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The Tragedy of Parnell page 3


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Yet with these gains in politics came losses in the leader's physical strength - and this despite the magnificent efforts of the woman who loved him to preserve the frail body whose health meant life or death for the Irish cause. Mrs. O'Shea was nurse, secretary, political agent, mistress and wife to Parnell. She had risen greatly in response to a great love. But, looking at Parnell sometimes, she was afraid. There were times when only his eyes lived on, blazing with the fires of that indomitable spirit which had fretted the body into, premature decay. Yet always when the crisis came, the body found its reserves of nervous energy to meet and overcome.

So at Gal way in 1886. Parnell's party, voting with the Tories against Gladstone's Government, had caused a dissolution in 1885. Came a decisive moment, one of those that mark, as it were, the curtain-falls of this whole dramatic history, when, at a climax in the political struggle, there intervenes fate's medium of retribution; when human love and political ideal stand openly opposed.

Ever since the Kilmainham Treaty O'Shea had hated. Parnell. Ostensibly his hatred had to do with political services he thought were unrequited; he believed Parnell, instead of rewarding, was thwarting him in his effort to. obtain the Irish secretaryship. The motives of Captain O'Shea are dark; jealousy and political ambitions seem to be hopelessly confused in him. Parnell, for his part, at the beginning seems to have used O'Shea as he did all the Irish members - as a piece in the political game; he kept O'Shea's. allegiance with promises, and felt no obligations towards him. O'Shea was a pawn; but Parnell overlooked that this particular pawn was queened. Galway showed him his mistake.

At Galway Parnell was forced to support O'Shea when he-was well aware that by doing so he was harming the Irish cause, for O'Shea had refused to take the oath of allegiance to the Irish Party. In her memoir, Mrs. Parnell (Mrs. O'Shea) confesses she influenced her lover in his final decision to put up O'Shea for Galway. She thought only a seat in Parliament would keep her husband away from Eltham. It is probable there was some stronger reason than that for Parnell to take a course that shook the Irish faith in him and sent an anti-Home Ruler into the all-important Parliament of 1886. If the question was between broken and shaken faith, there could only be one answer.

Gladstone, returned to power in 1886, introduced the first Home Rule Bill. It would indeed have been dramatic had the measure failed to pass by the one vote of Captain O'Shea. Actually, it was defeated by 343 votes to 313. It was a reverse, but not a serious one. Failure was brought about by a split in the Liberal ranks, caused by two Liberal Unionists, Chamberlain and Bright. But when the Liberals returned to power there was every prospect of a second Home Rule Bill succeeding.

In the meantime the Tory Government under Lord Salisbury, no doubt realising the inevitability of Home Rule if the master tactician, Parnell, were to remain its champion, rallied its forces for a blow that would discredit and finally overthrow the enemy. And the resources of the Tory Government were many and various. There were more agents willing to work for it in the matter than the Government knew.

The Tory Government relied on The Times newspaper to rally against Parnell, it relied no doubt on an organisation called the Loyal and Patriotic Union; it may, for this particular purpose, not have been unaware of possible uses of the Irish Liberal member, Captain O'Shea; but what the Tory Government was not aware of, what it would certainly not have relied on, if it had been aware, was the strange figure who now comes shuffling on to the forefront of the scene. Shabby, podgy, shifty-eyed and mild-mannered, not clever enough for a villain, but weak enough to be anybody's tool - this was the pivot of an historical attack on Parnell's political integrity.

It is Richard Pigott, Dublin hack journalist and sometime newspaper proprietor, a sort of political parasite pullulating in the Ireland of those days, a man living on divided disloyalties, blowing hot and cold to order, playing -the tune his patron paid, lurking in political lobbies with licked finger, feeling for the wind. As Chief Secretary, Mr. Forster had known the letters of Pigott; Archbishop Walsh had had them; many prominent men in Irish public life had seen the signature "Richard Pigott."

