Saturday 24 February 2018

Review: Biography: A New Life Of Charles Stewart Parnell by Paul Bew

Gill & Macmillan, €24.99

In Enigma, Paul Bew has produced a significant new assessment of Charles Stewart Parnell and his place in the politics of his period which is at once a masterpiece of compression and of clarity of expression, drawing on a rich vein of recent research.

In a relatively short biography, it is all there -- the ambiguous relationship with the Fenians, the Land League, the Kilmainham Treaty, the dominance of the Irish Party and the House of Commons, Piggott forgeries, the O'Shea divorce, the rise and the fall of a political meteorite with Captain O'Shea playing the part of the willing cuckold for his own advantage, and Mrs O'Shea less a femme fatale than an uxorious distraction from the task in hand.

On this scenario, Parnell's fall is attributed less to political enemies or clerical condemnation at home or the English non-conformist conscience (although all played a part) as to frailty of character and temperament which were a source of strength on the way up, but a fatal weakness in the end.

Bew has respect for his subject, and not without sympathy rescues Parnell from the adulation of Joyce and the vituperative hostility of Tim Healy.

In its simplest terms, the Parnell he portrays is less the neo-Republican separatist, willing to flirt or worse with the men of violence, but a conservative constitutional nationalist, with a horror of violence, with a radical tinge, concerned with the fate of the Irish peasantry and hopes for modest industrial development.

He is not so much a class renegade as a landlord anxious to save his class from the certain fate of their blind dependence on Britain and an unjust system of land tenure, and to attract the younger landlords into a leadership role in a devolved administration within the Empire on the lines of Grattan's Parliament.

His flirtation with Fenianism was an attempt to keep the wild men in check (as Gladstone believed he could). His vision for his own class did not extend to Northern Protestants, whose real religious and commercial concerns he did not appreciate until it was too late.

He was, of course, an enigma -- but so is nearly every successful politician: remote and evasive, all things to some men and something to most others, addressing several audiences at once in nuanced terms, cunning, ruthless, economical with the truth. The real Parnell, whom Bew asks to stand up, is all of these -- and, in fairness, he captures the complexity of the man.

There is a tantalising hint about the writing of history in the comment that recent assessments of Parnell have been more critical as a result of the Northern troubles.

This is an inversion of the thesis that history helps us to understand the present -- to project the present to the past is to run the risk of decontextualising both, teleology parading as history.

As it is, Bew's analysis of the politics of Home Rule -- insufficient understanding of the position of Northern Protestantism, a government willing to desert old friends and its local garrison, officials pushing concessions for fear of terrorist outrage, willing to hand over to whoever will run the place and keep order, moderates having to talk to previously untouchables -- could serve as a Trimbleite analysis of the Peace Process.

That said, anyone wanting a quick voyage round Parnell, with a knowledgeable and witty guide, pointing out historic landmarks and shining a light on previously unnoticed features, analysing their significance and drawing fair and reasoned conclusions, will find all he needs in this slim but tightly packed and very rewarding volume.

Maurice Hayes

Indo Review

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