Even now, more than 120 years after his death, Charles Stewart Parnell remains an enigma. Numerous memoirs have been written by his contemporaries, and biographies by historians; almost all describe Parnell as fascinating and unusual. Gladstone described him as the most remarkable man he met in public life.
But history is also the preserve of novelists. And on reading Gore Vidal’s series of novels that chronicled the birth and development of the American republic – Burr, 1876 and Lincoln, which Gabriel García Márquez called an “historical novel or novelised history” – I thought I would attempt a similar novel about Parnell. Between the known facts are opportunities to imagine what might have happened, what might have been said or thought or felt.
Parnell is as significant in Irish history as Lincoln is in the United States’. Lincoln was warmer and more sympathetic than Parnell. But Lincoln’s situation was quite different: he was an elected president; he had constitutional and executive powers; he had an army and a navy; he had a family life that, whatever its difficulties, was lived openly.
I chose to tell Parnell’s story through the eyes of James Harrison, Parnell’s (fictional) secretary. It is the story of two young men who set out on a journey, little realising what fate has in store for them. It is the story of how one person, by force of will, could change the destiny of a nation.
It is difficult to identify what exactly made Parnell so remarkable to his contemporaries. But perhaps his most important characteristic was his strength of will, a quality that became apparent at the very start of his career.
The political scene that confronted Parnell at the time of his first election to the House of Commons was overwhelming. Only 59 of the more than 650 MPs were members of the Irish Home Rule party, and the party had no discipline nor real leadership; as a result Disraeli disdained it, and it was effectively ignored.
Parnell watched this for two years. Then, in the sessions of 1877, he decided to confront Disraeli and the House of Commons, essentially single-handedly, using the house’s rules of procedure.
For months he spoke night after night – sometimes all night – in the Commons, preventing Disraeli from passing any major legislation and almost destroying his political programme for that session.
Disraeli was eventually forced to make concessions; Parnell was clearly now a man who commanded attention.
This was the first public revelation of Parnell’s strength of will, resolve and self-belief. He forced himself to speak night after night despite the agonies it caused him; he forced everyone to heed his demands. It was the foundation stone of his leadership.
When, later, conditions in the west of Ireland deteriorated and famine threatened, Parnell decided these appalling conditions had to be addressed. Throughout the campaigns of 1879, 1880 and 1881 Parnell and the Land League confronted landlords. Using tactics of civil disobedience and the boycott, decades before Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Parnell and the Land League made parts of Ireland ungovernable.
Again Parnell emerged triumphant. Gladstone passed a Land Act in 1881, and the power of landlords in Ireland was destroyed forever.
After the election of 1880 Parnell became leader of the Home Rule Party – after only five years in parliament. His accession was a confirmation of another of Parnell’s essential qualities: he was a natural leader. He decided on the objective, the tactics and the choice of weapons; he put himself at the forefront of the battles and he would not be moved from his goal until it was achieved.
At this moment in his career – in July 1880 – he met and fell in love with Katharine O’Shea, the wife of William O’Shea, one of his party’s MPs. His emotional vulnerability was as much a part of his character as his strength of will. By October of that year their secret affair had begun, causing him to miss public meetings in Ireland and to adopt disguises to avoid detection. But within months the secret was leaking out. O’Shea’s husband also discovered the affair and challenged Parnell to a duel, only to back down when Parnell accepted.
In October 1881 Gladstone arrested Parnell and imprisoned him in Kilmainham Gaol. While he was there O’Shea gave birth to their first daughter, Sophie, who died within two months; Parnell missed almost all of her short life.
After Kilmainham, between 1882 and 1885, Parnell showed his talent for political strategy. He took advantage of a temporary split in the Liberal Party to vote Gladstone out of office in 1885; in the election that year he won almost every seat in Ireland – and so held the balance of power in the Commons. In less than 10 years he had gone from solitary voice of obstruction to kingmaker.
In return for Gladstone’s agreeing to introduce a Home Rule Bill for Ireland, Parnell voted him into power for his third term as prime minister. The Bill was defeated by a handful of votes. Yet Parnell had achieved what was once unthinkable: one of the great English political parties was now committed to Home Rule.
But it was at the moment of his greatest triumph that disaster struck. William O’Shea sued his wife for divorce, claiming her adultery with Parnell. What had hitherto been rumour, innuendo and allegation now became proven fact in a court of law. Parnell was an adulterer. There was almost no greater sin in Victorian England.
Gladstone disowned him and delivered an ultimatum to the Irish Party: Parnell or Home Rule. A split left Parnell in control of a minority of the party.
