Enigma: a new life of Charles Stewart Parnell Paul Bew (Gill & Macmillan, €24.99) ISBN 9780774744

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Book Reviews, Issue 3 (May/June 2012), Parnell & his Party, Reviews, Volume 20

Enigma:a new life of Charles Stewart Parnell Paul Bew (Gill & Macmillan, €24.99) ISBN 9780774744

a new life of Charles Stewart Parnell
Paul Bew
(Gill & Macmillan, €24.99)
ISBN 9780774744

The roads of early twentieth-century rural Ireland may have been safer for the fact that Parnell did not live to see the advent of the motorcar. According to a society hostess acquaintance, he was ‘always in a hurry; he could never wait for anything; to wait for a train was anguish to him, he would have liked a special always and to travel at the rate of 60 miles an hour’. It is one of a trove of hitherto untapped reminiscences of contemporaries used by Paul Bew to round out in deft strokes the best portrait so far of the force of nature that was the man’s personality: the icy self-control masking the volcano beneath, the unreflective but good-natured selfishness, the ‘element of sadistic cruelty’ shown in his deposition of the sickly Butt as leader, and the unfeigned lack of interest in Ireland’s history set against the pride in his Anglo-Irish forebears. His undisguised liaison with Katharine O’Shea showed a reckless indifference to the sexual mores of his day. To a lonely man who hated social life, the relationship gave ‘comfort and conventional domesticity’; to her, he was the ‘ideal lover’.It may be stretching things, however, to claim, in justification of this elegantly lean new biography for a recessionary time, that Parnell stands in need of ‘a double demythologising’. The original myth of the heroic Parnell, defiant leader of the unboundaried march of a nation, closet separatist and forerunner of Easter 1916, the creation of Griffith perfected by Pearse, was effectively demolished by Conor Cruise O’Brien, F.S.L. Lyons and others, though it still seems to hold the field in many popular perceptions. But it is not at all clear that those writers established a second myth—of Parnell as impeccable constitutionalist—in turn in need of demolition. Nor does this book, for all its excellent features, overturn their actual reinterpretation, though it promises ‘much new detail on Parnell’s relationship with revolutionary conspiracy and the “hard men” close to violence’. While this new material, as Bew says, brings out more fully the drama of Parnell’s career, it does not take us far beyond the revisionist works that placed Parnell firmly in the constitutional tradition while recognising his connections with men of violence.The spontaneous agrarian uprising that swept Parnell along between 1879 and 1881 left him with many (later) embarrassing associations. Bew adds nuance to our knowledge of Parnell’s early connections with ‘neo-Fenian’ agitators, particularly P.J. Sheridan, themselves with links to agrarian violence. He raises the strong possibility that Parnell took the Fenian oath from Sheridan immediately upon his release from Kilmainham in May 1882, but admits the evidence to be circumstantial. He mentions the boast by Frank Byrne, secretary of the Land League organisation in Great Britain, that he had sent his wife to deliver to the Invincibles the surgical knives used in the Phoenix Park murders. But Lyons also recognised Byrne’s involvement with the Invincibles and the allegations that Parnell had used lawlessness for his own political ends, labelling a ‘brazen untruth’ Parnell’s denial to the Special Commission that he had met the Fenian leader John Devoy in 1879. (Lying was necessary in both directions: to appease radical supporters, he lied to the extremist Irish World that he had neither expected his release from Kilmainham nor made any deal with the government.)Bew shows graphically how the Phoenix Park murders, rather than derailing the new Parnell–Gladstone understanding that underpinned the release, actually strengthened it. Chief Secretary Forster’s attempt to expose Parnell’s links with the men of violence foundered on the ‘dark realpolitik’ of the deal: the Liberals were locked into a tacit trust that Parnell would use his influence over the agitators to restore peace after two winters of mayhem in the Irish countryside. Parnell and Gladstone were also lucky with the poor police work that delayed the arrest of the Invincibles for nine months. Had the truth about the links of Sheridan and others with the Invincibles come out earlier, the result would have been explosive.Foremost in Bew’s analysis is his emphasis on the consistent strain running through Parnell’s strategic thinking from start to finish: the ‘entirely original and idiosyncratic’ land doctrine that set him apart from his Land League and many party colleagues. Sharing with them the goal of ending the landlord system and creating a peasant proprietary class, he parted from them in his vision of what would follow. Where most wished to eliminate the landlords as a British ‘garrison’ (a concept he believed outdated), he sought to free the younger and more progressive landlords to take their places at the head of Irish society, if not at the head of the Home Rule movement; a ‘patriotic union of classes’ led by such a stabilising force would present an unanswerable case for self-government.Cruise O’Brien wrote of Parnell as ‘a master of constitutional politics, adept at the cape-work of the pseudo-revolutionary gesture’. Bew qualifies such a view in presenting him, in terms of his personal ideology, as needing no dissembling to appear ‘all things to all men’. He