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.

Parnell was a fast worker. Joining the Home Rule League in March 1874 at the age of 28, he was its by-election candidate in Dublin within five days and a member of its council within five months. Another eight months brought him into the House of Commons, where his maiden speech followed within four days. He met Katie O’shea, wife of a fellow Irish member, in June or July 1880; by October he was writing to her that ‘something from you seems a necessary part of my daily existence, and if I have to go a day without even a telegram, it seems dreadful.’ Of these two headlong commitments, in politics and in love, it is Kee’s central thesis that the second came at once to dominate the first. From the moment he unaccountably failed to appear at meetings in Cork and Roscommon on 9 and 10 October 1880, because he was secretly completing the conquest of Katie in England, his associates had to get used to the idea that the paladin of the Home Rule cause had become, if not a lost leader, at least one with a remarkable penchant for getting lost, not only from his colleagues but, in anticipation, from his biographers (much of the time Kee has little more idea than the Irish Parliamentary party did where to find him). The man who had roused Ireland for the Land War with quasi-insurrectionary rhetoric was in the 1880s to stand conspicuously aloof from the Plan of Campaign, enter into relations approaching cosiness with Gladstonian Liberalism, and conduct the political business of the nascent Irish nation mostly from the other side of the water.

He could fairly argue that it was in England that Ireland’s fate stood to be decided. ‘They will do what we can make them do,’ he told his followers of the English, and it was at the fulcrum in Westminster that ‘they’ must be induced to make the critical movement, at least so long as reliance continued to be placed on constitutional means. Kee has no doubt, however, that in this English centring of Irish politics the bourgeois domesticity on offer at Wonersh Lodge, Eltham, the O’shea home from which Captain Willie O’shea was mostly absent, was a compelling attraction. He observes a sea-change from a Parnell with his heart wrapped up in the Irish movement to a Parnell with his heart comfortably settled in the Kentish fringe of London, for whom the cause of Irish nationhood became increasingly a matter for ‘political engineering’, to be pursued in a ‘technical spirit’. The technician metaphor draws sustenance from the markedly scientific and practical bent of Parnell’s nature: he was good at mathematics, keen on metallurgy and fond of stopping to talk to workmen about their work. Callanan seems to reinforce it with his argument that what accounts for Parnell’s course in the split in the Irish party brought about by the rejection of his leadership is not so much ‘thwarted megalomania’ or ‘mystical identification with a pseudo-fenianesque conception of the nation’ as his ‘furious sense of affronted professionalism’, a blazing contempt for the pretensions of opponents who he knew to be his inferiors in the skills of political management. Yet the portrait of the ‘engineering man of science, who was also a lover’, in Kee’s phrase, hardly seems to leave enough passion in his politics to explain the – by his own standard of cool reserve – violent emotion with which in 1890-1 he made his virtually suicidal attempt to regain his lost leadership in Ireland, at the price of the uninterrupted domestic happiness with Katie that her divorce had just made possible. Parnell did not in the end sacrifice political power for love, but, unintentionally, the other way round.

What drove him in politics, if it was neither megalomania nor vision, is unclear. He left remarkably little trace of his inward thoughts or motives. It is hard to say whether he took to Home Rule out of conviction or for something to do, and tempting to view his public career as a variant of the old Ascendancy game. The rapid transformation of the young Protestant landlord, high sheriff, lieutenant of the militia and the most promising cricketer to come out of Co Wicklow in the 1860s, into a leader of agrarian and national agitation among a Catholic peasantry is barely explicable except on the premise that a movement in some ways as politically immature as himself felt the need to look to the Ascendancy class for the self-confidence and social prestige available from no other source. Parnell came not only from a governing élite but from a family which had played a leading role in the assertion of Irish, if principally Protestant, nationality in the days of the Volunteers. When A.M. Sullivan spoke of ‘the old historic names ... once more coming back to the ranks of the people’, he was defining a vacuum of leadership which men like Parnell were required to fill. Parnell was the right sort of tool for sapping Anglo-Saxon supremacy in Ireland because he was Anglo-Saxon supremacy and bore its stamp of hard authority. Gladstone had no doubt that social position explained much of Parnell’s ability to lead a Catholic Irish nation. His allure for the constituency with which he had so little in common was precisely his remoteness and difference, and the sense that he brought to the expression and fulfilment of its aspirations qualities it could not itself supply. Callanan quotes the Manchester Guardian, which saw him after his death as one who had reigned over Irishmen by avoiding the Irish vice of pandering to his audience: he was constantly ‘pulling his audience back’, acting as ‘the embodied corrective of Irish national faults, and the complement that the national character needs before it can attain completeness and efficiency’. That was an English view, but it chimed with Davitt’s verdict on a Parnell ‘without a hint of Celtic character or a trait of its racial enthusiasm’: ‘an Englishman of the strongest type, moulded for an Irish purpose.’

Parnell, however, was a man unmalleable for any purpose except his own. His career fulfilled an instinct of imperious domination and aggressive self-sufficiency that could make him an ugly customer in private life or politics, as the manure merchant, Mr Hamilton, was one of the first to find when he offered to assist a sozzled undergraduate Parnell recumbent in Station Road, Cambridge, and was promptly knocked flat for his pains. Parnell seems to have been propelled by a consuming resentment of English patronage and humiliation of Ireland and the Irish (including the Anglo-Irish), possibly sharpened by his experiences at Magdalene, which caused him to spend his early Parliamentary career metaphorically kicking every Hamilton who crossed his path. The prime secret of his appeal for the Irish in the high years of Parliamentary obstruction and the Land War was precisely this truculent relish in baiting, baulking and battering the British, with the arrogant indifference to criticism or consequence that only Ascendancy pedigree and a constitutional incapacity ever to admit the possibility of being in the wrong could produce. The Irish cause needed a high-bred bully-boy, and in Parnell, for all the quiet charm he could exert off-duty, it found one.

