T.M. Healy, Frank Callanan, (Cork University Press, £25). ISBN: 1859180094

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Home Rule, Issue 2 (Summer 1997), Parnell & his Party, Reviews, Volume 5

The Parnell split was the most destructive in Irish history. The self-indulgence displayed exceeded by a long way that of the Treaty split. That was more strongly based on principle, was deeply regretted on both sides, and there were more concerted efforts to bridge the gap. Tim Healy lived long enough to draw comparisons between the two. In 1891, the élan of constitutional nationalism was broken. While there was eventually twenty years later a second (nominally a third) chance for Home Rule, John Redmond was no Parnell, though an honourable man.
Parnell’s achievement, which bears pondering today, was to harness the disparate forces of Irish nationalism, a parliamentary party, an agrarian movement, and many of the Fenian tradition, including John Devoy and much Irish-American support, behind both a social revolution in land tenure and the demand for a large measure of self-government. He posed a serious problem for unionism, which sought out ways to destroy him. Unionism, the principal opposition—thanks to clerical triumphalism and political disunity, as well as Parnell’s own hubris—faced a challenge of much more manageable proportions after 1891, as indeed after 1922-3.
The reading public are greatly indebted to Frank Callanan for elucidating the catastrophe in its full lurid colours, sparing no one the truth of what happened, in a moment of high drama where the epic, the farcical and the sordid intermingled freely. Following upon his illuminating study of the vituperative struggle in The Parnell Split 1890-91 (Cork 1992), Callanan has provided an enlarged perspective in a magnificent biography of the principal protagonist—apart from Parnell—Tim Healy.
While written with critical empathy and understanding, it does not spare its subject. In terms of family background, Healy felt deeply the dispossession of the Penal Laws, and the aftermath of the Famine. Although for a period in the early 1880s Healy was an important political aide to Parnell, he came to resent bitterly his leader, who differed greatly from him in background and in whom he saw the oppressor class. Too close to a leader, whose faults loomed correspondingly large, Healy fatally lost sight of Parnell’s unique historical role and significance, when he set about destroying him. A gifted polemicist, Healy hounded him even beyond the grave, calling ‘Kitty’ O’Shea ‘a proven British prostitute’ for weeks after Parnell’s death. The Church, whose influence, though great, had been kept in measured bounds, was tempted into virulent partisan politics, and enjoyed the first of its two great pyrrhic victories (the second being the Mother and Child episode sixty years later, which destroyed an actual Irish government as opposed to one in waiting). He who wields the knife rarely enjoys the succession. Healy eventually drifted away from the Parliamentary Party, and thirty years later was excited by the triumph of Sinn Féin, which wiped out the failures of his generation and indeed of previous generations.
Healy’s appointment as Governor General was a late triumph in the art of political survival. While at a stroke it swept away fears of the corrupting effects of a new quasi-viceregal court, and provided a limited bridge to the discredited parliamentary Home Rule tradition, the threads of which had to be picked up again in an Irish as opposed to a British constitutional setting, it is doubtful if Healy’s past associations won any new friends for the Free State.
Frank Callanan brings out in his life of Healy a personality larger than life, a parliamentarian and correspondent who had great verve and caustic wit in the tradition of Swift, except that Swift was a man he would have rejected on grounds of background and religion, just as he rejected Parnell, Erskine Childers and Tom Johnson (This reviewer would be disqualified on the same grounds). Callanan credits Healy as one of the more influential sources of the conservative clerical nationalism, which beginning with W.T. Cosgrave and Daniel Corkery became the official tone of the Free State and marred its early decades, for which, as well as much else, a price has been paid in the Troubles of Northern Ireland.
History is full of lost opportunities, some of which come round, on the reduced time scale of human existence, not much more frequently than the more regular comet. Reflection on the Parnell split and the Treaty split of seventy-five years ago and their longer-term consequences should make us wary of squandering the opportunities that arise in our day. In bringing home to us so vividly the cost, Frank Callanan and his publishers Cork University Press have done a great service.
But it is not a question of simply demonising Healy or making Parnell a tragic hero. Invariably, in such situations there is great fault on both sides. It was not just a case of opposite poles, but the eternal triangle. It was Gladstone, ‘the old man in a hurry’, who posed the ultimatum that fatally fractured the movement, just as Lloyd George and Churchill were to do on more than one occasion in 1921-2, in the best British Liberal tradition! The lesson has still to be learnt, that a democratic national consensus, which on the few occasions it has been tried has achieved immense progress in a relatively short period, must be sufficiently resilient to resist the refined and practised art of ‘divide and rule’ applied to Ireland, especially at times when Britain is under most pressure to mend its ways of dealing with its smaller neighbouring island.
The political epitaph of Tim Healy was pronounced by Gladstone as early as 1897, in what has been called ‘a cut of the most subtle unkindness’: ‘Well, Healy was very clever; he made very clever speeches. I do not know what has become of him now, but under Parnell he was admirable’. Like many public figures, his curse was that his reputation was forever frozen at one moment in time, and nothing he could do could ever shake it off.

Martin Mansergh

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