In pursuit of land reform and Home Rule

In pursuit of land reform and Home Rule Parnell addressing the United States Congress in the name of the Irish people.

Ancestral Voices in Irish Politics: Judging Dillon and Parnell, by Paul Bew (Oxford University Press, £25.00/ €29.50)

The great Irish constitutional nationalist movement of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, with its twin aims of land reform and Home Rule, has been largely disregarded and uncelebrated in the Ireland that emerged from the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence. It has been consigned to the dustbin of history.

The movement has, nevertheless, attracted the attention of some of the very best Irish historians, beginning with FSL. Lyons and Conor Cruise O’Brien in the 1950s and ‘60s. Since then, there has been a steady stream of monographs and scholarly articles about the movement and some fine biographies of its principal figures – Parnell, Davitt, the Redmond brothers, John Dillon, William O’Brien and Tim Healy.

Paul Bew’s latest book, is a succinct but insightful summing up of the literature on the movement – which, indeed, includes several books of his own. The particular value of this book is its focus on the challenge of reconciling the two communities in Ireland, both then and now.

It should be noted in this context that Bew, emeritus professor of politics at Queen’s University Belfast, was an advisor to the late David Trimble and now sits in the House of Lords as a crossbencher.


Bew quotes Parnell as saying that when he “first entered political life … very few people in Ireland – not one in ten – believed in the efficacy of parliamentary action. The Fenian rebellion [of 1867] was only recently over and the idea widely prevailed that revolution was the only means of securing justice to Ireland.”

Parnell and his party at Westminster changed all that, and Bew argues that a key moment in the conversion of Irish nationalists to “parliamentary action” was the election of the old Young Irelander – and still bitter revolutionary – John Mitchel to parliament in 1875. One of those thus converted was John Dillon, son of Mitchel’s fellow Young Irelander in 1848, John Blake Dillon.

The New Departure negotiated by Parnell, Davitt and John Devoy in 1878 brought the Fenians inside the constitutional tent, but Bew’s thesis in this book is that physical force remained a feature of Irish nationalist politics afterwards.

Parnell was always respectful of the militants, and they remained loyal to him even after the split in 1890. While keeping them at a distance, he was probably fully aware of and acquiesced in their activities at least until the Phoenix Park murders in 1882. From that point on, however, he broke with all forms of illegality.

Bew emphasises that Parnell’s political instincts were fundamentally conservative and his dream was of an Irish Home Rule parliament dominated by people of respectability and responsibility. His approach to the land question was to seek justice for tenants and a fair deal for landlords, not to overthrow the landlord system; he was himself a landlord.


Dillon, in contrast, was relentlessly hostile to the Irish Protestant landed aristocracy and its political allies in Britain and in Ireland – and he “flirted” with violent methods, which he “could not in the end morally sanction” (to quote Bew). This often put him on a collision course with Parnell, even before Parnell’s break with the militants in 1882.

One of Bew’s objectives in this book is to “explain the full dimension of his [Dillon’s] conflict with Parnell throughout the 1880s”. That conflict was echoed later in Dillon’s opposition to the idea of cross-community “conciliation” promoted by William O’Brien and others in the early 1900s.

The policy of “conciliation” resulted in Wyndham’s Land Act 1903, which enabled Irish tenant farmers to purchase their holdings with government assistance, but Dillon opposed it – unsuccessfully – as too generous to the landowners.

Likewise, Dillon opposed O’Brien’s subsequent effort to get cross-community agreement on a measure of local self-government as a preliminary to Home Rule. His opposition was the critical factor in its failure.


As Bew observes, Dillon succeeded in blocking that “moment of possible reconciliation of ‘creed’ and ‘class’ [in Ireland]”. Bew notes that, in the light of the Northern Ireland Troubles, Dillon’s opposition to “conciliation” has “tended to generate a more sceptical attitude towards his record” than is evident in, for example, Lyons’ biography of Dillon published in 1968.

Bew hails the creation of the National University of Ireland (NUI) in 1908 as Dillon’s greatest achievement, though it is not ever acknowledged by that institution.


Dillon was always disdainful of Trinity College Dublin – describing it in 1901 as “a fortress of English domination and anti-Irish bigotry” – and he had long campaigned for adequate provision for higher education for Catholics in Ireland. By coincidence, the current Chancellor of NUI is Dr Maurice Manning, the distinguished biographer of John Dillon’s son, James.