Charles S. Parnell
Charles S. Parnell; drawing by David Levine

Most of the leading political figures of nineteenth-century Britain—Gladstone at their head—were intensely concerned with how posterity should see them. They kept papers—huge masses of papers in Gladstone’s case—with their future biographers in mind. Parnell was different. He was not a reader—his brother John said that the only book he saw him read was Youatt’s The Horse—nor was he a writer. Few letters by him exist. They are all short and wholly practical—if we except the endearments in the letters to his mistress and then wife Mrs. O’Shea which she later published in her book on him. The period of his political leadership—1880-1890—was also the period of his liaison with Mrs. O’Shea (whom he married in June 1891, shortly after her divorce, and before his own death in October of the same year).

Liaison and leadership were incompatible—if the liaison became known to a wide public. His life therefore had to be secretive. He lived in various places near London—Brackley, Eltham—under various aliases: Mr. Preston and—an unfortunate choice—Mr. Fox. His followers, including leading ones like John Dillon, lost contact with him for quite long periods. Among the Dillon papers in the Royal Irish Academy is an envelope containing records of various futile efforts by Dillon to reach his leader. The envelope is marked in Dillon’s hand: “Elusive Mr. P.”

The need to be elusive to contemporaries need not imply an equal need to elude posterity. There were circumstances in Gladstone’s life also, over much of the same period, that would have been likely to destroy his leadership had they become known to a wide public. Even in our own permissive times some eyebrows would be raised at the idea of a prime minister’s regularly seeking out the company of prostitutes and visiting brothels. Today indeed Gladstone’s goings-on would put him in greater political danger than Parnell’s would. But Gladstone was in real danger at the time, as his secretary Edward Hamilton strongly warned him, and this did not prevent him from keeping records—cryptic but compromising—of these meetings.1

But Gladstone was a compulsive writer: Parnell was not. Also there was a difference in the degree of personal importance of what the leaders had to conceal. Gladstone’s concealed conduct was a series of oddities—compulsive, like his writing—on the margin of a happy married life. Gladstone’s marriage was indeed so flagrantly happy that it seems to have discouraged Gladstone’s enemies from making serious political use of the rumors about his behavior. Perhaps after all the old man was trying to “reclaim” those prostitutes. Even a Tory could not altogether put it past him. For Parnell, on the other hand, his life with Mrs. O’Shea was his whole home life. It was as if Gladstone had had to hush up the existence of Mrs. Gladstone. The need for secretiveness reached a different order of magnitude. Parnell was capable in his own time of making effective political use of the air of mystery which necessarily surrounded him. He may possibly have felt in his bones that that same air would serve him best with posterity also. He may of course have given no thought to the matter at all, but that I think unlikely. A political leader who gave no thought at all to how posterity would view him would be a rare political animal indeed. In any case, however we evaluate his motives, the records he left behind him are meager indeed.

This fact has naturally discouraged biographers. Until now there has been no satisfactory modern biography of Parnell: the best life has remained that published by R. Barry O’Brien in 1899. Barry O’Brien had very little access to documents, but he was an excellent reporter who had talked with many of the people involved in “the Parnell story.” In the nearly eighty years that have passed since then, many relevant archives have opened, and some relevant specialized studies have been published including a recent valuable study of the Parnell family by Mr. Roy Foster. No previous biographer has made serious use of this material. Professor F.S.L. Lyons, Provost of Trinity College, has now used it exhaustively, and has produced what will almost certainly remain the definitive biography of Parnell. I say “almost” only in order not to exclude the theoretical possibility that documentary evidence necessitating a reassessment may at some time emerge. I do not myself believe that the emergence of such evidence at this late stage is at all likely.

Since there are no “Parnell papers” in the usual sense of the term, the materials for the life have to be assembled from a very wide variety of sources: Provost Lyons has drawn on more than forty collections of private papers, as well as on a great mass of published material. As he himself remarks, in a bibliographical note whose brevity might mislead the unwary (it does not include published matter cited in footnotes), “original material relating to Parnell is widely diffused.” With great artistry and economy, Parnell’s new biographer has concentrated what he needs out of that diffusion through which he moves so easily. The depth of his acquaintance with the Parnell and immediate post-Parnell period is unmatched. His first book was on the Irish Parliamentary Party after Parnell’s death, and subsequent works include The Fall of Parnell and the life of John Dillon.


