Earlier this month the Irish Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, gave his backing to a campaign for John Edward Redmond, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party from 1900 until his death in 1918, to be honoured with a memorial in the Irish parliament building at Leinster House. This has been greeted as a long overdue recognition of that party’s role in Irish political history. Redmond is, however, commemorated elsewhere with a monument in Wexford, where his name appears alongside other members of a remarkable political dynasty. These include his great-uncle and namesake, who features as our MP of the Month.
John Edward Redmond (1806-65) represented his native borough of Wexford from 1859 until shortly before his death in 1865. ‘Old John Redmond’, as he was known, was a pivotal member of Wexford’s greatest political dynasty and was chiefly responsible for the modern development of the town, providing it with its first railway, its harbour works, and many of its public amenities. His election inaugurated the family’s tradition of parliamentary participation, which lasted for almost a century.
Building on the success he had acquired as a banker from the mid-1820s, Redmond became a ship owner, the size of his fleet of steamers reaching 22,000 tons by 1846. The shipping interest in Wexford was further improved when Redmond opened a ship-building yard, extended the quays and constructed a slipway. He also became the largest property owner in Wexford, acquiring around 100 houses in different parts of the town. From 1845 he took a leading role in local railway construction, and became known as the ‘Wexford Railway King’.
Redmond’s political allegiances were erratic in the 1830s and 1840s, and appear to have been influenced more by family bonds and economic interest rather than party politics. In 1835 he backed an unsuccessful attempt by his elder brother, Patrick Walter, to secure a parliamentary seat at Wexford as a ‘Conservative Whig’. Although he subsequently lent a degree of support to the Liberals, he seems to have shared some of his brother’s convictions, which included opposition to the repeal of the union, and an aversion to clerical ‘dictation’ in political affairs. At the 1841 general election he backed James Bourne, a representative of the Liverpool shipping interest, who unsuccessfully contested Wexford for the Conservatives. However, he did not subsequently offer any opposition to the borough’s Liberal interest, which from 1847 lay with another family of Catholic merchants, the Devereuxs.
In 1846 Redmond initiated the first of two successful land reclamation schemes at Wexford harbour, which sparked opposition from the harbour commissioners and certain mercantile interests, most notably the Devereuxs. By the late 1850s this economic rivalry had developed into a political contest, and at the 1859 general election the Liberal MP for Wexford, John Thomas Devereux, was forced to make way for Redmond. Although he now held Liberal opinions on questions of religious equality, the franchise and landlord-tenant relations, Redmond generally supported the Conservatives while in the Commons, being one of around a dozen members of the so-called ‘Roman Catholic party’ which continued to oppose Lord Palmerston’s administration after the break up of the Independent Irish Party. He took little part in the business of the Commons, though, being one of only 30 MPs to sit through the 1859 Parliament without serving on a committee of any kind, and spoke only three times in debate.
Having devoted his fortune and talents to the advancement of his constituency, Redmond was ‘almost worshipped in Wexford, particularly by the working people’. However, his achievements in the borough came at a price, creating both commercial and political enemies. This was made clear at the 1865 general election, when he not only faced opposition from business rivals, but also lost the support of the local Catholic clergy, who backed the National Association candidate, Richard John Devereux, a nephew of the man Redmond had displaced in 1859. He was defeated by the 153 electors who voted for his opponent, and although he was said to have accepted their verdict ‘good-naturedly and resignedly’, he still ‘felt keenly his defeat’.
Redmond died unexpectedly of heart failure the following month. He was buried in the family mausoleum in St. John’s churchyard, Wexford. His funeral was remarkable not only for an attendance of around 10,000 mourners, but because no Catholic priest could be found willing to conduct the service. The funeral rites were reportedly withheld owing to Redmond’s independence in political matters, and his non-observance of religious duties such as confession.
Despite this clerical boycott, a memorial to Redmond was subsequently erected in what is now Redmond Square, Wexford. This was restored in 2007 and also commemorates the lives of Redmond’s nephew, William Archer Redmond (1825-80), a Home Rule MP for Wexford from 1872 until his death, along with his sons, William Hoey Kearney Redmond (1861-1917), MP for Wexford, 1883-5, South Fermanagh, 1885-92, and County Clare, 1892-1917, and John Edward Redmond (1856-1918), MP for New Ross, 1881-5, North Wexford, 1885-91, and Waterford, 1891-1918.
Further reading: J. McConnel, ‘John Redmond and Irish Catholic Loyalism’, English Historical Review, cxxv (2010), 83-111.