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All-for-Ireland League

The All-for-Ireland League (AFIL), was an Irish, Munster-based political party (1909-1918). Founded by William O'Brien MP, it establish a new national movement to pursue a nobler creed of political brotherhood and reconciliation among all Irishmen, in order to achieve agreement between the different parties concerned, primarily with Unionists, on the historically difficult question and high aim of self-government for the whole of Ireland. The initial founding meeting of the AFIL was held March 1909 in Kanturk, co. Cork. The AFIL established itself as a separate non-sectarian party in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

Reuniting the Party

With Irish local government and the land question resolved, the housing of agricultural labourers settled after the 1906 Labourers (Ireland) Act, O'Brien was convinced that to achieve the final hurdle of Home Rule, the success of the approach he used to win the Land Act, the "doctrine of conciliation" together with "conference plus business", must also be applied to overcome Unionist resistance and Protestant fears towards Home Rule, in order to win All-Ireland self-government.

The Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) was long disrupted by internal dissensions after it had alienated William O’Brien out of the party in 1904, originating from his conciliatory initiation of the 1902 Land Conference which lead to agreement on the Wyndham Land Purchase Act of 1903 and his ensuing alliance with D.D. Sheehan's Irish Land and Labour Association where he established his new Munster base. By 1907 the country called for reunion of the split party ranks and in November O'Brien's proposals for his and other Independent’s return to the Party were accepted. His return to the Nationalist fold was however to be short lived, as conflict ensued from the government’s intention to amend the Land Act of 1903.

Hibernian Order

O'Brien had always been gravely disturbed by the Irish Parliamentary Party's involvement with "that sinister sectarian secret society", the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) also known as the Molly Maguires , or the Mollies, -- what he called "the most damnable fact in the history of this country", and was bitterly resentful and unsparing in his attacks upon it. AOH members were Catholic nationalists of a Ribbon tradition, their Ulster Protestant counter-part the Orange Order. The AOH Grandmaster was a young Belfast man of remarkable political ability, Joseph Devlin MP, who attached himself to the Dillonite section of the Irish Party, as well as being General Secretary of its adopted United Irish League (UIL). Devlin was already known as "the real Chief Secretary of Ireland", his AOH spreading successfully and eventually saturating the entire island. Even in Dublin the AOH could draw large crowds and stage impressive demonstrations. In 1907, Devlin was able to assure John Redmond, the Irish Party leader, that a planned meeting of the UIL would be well attended because he would be able to get more than 400 AOH delegates to fill the hall.

Baton Convention

As prelude to O’Brien’s formation of the AFIL, Redmond called a National Convention at the Mansion House, Dublin, 7 February 1909, to win support for a House of Commons bill curtailing funding of tenant land purchase under the Birrell Land Act (1909). Over 3000 UIL delegates attended. Redmond, who chaired the meeting, claimed it would burden the British Treasury and local ratepayers excessively. O’Brien argued that the curtailing Bill would kill land purchase by provoking refusal by landlords to sell and worsen relations between tenants and landlords. The convention was obviously loaded against O'Brien when delegates suspected of supporting him were excluded at the entrance.

When he attempted to speak O’Brien was howled down by various contingents of Belfast Hibernians and midland cattle-drivers, their presence pre-organised by Devlin's AOH organisation. Armed with batons, they attacked O’Brien’s follower who had gained entrance, to prevent any "Cork accent" getting near the platform. When Eugene Crean MP for Cork SE was attacked on the platform, it developed into a fight involving Devlin and James Gilhooly MP for north Cork, this in Redmond’s presence. Others targeted were members of the Young Ireland Branch, Frank Cruise-O’Brien and Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, who called Devlin a brainless bludgeoner.

New movement

Regarding himself as having been driven from the party by Hibernian hooligans, O’Brien’s subsequent move was to officially launch his new movement, the "All-for-Ireland League", its embryonic origins - the Land Conference of 1902. It was founded in Kanturk in March 1909 and immediately publicly denounced by Redmond. At an Irish party meeting held 23 March it voted fifty to one that membership in the League was incompatible with party membership. O'Brien suffered a health breakdown in April, and retired to Italy to recuperate.

