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

Land League: Parnell addresses a meeting, in an illustration published by Currier & Ives, in New York, around 1881. Photograph: Library of Congress

Sat, Aug 31, 2013, 01:00

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

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