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The Tragedy of Parnell page 2


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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:

"Sir, - Will you please be so kind as to be at Lille, or any other town in the north of France which may suit your convenience, on Saturday morning, 16th instant. Please let me know by i p.m. to-day, so that I may be able to inform you as to the sign of the inn at which I shall stay. I want your answer, in order to lose no time in arranging for a friend to accompany me."

Parnell never received this letter, but he was worried about his portmanteau; for the captain, with a kind of furious humour, to expedite his rival towards the field of honour, had taken the portmanteau to the continental departure platform at Charing Cross. Apparently Mrs. O'Shea had told Parnell of this, for he wrote to her: "My dear Mrs. O'Shea, will you kindly ask Captain O'Shea where he left my luggage? I inquired at both parcel office, cloak-room and this hotel at Charing Cross to-day, and they were not to be found."

The duel was never fought - a Mrs. Steele, sister-in-law of Captain O'Shea, intervened and patched up the quarrel. But, before that, Parnell, according to Mrs. O'Shea's memoir, "while making arrangements to go abroad to meet Willie (Captain O'Shea), explained to him that he (Parnell) must have a medium of communication between the Government and himself, that Mrs. O'Shea had kindly undertaken the office for him, and, as this would render negotiations possible and safe, he trusted that Willie would make no objection to his meeting her after the duel."

The duel was off, but the conflict, dramatically speaking, was "on." Parnell's words to Mrs. O'Shea, just before the challenge, summarise the position - "For good or ill I am your husband, your lover, your children, your all. And I will give my life for Ireland, but to you I give my love, whether it be your heaven or your hell. It is destiny. When I first looked into your eyes I knew."

If, instead of theatrically making arrangements for a duel and then calling it off, the two men had soberly decided on a divorce, and gone through with it, thirty years of bloodshed and unrest might have been spared Ireland. For now the deadly deception began, all the intrigue and subterfuge, that was to recoil on the participants, stimulating a great love, but sapping the nobility from a great leader, strangling the vitality of a great cause.

Yet, come what might, the tapestry room at "The Lodge," Eltham, haunted Mrs. O'Shea no more with whispered warnings of loveless inactivity. She had her lover and her leader of men. She fought now by Parnell's side, looked after him as that lonely man had never been looked after. Not only domestically: whenever he made a big speech in the House, Mrs. O'Shea was in the Ladies' Gallery; he could not see her there, but as a sign he intuited her presence he would touch the rose in his button-hole - her rose.

Mrs. O'Shea's part went further. Though she had been ignorant about politics before, now she knew all the participants in the political game and all the moves. She was Parnell's intermediary with the Government, especially with Gladstone. She must have covered many miles with the liberal leader, communicating her "King's" instructions as Gladstone walked her up and down his study floor.

In October, 1881, Parnell was imprisoned in Kilmainham jail for activities in connection with the Irish Land League, an organisation formed to protest against arbitrary eviction of tenants by the landlords. Outrages had become so frequent and "Captain Moonlight," the pen-name of tenants' retributive justice, so active that Mr. Forster, Irish Chief Secretary, had persuaded the Government to suspend Habeas Corpus in Ireland. This meant Coercion: arrest on suspicion, imprisonment without trial. Parnell was one of the victims. And though Parnell, the Irish leader, went willingly into confinement - the Government's action would only rally the Irish against it - Parnell, the lover, went full of anxiety; for Mrs. O'Shea was bearing him his first child.

All the time Parnell was in Kilmainham he communicated with his mistress, writing between the lines of his letters with invisible ink, constantly reassuring her; and in the same way she was able to tell him about her state of health. Mrs. O'Shea was, naturally, upset - unnaturally so, as well, because she and her legal husband had resumed an intimate relationship.

"Willie" (Mrs. O'Shea writes of this time) became solicitous for my health, and wished to come to Eltham more frequently than I would allow. He thought February (the month the child was expected) would seal our reconciliation, whereas I knew it would cement the cold hatred I felt towards him, and consummate the love I bore my child's father."

