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The Tragedy of Parnell


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A raw February day, 1886, in the town of Galway, Western Ireland. From where they sit at an hotel window Joe Biggar, M.P. for Cavan, and Timothy Healy, politician and barrister-at-law, could have heard the Atlantic rollers rumbling outside the bay, echoing the age-long unrest of the Irish people. But the politicians are occupied with the human storm brewing immediately under their window.

The people of Galway, wrapped against the wind, flock through the quaint old street, converge on the railway station. One of the watchers - squat, gross-looking, a little orge of a man, suddenly flings up the window, bawls down into the street, "O'Shea - damned whig - won't sit for Galway - damned nonsense - sold wife - will sell you too - damned rogue!"

A flood of dark, scowling faces surges by; murmurs of discontent breaks into threats, imprecations, coarse allusions to "Kitty" O'Shca.

The member for Cavan sits down again to his enormous breakfast.

"What shall we do with Mr. Parnell?" His companion asks.

Joe Biggar bangs his knife handle on the table: "Mob him, Sir - mob him!"

The shout is taken up outside: "Mob him! Mob him!"

The train from Dublin draws into the station among the kind of crowd not many men would have cared to step out into. The electorate is silent, sullen. Biggar's bawled command still rings in wind-nipped ears - "Mob him!" Mob Parnell, the "Chief," their Uncrowned King, the Young Deliverer, long awaited by a landlord-ridden peasantry, who had come so unexpectedly, succeeded so suddenly. The man who had roused the English parliament from complacent indifference to angry notice, who had promised them a parliament of their own, who had united the Irish, founded the Land League, who had rallied them, led them. Who had clone all this, only to betray them now with the Home Rule flag so nearly planted on the English citadel. Parnell's adultery the Irish could have forgiven him, but arbitrarily to force upon them as their representative the woman's husband - a man who would not even take the Party oath - a damned conniving "whig" - that the electors of Galway could not forgive.

The train screeched to a standstill. All passengers but one were invisible, for that one had the power, always, wherever he was, of turning every eye to himself. Parnell. He was out on the platform. The well-known figure, tall, frail, the pale, bearded face. Parnell - frigid, impersonal, contemptuous almost, so dominating he seemed to be raised on a platform, so detached he might have been floating on a cloud. Not one of them; therefore one they had followed.

The crowd had come prepared to mob Parnell. But now, even as it surged forward with upraised sticks, suddenly vociferous, that aloof, scornful figure that had held every revengeful eye became immune from every angry hand.

Someone struck O'Connor, their resigning member, who had betrayed them into the power of Mrs. O'Shea. But the mobbing went no further. One long stride brought Parnell between his subordinate and the electors of Galway. Taking O'Connor by the arm, Parnell led him away unscathed.

But Parnell has not done with the crowd. He faces them again that day at a hastily convened meeting. Hcaly is at his side, won over by one fierce phrase, "I would not resign my position if the people of Galway were to kick me through the streets to-day." Two more phrases and one gesture won over the electorate. Masking high nervous tension with an appearance of self-confidence that seems almost nonchalant at first, Parnell stretches out his left arm towards his hearers and "Here," he says in his cold, tense voice, without enthusiasm, with calm conviction, "I have a parliament for Ireland in the palm of my hand." A pause. Then, with a sudden movement that makes the crowd catch its breath, down comes the right hand hard on the outstretched palm, "Destroy me and you take away that parliament." That was all, but it was adequate. There was no applause, but Galway's verdict was: "We will accept O'Shea rather than it should be said we arc disloyal to Parnell."

Parnell had still many triumphs before him, yet it was at this Galway election, calmly, almost insolently carried by him, that the sinister shadow pursuing the leader was first publicly seen. It was there at Galway, to the distant booming of Atlantic breakers, that the curtain went up before the world on one of the great tragedies of Irish history.

The drama had begun six years before when the circumstances of their separate lives, or, as some might see it, the hand of fate, brought together in a corridor of the House of Commons the leader of the Irish people and the wife of Captain O'Shea. It was love at first sight, and a love that was to make - and mar - history. A look at the two lives on the eve of this encounter helps explain the momentum that brought them together, was to drive them on for eleven years, against the hatred of one man and the intrigues of many political parties.