Yet impregnable hauteur could not entirely override the tension in the relationship between Parnell and his following, a tension he felt the need to relieve by outbursts to Katie about his disdain for parts of his task. The harnessing of agrarian grievance to the national cause required a rhetoric of extirpation of landlordism, as a system not merely of economic exploitation but of Anglo-Saxon domination, which might seem to involve Parnell in sawing off the branch on which he was sitting. It is true that it was a rotten branch anyway, and that a generous state buy-out was the best hope many landlords had. For Parnell himself, Home Rule turned out to be the best piece of business he could have undertaken to support his own shaky grip on Irish land: the testimonial he received in 1883 rescued his heavily mortgaged Wicklow estate in the nick of time. Willie O’shea’s sharp reference to ‘the vague and wild politics which have brought him so much money’ may have contained a misplaced insinuation as to motive, but it hit on one of the forms of insecurity which underlay Parnell’s landlordly anti-landlordism. It may also subliminally have referred to the role of Willie’s wife in promising to relieve Parnell’s financial as well as emotional tensions. The ménage at Eltham, so well sketched by Kee, expanding and contracting as Parnell and Willie came and went, evidently owed something of its edgy stability to the overhanging fortune of Katie’s wealthy aunt, who paid for it and whose testamentary dispositions it was in no one’s interest to allow to be disturbed by any hint of scandal. The love for which Parnell risked his career was true – far from the kind of passing bout of bimbonic plague that ruins modern politicians – but the money must have formed an agreeable background vista. No improvement in personal balances, however, could resolve the problem of where men of Parnell’s class were ultimately to stand in a self-governing Ireland.

It is on the whole the burden of these two books that Parnell paraded the bogey of revolutionary separatism before English eyes, both before Kilmainham and during the split, as a negotiating technique, an extension of O’Connell’s tactics, an anticipation of Gerry Adams’s, in the way Parnell acted almost as the political wing of the Irish Republican Brotherhood; but that he was not fundamentally a separatist. He was testing the possibilities of constitutional action to success rather than to destruction, and by the later 1880s, with a pivotal Parliamentary position made possible by the 1884 franchise, and a Gladstone who had at once defused the agrarian agitation and committed himself to Home Rule, he could hope to obtain what he wanted for Ireland through Parliament rather than plans of campaign. Exactly what he did want it was his technique not to specify, and perhaps his nature not to know. He thought about the future of Ireland mainly in terms of that truculent independence of England with which he once again identified his leadership after the divorce, when the English Nonconformist conscience demanded his replacement as the price of continued Liberal endorsement of Home Rule. What the social and cultural content of national independence might he was shrouded in an Avondale mist, except for the insistence, which brought Parnell’s and Gladstone’s concepts of a Home Rule polity into alignment, that the continued social influence and political leadership of a landed gentry would be essential to give stability and direction to an Irish state. The landlords would still be needed: even if no longer acceptable as a dominant class, as individuals, Parnell declared, they were ‘well fitted to pick their place as the leaders of the Irish nation’.

Even if he had no clear idea of its bases, Parnell, in his person and his politics, was necessarily attempting some sort of resettlement of the landowning Ascendancy in the Irish nation, in a sense by being ‘Irish beyond the capabilities of the genuine Celt’, as Vanity Fair jibed, alongside its caricature of 1880. While disliking the class reductionist tendency of this thesis, Callanan does not get very far away from it by investing Parnell’s ‘determination to retain a residual grid of landlord power’ with an instrumental role in two vital purposes, to reassure unionists, especially in Ulster, and to stave off the prospect of an Irish nation-state cast socially and spiritually in the narrow, stifling mould of a conservative, Catholic peasant proprietary. Parnell’s last stand, in this strongly argued reading, was an effort to coalesce with the smaller tenants and labourers, as well as the towns, against the drive for dominance of the ‘strong’ farmers, revelling in the apparent imminence of peasant proprietorship under Home Rule. It foundered mainly because Parnell had failed to grasp either the shift of social power and aspiration which had occurred within the nationalist movement in the years when he had neglected its superintendence on the spot, or the extent to which the movement’s expectations were bound up with the alliance with Gladstone which he was disabling. For all that Callanan seems here to play the old game of enlisting the lost leader for the purposes of present polemic, there is considerable force in his picture of an instinctively pluralist Parnell, who, if he did not see clearly the Ireland that he wanted to build, saw with absolute clarity the clerico-conservative, proprietorial nation that he wanted to avoid. We shall never know whether he could have avoided it, had being Katie’s ‘King’ not absorbed so much of the power of mastery that had made him Irish nationalism’s Chief.

Through these two admirable works, Mr Fox twists and turns, just ahead of the field. Parnell not only never reveals his secret but never reveals whether he has one. He remains as sardonically scornful of attempts to understand or placate him in death as in life. In the wake of the green smoking caps, tea-cosies and quilts which his admirers despatched to Kilmainham gaol, the publishers of these books have given green endpapers to Kee’s, green boards to Callanan’s. Parnell, Kee reminds us, detested green.