Parnell The uncrowned King of Ireland is brought to life
Diarmaid Ferriter on why Senior Counsel Brian Cregan's novel – 10 years in the making – truly captures the life of the great Charles Stewart Parnell
Brian Cregan certainly cannot be accused of lacking ambition in deciding to write a 450-page novel based on the life of Charles Stewart Parnell, one of the most iconic and controversial characters of modern Irish history whose career continues to this day to fascinate and perplex.
There is still much room for disagreement on the essence of Parnell more than 120 years after his death, so much so that even the most recent account of his life by historian Paul Bew was simply entitled Enigma.
Given Parnell's short, intense and dramatic life – personally and politically – it is hardly surprising his story would attract the attention of the fiction writer, and, in bringing his story to life, Cregan has created something powerful out of the triumphs and tragedies that marked his career.
Historical novels run the risk of moving so far from historical fact that they are scorned for flights of fancy or lazy exaggerations. But some of them work through the use of detailed historical research and an artistic licence that is disciplined and judiciously used, an obvious and triumphant example being James Plunkett's Strumpet City, based on the turmoil of the 1913 Lockout.
To his credit, Cregan has produced a rollicking read that is well researched and faithful to many of the details and happenings of Parnell's life and public rhetoric, and in employing his artistic licence he has been, for the most part, clever and balanced.
His device is to invent a loyal and trusted secretary to Parnell – the narrator James Harrison – who has intimate access and can relay the story from inside the Parnell tent. It is a device that works because of the success of the author in two respects: establishing an effective atmosphere and remaining consistent in tone.
Though Cregan does not have the literary style of a Plunkett, he has produced a page turner which keeps the reader gripped, from the pathetic, stumbling start to Parnell's career – when he first presented himself as a parliamentary candidate in 1874 and could not string two sentences together – to his untimely death in a house in Brighton in 1891 from mental and physical exhaustion aged 46. It is a moving story and is told with verve and much sympathy, as Harrison remains loyal to the end, though not without disillusionment.
Although occasionally succumbing to melodrama, embellishment and purple and clunky prose, Cregan is strong in recreating the drama, intrigue and incestuousness of the House of Commons, which was central to Parnell's mission to force the introduction of land reform and Irish Home Rule through the use of parliamentary obstruction, iron discipline in leading a centralised party political machine – the Irish Parliamentary Party – and forcing concessions from the British political establishment by holding the balance of power in the mid-1880s.
Cregan introduces a whole range of characters – rogues, sycophants, idealists and charlatans – who were centrally involved, none more effectively drawn than Joseph Biggar, the aggressive, blunt but charming Belfast merchant and nationalist MP who assisted Parnell in his early parliamentary displays of defiance. Biggar was "as he said many times, answerable only to his mistress, his constituents and God – in roughly that order, and depending on the circumstances".
While Cregan exaggerates aspects of Parnell – he hams up his anti-landlord, anti-English sentiments and maintains unconvincingly that he "had become the most infamous, the most notorious, the most hated man in England" and had during his land agitation "the cold savage fury of a revolutionary" – he is good at articulating, through Harrison, the central dilemma of Parnell: "I can't do everything," he tells Michael Davitt, the land reform campaigner over dinner, "I can't be in Westminster and also in the west."
Parnell did try to do everything for a time, and Cregan underlines the sheer physical effort involved in the constant travelling in bad weather, by sea, road and rail, between England and Ireland, that inevitably took its toll.
There are also passages that underline Parnell's growing arrogance: "Never explain and never apologise. I could never keep my rabble together if I were not above the human weakness of apology". A period of imprisonment in Kilmainham was a defining event because of his forced separation from his married lover Katherine O'Shea and the death of their baby daughter during that period (in relation to the affair, as was typical with the Victorians, "everybody knew about it but no one ever wanted to talk about it").
Parnell became increasingly distant, consumed in his love affair, and while he may have savoured the triumph of the election of 86 Home Rule MPs, they became increasingly frustrated with him.
There were also threats to his status and authority from outside and inevitably, numerous attempts to undermine him, most famously through forged letters published in The Times trying to link him to support for violence. He was vindicated in the most dramatic of ways after a special commission.
Cregan captures the essence of these trials and tribulations effectively without getting bogged down in too much detail.
But the greatest threat of all to Parnell's standing remained what drove him the most – "his sole resolution was to be free to marry Katherine". In pursuit of this, he had to deal with her despicable husband William O'Shea, also a party MP whose career Parnell facilitated. When things became unhinged and O'Shea sought a divorce citing adultery, which was uncontested, Parnell made the fatal mistake – or what Harrison descries as a "blatant confidence trick" – of trying to suggest it was just another political conspiracy to undermine him.
He became increasingly autocratic, unbalanced and intemperate and lost the support of the majority of his party by his refusal to resign, or, as he saw it, be dictated to by cowardly colleagues or a pious Liberal party, whose leader Gladstone also insisted he must go. He then received "a savage blow of the crozier" when the Catholic hierarchy stuck their knife into him. He was doomed, but kept on fighting a losing battle, speaking at drenched meetings to ever dwindling crowds, chain-smoking and acting like a man possessed. As one of those central to the anti-Parnell camp during the split, Justin McCarthy commented, "he would prefer to be broken and uprooted rather than bend to the prevailing winds".
Some might nit-pick about the extent to which Cregan sticks to the historical record, he does not engage with the issue of Parnell's relationship with the Fenians, the scenes of a tearful Parnell embracing his secretary are far-fetched given his character, and some of his contemporaries are afforded a centrality to Parnell's life they did not have in practice.
But this is a novel, and Cregan is entitled to employ his artistic licence. He tells the story very well, captures the triumphs, mistakes, humanity and tragedy convincingly, and the extent to which he became a polarising character because of his sheer dominance, occasional brilliance and strong sense of self. As the loyal Harrison records mournfully but with some pride, by the end, all the issues came down to "one irreducible element. Parnell".
Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of Modern Irish History at UCD.