"A Desperate Venture" (1911)

Perhaps the greatest of the disadvantages under which the All-for-Ireland League laboured from its birth was that the inaugural meeting could not have been held in Dublin. Here again it was misconception and not unfriendliness that raised a difficulty but for which the course of contemporary Irish history might have taken a different turn and regenerated the National Movement without the sharp surgery of the Rising of Easter Week. The Sinn Féin movement of Mr. Arthur Griffith, in its purely intellectual and non-military stage, was beginning at this time to establish a wholesome supremacy in the Irish capital as the inevitable recoil from the corporate jobbery and venality of the Board of Erin reign. At my request Captain Shawe-Taylor, the originator of the Land Conference, and a fanatic in his passion for conciliation among Irishmen, waited on Mr. Griffith to invoke the aid of his organization in arranging an inaugural meeting of the All-for-Ireland League in Dublin, impressing upon him that the project would leave Sinn Féin, and all other schools of national thought, the widest liberty to develop on their own lines, provided they could see their way to combine for the formation of a great National confraternity of Irishmen from which the best ultimate solution and the most competent men to think it out would gradually be evolved. I was in a position to inform him that every section of Cork Nationalists—the Gaelic League, the Sinn Féiners (then only a handful, but an inestimable handful of diamonds [11]), the Gaelic Athletic Association, and the Young Ireland Society, as well as the City Branch of the old United Irish League and the Land and Labour Association were joining with passionate eagerness in our preliminary meetings, and that nothing but a great inaugural rally in Dublin was wanting to give the movement a firm hold on the imagination of the country. Nor did I fail to make it clear that no contest of persons or of leadership was involved—that Lord Dunraven, Mr. Healy, and myself, for want of better, were willing to throw ourselves into the necessary inaugural work, but that nobody was more sensible than we of the drawbacks which old controversies had associated with our names, and that our truest hope was that out of the bands of ardent young Irishmen of all types and conditions who would flock to our free platform there would spring another Parnell with the youth, the ardour, and the high purpose to lead the Nation on to a future of nobler inspirations and achievements.

Resolutions conceived in that spirit were submitted to Mr. Griffith for approval or emendation. Captain Shawe-Taylor brought back the message that with our ideal Mr. Griffith was in cordial agreement, but that he and his friends could not consent to stand on the platform of the All-for-Ireland League unless there was added a resolution demanding the withdrawal of the representatives of Ireland from the Westminster Parliament. To do this, of course, would be to alienate nine-tenths of our sympathisers, and indeed to swallow our own deepest convictions, which were that it was not Parliamentarianism, but only nerveless and corrupt Parliamentarianism, which had broken down. In the circumstances of that time, the Hungarian precedent, to which Mr. Griffith clung, would have left Ireland without defence at the mercy of the English Parliament, and indeed would have been flatly rejected by every constituency in the island, as it had already been at the only Irish election (Leitrim) where a Sinn Féin candidate had presented himself. Nothing less than the undreamt-of breakup of empires caused by the convulsions of the World-War could have opened the way to a policy, which, up to the outbreak of the war, seemed to disown the advantages both of an active representation at Westminster and of armed resistance in Ireland. Our movement, propounding no dogma of its own as to the ultimate bounds of Irish liberty, would have left Mr. Griffith at complete liberty to recommend his own doctrines; but at the very start to impose them upon all comers would only have been to clear our platform of all but a minute intellectual minority. But without at least the benevolent neutrality of Sinn Féin, a successful start in Dublin was out of the question.

Mr. Griffith's decision, in compelling us to transfer the inaugural meeting to Cork, gave the All-for-Ireland movement a certain sectional and provincial aspect, which the implacable foes of "the Cork accent" were not slow to exploit, and did much to increase the timidity of that Irish Protestant minority which a great Metropolitan meeting joyfully commingling Irishmen of all ranks and creeds would have dispelled. Mr. Griffith fatally overestimated the growing popularity of Sinn Féin in Dublin. Whether or not he was throwing away his opportunity for an eventual peaceful triumph of his own movement, without the horrors, however glorious, or the chaos, however unavoidable, of the ten years that were to follow, it would be now idle to debate. What there is no disputing is that not very long after the All-for-Ireland League had been cut off from Dublin, and the Board of Erin thus relieved from their principal disquiet, the temporary success of Sinn Féin in the Dublin wards and in its Corporation began to waste away, before the renewed ascendancy of the Hibernians, and the Sinn Féin movement proper continued to decline year after year until there was little left of it except its name, when some English newspaper man hard up for a name to distinguish the "Irish Volunteers" of the Rising of 1916 from Mr. Redmond's "National Volunteers" transferred the designation of Sinn Féin to the very different Republican movement which was presently to overflow the country.

