On 7 June 1917, William Hoey Kearney Redmond, the Irish Nationalist MP for East Clare, died of wounds sustained during the Battle of Messines in Belgium. Aged 56, he was the oldest MP to be killed in action. He was also the one with the longest parliamentary service, having first been returned to the Commons in 1883 as MP for the borough of Wexford. The younger brother of the leader of the Irish parliamentary party, John Redmond, he was well known among Irish emigrant communities in America and Australia, where he had campaigned on behalf of the nationalist cause, and his biographer suggests that his death had a greater international impact than that of any other British soldier in the First World War.
Redmond, usually known as Willie, came from a family long connected with Wexford, although he was himself born in Liverpool. His great-uncle, John Edward Redmond (1806-65), was the first family member to represent the borough in Parliament, sitting from 1859 until his defeat at the 1865 general election. Redmond’s father, William Archer Redmond (1825-80), sat for Wexford as a member of Isaac Butt’s Home Rule party from 1872 until his death in 1880. In July 1883 Redmond became the third generation of his family to represent Wexford when he was elected in his absence at a by-election. At the time of his election he was in Australia, where he and his older brother John – who had been elected as MP for the borough of New Ross in 1881 – were campaigning and fund-raising for the Irish National League. Both men met their wives in Australia, where John married in September 1883. Redmond and his wife Eleanor Mary Dalton held their wedding in London in 1886. Their only son died in 1891.
Redmond only represented Wexford for two years before the borough lost its separate representation under the Third Reform Act. In 1885 he was elected instead for North Fermanagh, which he represented for seven years. His Parnellite sympathies meant that he had to find a different seat in 1892, as the majority of local party activists in North Fermanagh were anti-Parnellites. He was defeated at Cork City, but also stood for East Clare, where he was victorious. He saw off an anti-Parnellite challenge at the 1895 general election, and was returned unopposed in 1900, 1906 and at both elections in 1910. (He was also a reluctant and unsuccessful candidate for Cork City in December 1910.) He sat in the Commons alongside his brother John, who represented New Ross, 1881-5, North Wexford, 1885-91, and Waterford, 1891-1918.
While they shared their political sympathies, Redmond and his brother had very different personalities. A contemporary wrote in 1910 that ‘I have never seen two men more absolutely dissimilar’. John Redmond was ‘silent, reserved, calculating and consistent’, whereas Willie was ‘conversational, spontaneous and impulsive in policy’. Described by his biographer as ‘the enfant terrible of Irish politics’ in the 1880s and 1890s, Redmond was imprisoned three times – in 1882, 1888 and 1902 – for his activities in support of the Land League and the United Irish League.
Shortly after the First World War broke out, John Redmond encouraged those involved in the Irish Volunteers to enlist with the British army. Loyally supporting his brother’s stance, Redmond made a notable recruiting speech at Cork in November 1914. He cited his long-standing support for the Irish nationalist cause, including his imprisonment alongside Parnell in Kilmainham gaol, and declared that he was ‘personally convinced that the battle of Ireland is to be fought where many Irishmen now are – in Flanders and France’. He concluded therefore that ‘old as I am, and grey as are my hairs, I will say, “Don’t go, but come with me”.’ As his biographer records, it was Redmond’s hope that
service in the war would unite Irish Protestants and Catholics against a common enemy in defence of the rights of other ‘small nations’ and contribute powerfully to a peaceful settlement in Ireland when the war ended (T. Denman, A lonely grave. The life and death of William Redmond (1995), pg. 9).
Redmond was commissioned as a captain in the 6th battalion of the Royal Irish regiment in February 1915. He had previously served with the Wexford militia battalion from 1879 until 1882, when he had abandoned his idea of pursuing a military career. In December 1915 he arrived with his regiment at Le Havre, en route to the trenches in Belgium. His age and poor health meant that he spent much of his time in staff jobs rather than fighting in the front line, although he was mentioned in dispatches late in 1916, by which time he had been promoted to the rank of major.
Having been ‘absolutely miserable at the prospect of being left behind’, Redmond succeeded in persuading his superiors to give him permission to take part in the attack on 7 June 1917 on Messines Ridge. He was wounded in the arm and leg by shell fire shortly after leaving the trenches at around 3:30 a.m. and died of his wounds that evening at Dranoutre, near Locre. He was buried in the garden of the convent at Locre Hospice. Despite pressure from the Imperial War Graves Commission, his widow refused to allow his body to be moved to a larger war cemetery nearby. Alongside his British war medals, Redmond was posthumously awarded the Légion d’Honneur.
- T. Denman, A lonely grave. The life and death of William Redmond (1995)
- W. H. K. Redmond, Trench pictures from France (1917)