Sweetman, John (1844–1936), politician, was born 9 August 1844, the younger of two sons of John Sweetman, a brewer, and his wife Honoria (née O'Connor), of Merrion Square, Dublin. He was educated at Downside, Somerset, where he was a diligent student. He retained a lasting admiration for the Benedictine monks whose teaching method ‘was to endeavour to draw out what was in the boy’ rather than to force him into a preconceived model. In 1905 Sweetman was instrumental in the attempted re-establishment of the Benedictine order in Ireland at Mount St Benedict in Co. Wexford; he expressed the hope that the Benedictine way of life with its combination of labour and prayer would break down the prejudice against manual labour as degrading, which was prevalent among Irish catholic clergy and laity (Sweetman, Liberty).
On leaving school Sweetman went to work in his uncle's brewery in James's Street, Dublin, but left shortly afterwards to start a career in politics. His great-great-uncle (also John Sweetman (qv)) had been a United Irishman, who was imprisoned after 1798 and exiled from 1801 to 1820. Wolfe Tone (qv) bequeathed his notebook to this Sweetman as a memento, and the heirloom (latterly in the National Museum of Ireland (NMI), Dublin) passed to the later John Sweetman, who frequently boasted of it and of his ancestor's example.
Thanks to his father's success as an industrialist in Dublin, Sweetman was a major landowner; his estate was at Drumbaragh, Kells, Co. Meath. He was, nevertheless, an advocate of agrarian reform, and in the 1870s he took a prominent part in the agitation for tenant right. He was a founding member of the Land League's national committee, proposing its establishment at the initial meeting. In 1880 he went to Currie, Minnesota (USA), to organise a scheme of assisted emigration and agricultural colonisation for Irish peasants and labourers. This enterprise, undertaken in association with Archbishop John Ireland (qv) of St Paul, Minnesota, was based on the belief that Irish immigrants to America would do better by going west and acquiring land than by clustering in the big cities. In Minnesota, Sweetman bought 20,000 acres which he subdivided into small farms. He travelled extensively on behalf of the Irish-American Colonisation Company, trying to persuade wealthy catholics to invest in the venture. In 1883 he published Recent experiences in the emigration of Irish families. The promoters assumed that the success of an existing Irish community in the area, which had grown up gradually through chain migration, could be replicated by importing a large number of new settlers who had no previous knowledge of the area. However, the colony was not a success: 34 per cent of the families left within the first two years. Eventually, the company could no longer restrict holdings to Irish immigrants and sold the land to anyone who wanted to buy it, many of whom were Norwegian immigrants.
Sweetman afterwards liked to recall his role in ‘settling Irish catholic families on the land’ when critics claimed that his status as a Meath grazier was incompatible with his professed support for Irish land reform. He was criticised for advocating labour-intensive tillage – as did most nationalists – while at the same time using his land for livestock. At one time he attributed this to the difficulty of supervising tillage while he was engaged in his Minnesota scheme, and at another to the impossibility of making tillage pay under current conditions. He was one of the first Meath landowners to dispose of his estate under the 1903 land act.
On returning to Ireland from America, Sweetman entered nationalist politics; in 1892 he was elected MP for Wicklow East in the anti-Parnellite interest. Within the party he favoured the faction led by T. M. Healy (qv), which held that, after the defeat of the second home rule bill and Gladstone's retirement, the liberal alliance was of no further use, against that led by John Dillon (qv), which believed the maintenance of the alliance to be in Ireland's long-term interests. By 1895 Sweetman's discontent with Rosebery's liberal government was such that he resigned his seat and fought the ensuing by-election as a Parnellite. In the general election of that year he stood for Meath North and was narrowly defeated.
Sweetman subsequently took an active role in the campaign against the over-taxation of Ireland arising out of the report of the Childers commission. He was a vocal opponent of the South African war, which he declared had been inspired by Jewish capitalists and financed out of Irish taxes. He later recalled that his unionist fellow members of the Meath hunt avoided him as rigorously as if they had been conducting one of the Land League boycotts that they so vocally condemned. After initially thinking the Gaelic League the most quixotic thing he had ever heard of (though he did nothing to hinder it), Sweetman became an enthusiastic supporter; in the years before the first world war he repeatedly declared that the revival of Irish nationality was entirely due to Douglas Hyde (qv) and owed nothing to John Redmond (qv). He was a close friend and associate of Eoin MacNeill (qv).
In 1899 Sweetman was elected a member (for Kells) and vice-chairman of Meath county council, later (1902–8) serving as chairman. He also played an active role in establishing the general council of county councils (GCCC) and became its vice-chairman under Sir Thomas Esmonde (qv). In the GCCC he regularly moved resolutions to the effect that the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction (which he denounced at every opportunity as a nest of overpaid officials) should be placed under the council's control, and that in the absence of a national parliament the GCCC should buy out and consolidate the Irish railway system (rather than allowing it to be taken over by the British government, which, Sweetman predicted, would use the railways as a source of patronage to corrupt nationalists, as he believed the Irish party had been corrupted). Sweetman was himself a large shareholder in the Great Southern and Western Railway. Sweetman denounced Queen Victoria's 1900 visit to Ireland, attacked Edward VII for taking the anti-catholic coronation oath, and opposed the votes of congratulation to the king passed by public bodies in Ireland at the time of the coronation. In 1903 he refused an honour offered to him as chairman of Meath county council by Edward VII, declaring that his possession of Wolfe Tone's notebook was a greater honour than any the king could bestow, and organised a campaign against the king's visit to Ireland.