The All-for-Ireland movement, however, responded to an instinct which no discouragements could withstand that some great change was a national necessity, and that it was coming. To such a depth had Freedom of the Press sunk in Dublin, that £60 had to be paid for the announcement of the existence of the League in one "Nationalist" daily newspaper, and even then the announcement was only admitted to its advertising columns, since as "news" the extent of the new movement must not be divulged. In the South, where the Cork Examiner, up to the time of its apostacy, had honestly reported our speeches, the Nationalists of Cork and the adjoining counties of every hue and section were overwhelmingly friendly. The farmers whom the policy of Conciliation plus Business had almost universally established as owners, the labourers who, thanks to its operations, had come into possession of many thousands of cosy cottages and allotments, the young men of vision who if they would go further than we somehow felt that our ideals could lead to nothing base were all ready for the signal—all except the placemen, actual or expectant. The Southern Unionists were almost as universally friendly. Until quite recently, the extent to which the principles of national fraternity were permeating the Irish Protestant minority, although confidentially known to us, was unsuspected by the general public, for unluckily these men, long withdrawn from active politics and living with their families often in remote districts where they were open to Hibernian intimidation, and, above all, disheartened by the vilification with which the first notable Unionist converts to the principle of self-government were pelted by Mr. Dillon and his newspaper, were not to be got to declare themselves on the public platforms until it was too late to make their adhesion duly valued.

This was the difficulty hinted at by Lord Rossmore—once the Grand Master of the Orange Order in County Monaghan, and one not to be daunted by abuse from continuing to be to the day of his death as genial a Home Ruler as he had been a militant Ulster Unionist—in a letter enclosing a subscription of £10 to the new League:

"I wish I was a richer man to put another 0 to my cheque. I assure you that my unwillingness is not the reason I do not do so. If everyone who really agrees with the A. F. I. League did according to their means, what I am willingly and openly doing, the League would not want long for funds."

It was the same sense of the lack of moral courage among his brother Unionists which, as much as the rabid hostility of the Hibernians, moved Lord Dunraven, in a personal letter to myself, to this rather alarming estimate of the magnitude of the enterprise before the new League:

"Adare Manor.

"February 9.

My dear Mr. O'Brien,—You are on a venture as desperate as any undertaken by fabled knights of old for the destruction of dragons and the rescue of damsels in distress. I am sure you have the well wishes and sympathy of every honest and common-sense man in Ireland.

"Yours sincerely,


In his public letter to the inaugural meeting, however, he nailed the green flag to his masthead and kept it flying there usque ad noctem with the intrepidity of the old yachtsman "pleased with the danger when the waves went high." An extract from it ought to be preserved as depicting the type of patriotic Irish Protestant who, for being a patriot, was traduced by Hibernian speakers and writers with a virulence never attempted against Sir Edward Carson:

"These three essentials (self-government, completion of Land Purchase, and protection against over-taxation) can be attained only by Irish men and women working for them patiently, strenuously, and honestly, so far as they conscientiously can, and I am very sure that the vast majority can join hand in hand in working out the salvation of the country, if only they have the charity and courage to put aside paltry prejudice and follow the dictates of their hearts. The opposite policy has been tried now for years, and with what result? Land Purchase is dead, over-taxation has been condoned, and control of our own affairs is further off than ever. I do not wish to go into personal matters, but I may say this: For myself I have honestly tried to help my country without reference to Party. I supported the Liberal Party in their land policy so far as it went and I opposed their Treasury Relief Bill. I opposed the Conservatives in their efforts to stultify Ireland by grossly exaggerating crime and disorder, and I supported them in their land legislation. I did what I could in the matter of reinstatement of evicted tenants, in legislation for labourers and in respect of University Education, with the result, so far as I can see, of exasperating those who hate reconciliation and who spurn the assistance of Irishmen who disapprove of their tactics. That may be a matter of indifference to me, but not to Ireland, for such methods stifle nationality. A great opportunity was lost at the time of the Land Conference when the spirit of reconciliation and its first fruit, the Land Act of 1903, was denounced. The Act has been killed. By one man at any rate it has been bravely upheld. One man had the clear vision to see what Conciliation might do, one man has stuck manfully to his guns and has fought a strenuous fight against tremendous odds, and that man is the senior member for Cork City. This Cause is a righteous one. It is the Cause of common sense, of knowledge, of charity. It appeals to all that is best and truest in the hearts of the people. It is the cause I will support as long as I can and to the best of my ability."

