Irish Studies

A Parnellite in the Free State? Henry Harrison and the legacy of the Irish Parliamentary Party

The Legacy of the Irish Parliamentary Party in Independent Ireland, 1922-1949 by Martin O’Donoghue offers a new perspective on the early years of independent Ireland. Providing statistical analysis of the extent of Irish Party heritage in each Dáil and Seanad in the period, it analyses how party followers reacted to independence and examines the place of its leaders in public memory. In this blog post, Martin O’Donoghue explores the legacy of Henry Harrison, a ‘Parnellite nationalist’.

Individuals from home rule backgrounds left a distinctive mark on independent Ireland. From 1922 onwards, many did so by entering politics or by seeking to influence the commemoration and memory of the party. In a broader sense, the model of the IPP’s machine provided an example to all parties whether they absorbed many former home rule converts or not. Capt. Henry Harrison, however, — a Parnellite nationalist, First World War veteran, newspaper editor, advisor to Éamon de Valera, and historian of the Irish Party — had a more remarkable post-1918 career than most.

A native of Holywood, Co Down, Harrison was the grandson of a Liberal MP while his sister Sarah Cecilia would become the first woman elected to Dublin Corporation in 1912. Henry’s career began in 1890 when he became an MP aged just 22. A devotee of Parnell, he would never hold a parliamentary seat after 1892; however, he served in the Great War and became involved in the Irish Dominion League during the War of Independence.


Newspaper cutting of Henry Harrison, courtesy of Deirdre Larkin

After the establishment of the Free State, the rhetoric and policies of many ‘old Nationalists’ harked back to John Redmond. For Harrison, the reference point was the older nationalist leader. Allowing for Alvin Jackson’s description of Parnellism as a ‘brilliant, but artificial alliance’ of various elements (and varying legacies), Harrison presented himself as an unreconstructed Parnellite, retaining great bitterness at Parnell’s betrayal yet still sympathetic to a figure like William O’Brien who broke from Redmond’s leadership. Harrison was also able to reconcile defence of Irishmen who, he insisted fought for their country in the Great War with some admiration for those who had practised violence in the Irish revolution. He founded the weekly newspaper Irish Truth in 1924, advocating for the use of the Treaty to gain Irish unity, defence of ex-servicemen, and fiscal conservatism in government policy.

Party politics

While he initially supported Cumann na nGaedheal (and won the party’s support to stand for the senate on his record as a ‘Parnellite Nationalist’ and supporter of ex-servicemen), the collapse of the Boundary Commission clearly marked a point of departure in Harrison’s politics.

The slow adaptation of those from home rule backgrounds to Free State party politics generally presented considerable challenges for the government and when ex-MPs Thomas O’Donnell and Captain William Redmond attempted to revive the home rule tradition in the Irish National League, Harrison soon joined them. While he was unsuccessful at the June 1927 election, he played a significant role in the negotiations surrounding a proposed Labour-National League coalition with Fianna Fáil support — a plan which would end in farce and failure in the Jinks affair that August and the League declined rapidly in its aftermath.

After the League’s collapse, former home rulers who had remained aloof from ‘Civil War’ politics subsequently faced a dwindling set of options. While many slowly found their way into Cumann na nGaedheal and later Fine Gael, spurred on by fears of de Valera and the dangers of the ‘Economic War’ with Britain, Harrison remained once more distinctive. Writing a series of pamphlets on the annuities dispute with Britain, he advised de Valera on the issue and, while he remained independent from any party, he enjoyed good relations with the Fianna Fáil leader. He supported Irish neutrality during World War II, and after the conflict, joined the Anti-Partition League. As President of its Paddington branch, he called for the addition of an amendment to the British government’s 1949 Ireland Bill that a plebiscite of the people rather than the Stormont parliament decide if Northern Ireland left the United Kingdom.

The memory of Parnell

The last decades of Harrison’s life evinced a symmetry with his first foray into public life: unswerving loyalty to Parnell. He never lost sight of the wrongs done to the former Chief’s character after the divorce scandal and published extensively in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1941, he gave the Parnell anniversary lecture in Dublin — an address which combined Parnellite loyalties with broad affinity for the de Valera government as he claimed Sinn Féin sprung from the ashes of the Parnellite movement. His faithful efforts to defend his Parnell’s honour bore fruit in 1951 as the London Times finally admitted its role in the case of the Piggott forgeries.

Harrison’s post-independence may appear highly unusual (though his arc was not completely unlike other former home rulers who took distinctive paths). A Protestant nationalist, Harrison’s politics also, however, displayed continuities — fidelity to Parnell, nationalism as he understood it from the 1890s, opposition to partition, and fostering equitable and cordial Anglo-Irish relations. In defending these ideals in rapidly changing political circumstances, Harrison’s career helps to highlight evolutions in political opinions and loyalties — but also speaks to aspects of both IPP opinion and post-independence attitudes to party politics, Irish unity and Anglo-Irish relations.


For more information on The Legacy of the Irish Parliamentary Party in Independent Ireland, 1922-1949, please visit our website.

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