MPs in World War I: Dr. John Esmonde (1862-1915)

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the third MP who died fighting in the First World War, and the second this week. Continuing our series of short biographies of these men, Dr Kathryn Rix, of the Victorian Commons, discusses the life of Dr John Joseph Esmonde…

While the first MP to die in the First World War, the Hon. Arthur O’Neill, was an Ulsterman and committed Unionist, the third MP to die came from the opposite side of the political divide. Dr. John Joseph Esmonde was elected for North Tipperary in December 1910, and died from pneumonia at his home at Drominagh, county Tipperary, on 17 April 1915 after a short illness. Unlike O’Neill, Esmonde, aged 53 at the time of his death, had not served in the trenches, but was instead stationed with the Irish Brigade in Tipperary. He had received a commission as captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps in January 1915.

Born on 27 January 1862, Esmonde was the second son of James Esmonde, of Drominagh Castle, and belonged to a family well-known in Tipperary and Wexford. His cousin Sir Thomas Henry Grattan Esmonde, a descendant of the leading Irish politician Henry Grattan, had sat at Westminster since 1885, latterly as Irish Nationalist MP for North Wexford.

A Catholic, Esmonde was educated at Stonyhurst and Oscott, before embarking on medical training. He received his diploma as a Licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland in 1884 and became a Licentiate of the Apothecaries’ Hall, Dublin in 1891. He worked as a doctor in Cheshire, before moving to Walthamstow, where he had ‘a large and exacting practice’. He then settled at Thurgoland, near Sheffield, and held the post of medical officer of health for Penistone Rural District Council. He retired from medical practice in 1909, when he returned to Ireland to manage the family estates at Drominagh following the death of his mother the previous year. His older brother James had died in 1899, leaving Esmonde as the heir.

In December 1910 Esmonde was elected unopposed for North Tipperary, an Irish Nationalist stronghold. He became a popular and well-respected Member, who ‘enjoyed Parliamentary work while professing to find it tiresome’. He had a ‘bluff geniality’ and was remembered at the National Liberal Club, of which he was a member, as ‘a good raconteur’. As one of few medical men in the Commons, his opinions were often sought on health questions. He mediated between Lloyd George and the medical profession on the details of the 1911 National Insurance Act.

Esmonde’s maiden speech, however, had been during the passing of the 1911 Parliament Act, which limited the powers of the House of Lords to block legislation passed by the Commons, a potential obstacle to securing Home Rule for Ireland. He declared that

‘I believe it is important to push this measure through with the greatest expediency to make way for measures necessary both for Ireland and for Great Britain’.

Esmonde was an articulate spokesman for the Home Rule cause, addressing Liberal meetings in Britain at which he put the case for legislative independence for Ireland within the broader framework of Empire. At a United Irish League meeting at Walsall in March 1912, he argued that

‘This Empire was a great Empire, but its heart was not yet sound. England must do for Ireland what she had done for Canada and South Africa. She had trusted them with good results; she must trust Ireland if she wanted to make her heart sound’.

Later that year he told the Liberals of Chelmsford that

‘They in Ireland did not want separation from England; they were proud to belong to such a glorious Empire. Home Rule would be a great benefit to England, greater still to Ireland, and an enormous benefit to the Empire’.

Given these sentiments, it was unsurprising that when the war began he took an active role in recruiting in county Tipperary. Having been honorary colonel of the Tipperary regiment of the Nationalist Volunteers, he joined the R.A.M.C. in January 1915. One obituary recorded that ‘his exertions in stimulating recruiting and as a military medical officer probably exceeded his strength’, contributing to the illness which caused his death in April 1915.

At the time of his death, two of his eight sons (from two marriages) were also serving in the army. His son Geoffrey was killed in action in 1916, aged 19. The family had a notable tradition of military service: Esmonde’s uncle Thomas (1829-1873) had been awarded the Victoria Cross during the Crimean War. The same distinction was accorded posthumously to Esmonde’s son Eugene (1909-1942), a naval pilot killed in action during the Second World War.

Esmonde’s eldest son, John Lymbrick Esmonde (1893-1958), was elected in his father’s place as MP for North Tipperary, and became the ‘baby of the House’ when he took his seat in June 1915, aged just 21. He retired from Parliament in 1918, but later represented County Wexford in the Irish Dáil, 1937-44, 1948-51, making him one of very few individuals to have sat both at Westminster and in the Dáil.


You can read the rest in our MPs in World War I series here

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