really was those seemingly contradictory things: his harnessing of a revolutionary objective to a (hoped-for) conservative end enabled him to travel a part of the road honestly with abolitionists of landlordism while reassuring moderate Home Rulers and British allies of his commitment to social order.Significantly, at every critical moment—in May 1880, just after his election as Irish Parliamentary Party leader; in February 1881, when he could have withdrawn the party from parliament and launched a nationwide ‘no rent’ campaign; in May 1882, when challenged by John Dillon’s call for full-blooded boycotting in response to coercion; in June 1886, following the failure of the first Home Rule bill—Parnell chose the moderate option, the path of constitutionalism.Despite Parnell’s winning the balance of power so spectacularly in the 1885 election, the book shows him clear-eyed thereafter about the necessity for alliance with the Liberals as his party’s only option when the Tories had set their faces definitively against Irish Home Rule. The party’s ‘independence’ of British parties would become one of the great shibboleths of nationalist discourse, first when rediscovered suddenly and opportunistically by Parnell himself after the split, later when used by Redmond against the anti-Parnellites, and later still when hung around Redmond’s own neck as leader by Griffith and others.The post-1886 years were those of Parnell’s growing eccentricity, the dishevelled appearance, the mysterious disappearances, the casually despotic contempt shown to awe-struck colleagues—‘my rabble’—as he sat at party meetings feeding biscuits to his red setter, Grouse. In those years, any threat to Parnell’s status as ‘uncrowned king’ came not from any of his lieutenants but, ironically, from the figure of Gladstone, whose portrait hung in many an Irish home. He spoke not once in Ireland between September 1886 and the onset of the split. He gave no encouragement to the Plan of Campaign, the new manifestation of the agrarian struggle. He kept his Liberal allies close to him in the ‘union of hearts’, but forgot the dictum of Sun Tzu to keep his enemy, Captain O’Shea, even closer. After 1886, when the Captain could expect no further political dividend from his association with Parnell, the only thing preventing the exposure of Parnell’s affair with Katharine was her 93-year-old Aunt Ben, whose expected bequest of a large sum to her gave the Captain his sole motive to maintain the notional marriage.Of Parnell’s rhetoric during the post-divorce party split as he fought to regain his position, Bew discounts his appeals to the ‘hillside men’ and his sudden interest in the labour question, and dismisses as hypocritical his attacks on the Catholic clergy. The positive innovation, however, was Parnell’s break for the first time with the standard Catholic nationalist failure to understand unionist Ulster, encapsulated in a remarkable speech in Belfast in May 1891, when he lauded the prosperity of the north’s ‘thriving manufacturing communities’ that made Ulster different and stressed the need for nationalists to leave no stone unturned ‘to conciliate the reasonable or unreasonable prejudices’ of unionists. The sentiments would feature heavily in the rhetoric of Redmond in 1912–14; unfortunately, few nationalists wished to hear them.Bew doesn’t understate the viciousness of the conflict that engulfed the final ten months of Parnell’s life, ‘waged with an obscene verbal cruelty and frequent physical violence on both sides. It was war to the knife, with no holds barred …’. Nor does he underplay the pathos of his condition as he neared the end, exhausted by repeated and punishing weekend return journeys from Brighton to rural Irish platforms, his dignity shot to pieces by the popular abuse that took its cue from the low scurrility of Healy. An ‘eyewitness’ at Athlone described him for the Connaught Telegraph: ‘Judging from the attenuated form, distracted looks and unkempt appearance of the remnants left on a bald head, the fallen chieftain’s days this side of the Styx are numbered …’. At Castlebar, ‘there was any amount of booing, hissings … mingled with such remarks as “Charley I hardly knew you,” “How is Kitty?” etc.’ At Westport, the Parnellites commissioned an old fiddler to strike up God save Ireland, but he soon broke into The girl I left behind me.The book ends with an entertaining piece of counterfactual speculation by Patrick Maume, based on the premise that the divorce case was averted and Parnell lived to the same age as O’Connell. This scenario sees his continued leadership winning nationalist acceptance of the Liberals’ 1907 devolutionary Irish Council bill, with unionist parts of Ulster excluded, as an interim step to Home Rule. Providing ‘firm but competent’ government, Sir Charles supports the British declaration of war in 1914 and bargains the implementation of conscription in 1916 in return for dominion status, keeping known malcontents such as Pearse and McDermott interned without trial for the duration before dying as Lord Avondale in 1918 at 72. Good ‘what if?’ speculation should illuminate the actual as much as sketch out an alternative reality, and Maume does this. The exercise invites many variations on the theme. The fantasy endnotes are telling and witty: who could not love ‘James Connolly, Flies in the Imperialist Parlour: Letters from Kilmainham (Glasgow, 1919)’?  HI
The second volume of Dermot Meleady’s biography of John Redmond, Redmond: the national leader, will be published by Cork University Press in 2013.


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