It has been a week dominated by politics, by the triumphs, the failures, the hard slog and sometimes the boring grind, of democratic governance. It was the week during which I read Dr. Michael Ahern’s most recently published book; a study of the life and times of one of Ireland’s most consumate politicians, Clonmel’s Thomas Joseph Condon (1850-1943), the last Nationalist MP for Tipperary.
But Condon was more than a politician; he was a passionate patriot who identified with the injustices suffered by his fellow citizens in the times, and under the circumstances, in which they lived. Although he started his young life as a member of the Fenians, he ultimately followed the political, though never the comfortable, route, towards redressing those injustices. And if the old cynical cliche that all politics ends in failure holds any substance, then it has to be said that, despite his many achievements, Condon’s life ended in relative obscurity and near penury.
But now, Michael Ahern has rescued him. His book has brought him into modern Clonmel and into his significant place both in the life of the town, even more significantly, into the contribution which he, and his contemporaries, made to the democratic Ireland in which we now live.
Condon was a Clonmel man, born, it is thought, on a farm in Redmondstown. The traditional family burial grounds are located near the ancient church ruins of Kilgrant. The family had a long involvement with the cattle-dealing and victualling business in the town where they were once numerous and highly respected. Old Clonmel citizens will recall “Rich Paddy” and “Poor Paddy” and the delightful and memorable and artistically and musically talented, Margaret ‘Moggy.’
Tom Condon was born into an Ireland which had been ravaged by the Great Famine, inspired by the writings of Thomas Davis, and in which a Catholic middle-class gradually emerged. Long suppressed, and now educated by the religious orders, this was a class which was to prove particularly influential in the Ireland of the second half of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th. Tom Condon, having moved from the farm into the town, was establishing himself as a successful businessman and by 1880 he had built his own two-storey house in Johnson Street. But he did not forget the farming background from which his family had come, where those who had lived and worked on the land had no security of tenure, were at the mercy of landlords who charged exorbitant rents and where evictions were a frequent occurrence.
Michael Davitt had established the Land League in 1879, with the objective of obtaining agrarian reform. Tom Condon became a member and a very active supporter. That support, and particularly his very active involvement in The Plan of Campaign, brought him into trouble with the law, and he experienced several periods of having to sleep on what Michael Ahern describes as “the plank beds” of Clonmel’s, and several other prisons.
Many modern historians now identify the achievements of the Land League as one of the most significant social revolutions in the history of Ireland. It would not be correct to say that it was an entirely peaceful revolution, being interspersed by the occasional, and, understandably, bloody, protest: it is, however, true to say that it was achieved by the steady slow grind of political reform. And this was to become the mantra of Tom Condon’s life. He had begun climbing the political ladder. And it was a steep, energy-sapping climb. Firey speeches (he was, it seems, a most impressive and inspiring public speaker), long-distance travel, membership of innumerable public bodies and more sojourns on prison plank beds. Meanwhile, his extraodindary wife reared seven children and looked after the family business.
Michael Ahern’s book takes his readers through the phenomenal breadth of that involvement, from the Land Leaguer to his championship of human rights, to prison reform. He was elected to the Corporation and was several times Mayor of the town. He sat on many boards and committees all involved in the pursuit of social and political justice. He was elected Nationalist MP for Tipperary and joined Parnell in working for Home Rule. He remained a loyal Parnellite after “the split” and with Redmond continued on the Home Rule path until, as Yeats wrote, “all changed, changed utterly.”
In the election of 1918, and after more than three decades as Nationalist MP, he was defeated by Sinn Féin’s Pierse McCan. His nationalism was no longer fashionable and a younger Ireland was no longer satisfied with the limited prospects of Home Rule. The aim was an entirely independent republic.
He accepted his defeat graciously and retired to live in Dublin. His first wife had died and he married a second time. His means were very limited. There was, at that time, little to be gained financially from a life in politics, expenses were very limited, salaries were nominal and there were no retirement pensions for MPs. His business had folded, and even ‘The Nationalist’ of which he was one of the founders, was not paying dividends. He died in 1943 and is buried in an unmarked grave in Dean’s Grange (Dublin).
I, personally, finished reading the “Life and Times of Thomas Joseph Condon” with mixed emotions.
There was, and not for the first time, a warm appreciation of Dr Ahern’s outstanding contribtution to our knowledge of the story of Clonmel. This is his sixth study on various aspects of that story.
And then there was an element of sadness, that there is no name on Condon’s grave, nor even a modest plaque on a wall in his native town to memorialise the contribution which “one of Clonmel’s most illustrious sons” made, in his time, to his town and to his country.