But the fellow could not thrive; though for Pigott's breed times were good, Pigott's brains were bad. He lived in penniless squalor until 1885. In that year, casting a weather eye to the political horizon, he forecast a Tory storm blowing up against Parnell. So he engaged himself forthwith on a pamplet entitled "Parnellism Unmasked." It happened that just about this time a society had come into being which might have been formed expressly to appreciate a pamplet like that - "The Irish Loyal and Patriotic Union," consisting of loyal and patriotic Irish Unionists. The secretary, James Caulfield Houston, gave Pigott 60 towards publication of his monograph; then told the author he believed him to be the very man to procure documentary evidence "connecting the Parnellite movement with crime prevalent in the country." "Impossible!" cried Pigott. "A pound a day and all incidental expenses paid until you find the letters!" And "Done!" cried Pigott.

Off went the hack on a protracted tour - New York - Lausanne - Paris - happy as a sandboy, if not busy as a bee. The search went on for years, but at length letters were "discovered" alleged to have been written by Parnell, Egan, Secretary of the Land League, and others.

Houston took copies of these letters to the Pall Mall Gazette, which was not interested, then to Mr. Buckle, editor of The Times, who twice waved the bearer away - but added his paper might be interested in the originals. So Houston went to Paris where Pigott was then doing himself proud at the Hotel Saint-Petersburg. Questioned about the originals, Pigott hinted at a "black bag" and a band of men who guarded it night and day, men who would all require payment. Pigott was then told to visit Houston's hotel and bring the documents. This Pigott could not do without bringing the mystery squad along with him. While these "men" - whom no one ever saw - waited in the vestibule, Pigott went up and collected payment. He was given 105 for himself and 500 for the bag-bearers "below." Mr. John Cameron Macdonald, manager of the Times, paid Houston for these letters and some others 2,500. He never asked where they had come from. They were the very thing for a series of articles entitled "Parnellism and Crime."

So much for Pigott, Houston and The Times. The shell was packed and dispatched. It struck the front gates of "Wonersh Lodge" early on the morning of April 8th, 1887. A well-wisher had pasted the accusing newspaper sheet well and truly on the woodwork. It showed a letter about the Phoenix Park murders purporting to have been written by Parnell with the signature in facsimile.

"dear sir,

I am not surprised at your friend's anger, but he and you should know that to denounce the murders was the only course open to us. To do that promptly was plainly our best policy. But you can tell him and all others concerned that, though I regret the accident of Lord Cavendish's death, I cannot refuse to admit that Burke got no more than his deserts. You are at liberty to show him this, and others whom you can trust also, but let not my address be known. He can write to die House of Commons.

Yours very truly,

Charles S. Parnell."

At the breakfast table Mrs. O'Shea tried to keep The Times from Parnell, so he could eat his breakfast in peace; but he insisted on seeing his newspaper, because he wanted to do some assaying before he went to the House. Mrs. O'Shea gives an account of what followed.

"He read the whole thing, meditatively buttering and eating his toast the while. I supplied him with marmalade, and turned over the folded paper for him so that he could read more easily. He made no remark at all till he had finished breakfast, and carefully clipped the end off his cigar; then, with a smile, he tossed the paper at me, saying, Now for that assaying I didn't finish. Wouldn't you hide your head with shame if your king were so stupid as that, my queen? " He spent the morning at his crucibles, and was with difficulty persuaded to go up to the House of Commons. When he returned that evening he spent his time weighing the infinitesimal specks of his morning's extraction of gold with the utmost accuracy."

This account of the Irish chieftain's toughness does not quite tally with another in which Parnell appears even more magnificently true to legend. Barry O'Brien says in his book on Parnell:

"In the evening Parnell strolled leisurely down to the House of Commons. 'Have you seen The Times?' asked Mr. Harrington. 'No,' said the Chief, who rarely read any newspaper unless his attention was specially drawn to it. Then Mr. Harrington told him the news. 'Ah,' said Parnell, 'let me see it.' And they went to the library. 'Parnell,' says Mr. Harrington, 'put the paper before him on the table, and read the letter carefully. I thought he would burst into some indignant exclamation, say, 'What damned scoundrels! What a vile forgery!' But not a bit of it. He put his finger on the S of the signature and said quite calmly, as if it were a matter of the utmost indifference, 'I did not make an S like that since 1878.' 'My God,' I thought.' If this is the way he is going to deal with the letter in the House, there is not an Englishman who will not believe that, he wrote it.'"