From there O’Brien sought an alliance with Arthur Griffith's moderate Sinn Féin movement through emissaries James Brady (a Dublin solicitor), John Shawe-Taylor and Tim Healy. O’Brien offered funds for Sinn Féin candidates to run in Dublin and funds to run its paper Sinn Fein, in return for Sinn Féin support of his candidates in the south. A special Sinn Feín executive council meeting called 20 December 1909 seriously considered these overtures, many present in favour of cooperation. Sinn Féin's William Sears reported the end result: "Regret cannot cooperate because the Constitution will not allow us. Mr. Griffith was in favour of cooperation if possible". In the following years O’Brien and his party continued to associate itself with Griffith's movement both in and out of parliament. In June 1918 Griffith asked O’Brien to have the writ moved for his candidacy in the Cavan-east by-election (moved by AFIL MP Eugene Crean) when Griffith was elected with a sizable majority.

O’Brien returned from Italy in time for the January 1910 general elections, in which he, Healy and their followers opposed the Irish Parliamentary Party candidates with the League’s programme consisting of several unique points:

1) extension of the conciliatory spirit of the Land Conference to the larger problem of Irish self-government;
2) distrust of the Irish Party’s alliance with the Liberals and specific opposition to Lloyd George’s budget and Birrel’s revision of the land settlement; and
3) hostility to the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

The League, dependent almost entirely upon O’Brien’s personal following among the farmers and labourers in Co. Cork (the bulwark of Sheehan’s Land and Labour Association, but was woefully lacking in clerical support), returned eight seats (three further Nationalist Independents also returned) which must have exceeded his own expectations. His newly constituted League held its inaugural public meeting 31 March 1910 in Cork city. Its rules and constitution were formulated and endorsed at a public meeting on 12 April, where it announced its Home Rule manifesto and political policies to be:

  • "the union and active co-operation in every department of our national life of all Irish men and women of all classes and creeds who believe in the principles of domestic self-government for Ireland.
  • For the accomplishment of this object the surest means were to be a combination of all the elements of the Irish population in a spirit of mutual tolerance and patriotic goodwill, such as shall guarantee to the Protestant minority of our fellow-countrymen inviolable security for their rights and liberties, and win the friendship of the people of Great Britain without distinction of party."

"Three C s" Banner

The application of the AFIL’s principles of "Conference, Conciliation and Consent" , were to win All-Ireland Home Rule - constitutional nationalism rather than an ultimately doomed path of militant physical force.

  • Many of the leading Protestant gentry of Munster, and representatives of the wealthy Protestant business and professional community joined the League. Lord Dunraven, Lord Barrymore, Lord Mayo and Lord Castletown, Sir John Keane of Cappoquin, Villiers Stuart of Dromana , Moreton Frewen, were a few of the most notable adherents. Even amongst the Orangemen the spirit of patriotism was stirring – hands were stretched out from Ulster to the Catholics of the South. Lord Rossmore, once Grandmaster of the Orange Institution, joined the League, Sharman Crawford and others. Unionism was declared by them to be a "discredited creed". Nationalist and Unionists were called upon to recognise the unwisdom of perpetuating a suicidal strife which sacrificed them to religious bigotry and the political exigencies of English parties

League Chairman was James Gilhooly (MP), Honorary Secretary D.D. Sheehan (MP). A Central London branch was founded by Dr J. G. Fitzgerald (MP) as Chairman, suggesting some disenchantment with his former Parnellite colleagues including John Redmond . Canon Sheehan of Doneraile, a founder member, spoke and wrote enthusiastically in favour of the Leagues doctrines. The Cork Free Press, published by O'Brien, appeared for the first time in June as the League’s official organ, superseding the Cork Accent.

Electoral mandate

In the second 1910 general elections in December O'Brien's task was truly formidable. AFIL candidates standing in twenty-one constituencies were earmarked for rejection not alone by the Irish Party’s Hibernians. There was considerable hostility to O’Brien amongst many Catholic churchmen, who long regarded him as at heart an unreconstructed Parnellite, and latently anti-clerical. The Church’s forces were mobilised even more thoroughly against him this time. Cardinal Michael Logue had expressed himself against O’Brien’s and his League, and disapproved of 'conciliationism'. All three County Cork bishops opposed O’Brien.

O’Brien felt as if he were under siege from clerical forces. In general, when the clergy acted in any concerted fashion, they did so on the Irish Party side. In the constituencies outside of Cork contested by AFIL candidates (Armagh south, Dublin Harbour, Kerry south and east, Limerick city, Limerick west and east, Louth north, Mayo west, Tipperary mid, Waterford west and Wexford south) O'Brien's hostility to the AOH was counter-productive in mobilising the Catholic clergy, with one or two exceptions, behind the official IPP candidates. O'Brien wrote despondently "We have to deal with a confederacy of the priests of this country to strangle the AFIL and to strike down its standard-bearers".