It was typical of Parnell that he would not bend: he would not bend to O’Shea’s law suit; he would not bend to Gladstone’s ultimatum; he would not bend to the church; he would not bend to his party colleagues. And so he was broken.
Having spent several years researching Parnell, I have found him to be charming, gentle and unassuming with friends; cold, aloof and haughty with political enemies; and calculating, ruthless and implacable in his pursuit of Ireland’s quest for independence.
He was not without faults. He had many, and in the end the strain of the struggle and the concealment of his secret life almost certainly skewed his judgment. But he possessed a grandeur in the gathering storm.
He was a tragic hero in the classic Shakespearean mould: a man whose character propelled him to greatness and yet whose character ultimately brought about his destruction.
Parnell: A Novel, by Brian Cregan, is published by the History Press
Charles Stewart Parnell, (born June 27, 1846, Avondale, County Wicklow, Ire.—died Oct. 6, 1891, Brighton, Sussex, Eng.), Irish Nationalist, member of the British Parliament (1875–91), and the leader of the struggle for Irish Home Rule in the late 19th century. In 1889–90 he was ruined by proof of his adultery with Katherine O’Shea, whom he subsequently married.
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During Parnell’s youth, the anti-British traditions and atmosphere of his home were significantly different from those of the majority of the Anglo-Irish Protestant landowning class to which he belonged. They did not, however, prevent his parents from giving him an education normal for his class. He went to three English boarding schools, where he seems to have been unhappy, and to Cambridge, where in 1869, after an undistinguished career, he was suspended for a relatively minor breach of discipline and decided not to return.
The Home Rule League and the Land League
The Ireland to which Parnell returned was in ferment. The government’s oppressive measures against the revolutionary Irish Republican Brotherhood (the Fenians) aroused intense national feelings among even the moderate Irish. In 1870 a new political group, the Home Rule League, was set up to press for Irish autonomy in local government. In 1874 it returned 56 candidates to Parliament, where they formed a party under the nominal leadership of Isaac Butt. Though socially conservative and deferential to the opinions of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, all appealed in some degree to the national sentiments of the electorate. Parnell, an eminently suitable Home Rule candidate, was elected to Parliament for Meath in April 1875. Within two years he distinguished himself by his indifference to the opinion of the House of Commons and his sensitivity to Irish nationalist opinion. He embraced the policy of obstructing English legislation to draw attention to Ireland’s needs, and his handsome presence and commanding personality gave him a powerful appeal. In September 1877 the Home Rule Confederation of Great Britain elected Parnell its president. He had become, at age 31, the most conspicuous figure in Irish politics.
In 1878 an agricultural crisis in Ireland seemed to threaten a repetition of the terrible famine and mass evictions of tenant farmers of the 1840s. To resist eviction and make Irish landlordism unworkable, the Irish Land League was founded in 1879 by a Fenian, Michael Davitt. Many moderates condemned the league, but Parnell identified himself with it and became its first president, thus becoming the centre of the great “new departure” national movement in which revolutionary devotion was combined with agrarian agitation and was supported by the obstructionist tactics of the “active section” in Parliament. Soon after the general election of 1880, Parnell was elected chairman of the Home Rule group in the new Parliament. After the rejection by the House of Lords of a moderate measure for Irish land reform, Parnell organized a massive land agitation, for which he then won the support of the clergy and of “moderate” opinion. It was combined with parliamentary obstruction on so large a scale that ultimately 36 Irish members were suspended. At this time Parnell rejected a policy of secession from Parliament, put forward by the Land League.
The passage in 1881 of William Gladstone’s Land Act, which conceded the principle that fair rents could be judicially determined, presented Parnell with a serious test of statesmanship. Its passage was unquestionably a great achievement for the Land League, but the most active Land Leaguers were not content, and a split in the movement seemed likely. This Parnell avoided by pursuing a policy moderate in substance—testing the act by bringing selected cases before the land commission—but making speeches couched in violent language. As a result, probably in accordance with his wish, he was on Oct. 13, 1881, lodged in Kilmainham jail, Dublin. This assured his continued popularity and absolved him of responsibility for subsequent events.
Parnell’s arrest was followed by the suppression of the Land League and a winter of sporadic local terror. It became clear to the government that only Parnell could restore order. In the spring of 1882 Parnell began negotiations for his release, conducted in the main through Capt. William O’Shea, a “moderate” Home Rule member, whose wife had been Parnell’s mistress since 1880. A settlement was reached, the so-called Kilmainham Treaty, whereby tenants were to obtain substantial concessions and Parnell was to use all his influence to decrease further agitation.