Her hatred for O'Shea was one of the first fruits of the deception. O'Shea's hatred for Parnell was another, later, and far more deadly fruit.

But O'Shea - whose suspicions about his wife's guilt, must, according to her own terrible testimony, really have been allayed at this period - was endeavouring all the time to get Parnell out of prison.

Shortly before O'Shea's attempts succeeded, Parnell was allowed out of Kilmainham on parole to visit his sister whose son had died. Afterwards he slipped off to Eltham. to see his mistress and her dying child. Captain O'Shea was there. All night, while Mrs. O'Shea watched over the baby, father and husband sat downstairs, working out terms of Government treaty to free Parnell from Kilmainham. With dawn, Parnell stole in to wish mother and child good-bye. The baby died as he bent over them.

Parnell was released soon afterwards. By the terms of the "Treaty of Kilmainham" the Government promised to release Parnell and withdraw Coercion if he, on his side, exerted his influence in putting a stop to outrage. There was an implication that if all went well the Government would put through an Arrears Bill to ease the plight of those tenants who had become so debt-ridden over lean harvest years that they faced certain eviction.

So on his release from Kilmainham in April, 1882, Parnell could feel satisfied with the way things were going for Ireland. The conditions of the treaty had forced his old enemy, Forster, to resign; they brought Gladstone on to his side; Coercion was to be withdrawn and an Arrears Bill passed; there were good prospects, also, of winning Gladstone's liberals over to Home Rule. The only threat to Parnell's position came from certain Irish extremists who thought the leader's terms at Kilmainham showed connivance with the British Government.

Then came the unexpected blow. On May 7th, 1882 - a Sunday morning - Parnell and Mrs. O'Shea drove from Eltham to Blackheath station. Parnell had to catch a train to London, where he was to meet an Irish colleague, Michael Davitt. At the station Mrs. O'Shea asked Parnell to buy her a paper. She describes what followed:

"From where I sat in the carriage I could see Parnell's back as he stood just inside the station door. I was watching him, and he half turned and smiled at me as he opened the paper - the Sunday Observer - to glance at the news before he brought it to me. He told me afterwards that he wanted to see what was said about Michael Davitt. He had now come to the top of the steps, and, as he suddenly stopped, I noticed a curious rigidity about his arms - raised in holding the newspaper open. He stood so absolutely still that I was suddenly frightened, horribly, sickeningly afraid of I knew not what, and, leaning forward, called out, 'King, what is it?' Then he came down the steps to me and, pointing to the headline, said, 'Look!' And I read, 'Murder of Lord Frederick Cavendish and Mr. Burke!'... His face was ashen, and he stared, frowning heavily before him, unconsciously crushing the hand I had slipped into his until the rings I wore cut and bruised my fingers. I said to him, 'Quick! You must catch this train. See Davitt and the others ns arranged, and as many more as you can find. Go. You will know what to do, but you must meet them all at once.' He turned heavily away, saying, 'I shall resign.' And I answered as I ran beside him to the platform, 'No, you are not a coward.'"

This double murder, brutal, hideous, was carried out by a band of ruffianly Irish extremists calling themselves "The Invincibles." Lord Frederick Cavendish, the new Chief Secretary replacing Forster, was a stranger to Ireland, had just arrived there. Burke was the Permanent Under Secretary. As the two men were walking home arm-in-arm through Phoenix Park, Dublin, they saw a squad of men advancing towards them. The two Englishmen came on unsuspecting; it was a public way, traffic was passing, there were pedestrians about. A horse bus went by as murderers and victims met and for one moment delayed the double murder. Then came a sudden attack from behind. A man called Brady seized hold of Burke's shoulder and stabbed him. When Lord Cavendish slashed out at the assassin with his umbrella, Brady rushed at him and knifed him to death, then, crossing the road, unhurriedly cut Burke's throat as he lay bleeding in the gutter. Two cyclists went past at that very moment, picking their way through pot-holes in the road, and with preoccupation and the falling light pedalled by unnoticing. A number of other people was well within sight and earshot at the time, but burghers were so used, apparently, to horseplay in Dublin streets that these spectators took no particular notice of the slaughter. The murderers drove quietly away. They were not arrested until nearly a year afterwards.