In the end it was Cork, the country’s largest county which finally vindicated his policies returning eight AFIL MPs to form O'Brien's new political party. It included Timothy Healy who the previous November created the unusual AFIL coalescence of Healyism amd O’Brienism. Healy lost his seat in Louth north, but was returned in a 1911 by-election after Moreton Frewen retired his seat in Cork north-east.

Parliamentary stand

The AFIL party was convinced that the success of an Irish Parliament must depend upon it being won with the consent rather than by the compulsion of the Protestant minority. In a 1911 letter to the Prime Minister H.H. Asquith, the party specifically proposed Dominion Home Rule as the wisest of all solutions to the Irish question.

After the introduction of a new Third Home Rule Bill by Asquith in April 1912, an AFIL conference held in Cork on 25 May declared whole-hearted support of the Bill, subject to three amendments:

* firstly: safeguards providing against the apprehensions (however imaginary) of Ulster;
* secondly: the completion of the abolition of landlordism by the use of Imperial credit;
* thirdly: the empowering of the Irish Parliament to raise, as well as to spend, its revenue.

Home Rule showdown

During the three readings of the Bill in 1913 and 1914, O’Brien and his AIL colleagues were adamant that there should be no limit to the concessions offered to Ulster to have it participate in an All-Ireland parliament. "Any price for a United Ireland, but partition never". In January 1914 both O’Brien in his Cork Free Press and D.D. Sheehan in the London Daily Express simultaneously published a list of concessions they ascertained as acceptable to Ulster, enabling its participation in a Dublin parliament. The proposals in brief were:

1. That the representatives of Ulster should have an exercisable veto right over Irish legislation;
2. Ulster should have sixty representatives in the Irish House of Commons, out of a total of 164;
3. All representatives of the Irish Civil Service should be by competitive examination;
4. North-East Ulster should have its own appointment of court judges, district magistrates, inspectors of education.

Instead, the uncompromising IPP/AOH stand taken by the Dillon-Devlin alliance killed All-Ireland Home Rule, by aiming to force Ulster’s acquiescence; "no Orange vetoes, no concessions, Ulster must follow", Ulster's Unionist leader Sir Edward Carson, proclaiming "Ulster can never be coerced, Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right", demanding from Redmond that he "listen to the Cork members" when he said in the Commons:

"There has been an attempt, and I admit it fully and frankly, by some few Irish members, led, I believe by the hon. Member for Cork (ironic Nationalist laughter). See how it is laughed at ! (Unionist cheers). The hon. Member for Cork is a Home Ruler. I differ from him just as much as I differ from any other Home Ruler. But let me say, that movement was a movement of conciliation. It commenced to a large extent in the Land Purchase Act that was passed by my right hon. friend, the Member for Dover (Mr Wyndham). The hon. Member for Cork, seeing the benefits of the Acts as they resulted in Ireland, has rightly adhered to it, and to every promise he made at the time, and largely because of that he is now driven outside the Irish Party. When the hon. Gentleman and some others proceeded to what they call trying to reconcile Ulster and the Protestants of Ireland, they made speeches which, if they had been made by the majority of the Nationalists for the last twenty years might, I admit, possibly have made some effect on some of the Unionists of Ireland. Their idea was certainly a worthy idea, nobody can deny that, of bringing about reconciliation and better feeling, and the moment they do that they are denounced and they are boycotted and they are persecuted. The hon. Member for Cork ---- "

Before Carson could finish and indicate his belief that, had the All-for-Ireland policy been adopted, instead of thwarted by the Irish Party, the objections of Ulster might have been overcome.
At this critical point the Chairman of the House interposed to call Carson to order, amid the taunting cheers of the Irish Party.

During the final stage of the debate on the Third Home Rule Bill in the House of Commons, the Bill accompanied by Asquith's solemn guarantee that it would never be enforced without an Amending Bill, enacting the separation of the Six Counties, O'Briens speech on 25 May 1914 was the only word of protest uttered by a representative of Ireland. In the course of his speech O’Brien said (in extract):

"The game was lost for Ireland the day the honourable member for Waterford (Mr. Redmond) and his friends consented to the Partition of Ireland. Bitterly opposing any genuine concession to Ulster at the right time, now consenting to the concession of all which will not only fail to conciliate Ulster, but will rouse millions of the Irish race in revolt against your Bill. . . . . . Any Bill that proposes to cut off Ulster permanently or temporarily from the body of Ireland is to me worse than nothingness, . . . . . . We are ready for almost any conceivable concession to Ulster that will have the effect of uniting Ireland, but we will struggle to our last breath against a proposal which will divide her, and divide her eternally, if Ireland’s own representatives are once consenting parties. . . . . . . we regard this Bill as no longer a Home Rule Bill, but as a Bill for the murder of Home Rule as we have understood it all our lives, and we can have no hand, act or part in the operation. (Loud All-for-Ireland cheers).

