Sunday 25 February 2018

Rich detailed look at the rise and grip of Parnell

Deirdre Conroy

Deirdre Conroy

Parnell

Brian Cregan

The History Press, €17.99

Penning a novel on the myth and the man that is Charles Stewart Parnell, for whom a vast bibliography exists, is not a task for the fainthearted. Attempting a fictionalised account from the powder keg of Ireland to the imperial chambers of Westminster is a mighty task. One might say it requires the acuity and determination of CSP himself to carry it off.

Brian Cregan's debut novel covers the last 17 years of Parnell's life. It opens in Dublin in March 1874, Parnell, encouraged by Isaac Butt, speaks in public for the first time as a candidate for Ireland's Home Rule Party; he is neither a competent speaker nor a persuasive candidate.

Three years after his first faltering speech, Parnell has devised unprecedented tactics to obstruct the House of Commons, rendering it unworkable; within six years he had broken the landlord hold in Ireland; and within a decade controlled the House of Commons and wielded power to put English prime ministers in and out of government at will.

It is Parnell's secretary, James Harrison, who narrates as a loyal friend and junior counsel; as the only character to come out of it well, it is no coincidence that he's fictional. Writing in the third person provides a lens through which to observe Parnell the politician and Parnell the patronising. In order to record him in parliament, at meetings all over Ireland, English country houses and London restaurants, Harrison speeds back and forth across the Irish Sea with alarming alacrity.

This narrative device avoids any salacious focus on Parnell's disguises, aliases, trysts and domestic harmony with Mrs O'Shea, unlike the central position she assumes in Hugh Leonard's 1991 novel, Parnell and the Englishwoman.

Harrison's point of view limits access to Parnell's psychological motivation, though he claims to 'hate the English'; he fatally loves an Englishwoman; though he is passionate about Home Rule, he calls his Irish colleagues 'rabble'. Instead, Cregan focuses on richly detailed source material to convey the twists and turns from parliament to the West of Ireland, from the Royal Courts of Justice to Kilmainham Gaol.

Cregan charts the rise and grip of Parnell, his effect on two nations and how the shadowmen around him effect his ultimate fall.

He depicts the chief players in the Irish Parliamentary Party, we are left in no doubt of Joseph Biggar's decency, loyalty and humour, John Dillon's constancy; Frank Hugh O'Donnell's weakness, Parnell calls him 'spineless'. Indeed, Parnell brooked favour with nobody; from an early stage he rebuffed his nemesis, Tim Healy, denying him an opportunity to court his beloved sister, Fanny.

The Fenian, Michael Davitt, is an ally until Parnell publishes his fateful manifesto. But it is William O'Shea, the MP for Clare who, with Joseph Chamberlain, slithers and crawls until finally snaring his prey. On the government benches, Disraeli's frustration and ultimate admiration prevails, similarly with Gladstone, who found Parnell 'the most remarkable man he ever met'.

When the scene shifts to Ireland and the small events with historic consequences, we find the MP for Mayo, John P O'Connor Power, presenting a newly endowed landlord, Canon Geoffrey Burke, with a document asking him to 'agree to reduce rent of all your tenants by thirty per cent and that you hereby agree to waive all the arrears of rent which have accumulated to date'.

'Have I any choice?' asked the canon.

'None whatsoever, father.'

In his speech in Westport, June 1879, Parnell presages another facet of our times and exhorts the rally to 'keep a firm grip on your homesteads'.

If only our present Mayo representative could issue an ultimatum to present-day landlords, the banks.

Harrison and the reader are left wondering at the stoicism and hauteur of the man who withstands seven months in Kilmainham Gaol, arrested without grounds. He visits Parnell almost daily, describing conditions like living openly on a Wicklow hillside. Parnell sacrificed his health and his name for Ireland and at 45 he succumbed to the ultimate sacrifice, as soon as he found happiness.

Perhaps the women in his life provide a clue to his character; he adored his sister, Fanny. He requested leave from gaol to be with his sister Delia on the death of his nephew in Paris. His influential American mother lived in New York during this period; his love for Katharine O'Shea placed him in an untenable position, but he chose to protect her above all else.

It is no surprise that Cregan, the barrister, brings a lively and humorous tone to the cross-examination of Pigott by Russell in The Times forgeries case; this and the courtroom scene of the O'Shea divorce suit is brilliantly wrought.

Cregan's grasp of historic record and re-imagining a good story, unites the machinations of a complex period, proof that the study of the past is imperative for our understanding and reclamation of sovereignty.

The plan by the Minister for Education to sideline history as a subject (it won't be compulsory for the Junior Certificate) is dangerous.

This saga of strategies, obstructions, conspiracies, forgeries, ostracism and passion reveal the tug-of-war politics of honour, malice, betrayal and self-serving objectives we have inherited.

This book is a must for students of all ages.

Sunday Independent

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