Those who saw Parnell immediately after the murders saw him for the first time without that famous poise of self-assurance. At last he was an ordinary human in a state of desperate agitation. There was good cause. Had he not, only a few days before, promised under the Kilmainham Treaty to help suppress outrage in Ireland? The enemies of Home Rule would scarcely refuse seizing Brady's bloodstained weapon to drive hard back at Irish liberties - those Parnell had so hardly won. They did not refuse. No time was lost in passing a Crimes Bill for Ireland. A drastically mutilated Arrears Bill was poor compensation.

Parnell made little more than a formal opposition to the Crimes Bill. It was difficult to raise impassioned protest against a measure the Irish had so wantonly brought on themselves. But the Irish leader waited his opportunity. In the confusion of a general moral uproar his enemies in the House might be tempted into vulnerable positions.

Parnell's opportunity came when Mr. Forster, still smarting from Parnell's triumph over the Kilmainham terms, delivered a violent and abusive speech about the Irish outrages, in which he directly accused Parnell of connivance in the murders.

The House waited for Parnell to spring up and defend himself. Instead, Parnell remained in his seat, pale, distant. The only sign that he had heard at all had been a smile now and again. But what the smile meant no one knew - except that it was nothing kindly.

What Parnell knew was that silence and Mr. Forster together would form the perfect answer to those of his own people - whose opinion alone counted with him - who accused him after Kilmainham of knuckling under to the British Government. However, to gratify the pride of his party followers Parnell did finally condescend to make an answer - of a sort. But no excuses, no apologies, no defence, even. Before a full house and a brilliant gathering, that included the Prince of Wales, Parnell rose. In chilling, scornful accents he began:

"I can assure the House that it is not my belief that anything I can say at this time will have the slightest effect on the public opinion of this House, or upon the public opinion of the country."

(A pause); then, raising his head proudly, looking defiantly around, and speaking with marked emphasis:

"I have been accustomed during my political life to rely upon the public opinion of those whom I have desired to help, and with whose aid I have worked for the cause of prosperity and freedom in Ireland, and the utmost I desire to do in the very few words I shall address to the House is to make my position clear to the Irish people at home and abroad."

After that not the most rabid Irish extremist could call Parnell a Government sycophant.

That same year came proof of the Irish people's faith in their leader. When it became known that he was in financial difficulties and a mortgage had been called in on Avondale, a public subscription in a few months raised close on 40,000 for Parnell. The Chief received the donation in a way typical of him. When, at the head of a deputation, the Lord Mayor of Dublin came into the hotel where Parnell was staying and, preparatory to handing over the Tribute, started on the customary speech, Parnell stepped forward, stopped him and said, "I think you have something for me." The mayor, startled, presented the cheque. Parnell took it, folded it carefully before putting it in his pocket, and went out. Afterwards, at the banquet held to mark the occasion, Parnell, in his speech, made no reference to the Tribute. The subscribers took no offence: it was not their way, but it was a way that told with the English.

1883 - 1884 - 1885 - years on the political chessboard that held moves and counter-moves, checks and counterchecks, gambits offered, gambits declined. But all the time the decisive moment was approaching, the crisis on which depended the fate of the Irish people. If, during these years, Parnell could show no startling gain, no major concession to the Irish tenants, an intelligent onlooker could have said the initiative was Parnell's, the game was Parnell's - barring an unforeseen disaster. " I have a Parliament for Ireland in the palm of my hand " - it was true, had not fate had the answer to that up its sleeve.

Parnell's party had become a major force in English domestic politics. There was no need now to resort to obstruction. The Home Rule question was so vital that Liberals and Tories fought for the Irish leader's invigorating handshake. By shifting a quite factitious allegiance Parnell could turn the Government topsy turvy.

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