Throughout his life Sweetman regularly wrote letters to the Irish daily papers on political and economic issues. Acutely aware of the power of the media, he contributed a large sum of money towards the establishment of the Healyite daily newspaper, the National Press, in 1891. From the first years of the new century Sweetman became a political and financial supporter of the Sinn Féin movement founded by Arthur Griffith (qv). He was a staunch supporter of ‘Buy Irish’ campaigns, expressing the hope that he would live to see signs in the windows of Dublin and Cork shops reading ‘No British Goods Sold Here’ (Irish Press, 9 Sept. 1936); in 1904 he participated in the disruption of a public meeting in support of the Dublin International Exhibition proposed by William Martin Murphy (qv), regarded by Irish Irelanders as a West British project and a showcase for imported goods. Sweetman subsidised Griffith's weekly paper, the United Irishman, and its successor, Sinn Féin (1906–14); with Edward Martyn (qv) he underwrote the publication of Griffith's Resurrection of Hungary (1904). He was a founding member of the Sinn Féin party (1904), its first vice-president (1906–7), and second president (1908–10). (D. P. Moran (qv), to whose weekly, the Leader, Sweetman frequently wrote letters, mockingly suggested that the Sinn Féin presidency implied a claim to be de jure head of state, and called Sweetman ‘King John of Drumbaragh’.) In 1908 Sweetman was purged from his Meath county council seat and GCCC position by Redmondites reacting against defections to Sinn Féin after the failure of the Irish council bill.
Sweetman's clericalist catholicism and his political and social conservatism led him to denounce any form of ‘class politics’, whether practised by landlords or socialists, and to argue – as in his Sinn Féin pamphlet Nationality (1908) – that Ireland could become prosperous only by cultivating ‘national feeling’, which would unite all classes for the general good. He was frequently criticised by leftist, liberal, and republican members of the Sinn Féin movement grouped around the two weekly papers of W. P. Ryan (qv), the Peasant and its successor, the Peasant and Nation (1907–10), who blamed him for Griffith's move to the political right and increasing unwillingness to allow the expression of anti-clerical views in his paper. In 1899, as a Meath county councillor, he opposed the compulsory purchase of labourers’ cottages and plots, arguing that such gifts were demoralising and raised the rates, citing Pope Leo XIII to the effect that people should meet their needs through their own work. Sweetman was an opponent of women's suffrage, and was criticised for endowing a University College Dublin (UCD) scholarship on condition that female students should be excluded from competing for it. He was also outspokenly hostile to James Larkin (qv) and the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union (ITGWU) during the 1913–14 Dublin lock-out, publishing his letters on the subject as a pamphlet, The industrial problem.
In 1914 Sweetman became president of the Kells Volunteer committee. In 1915 he delivered an anti-conscription speech, declaring that Britain had attacked Germany to grab German trade, that Ireland would be ruined by wartime taxation unless she cut loose from Britain, and that if he was arrested for ‘speaking the truth’ this would prove the falsity of Redmond's claim that Ireland had regained her freedom. Sweetman was arrested after the 1916 rising and interned in England until the end of May 1916. On his release he worked with Herbert Pim (qv) to rebuild Sinn Féin. He was elected president of the North Meath executive of the Volunteer movement on 1 July 1917. In 1918 he was offered a Sinn Féin parliamentary candidacy but turned it down because he was too old. His son Roger was elected to the first dáil for North Wexford in 1918 but resigned in 1920 in protest against the Irish Republican Army (IRA)'s campaign of violence.
Sweetman supported the treaty but grew discontented with the new government's free trade policies, which he saw as undermining Irish industrial development and betraying Griffith's principles. In 1926 he published Protection: some letters to the press with reference to the protection of Irish industries, with a foreword by J. J. Walsh (qv). Sweetman accused the Cosgrave government of clinging to free trade because they were afraid to antagonise: ‘Protective tariffs will enable [Ireland] to find work for all, without having recourse to taxation, or doles, which is merely another form of pauperism. If this has the effect of lessening [England's] prosperity … it is a just retribution for the Penal Laws’ (Sweetman, Protection). After the defeat of the protectionist faction within Cumann na nGaedheal in 1927 Sweetman transferred his loyalties to the new Fianna Fáil party, which he supported for the remainder of his life. He was an early and outspoken critic of the Blueshirts, correctly identifying Eoin O’Duffy (qv) as an aspiring fascist dictator.
A passionate man, Sweetman gained a reputation as an eccentric. He was unafraid to voice his many opinions, both at meetings and in the national and local press, and used his wealth to fund and support his favourite causes. He liked to quote Mill and Tocqueville on the importance of free speech and the tyranny of the majority, reminding his listeners that ‘St Patrick began in a minority’ (Sweetman, Nationality).
On 11 September 1895 Sweetman married Agnes, daughter of John P. Hanly of Navan. They had four sons and two daughters and lived at Drumbaragh, Kells, Co. Meath, and then at 47 Merrion Square, Dublin, where Sweetman died 8 September 1936. One of his last causes was a campaign against the scheme to build a catholic cathedral in Merrion Square; he claimed the construction work would make life intolerable for the residents. The Sweetman papers are in the possession of his family in Co. Meath; a list of his articles for the periodical press, mostly the New Ireland Review (as distinct from his contributions to newspapers and weeklies), can be found in Hayes. He also published numerous pamphlets.
More information on this entry is available at the National Database of Irish-language biographies (Ainm.ie).