Webb, Alfred John (1834–1908), radical reformer and nationalist, was born 10 June 1834 at 160 Great Brunswick St. (later Pearse St.), Dublin, eldest son of quaker parents, Richard Davis Webb, printer, and Hannah Webb (née Waring). His parents were deeply involved in campaigns for temperance, for the anti-slavery movement, and against British involvement in the opium wars. His father, and his son after him, entertained radical politicians when they visited Dublin. Both Richard and Alfred eventually resigned from the Society of Friends, chafing against its essential conservatism.
Webb was educated first at home and then at Dr Hodgson's High School in Manchester, England. In 1853 he went to Australia for his health, returning in 1855. He worked in the family business, and married (1861) his cousin, Elizabeth Shackleton of Ballitore. His lifelong involvement in radical politics began at the age of 13, when he urged the Society of Friends to found a famine relief fund, and on his return to Dublin he campaigned for the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland and for women's suffrage. He advocated Sunday closing, a clean water supply for Dublin, and the opening of Stephen's Green to the public, and spoke out against the contagious diseases acts.
In 1865 he watched the trial of T. C. Luby (qv), Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa (qv), and John O'Leary (qv). This experience drew him into supporting the Fenian prisoners' families and into the amnesty campaign. He joined the Home Government Association of Isaac Butt (qv) and was made honorary secretary. On the formation of the Home Rule League (1873), he became its treasurer, but disillusionment with Butt led to his resignation. Although he never explained why he wrote his Compendium of Irish biography (first published in 1878), its publication was probably due to his belief in the importance of a separate Irish nation.
He never joined the Land League (founded in 1879), but he travelled all over Ireland to speak in its support. When the National League was founded in 1882, Webb became its treasurer. He had the delicate work of distributing funds to the Irish parliamentary party, to lawyers defending Irish MPs and journalists, and to funds for evicted tenants. Webb's sense of probity, and his pacificism, were frequently challenged by requests for funds from League branches involved in intimidation. He himself witnessed such intimidation during the Curtin affair (1885), when a man was shot and his family boycotted for giving evidence in court. Webb attempted to publish an article about the events, but was persuaded to desist by those whom he had regarded as his friends.
In February 1890 he was elected as MP for Waterford West, and remained in parliament for five years. For Webb, politics was an ennobling sphere of human activity. But once at Westminster, he was disillusioned by the conduct of his fellow Irish MPs who, he wrote, made speeches fatal to home rule, despite declaring that it would be successful, and they were frequently the worse for drink. He himself believed that he was not cut out to be an MP; he saw himself as ‘too big a man to be a meer [sic] voting unit, [and] too small a man to impress my views on others’ (Webb to John Dillon, 1 Feb. 1894 (TCD, Dillon papers, MS 6760/1672).
He had been a loyal supporter of C. S. Parnell (qv) whom he had seen as the true hope for home rule. But he renounced Parnell during the crisis brought about by the O'Shea divorce, and the subsequent split in the Irish party. After the split, Webb faced difficulties in managing the various funds headed by the National League, the National Federation, and (in 1898) the United Irish League. He joined with William O'Brien (qv) and John Dillon (qv) to ensure that monies sent to the National League from America were not sent to Parnell. His difficulties were made worse by the behaviour of T. M. Healy (qv). In 1895, when the Irish parliamentary party failed to condemn Healy's actions, he resigned, both from the party and from Westminster.
Despite this, he had found political fulfilment the previous year from a surprising source. The Indian Congress party had long identified problems of imperial government which were shared by both India and Ireland. Land tenure, government by those of a minority religion, and the bearing of arms were, in both countries, important political issues. The Indian Parsee nationalist, Dadabhai Naoroji, had been elected to Westminster for central Finsbury, and he had talked to Michael Davitt (qv) about the need for Ireland to be a lesson to India. Webb, too, had written about India and the evils of government which were ‘aggravated by distance, fear and differences of race, religion and languages’. Webb was invited to preside over the tenth Indian National Congress in 1894 in Madras. His presence there was a resounding success. His address to the conference brought together all the campaigns with which he had been involved during his life: the fights against slavery and sectarianism and for temperance and franchise reform. He was praised for his simplicity and eloquence, and when he returned to Ireland, he arranged for Indian nationalist politicians to speak in Dublin.
Webb admired Michael Davitt above all other leaders of Irish nationalism. Together they had worked for home rule and for land reform through non-violence. Like Davitt, Webb supported the Boers, and was against anti-Semitism. When Davitt died in 1906, Webb believed that his hopes for home rule were buried with Davitt at Straide, Co. Mayo. Towards the end of his life, Webb became increasingly saddened by what he saw as diversions away from the essential core of nationalism. He complained that the movement for home rule had been ‘snowed under’ by ‘Gaelic revivals, Irish manufactures, . . . monuments and testimonials . . . [home rule] is what I came in to fight for . . .’ (Webb to John Dillon, 13 Dec. 1906 (TCD, Dillon papers, MS 6730/1761)). His wife died in 1907 and they had no children. Webb died on 31 July 1908 on a walking holiday in the Shetland Islands, and was buried in the Friends' cemetery at Temple Hill, Blackrock, Co. Dublin.