rejected this approach: “Ireland is a unit. The Two Nations theory is to us nationalists an abomination and a blasphemy.”

One nation or two on the island, that debate still goes on after a hundred and twenty years. Dealing with this conundrum formed a central part of the admirable Good Friday Agreement, where both states, with headquarters in Dublin and Belfast, agreed in separate referenda that the constitutional change needed for unity cannot happen until it is approved in separate plebiscites by the people in the North and the South.

Gerry OShea blogs at


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