Westminster’s Irishman

Paul Smith

  • The Laurel and the Ivy: The Story of Charles Stewart Parnell and Irish Nationalism by Robert Kee
    Hamish Hamilton, 659 pp, £20.00, November 1993, ISBN 0 241 12858 7
  • The Parnell Split 1890-91 by Frank Callanan
    Cork, 327 pp, £35.00, November 1992, ISBN 0 902561 63 4

Sometimes he was Smith, sometimes he was Stewart, and sometimes he was Preston, but the most telling of the aliases Charles Stewart Parnell used to conduct the liaison with Mrs O’shea that eventually destroyed him was undoubtedly ‘Mr Fox’. Revealed by the divorce proceedings of November 1890, which, in wrecking his alliance with Gladstonian Liberalism, cost him his leadership of the Irish Parliamentary party, it rebounded savagely on him in the last, desperate convulsions of his career, as he struggled in a punishing series of by-elections to recover the dominance of the Irish national cause which had been his unchallenged possession for over a decade. Harried around North Kilkenny to the cry of ‘Tally-ho’ by ‘hounds like Davitt’ (his own phrase) who had been his colleagues a few weeks earlier, Parnell was stripped of the aloofness that had been his trademark and forced into the mud of a contest that deprived not only him but the Home Rule cause of the moral dignity he had battled to assert, and, as Frank Callanan notes, delivered to Unionist enemies the propaganda gift of an apparent reversion to the old, burlesque Ireland, the pantomimic Paddyism, of their most cherished prejudices, an image only intensified by Davitt’s snivelling exculpation of the vicious Kilkenny fight as ‘full of fun and Irish good humour throughout’. It was no better in Sligo, or in Carlow, where the unhappy choice of Andrew J. Kettle as the Parnellite candidate provoked so vigorous a tattoo on the appropriate utensil at Parnell’s meetings as to turn his last campaign into a hideous skimmington.

They hunted Mr Fox to a kill. His sudden death in October 1891, at the age of 45, was almost certainly accelerated by those three bruising by-elections. Yet the hounds, in the shape both of the activists and the ideologues, and of the historians of Irish nationalism, have never stopped running. The enigma that Parnell created about his motives and his goals, out of tactical necessity or inward lability or both, continues to invite to the chase of the real man and of the true path he pointed out for Ireland – if he did point one out. Far from merely straggling in the wake of a very large field, Robert Kee and Frank Callanan restore freshness to the scent by showing how much can still be quarried from close attention to Parnell’s career, not least to the press, which not only made and unmade his reputation but, alongside Hansard, supplied him with the medium in which to conduct that carefully ambiguous dialogue with the Irish and English nations which explains his influence and, perhaps, contains – somewhere – his purpose. Kee’s smooth-flowing ‘selective narrative’ concentrates on Parnell’s formative years as a politician (the period up to his imprisonment in 1881 occupies nearly two-thirds of the book) and on the impact of his relationship with Katie O’shea, while Callanan provides the most intensive analysis yet of the last, dogged battle to retain what had seemed an almost effortless superiority. Worrying shrewdly and tenaciously at the never complete or straight-forward evidence, both enable us to plot with a little more precision Mr Fox’s mazy run across the crooked country of Anglo-Irish politics.

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