Portrait of the subject as an Irish hardman

T M HEALY by Frank Callanan, Cork University Press pounds 25
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THE FALL of Charles Stewart Parnell traumatised Irish political life at the end of the 19th century. The Christmas-dinner battle in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man propelled the bitterness of the split far beyond the confines of Ireland. Against the heroic figure of the fallen national leader stands, in the popular image, that of his most ferocious assailant, Timothy Michael Healy. Healy led the Catholic, localist denunciation of his once-revered chief as a dictatorial aristocratic Protestant.

One of Joyce's earliest (and long since lost) poems, which dramatically ended "Et tu, Healy", confirmed the view of Healy as a political assassin whose style of fighting became a national humiliation. Likewise W B Yeats, listing the fall of Parnell as one of the three most significant events of his life, thought it was not the split itself but the "frenzy of detraction" that degraded Irish public life. On this view, Tim Healy had a lot to answer for, and his neglect at the hands of biographers may seem surprising. Frank Callanan makes amends for this, at least in physical terms - at over 600 pages of text with another hundred of notes, this is tombstone biography, to weigh in with anything devoted to such giants of Irish politics as Parnell himself or amon de Valera.

But Callanan does not see Healy as a political giant - quite the reverse. Many biographers come to love their subjects too much; Callanan emphatically does not. Healy goads his biographer to fury just as he did his political enemies who tried to reunite the parliamentary party after removing Parnell from it.

The result is a big book with a big hole at its centre. It is plain that for Callanan, the central event of Healy's life was the destruction of Parnell, a process he has already narrated at length in an earlier book. For nearly 200 pages he probes the split, often with only tangential reference to Healy himself. His view of Healy's life is insistently negative, a picture of political opportunism and legal nest-feathering. For all its wordy density, his writing is a kind of Oedipal shriek against the notion that Healy might be a father- figure of independent Ireland. The mildest epithet applied to Healy is "mischievously partisan". At the height of the split his conduct is showered with descriptions like "vicious", "repulsive", "poisonous", or words like "coarseness", "vileness", "malignity".

None of this goes far to explain what has puzzled so many people, from Parnell onwards - why did Healy fight his corner so violently? What was he fighting for? Callanan has no time for the idea that Healy might have been repelled by Parnell's adultery. Instead he hints darkly at Healy's "curious, if not flawed, sexual sensibility". And although he cites Healy's consistent denunciations of the later nationalist leadership, he just treats these as evidence of Healy's negative and fractious spirit. Healy's assaults on the centralisation of the party and the authoritarianism of its leadership are seen as anarchic, "destabilising the nationalist democracy". And Healy's espousal of agrarian Catholic values is dismissed as opportunism; since Healy himself was not of peasant stock, his populist language was no more than "clever mimesis". All in all, Healy was a brilliant rhetorician but a barren politician.

Yet this deeply negative evaluation does not quite square with Callanan's repeated stress on Healy's powerful input into the development of Irish nationalist attitudes. These increasingly exclusivist and even sectarian views may be regrettable (Callanan describes the Irish Catholic, a nakedly sectarian paper with which he strives to link Healy, as "a primer of illiberal and anti-modernist values") but they proved none the less substantial. If Healy's peculiar genius was, as Callanan says, to strike the definitive idiom of modern nationalism - for good or ill - he cannot have been merely barren. Indeed, Callanan describes his "rhetoric of blood and soil" as "darkly fecund". The charge that by coarsening nationalist rhetoric Healy damaged the growth of democracy in Ireland is certainly not a trivial one, and deserves fuller treatment. But here, as often, Callanan leaves the assertion hanging.

The charge of opportunism also seems an odd one to level at a man who never got any political plums. After three decades in the wilderness, the nearest Healy came to the top was his largely honorific appointment as the first Governor-General of the Irish Free State in 1922. By that time, the Irish parliamentary party had been wiped out by Sinn Fein in the general election of 1918. Healy was rare among old parliamentarians in embracing the new nationalist movement. Was this just trimming, as Callanan characteristically suggests, or was it a fulfilment of his aspirations for an "Irish Ireland"?

Healy certainly exulted in the political burial of his old enemy John Dillon, and was also sardonic about the dewy-eyed idealism of Sinn Fein. After a mysterious meeting with the then-obscure Michael Collins in 1918, he noted that the young rebel had "blithered of the gorgeous precedents of the Yugoslavs": his grasp of reality was "piteous". Yet there was real respect in Healy's view that by 1921 Sinn Fein had "won in three years what we did not win in 40". The implicit verdict on the justification of political violence may be uncomfortable, and Healy may not be an easy man to admire, but he probably does not deserve the opprobrium heaped on him here.