Desperate as was the venture, in face of a still unshaken Hibernian despotism, the aloofness of Sinn Féin, and the suspicions of the Protestant minority, many of the finest spirits among the Irish nobles and captains of industry associated themselves openly from the first with the fortunes of the All-for-Ireland League—Lord Castletown of Upper Ossory, Mr. Moreton Frewen, Captain H. Sheehy-Keating of the Irish Guards (killed at Mons), Colonel Hutcheson Poë, Sir John Keane, of Cappoquin, Mr. Villiers Stuart, of Dromana, Lord Rossmore, Mr. Richard E. Longfield, D.L., of Longueville, Sir Timothy O'Brien, Mr. Lindsay Talbot Crosbie, of Ardfert, Alderman Richard Beamish (High Sheriff of Cork City), Lord Monteagle—heads of historic Irish houses breathing a patriotism no less sincere, if as yet more subdued in words than the most fire-tried of the veteran Nationalists who flocked to our banner—the last of the grey-haired old Fenians of Rebel Cork or the venerable National poet, Mr. T. D. Sullivan, the author of "God Save Ireland," whose last speech in life was spoken at the inaugural meeting in Cork. There were sympathisers in far larger numbers who were known to be only awaiting a propitious hour to declare themselves, and at last (although too tardily) have done so—men like Lord Shaftesbury, who had been thrice Lord Mayor of Belfast and was Chancellor of the Belfast University, the Protestant Archbishop of Dublin (Dr. Bernard), Lord Powerscourt, Sir John Arnott, Canon Flewett, the Rector of Mallow, Sir Jocelyn Coghill, Lord Oranmore and Browne, Lord Kenmare, Lord Bandon, H.M.L., Dean Grierson (afterwards Bishop of Down and Connor), Professor Butcher, M.P., Professor Trench, LL.D., and Lord Barrymore himself, who had been the Samson Agonistes of Irish landlordism in its last battles, and whose coming over, one of the achievements of my life of which I am proudest, was, of course, imputed to me as the inexpiable sin against the Holy Ghost. It is certain further that the movement commanded the secret sympathy of some of the most potent statesmen of Britain in both Parties—Lord Loreburn (Lord Chancellor), Mr. Bryce, Lord Morley,[12] Lord Eversley (once Mr. Shaw-Lefevre), Mr. John Burns, Sir Edward Grey, Lord Haldane, and Mr. Thomas Burt, the first of the Labour leaders, among the Liberals, and amongst Unionists, Earl Grey (the Governor-General of Canada), Lord Carnarvon, son of the Lord Carnarvon, a famous Tory Viceroy in Ireland, who was a Home Ruler thirty-seven years before his Party and was as scurvily betrayed by Lord Salisbury as was George Wyndham twenty-four years after him, Mr. Walter Long, a man much maligned by "The Party" as an anti-Irish Conservative but for all that has been said to the contrary as romantic a lover of Ireland as his mother's Irish blood could make him as well as a straightforward English gentleman, of whom I think it is no libel to report that from the start he declared: "I shall have to oppose Home Rule as it stands, but I will only oppose it from the lips out"—even it must in justice be recorded Mr. F. E. Smith (now Lord Birkenhead), who had not yet been beguiled into his adventures as "Galloper" in the Covenanting Army of Sir E. Carson. I speak without personal knowledge, when I add to the list Lord Lansdowne, in at least a shy tentative way (his son, the Earl of Kerry, has just accepted a seat in the Free State Senate); and I should not, I imagine, be very wide of the mark, if I were to use the most august British name of all.[13]

Lord Midleton and the Irish nobles and country gentlemen, who were afterwards to follow him into the Anti-Partition League were not yet heard of. Sir Horace Plunkett (to my deep disappointment) could not be induced to discover any genuine sympathy with Home Rule, of which he ultimately conceived himself to be the father. The vast country meetings of magistrates under the presidency of their respective Lords Lieutenant—the weighty declarations of Chambers of Commerce, professional men and masters of industry in Dublin, Cork, and Limerick, which unfortunately waited for Sinn Féin to make in 1920 the professions of faith which would have been priceless in 1911—all were secretly in sympathy, but stood tongue-tied while we were treading the winepress all alone. Had these tremendous forces only boldly shown themselves in 1911, as they did after the bloody lesson of 1916—had the occasion produced some new Irish leader with the magic of command —and had not King Edward the Peacemaker been untimely cut off—who will now doubt that Irish freedom must have been won without the firing of a shot and with all the unity and multiform strength that would have been derived from the effacement of racial and religious antagonisms? It was not to be. The response on all sides was secretly friendly, but it was the response of Felix, the Roman Governor: "I shall send for you again when I find an opportune time." We were sent for again, but—the pity of it!—it was at the most inopportune of times when the mischief had all been done. The Irish people, uninformed of the truth, pointed to the small number of Irish Unionists on our platforms as a proof of the hopelessness of the task of conciliating them; and the Irish Unionists, however secretly willing, recoiled from speaking out, with the example before their eyes of the ferocious maltreatment accorded to those of their brethren who had been the first to burn their boats. In that vicious circle, the country was forced to revolve until the opportunity was lost. But it was an enterprise nobly worth "all the cost and the pain," for to the policy of "Conference, Conciliation, and Consent" is traceable the whole course of events which made Lord Midleton and his friends in the House of Lords fast friends of Home Rule, and brought Sir James Craig into friendly conference with Mr. Michael Collins, and Mr. Lloyd George into still friendlier conferences with "The Murder Gang," to whom he proffered the extremest form of Irish liberty short of a Republican name as well as substance.

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The Irish Revolution

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William O'Brien was a County Cork M.P. who participated in the negotiations for Home Rule in Ireland. In this account, first published in 1923, he provides an insight into the politics and politicians of the time - John Redmond, John Dillon, Arthur Griffith, Sir Edward Carson, Bonar Law, Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, etc. - and gives his analysis of the origins of the Easter Rising of 1916 and the subsequent Irish Civil War. From his own perspective, O'Brien was very much anti-Partition, and was evidently frustrated at the failure to give adequate reassurance to the Northern Unionists.

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