BOOK REVIEW / The tightrope walker: 'The Laurel and the Ivy: The Story of Charles Stewart Parnell and Irish Nationalism' - Robert Kee: Hamish Hamilton, 20 pounds

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The Independent Culture
NOTHING provides more historiographical mileage than an enigma, and the 19th-century Irish Home Ruler Charles Stewart Parnell comes ready-made for immortality: a charismatic leader of Irish nationalism who nearly brought off peaceable independence (or at least autonomy), a man who stood for everything and nothing; finally, a Moses who was cast out by his people in sight of the Promised Land, and lost the world for love. No wonder that he subsequently 'deviated into literature', as Conor Cruise O'Brien put it (an ironic fate for a man whose reading was largely limited to Alice in Wonderland and Youatt's The Horse).

But his life was replete with ironies. An apparently ignorant young squire from a Protestant Ascendancy background, he commandeered the Irish Home Rule party at Westminster in the late 1870s; he subsequently achieved national dominance by heading the struggle of tenant against landlord and delivering Fenian-style language from parliamentary platforms. The Home Rule formula which he forced on to the British political agenda was far from separatist republicanism, but still radical enough to split the Liberal party when Gladstone accepted it. The controversial alliance between ex-revolutionary Young Turk and Grand Old Man collapsed when Parnell refused to stand down after being cited in the O'Shea divorce case in 1890; opposed by the majority of his party, he died very suddenly in 1891, aged 45. Still, the magic remained; and as an old opponent remarked long afterwards, 'if we had the voters, Parnell had their sons'.

He has a similar effect on historians: once captured, it is hard to shake him off. Brief Lives began to appear very early in his career; a Boswellian double-decker followed shortly after his death; there was also a clutch of bizarre family memoirs, and he haunts the autobiographies of his political colleagues, as if he were peering over their shoulders. In the last generation there has been Conor Cruise O'Brien's dazzling study of his politics, a magisterial biography by F S L Lyons, a lapidary short one by Paul Bew, and countless studies of 'aspects', varying in readability and originality. What is left for Robert Kee?

In fact, rather a lot. This book stems from decades of obsession, and a vast trawl of contemporary newspapers: for Kee shows, better than anyone, just how far Parnell's reputation was made by journalists. He also brings to the subject a genius for forceful narrative and dramatic effect. And he has made the decision, simple but very effective, to centre Parnell's career where his priorities (rightly or wrongly) lay: his private life with Katharine O'Shea, wife of a parliamentary colleague. Thus the mounting excitement of the Land War, and the speed with which Parnell came to terms with Gladstone, are related to this secret obsession. Unintentionally, this replays many of the criticisms of his colleagues after the split; but it is psychologically very convincing.

Katharine (never 'Kitty' except in the yellow press) was a well-connected Liberal Englishwoman whose charm, vivacity and intelligence captured the ostensibly icy Parnell from an early stage. Through the 1880s they lived in domestic seclusion at Eltham, while her husband Willie came and went from his London flat, and her vastly wealthy aunt across the park subsidised the household. The latter's fortune provided the main reason for keeping the shaky menage on the road; recent biographers have assumed that Willie's connivance was a fait accompli from an early stage. Kee presents the relationship as much more ambiguous, and the husband's resentment of his rival as correspondingly more vehement. Letters often bear him out, though the evidence in Katharine's bombshell memoirs in 1914 may have been doctored in the O'Shea interest (very few of the letters therein are given in facsimile). But Kee has, among many other adjustments, re- established O'Shea's political credentials more convincingly than any other biographer.

The O'Shea relationship was one tightrope Parnell walked for a decade, oblivious to gossip, Dempsteresque newspaper paragraphs and the mounting disquiet of his own party. There were other balancing acts, too, notably involving his apparent endorsement of separatist language in the early part of his career. Kee has resurrected little-noticed speeches and shows Parnell's adept use of Fenian-speak for British as well as Irish audiences; it fits well with the theory, often reiterated but never proved, of a concordat between the Fenians and the Home Rulers, in 1873, which gave the parliamentarians three years to show what they could do. Parnell's speeches from 1875 seem calculated to show the 'advanced men' that one MP at least was keeping the faith. It conferred a heroic aura, distanced him from his background and helped him displace his leader Butt; yet it delivered vulnerable hostages to fortune.

From the early 1880s, much as Parnell's domestic life revolved round Eltham, his political life centred itself in Britain; he removed himself from continuing land agitation in Ireland (where the outcome of the Land War had been to the advantage of strong farmers rather than subsistence tenants). The Liberal commitment to Home Rule tied his hands; he could no longer look for Tory counter-bids (more likely at the time than they appear in retrospect), and the treacly rhetoric of a 'Union of Hearts' replaced confrontation politics. Parnell continued to cast a cold eye on both British opportunism and Irish sentimentality: Kee conveys perhaps better than anyone the quality of royal remoteness that made him a great leader and eventually an icon for Yeats and Joyce. But he also analyses the irrationality of his passions, and his 'masterful talent for making the truth what he wanted it to be'.

Reality caught up with him in the end: a doomed Siegfried (or even Tristan), rather than the Nietzschean ubermensch he seemed to anticipate. There has been a recent fashion for stressing the insubstantiality of the Home Rule mirage - accusing it of ignoring Ulster's vehement opposition and emphasising the conditional commitment of British politicians, as well as the quantities of unfinished business left aside by common consent. While a necessary antidote to hoary generalisations about 'the great missed chance', this kind of criticism is in many ways anachronistic. Kee's title is significant, and so is the dependent part of his 'story'. Parnell's importance for Irish nationalism lay in knowing how far he could go, while bringing as many elements as possible with him - at least until the last wrecking year of his life.

At critical points, those hostages to fortune seemed about to be called in: notably when the brutal Phoenix Park assassinations (by a fringe Fenian group) jeopardised his just-formed alliance with the Liberals in 1882. That the political entente survived the politics of the last atrocity was essentially a victory for Parnell's and Gladstone's leadership and imagination. The current relevance of this story for Anglo-Irish relations need not be spelt out, and Robert Kee tells it with a combination of passion and control which appropriately echoes his hero.