The murders of the chief secretary and the permanent undersecretary by Fenian extremists in Phoenix Park, Dublin, which occurred within a few days of Parnell’s release (May 2, 1882), caused a general revulsion against terrorism, and Parnell had little difficulty in bringing the nationalist movement again under firm discipline, subordinating the Irish National League (the successor to the Land League) to the Home Rule Party in Parliament.
The Kilmainham Treaty ended the revolutionary phase of the “new departure.” The results of by-elections showed that Parnell’s leadership was unquestioned, except in eastern Ulster, and, after the Reform Bill of 1884 extended the franchise to agrarian workers, it became apparent that Parnell was likely in the next Parliament to lead a party of between 80 and 90 members. With this potential strength Parnell became a force to be reckoned with. He contemptuously refused overtures made for his support by the radical wing of the Liberal Party led by Joseph Chamberlain and Charles Wentworth Dilke.
The Tory advances to him led very quickly to a combination in which Tories and Irish voted together to defeat the Liberal government (June 1885). In the election campaign that followed (November–December 1885), Parnell, having failed to get a satisfactory Home Rule statement from Gladstone, issued the “vote Tory manifesto”. Although the Irish could put the Liberals out, they could not keep the Tories in. In these circumstances, the Tories immediately broke with them and announced the intention of reintroducing coercion in Ireland. Parnellites and Liberals voted together to bring down the government, and Gladstone took office in February 1886. For his continuation in office he depended on Irish support.
There followed the curious and ominous episode of the Galway election. Parnell, under pressure from the O’Sheas and Joseph Chamberlain, put forward Captain O’Shea as Home Rule candidate, although he had refused to take the pledge “to sit and vote with the party.” The evidence suggests that Chamberlain was attempting to undermine Parnell’s authority and split his party. If so, he failed. A mutiny of a small faction was quelled and O’Shea was elected.
Although Gladstone’s Home Rule proposals—involving a wide measure of autonomy—fell short of Fenian aspirations, Parnell accepted them as a basis of settlement and enlisted public opinion in their support. The introduction of the bill, though it was later rejected by the Commons on the second reading (June 1886), was regarded as his personal triumph. When the Conservative Lord Salisbury succeeded Gladstone as prime minister, Parnell withdrew to some extent from active political life. This was partly due to ill health but also to political reasons. With the Irish party firmly allied to the opposition, there was now no room for parliamentary obstruction. Parnell would neither challenge Gladstone’s leadership nor appear as his henchman. He also held aloof in Ireland from the ingenious rent-withholding combination known as the plan of campaign, devised by William O’Brien.
Despite his relative inactivity, Parnell was kept before the public through the efforts of his enemies. On April 18, 1887, The Times published a facsimile of a letter purporting to be written by Parnell condoning the Phoenix Park murders of May 1882. Parnell immediately denounced it as a forgery. Nearly two years later the forger, a journalist named Richard Pigott, collapsed under cross-examination before an investigating commission. Parnell, after Pigott’s suicide in Madrid soon afterward, was transformed in the eyes of the English liberals from a dubious ally into a hero and martyr. This brief period was the peak of Parnell’s career.
On Dec. 24, 1889, Captain O’Shea filed a petition for divorce, naming Parnell as corespondent. Although Parnell’s liaison had been known to some members of the Irish party, Nationalist Ireland in general took it that the proceedings represented another attempt to wreck Home Rule. This was given colour by the fact that O’Shea was a follower of Joseph Chamberlain. The theory that there were political motives behind the divorce proceedings is not necessarily false. The suit being undefended, the court returned a verdict against Parnell and Katherine O’Shea on Nov. 17, 1890.
The initial reaction of the Irish public was to uphold Parnell. In Britain, however, Nonconformist opinion was so hostile that the Irish parliamentary party (also known as the Nationalist Party) found itself in an agonizing dilemma. Parnell was determined to hold the leadership and defy Gladstone. If the party upheld Parnell, they would be destroying the Liberal alliance, and with it the hopes of Home Rule in their generation. If they rejected Parnell, they would be turning against him at the bidding of an Englishman. After a long and emotional debate, the majority rejected his leadership; a sizable minority remained with him.
There followed a series of bitter electoral campaigns. The Roman Catholic hierarchy, although slow to pronounce, now declared Parnell morally unfit for leadership. His marriage to Katherine O’Shea in June 1891 exacerbated Catholic opposition. He himself displayed feverish energy and increasing recklessness, directing his appeal more and more to the revolutionary elements. This appeal left a deep impression on the young but was rejected by the majority of the nation. When his principal ally, the Nationalist Freeman’s Journal, fell to his enemies shortly after his marriage, his cause was clearly lost. He died at his wife’s home in Brighton in October 1891 and was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin. The city, Parnellite to the end, gave him a magnificent funeral.Conor Cruise O'BrienThe Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica