Charles Stewart Parnell: the perfect hero for a work of fiction
He was charming to friends, cold to enemies, passionate in romance and relentless in his pursuit of Irish justice
Land League: Parnell addresses a meeting, in an illustration published by Currier & Ives, in New York, around 1881. Photograph: Library of Congress
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.