When the All-for-Irelanders resolutely resisted the violation of Ireland's national unity, and as a final protest before History, followed it up by abstaining from voting for a Bill which had become a Partition Bill, they were assailed with yells of "Factionists!" and "Traitors!" by the Hibernian Party, whose own votes had just pledged Ireland’s fatal consent to the Partition infamy.

The spectre of civil war loomed when, after the Ulster Volunteers landed arms from Imperial Germany in April, Redmond's Irish Volunteers following suit in July.

Calamities unfold

The outbreak of World War I in August saw the Third Home Rule Act placed on the statute books with Royal Assent in September, but suspended for the duration of the war. O’Brien and his party rallied in support of the Allied cause of a Europe free from oppression supporting Britain's war effort, as did the IPP and its National Volunteers in unison with most sections of Irish society. O’Brien perceived it as an opportunity for all Irishmen, Protestant and Catholic alike to unite and serve together in the long term interest of attaining independent Irish self-government. The initial recruiting response to enlisting in Irish regiments of the 10th and 16th (Irish) Division was considerable. Ulstermen enlisted in their 36th (Ulster) Division.

By 1915 with stalemate on the Western Front and the losses of the 10th (Irish) Division in the Dardanelles at Cape Helles, enthusiasm began to wane. O’Brien had warned a decade earlier of the resurgence of revolutionary nationalism evolving out of the sectarian basis of national action, subsequently erupting in the 1916 Rebellion. This was to have serious ramifications for Ireland's subsequent history.

O'Brien suffered closure of his newspaper, the Cork Free Press in 1916 soon after the appointment of Lord Decies as Chief Press Censor for Ireland. Decies warned the press to be careful about what they published. Such warnings had little effect when dealing with such papers as the Cork Free Press. It was suppressed after its republican editor, Frank Gallagher, accused the British authorities of lying about the conditions and situation of republican prisoners in Frongoch internment camp.

Convention boycott

Following the Easter Rising the Government’s attempt in July 1916 to have Redmond and Carson agree on immediately introducing Home Rule, failed. The new Prime Minister Lloyd George proposed in May 1917, in what was a fifth attempt to implement Home Rule, that an Irish Convention, composed of representative Irishmen from all parties, should assemble to deliberate upon the best means of governing their country.

The AFIL Party was asked to nominate representatives to the Convention. In reply O’Brien stated four essential conditions which first needed to be fulfilled if the Convention was to succeed. He submitted a panel to the Cabinet limited to twelve leading representatives of the main bodies and parties involved. It was subsequently clear that such a prominent representation would not have separated without coming to agreement, but O’Brien’s proposals were set aside. None of those he proposed were invited. Instead the ninety-five who agreed to attend in July were composed of nine-tenths representatives drawn from already elected representatives who had previously voted for the Home Rule partition settlement.

Lloyd George appealed to O’Brien to attend, but under the circumstances both he and Healy declined, despite the fact that for thirteen years he had been calling for a conference of all parties to settle the Irish question. O’Brien believed that the conclave would make "a hateful bargain for the partition of the country under a plausible disguise". What was needed instead was not a "heterogeneous assembly . . . but a small round-table of representative Irishmen". As early as 18 May Sinn Féin declined to send representatives, the Dublin Trades Council, the Cork Trade and Labour Council, the Gaelic and National Leagues also refused.

The only constructive contribution which the Ulster delegates made to the Irish Convention was to propose in March 1918, the partition of Ireland with the exclusion of all of the province of Ulster.

Handing over

A final clash of the old parliamentary rivals ensued on the death of AFIL party chairman James Gilhooly in October 1916. The West-Cork by-election has a place in history as the first after the Rising and the last in which the Irish Party narrowly captured a seat and as the self-induced demise of the AFIL. At stake in the bitterly fought by-election was not just one of the 103 seats in the House of Commons, the great issue was William O’Brien’s AFIL versus John Redmond’s Irish Party. In November three candidates were nominated, the third also an AFIL member and strong supporter whom O’Brien had passed over as candidate and then in protest stood, thereby splitting the AFIL vote to the detriment of O’Brien’s party . (At that time seats were won by "candidates first past the post", or uncontested as in 1918 by Michael Collins of Sinn Féin).

When Britain moved to introduce Home Rule in April 1918 as proposed by the Irish Convention, it unwisely did so when it linked its implementation with a conscription bill for Ireland after the collapse of the Allied, and Irish, divisions during the German Spring Offensive on the Western Front. This resulted in the ”Irish conscription crisis". At its height the AFIL withdrew from Westminster while making a final damning Irish Anti-Conscription Crisis, joining forces with the Irish Party, Sinn Féin and Labour in mass protest demonstrations in Dublin. Although the act was never put into force its crisis caused an unprecedented rise in popularity for Sinn Féin, destroying all interest in Home Rule and constitutional nationalism.

Towards the end of 1918, as a consequence that both the Irish Party and Britain had failed to introduce Home Rule and as it became evident that constitutional political concepts for attaining independent All-Ireland self-government were being displaced by a path of militant physical-force, the AFIL MPs recognised the futility of contesting the December general election -- O'Brien in an address to the election:

"We cannot subscribe to a programme of armed resistance in the field, or even of permanent withdrawal from Westminster; but to the spirit of Sinn Féin, as distinct from its abstract programme, the great mass of independent single-minded Irishmen have been won over, and accordingly they ought now to have a full and sympathetic trial for enforcing the Irish nation's right of self-determination."

The party members issued a manifesto supporting Arthur Griffith's moderate Sinn Féin movement, and unanimously decided to retire from the election putting its seats at the disposal of its candidates, all of whom were returned unopposed.


The AFIL in its short life succeeded in exposing the incapacity of the Irish Parliamentary Party to accommodate the fears and integrate the interests of the Protestant and Unionist community into the process of an All-Ireland parliamentary settlement. The League succeeded in binding a small group of dissident independent nationalists from 1909 onwards into a dedicated party who fought untiringly for a non-sectarian solution to the "Irish question", thereby keeping alive a broader concept of nationalism and denying the party of John Redmond a universality of representation to which it thought itself entitled.

Just as all sides failed in maintaining an undivided Ireland, so too was the fate of the All-for-Ireland League. Supreme in Cork, its candidates in other constituencies in the 1910 election, showed that a considerable percentage of the electorate, the Cork Free Press gave the total Redmonite vote in the country as 92,709, and the Independent Nationalist's vote, largely supporting the principles of the League, as 39,729 (30,46%), despite active Church opposition.

Nationalist since have been faced with a unionism more clear-cut than former nationalists had to deal with, and have been unwilling to attempt, basically the alternative advocated by O’Brien, of a conscious effort to win Unionist consent to participation in an independent and united Ireland, however long and apparently hopeless this effort might appear. If nationalists actually wish to place Ireland on a rational path which may result in eventual unification, more thought to the application of the methods advocated by William O’Brien -- a step-by-step effort through cooperation on specific matters of common interest to build and win unionist confidence, goodwill and consent – would seem to be necessary.

The League's principles and aspirations reflect in the "Peace Pledge" of the 1998 erected Island of Ireland Peace Park.

League's Anthem

A L L - F O R - I R E L A N D

All for Ireland ! One and all !
Here we meet at Erin's call --
Meet, to pledge with heart and hand,
True fealty to our native land.

Many-minded though we be,
In this pact we all agree --
We must end the reign of wrong
That's wrecked our country's life so long.

Hostile sections in the past,
We shall now be friends at last:
All our classes, clans and creeds
Rivals but in patriot deeds.

Here we come at Erin's call,
From cottage home, and stately hall,
For her rights to stand or fall --




  • O'Brien, William: The Downfall of Parliamentarianism Maunsel & Roberts Dublin & London (1918)
  • O’Brien, William: The Responsibility for Partition Maunsel & Roberts Dublin & London (1921)
  • Sheehan, D. D.: Ireland since Parnell, Daniel O’Connor London (1921)
  • MacDonagh, Michael: The Life of William O'Brien, the Irish Nationalist, Ernst Benn London (1928)
  • Schilling, Friedrich K.: William O'Brien and the All-for- Ireland League, thesis, Trinity College, Dublin (1956)
  • Miller, David W.: Church, State and Nation in Ireland 1898-1921 , Gill & Macmillan (1973) ISBN 0 7171 0645 4
  • O'Brien, Joseph: William O'Brien and the course of Irish politics, University of California Press (1976) ISBN 0-520-02886-4
  • Clifford, Brendan: Cork Free Press An Account of Ireland's only Democratic Anti-Partition Movement , Athol Books, Belfast. (1984)
  • Callanan, Frank: T. M Healy, Cork University Press (1996) ISBN 1-85918-172-4
  • Maume, Patrick: The long Gestation, Irish Nationalist Life 1891-1918, Gill & Macmillan (1999) ISBN 0-7171-2744-3

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