Both accounts could not have been true. Perhaps Parnell was unable to resist the double effect - one at home and one abroad.

Parnell, naturally, repudiated authorship of the letter before the House ("I cannot understand how the managers of a responsible and what used to be a respectable journal could have been so hoodwinked, so hoaxed, so bamboozled - and that is the most charitable interpretation which I can place on it...."); he would have let the matter rest at that. But his followers demanded that The Times should be made to swallow its allegations publicly, in a court of law. The Government accordingly appointed a Special Commission to investigate all the charges made by The Times against Parnell and the Land League.

Once more the shadow of Parnell's pursuing nemesis falls across his path. The inquiry, as no one could have known better than himself, should have been held in the interest of the Irish cause. So why did Parnell wish to dispense with it? Was it because he believed O'Shea had forged the letter and an inquiry would reveal the seven years long liaison with O'Shea's wife?

We catch a glimpse of Parnell at this time, hounded by his guilt far out into a London suburb, bound for an obscure public-house whose proprietress might confirm or dispel his suspicions; finding the woman is out, waiting in a near-by tobacconist's shop ten hours for her return; breaking through her prevarications, pumping her with desperate patience.

O'Shea did not forge the letters, but he must have known of the intended attack on Parnell's reputation as early as 1885, when Houston was negotiating with Pigott in Dublin. It was in that year, when Parnell was showing reluctance to support the captain's candidature for a Liverpool constituency, that O'Shea wrote to his wife: "All I know is that I am not going to lie in the ditch. I have been treated in blackguard fashion and I mean to hit back a stunner. I have everything ready; no drugs could make me sleep last night, and I packed my shell with dynamite.... it will send a blackguard's reputation with his deluded countrymen into smithereens... he won't be of 'high importance' soon."

What exactly O'Shea had in mind is again - mystery. It might have been the Pigott forgeries or it might have been the more deadly divorce suit.

One thing is certain at all events - though O'Shea did not write the forged letters himself, he was one of The Times principal witnesses at the inquiry and there, for the first and only time publicly confronting his enemy, he impugned Parnell's political integrity.

As O'Shea stepped into the witness-box those in court - and there were many of them - who suspected a domestic drama behind the public one - turned to where Parnell was sitting, pale, composed. Both counsel had to be wary with the witness. Both knew about that "shell packed with dynamite," and neither wished it to go off - the one because it might damage The Times case if it were seen that O'Shea had personal animus against Parnell, the other for reasons still more obvious. The tenseness in the court atmosphere was increased by the nervousness of O'Shea and the emanation of cold hatred that came from Parnell. By now there was enough pent-up feeling between those two to shatter a far wider issue than that between The Times newspaper and the Irish Land League.

But the final curtain was not to fall here. The tragedy was better conceived - one more step for the hero to rise would be one step further for him to fall. When O'Shea was asked if he believed the Parnell letters to be genuine, he replied in a low, nervous voice, fingers twitching on the box-rails: "If these letters came to me, I should say they were written by Mr. Parnell. I could not say further."

Neither counsel pressed him further, and the matter rested there so far as that witness was concerned. He had struck his blow, though it had been a faltering one. No doubt he thought his enemy was already tottering to his fall.

The defence knew better. It had Pigott up its sleeve - fate's tragi-joker. And a comic picture Pigott made as he came shambling into the box. Perspiring, garrulous, ingratiating, the podgy lump of a man was like a sack of half-sodden flour, spilling sagging as counsel prodded.

The court roared with laughter at some of witness's answers; even the judges cracked their sides. It was like some abject sneak of a schoolboy being ragged. Pigott was confronted with various begging and semi-blackmailing letters. One of them was addressed to Archbishop Walsh. "My memory is blank as to this letter!" Pigott cried desperately. "The thing has completely faded out of my mind."

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