Not only is Charles Stewart Parnell a fine work of scholarship, it is also beautifully written and beautifully constructed. It deserves to be very widely read and I believe it will be. The Parnell story is inherently dramatic. What material: the handsome, aristocratic Protestant leader of a Catholic peasant resistance that broke out during the late 1870s when famine and evictions once again menaced Irish tenant farmers; the conspiratorial atmosphere of the semi-revolutionary period when Parnell backed the agitations of the Irish National Land League; the landlord overthrowing landlordism. And he did overthrow it. Gladstone’s great land reform of 1881 is rightly seen as the decisive moment in the history of the Irish land system, and few if any contemporaries thought that Gladstone would have introduced such sweeping reforms (including judicial review of rents) without the pressure of the movement initiated by Michael Davitt (and John Devoy in America) and led to victory by Parnell. Gladstone compensated for (in effect) surrender by arresting Parnell, who provoked him into it by casting public scorn on the land reform, with which Parnell was in reality well pleased.

Parnell’s love affair with Mrs. O’Shea, which was to destroy him ten years later, began in 1880, and their first child died while he was in prison. Parnell was released from Kilmainham jail in 1882 under an arrangement with Gladstone which became known as the Kilmainham treaty, and which has been described by Marxist historians like the late Brian O’Neill as the bourgeois betrayal of the revolution. Parnell’s release was based on an understanding that he would now calm down the land agitation. Parnell, however, was not doing this to please Gladstone (or the bourgeoisie, for that matter). The Irish tenant farmers were in fact now making full and effective use of the legal means of redress now available to them—and the informal leverage which the existence of that means ensured—to get unreasonable rents reduced. Under these conditions Parnell saw little point in prolonging mass land agitation, with its weaponry of intimidation and fringe malice. His aim now was to discipline the movement as a whole, firmly subordinating agrarian objectives to the objective of Home Rule for Ireland to be won by parliamentary means under Parnell’s leadership.

Suddenly, within a few days of Parnell’s release from Kilmainham, all such prospects appeared to be ruined by the murder in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, at the hands of a fanatical nationalist fringe-group known as the Invincibles, of the new Chief Secretary for Ireland, Lord Frederick Cavendish, and the Under-Secretary, T.H. Burke. Under the shock of this event, Parnell actually offered his resignation to the prime minister. Gladstone wisely refused. In fact the revulsion felt by most Irish people at the Phoenix Park murders probably helped Parnell to bring his movement under stricter discipline and into more unequivocally constitutional lines. He succeeded from 1882 on in exerting near-absolute personal authority over a movement disciplined as no political movement had ever been before, either in Ireland or in Britain, or perhaps anywhere else.

Through the effectiveness of Parnell’s movement, the spectacular conversion then took place of Prime Minister Gladstone to Parnell’s cause, Home Rule for Ireland, with consequent turmoil throughout Britain, still near the zenith of its primacy as a world power. Soon after the Home Rule Bill was defeated in 1886, Parnell was branded by The Times as a condoner of murder: his vindication was spectacular, as The Times charge was proved to be based on a forgery, and the forger broke down, escaped abroad, and committed suicide.

Following immediately on this apotheosis came Captain O’Shea’s divorce suit and the widespread belief that the divorce charges were another smear, like that of The Times, a belief shattered by the news that the suit was not contested. Parnell’s party first rallied to him after the divorce verdict, then swung against him after Gladstone condemned him. Parnell defied Gladstone and the party: “English wolves now howling for my destruction.” This attempt to hold on to the leadership, after Gladstone’s condemnation, required his followers to reject the alliance with the Liberals on the basis of Home Rule, an alliance which had been the cornerstone of Parnell’s policy since 1886. Many of his former followers opposed him on this political ground, but with most “the moral issue”—i.e., the divorce verdict—was probably decisive. He was condemned by the Church; he married Mrs. O’Shea, and he and his wife were scurrilously reviled—“this British prostitute” (Tim Healy). Parnell, fighting desperately, was defeated in all the three by-elections of 1891, his last powerful ally defecting in September of that year. He died on October 6, in Brighton, in his wife’s arms; he was brought to Dublin for burial, in the most passionate funeral the city ever knew. The poet Yeats was there and recalled the scene years later in the poem beginning “Under the Great Comedian’s tomb.”2


It is a splendid story, whatever else one may think about it, and splendidly Provost Lyons tells it.

The hero himself remains, as he did in his lifetime, somewhat elusive. This is mainly if not entirely due to the paucity of the material he himself left behind. That gap is by no means compensated for by the reminiscences of three people who knew him well—his brother John, his sister Emily, and his wife Katharine. John does provide some useful details, especially about Parnell’s taste in reading. Emily’s book A Patriot’s Mistake is wild romancing and has been aptly retitled, A Patriot’s Sister’s Mistake. Katharine’s book,3 written, dictated, or ghosted when she was nearly eighty, and in a condition which has been described as “bemused,”4 sheds only the most flickering of lights.