The winter evenings in 1879 must have seemed long to Mrs. O'Shea, sitting alone night after night in the huge tapestry room of her aunt's house at Eltham. She is thirty-three. A beautiful woman, though the nose is too irregular and the mouth too large for conventional standards. But the general effect is striking - rich masses of dark hair fringed over a broad, clear forehead, a humorous mouth, a finely rounded, strong chin. A face expressive of warmth, tenderness, courage. The tapestry room of her aunt's manor house is both appropriate and incongruous, alternately soothes and frightens her: parents and ancestors of hers have lived out leisurely lives in just such quiet and spacious houses; but she is young, vital, eager to live forwards. "The Lodge" is of the past, a perfect period piece, like her ancient Aunt Ben, who owns it.

During those winter evenings, sitting by the fire, the old aunt and the two young children in bed, Mrs. O'Shea was assailed more and more strongly by a feeling of unfulfilment. She would not live in the past with her aunt; and she would not live - as yet - -in the future with her children. From her husband she was virtually separated, he was only a rare visitor now. Looking back at their life together, she feels she married without mating, propagated without consummating. The separation had made no difference really; he had always been "Boysie," she had been "Dick." They had been friends merely, and their life, at best, only half living - through the early married months in Madrid, through the debt-ridden days in the Harrow Road, years spent drifting along a sluggish stream of social trivialities, or struggling against all the maddening obstacles of poverty - twelve years of it, until she had been thrown up on to this early nineteenth century promontory, the companion of a courtly ghost of a hundred years ago.

Came the hooting of the owls perched on old Mrs. Ben's window-sill, the groaning of the ancient avenue elms, whispering of the faded tapestries, the faint, random harmonics of an Aeolian harp....

Mrs. O'Shea, like the Lady of Shalott, was "half sick of shadows."

To Parnell, fighting for Ireland in the House of Commons, those same winter evenings were anything but long. Night after night, for hours on end, the leader of the Irish Nationalists battled against the Government and the English parties, a handful of Irishmen holding up the business of the House, obstructing the passage of Government Bills; Joe Biggar, Parnell's right-hand man, instigator of the tactics of obstruction, spilling out incoherent sentences; when inspiration failed, reading out of blue books, Acts of Parliament, back numbers of The Times - whatever was handy, no matter what, so long as he kept on his feet and remained articulate.

But the struggle had been a wearing one for Parnell. It had meant fighting the courteous Butt, that great patriot who had formulated the Home Rule programme, who had made it theoretically possible for the Irish Separatists (the Fenians), the Roman Catholics and the Constitutionalists to unite under the one flag; it had meant marathon sittings in the House, at times for more than 24 hours consecutively. Besides this, there had been the constant visits to Ireland, and one exhausting tour of the United States and Canada to collect funds for the Irish Land League.

One can imagine Parnell about this time, sinking into a chair in the Commons smoking-room, wondering wearily in a brief interval - after all, had it been worth while - he, an Anglo-Irish land-owner, taking up the cause of that feckless peasantry? Why? Perhaps because he had always been a good hater, a fighter.

Impressions from the past chase through the tired brain. Avondale, thirty years ago. Parnell's endless games of soldiers with his sister, Fanny, endless until the small boy, unable to force victory otherwise, crept secretly on to the battlefield and glued his troops to the ground.... Fights with his brother; anguished arguments with his teachers - once when he had asserted against the combined authority of Greek master and Greek lexicon that his translation was right, whatever anyone said, Parnell, captain of a local cricket team, wrangling with an opposing captain at an away match, dogged, leading a disappointed team home without a ball bowled.... Parnell in his 'teens, master of Avondale and the family, forbidding his sister's marriage.... Cambridge - throwing five aggressively tipsy undergraduates out of his room, knocking a tradesman into the gutter, being sent down.... His mother's house, Upper Temple Street, Dublin, hiding on the landing there, pouncing on the cadging Irish separatists who came to see his mother, kicking them downstairs....

A series of petty self-assertions, petty fights - then, after he had settled in Avondale, the typical Anglo-Irish squire, four words from the American girl who had jilted him, "only an Irish land-owner" and the execution of three separatists for alleged murder of a Manchester policeman, and Parnell had found himself saying in answer to some half-frivolous suggestions about his standing for Parliament - "I will."

