Sunday 15 December 2019

Books: Propaganda powered Parnell's political life

Mr Parnell's Rottweiler, Myles Dungan, Irish Academic Press, €25.15

Charles Stewart Parnell
Charles Stewart Parnell
Katharine O'Shea

J P O'Malley

UPON receiving the Nobel prize for literature in 1923, W.B. Yeats added further to the mystique surrounding Charles Stewart Parnell.

"A disillusioned and embittered Ireland turned away from parliamentary politics; an event was conceived and the race began, as I think, to be troubled by that event's long gestation," Yeats told the crowd in Oslo the night he picked up his prestigious award.

The event the Nobel poet was referring to was Parnell's fall from power in 1891, which arose out of a political split and a public backlash from his affair with a married woman, Katherine O' Shea.

Yeats wasn't the only Irish writer to reference the Home Rule campaigner in his work. The demise of Parnell embodied everything that James Joyce felt was wrong with the Ireland he emigrated from, which he viewed as a land of endless hypocrisy, with a priestly class obsessed with social morality.

Indeed, there is probably no other figure as widely written about by Irish historians, scholars, poets and philosophers, as the man who was once referred to as the uncrowned king of Ireland. And yet, his portrait remains a mystery. In Enigma: A New Life of Charles Stewart Parnell, Paul Bew writes: "trying to work out the true political ideals of [him] can resemble a parlour game."

While F.S.L. Lyons in his 1977 biography, Charles Stewart Parnell, claims the messiah mythology fits perfectly into a tradition of Christ-like figures that have always existed in the pantheon of Irish political heroes. Parnell's charm, according to Lyons, was that he showed the peasant class – along with Michael Davitt and the Land Leaguers – how to organise and believe they could achieve a better life for themselves and for posterity. Or, as Lyons puts it in one simple phrase: he gave his people back their self-respect.

One of the ways Parnell cleverly rallied those masses around to his mode of thinking was through his own newspaper, United Ireland.

From its inception in August 1881, under the editorship of the feisty and fiercely nationalistic William O'Brien, it was the most trenchant voice of Irish nationalism of its era.

In his new book, Mr. Parnell's Rottweiler, historian and RTE broadcaster Myles Dungan gives a brilliant analysis of how Parnell used United Ireland as a propaganda tool to reel in both the disenfranchised agrarian peasant vote, and the hard-line nationalists, around to his conservative and constitutional form of politics.

The historian spends considerable time here discussing the strange dichotomy between O'Brien and Parnell at the paper. Both men, despite their opposing political views, somehow managed to form a professional relationship that worked seamlessly.

Parnell knew that the young editor posed no threat to his leadership. He also understood that the fiercely nationalistic O'Brien could galvanise the lower classes with his partisan editorials; encourage civil disobedience against the police and landlords, and repeatedly call for the boycotting of rent payments.

Dungan reminds us here that Parnell wouldn't have won this support so easily without feigning an outward appearance of a radicalism that never really existed within him. United Ireland, therefore, was a key asset he used during the heyday of Parnellite politics, in the 1880s, for appealing to the forces of agrarian reform and separatism.

The paper helped Parnell to further cement the idea of him as an iconic leader of a revolutionary movement, even though he was anything but. And, as Dungan suggests, the real Parnell was just manipulating voters to get them to follow his lead.

There are two points one can take from a man who plays this Machiavellian game of politics: you can admire his audacity for playing hardball. Or you can accuse him of constantly hiding behind a strange aloofness, where political manoeuvering is more about ego-massaging than democratic concerns of the masses.

Dungan's reading falls into the latter camp. And I found myself fully convinced by his argument after reading this excellent book. The historian writes: "With United Ireland [small] farmers were petitioned and cajoled to engage in campaigns that would principally benefit shopkeepers, large farmers and grazers."

In other words: Parnell was organising the lower classes so that the middle classes could benefit from their political activism.

Dungan's first-rate analysis of Parnell's decade-long-radical newspaper, which made him a demigod to the Irish people, displays the massive contradictions inherent in everything the legendary parliamentarian ever said or did throughout his career.

Parnell was a handsome, dashing aristocrat, who had it all but then lost it, just when everything seemed to be falling into place. But readers will have to look further afield if they are to fully understand a man whose life almost reads like a Shakespearean tragedy.

If we are to analyze where he went wrong politically, it might be worth remembering F.S.L. Lyons' observation that: " [Parnell] seems never to have asked himself what he meant by the 'Irish nation' or the 'Irish race', which he claimed to lead."

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