Parnell’s personality remains more inscrutable than that of any other Victorian political leader. It is quite true of course that the important collections of papers bequeathed by other leaders may mislead and sometimes be intended to mislead. Gladstone himself, in the last entry in that diary which he had kept for seventy years, noted: “I do not enter any interior matters. It is so easy to write, but to write honestly nearly impossible.” Yet even recollection, or self-analysis, which is less than honest—or even much less than honest—does tell us something about the writer. Even the memoir material left by the former radical and later Liberal Unionist leader Joseph Chamberlain, material a great deal of which is probably intended to conceal rather than to reveal, does none the less shed some light on the personality and mode of action of its composer. To take an extreme example, from Anatole France’s Penguin Island, when the Dreyfus case prosecutors produced a mass of faked evidence, they inadvertently disclosed much more of the truth about the case than when they had resolutely refused to produce any evidence at all.

In these circumstances, the main and virtually the sole task of the biographer has been to tell the story, including in it all that is known about Parnell himself. As I have indicated, Provost Lyons acquits himself of that task in a masterly way. Aside from some detailed matters of interpretation, it is only in relation to the final chapter of his book, “Myth and Reality,” that I propose to differ with him here. “Myth and Reality” forms a rather severe personal and political verdict on Parnell. This biography is less sympathetic to Parnell than its predecessors generally, and very much less sympathetic than R. Barry O’Brien’s book. It was probably inevitable that Parnell’s first qualified modern biographer should treat him less kindly than did his predecessors. First of all, the record of Parnell’s activities is intrinsically less attractive than the legend. Second, there is a built-in divergence between the kind of person Parnell was and the kind of person a good biographer is.

The biographer has to be a practiced writer, a tireless reader, and scrupulously truthful. Provost Lyons is all of these things. Parnell was none of them. A good biographer of Gladstone or Disraeli moves in the same kind of intellectual world as his subject; both biographer and subject belong to the written word, to the idea of history: a sympathetic rapport rather easily establishes itself. A scholar is unlikely to get on so well with this uncommunicative, uncultivated, unscrupulous5 Wicklow squire.

A certain degree of distaste for his subject, combined with a strong interest in him, can be of service to the biographer, and it is so in this case. It is only toward the end of the book and especially in the final chapter “Myth and Reality” that the distaste unduly influences the political judgments. Provost Lyons maintains that Parnell had proved himself “unfit for leadership” even before the divorce case, and implies that his followers would have been likely to replace him, even had there been no divorce case. I do not think that these opinions are justified by the evidence. Certainly Parnell’s authority was exercised sparingly in the period between the defeat of the Home Rule Bill (1886) and the divorce case (1890). There were both medical and domestic reasons for this, but there were also political ones. There was an intrinsic tension between the two needs of his movement at this time: the need to preserve the Liberal alliance, and also to keep the agrarian pot simmering in Ireland, by methods necessarily distasteful to English Liberals. For the leader to cultivate—not too assiduously—the Liberal alliance, while allowing his followers their heads to some extent in Ireland, seemed to fit the situation well enough. When Parnell chose to exert his authority—as in his Eighty Club speech of May 8, 18886—the lieutenants came to heel, as they had also done under more trying circumstances in 1886.7

I think his followers—who did of course grumble a lot—would have had no chance at all of putting him out against his will, without the divorce verdict. I don’t believe in the existence of what Provost Lyons calls “a power vacuum which others were beginning to fill”—before the divorce verdict. Even with that verdict—a crushing handicap in the conditions of Victorian Ireland and Britain—they found it horribly difficult to get rid of him, and quite impossible to fill his place. There was, after all, something about him.

Provost Lyons makes the more fundamental point that the objective toward which Parnell was leading his people was in fact unattainable. That objective was Home Rule for all Ireland. As that objective could not be attained without the consent of Ulster Protestants, and as that consent was not at any time forthcoming, it does follow that the objective was unattainable.8 If Parnell had not striven to attain it, however, he would have ceased to be leader of the people he actually led: the Irish Catholics. The fact that it was unattainable had to be demonstrated in practice before it became accepted in practice, and in theory it has never been accepted. Parnell, like many another leader, had to lead his people along the road they insisted on traveling, toward the unattainable objective and the inevitable disillusion. But he achieved his imposing niche in history by means of his dramatic enforced departure—as a result of the divorce case—before the inevitable political disillusion. He retains the great charisma of the leader betrayed on the eve of the fulfillment of his historic task.

It was in fact Mrs. O’Shea who got him off the cruel hook of history and made him immortal: the tragic hero of W.B. Yeats and James Joyce.

This Issue

November 24, 1977