It seemed to Parnell that that decision had come from a higher will than his, and the fighter in him was satisfied. But absorption in politics had led to isolation from society. Parnell's magic lay in his aloofness; it was politic for him, lonely by nature, to spread the impression of superhuman detachment. He could do without friends; he could not do without a mate. During the seven years of political strife his highly-sexed nature had subterraneously been preparing for eleven years of passionate love.

This side of Parnell - the sexual side - had twice before given him foretaste of the bitterness to come. At Cambridge, Parnell had had a brief, passionate affair with a dairymaid. Shortly afterwards her body was found floating in the Cam. Some years later, a beautiful American, Miss Woods, threw him over for the dream of a "public man."

One day in the midsummer of 1880 a note was handed to Parnell in the House of Commons. The signature was unknown to him - "Katharine O'Shea," but Captain O'Shea, member for County Clare, was presumably the husband.

He went out into the corridor.

"Why do you not come to my dinners, Mr Parnell?"

Little flecks of fire lighted the depths of Parnell's eyes as he looked down, calm, courteous, otherwise impassive.

"Because I don't recall having an invitation."

She told him she had written him several times.

"Then it is because I never read letters, only telegrams."

The words between them were like dead leaves whirled in a wind. Needless for them to make arrangements for a dinner party on his return from a pressing Paris trip. Both knew it was not a matter of seeing, but of being. The consequences were automatically accepted.

As Parnell conducted Mrs. O'Shea into her cab a rose fell out of her bodice on to her lap. Parnell pressed it to his lips, put it into his button-hole. Years afterwards, going through his most intimate papers, she found that same rose, carefully preserved.

Back from Paris, Parnell dined with the O'Sheas. The company afterwards went to the Gaiety Theatre. Parnell and Mrs. O'Shea whispered together in a secluded corner of the box. He told her of the broken romance with Miss Woods....

After that evening the two were only separated for any length of time when Parnell's business took him to France or Ireland and once - to Kilmainham jail. Long cab drives into the country, afternoons on the river, visits by Parnell to "Wonersh Lodge," Eltham, old Mrs. Ben's gift to her niece, meetings in the House - they were together everywhere. Parnell did make some theatrically elaborate attempts at concealment - dismissed his cab, when bound for Eltham, walked a stage, then took another; cut off his beard (to Mrs. O'Shea's disgust), invented signals and secret codes. But all this sort of thing was childishly ineffective. In any case, it was more than offset by bursts of daring and unforeseen encounters: once Parnell spent an entire fortnight in Mrs. O'Shea's dressing-room at "Wonersh Lodge," shut away from the servants, who marvelled at the increase in their mistress's appetite; another time, with Mrs. O'Shea on his arm, he strode right into the midst of his own party members, foregathered at a hotel - Parnell made no sign of recognition and asked for a private room.

Most people at all closely connected with either of the lovers began to suspect, and one wonders at this stage about the qualities and conditions of Captain O'Shea, who was hoodwinked for nine years. One of his qualities may have been jealousy as a gentlemanly duty; one of the conditions of this curious triangle - that it was warped on both sides by political expediency.

O'Shea came of a good Irish family. He was a Roman Catholic. His education had been continental, mainly in France. At bottom he was very Irish - impulsive, generous, unstable; only his manners were French. Smart, handsome, debonair - as Katharine Wood noticed when he first visited her father's Essex rectory; also, as she noticed afterwards, possessive, feckless, vindictive. He had sold his commission and bought a partnership in his uncle's Madrid bank; quarrelled and resigned; promoted a Spanish mining company, come to grief and tried politics. He was gifted in many ways - sociable, gallant, gay, capable and always almost successful. He was Parnell's opposite.

O'Shea's interest in his wife was at this time merely proprietary, for he seldom saw her. They had drifted so far apart that he heralded his visits to Eltham with a letter. A convention between them that led as near a discovery of his wife's liaison as it is possible to go. One day in January, 1881, O'Shea went down to "Wonersh Lodge" unexpectedly. He did not find Parnell there, but he found Parnell's portmanteau. O'Shea immediately wrote to Parnell:

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