Sunday 18 March 2018

Review: Enigma: A New Life of Charles Stewart Parnell by Paul Bew

Gill & Macmillan,€24.99

ENIGMA: Irish politician
Charles Stewart Parnell
ENIGMA: Irish politician Charles Stewart Parnell

Frank Callanan

Paul Bew's biographical study of Charles Stewart Parnell is an aptly elegant book. Its significance lies, in part, in its contribution to the project of retrieving the comments and observations that Parnell elicited in the course of his extraordinary career.

Parnell had grace, and he had an intense, if austere, glamour. He attracted an unforgiving celebrity that was without precedent. He inspired journalism of exhilarating trenchancy, against and for him. He attracted fascinated commentary in England by parliamentary contemporaries and society figures (especially women: Bew has exhumed a Mrs Stuart Menzies) in what was an era of self-consciously stylish high political observation. From Ireland there were extravagant encomia, and in the split, savage detractions, and slightly awed biographical reminiscences and conjectures on the "uncrowned king", in life and in death.

There is no other leading figure of late 19th-Century politics in these islands whose career is so defined by sheer movement. This was not limited to his plying between Ireland and Britain, to the rhythm of boat and train. There was also the ease of his passage through a minutely fractured political space, in itself a feature of Parnell's almost casual transmutation of his provenance in the Anglo-Irish gentry into a striking approximation to modern democratic classlessness, a phenomenon that the conventional emphasis on those of his attributes deemed aristocratic served to obscure. This aspect of Parnell's strange genius unsettled English Liberals and half-enchanted his Conservative enemies.

Parnell's traversing of the landscape of late Victorian politics is marked also by its sheer pace. Elected for Meath in 1875, he was, as Bew writes, "by mid-1877 ... the effective leader of the Irish in England and Scotland". The momentum of his career carried him to rapid ascendancy in Ireland, retrospectively formalised in the 1885 general election. Crisis succeeded crisis from the late 1870s. Brought down in the split of 1890-1, Parnell died in October 1891 at the age of 45.

The enlargement of the range of references to Parnell is only one aspect of this biography. Bew's superb rendering of Parnell's early agrarian nationalism and his tracing of the trajectory that derived from it is unsurpassed. He brilliantly captures the fineness of Parnell's political judgement in devising improvisationally from the range of competing strategies that of the deployment of the land question to national ends, encompassing a significant element of reconciliation between unionist landlords living in Ireland and nationalist tenants.

The agrarian left were committed to the maintenance of a quasi-revolutionary momentum to take out the landlords as a first step; high Fenians and others were deeply suspicious of what they saw as the contamination of the national question by the land question; the parliamentary left, notably John Dillon, sought to harness the agrarian agitation but feared that a land settlement in advance of home rule would diminish the nationalist elan of the Irish tenants. No historian has so lucidly expounded the conspectus of available strategies, in a treatment that is pointedly leavened by the hostile critiques of Irish and English unionists which are illuminating and transpire in a number of aspects to be unexpectedly perceptive.

This is perhaps the aspect of the enigma of Parnell by which Bew is personally most intrigued: the Irish leader's negotiation of a contested political terrain crowded with publicists academics and ideologues, and other politicians in Ireland and England whose adaptability was impaired by their adherence to secondary dogmatisms. Bew occasionally raises the issue of whether Parnell's intellect was equal to his political instinctuality. The impossibility of answering it suggests that if it is valid at all it cannot be pressed very far. In 1897, Gladstone having described Parnell as "the most remarkable man I ever met", before adding "I do not say the ablest man", and then going on to characterise him "an intellectual phenomenon". It is perhaps best left at that.

Bew's assessment of the deceptive fragility of Parnell's position in the wake of the failure of Gladstone's 1886 home rule bill is haunting, underscoring the eerie proximity of triumph and catastrophe that runs through the career of the Irish leader. He elucidates Parnell's tragic predicament in the split of 1890-1 which became our own. Parnell, his back against the wall, was at once opportunistic and far-sighted. "Parnell's attack on his party's traditional views on Ulster in 1891 may be regarded as a proof that he was virtually the captive of Catholic nationalism during the entire period when he was supposed to be its unrivalled autocratic leader."

In the essay here republished as an appendix, Patrick Maume, also a distinguished connoisseur of Parnellism, cites the observation of Ignatius O'Brien that Parnell's problem was that he led the Irish parliamentary party with such little effort as to make it seem that anyone could do it, until he was gone and everyone else tried it.

Bew's magnificent study leaves a deepened appreciation of the force of Joyce's characterisation of Parnell as an Irish leader who was "strong to the verge of weakness".

Frank Callanan is a barrister and the author of 'The Parnell Split' and 'TM Healy'.

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