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The Tragedy of Parnell page 4

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Counsel (dryly) "I've no doubt about that - but try, try, try."

Witness: "It's no use - I can't give any explanation of what is meant by this."

Counsel: "Turn your face to my lords and say that." And so it went on all day until "amid a burst of laughter, loud and prolonged, in which the judges joined as they left the bench," the court adjourned on Pigott's explanation of one more incident. "I had something far more serious on my mind," he cried plaintively, "at the moment than this letter, but I have utterly forgotten what it was. It is not hermetically sealed up, because it's gone away out of my bosom."

The next day Pigott was hopelessly caught over the forged Parnell letters. It happened that in one the word "hesitancy" was spelt "hesitency." Pigott was asked to write down this word together with some others wrongly spelt in various letters. He made the same mistakes. Checkmate for Pigott.

Some of those in court as they looked at the wretched creature, sweating and writhing there in the box, believed he would kill himself straightaway, before the rotten accumulation of a sycophant's lifework was emptied out in a criminal court. They were wrong. Delay in issuing a warrant for his arrest allowed Pigott to escape to Spain, where he spent a few nightmare weeks until the police tracked him to a Madrid hotel. Before they could arrest him, the discredited creature shot himself - fortunately for many who would have been discredited at his trial.

After the inquiry had closed with the vindication of Parnell and the Land League and the humiliation of The Times and the Tories, members of Parliament did an odd thing. When Parnell next got up in the House to make a speech, members rose en bloc as a sign of tribute. Parnell stood unmoved, muttering testily to those beside him: "Why do you fellows stand up. It almost frightened me." Respect in that place was meaningless to him.

However, Parnell received a more concrete tribute than the gesture of a Government that had so insidiously tried to trip him. The Times's ludicrous alliance - "Dick" Pigott on one arm, the Tory Government on the other - cost it £5,000 damages to Parnell.

So Parnell stands before the disaster. His distant exploit of heaving five riotous undergraduates out of his room at Cambridge seems to epitomize what he had now achieved in the struggle for Home Rule. During the twelve years of his political life he had thrown out his predecessor in leadership, Isaac Butt; he had thrown out the instigator of Coercion, Forster; he had thrown out, first an unfriendly Liberal, then a treacherous Tory Government; he had thrown out The Times.

Politically, Parnell stood firm; physically, he was tottering. Rheumatism was creeping through his joints, crippling him; Bright's disease was stooping and enfeebling him. His appearance was beginning to change: immaculately dressed before, now he was almost shabby; his beard grew more wildly; sometimes there was a distraught look in his eyes. There was always a revolver in his pocket and a small black bag in his hand - the one against threats of assassins, the other, with its prosaic load of dry socks, against inclemencies of the weather.

On Christmas Eve, 1899, Captain O'Shea filed a petition of divorce on the grounds of his wife's adultery with Parnell. The blow had been withheld a long time and it came when Parnell was least prepared to meet it; it came when he was physically, nervously debilitated, when he was bracing together all his strength for the last affray that was to bring Ireland Home Rule; it came when his prestige was at its height, when a fall, however slight-seeming, would be far more difficult to make up than a slip made lower down the ascent; it came when there were men in Parnell's own party who believed they could push the rest of the way without their leader; and it came when the ranks of Gladstone's Home Rulers were daily swelling - with nonconformists.

As usual, Parnell took the blow lightly - or seemed to. He assured publicists and politicians, or rather, he gave them to understand - for his pronouncements were ambiguous - that he would defend the action and was certain to do so successfully. Gladstone himself, who as the leader of the Home Rule movement in England was naturally anxious about the outcome, understood that Parnell would emerge as successfully from this affair as he had done from the Pigott forgeries. But Parnell may only have meant he was certain of dissipating any political capital his enemies might make out of a successful action against him.

In fact, the end of the drama is fogged with rumours, contradictory stories, ambiguous communications, hidden motives, lost letters. The plot peters out in politics as the end unfolds that was wrapped in the beginning.

The defence was at first a simple denial. Then Parnell and Mrs. O'Shea put in a counter-charge. They alleged that Captain O'Shea had conduced to, connived at and condoned the offence, and that he had been guilty of the same offence with Mrs. O'Shea's sister, Mrs. Steele. The first counter charge was based only on conjecture; the second had no foundation whatever, and it can only have been made to intimidate O'Shea into abandoning his suit. Later on the counter-charges were withdrawn and to everyone's surprise the suit went through undefended. Parnell was not present; he was down at Brighton with Mrs. O'Shea, vilifying the English and telling her there would be "a howl, but it would be a howl of hypocrites."

After a puzzled lull the full fury of political passion unleashed itself. Gladstone either had been or said he had been deceived by Parnell. And whether he had been deceived or not, he took good hold of the weapon that had come to his hand. For nine years he had known Mrs. O'Shea was Parnell's mistress, but now the eleventh commandment - "thou shalt not be found out" - had been broken, the seventh could profitably be upheld. The nonconformists in his party would not suffer Home Rule for an adulterer.

So Gladstone made the first move. He wrote a letter to Parnell and the Irish Nationalists in which he pointed out he could not keep his party united behind the Home Rule demand if Parnell retained the Irish leadership. If Parnell did not resign, then he must himself resign. Gladstone gave the letter to his henchman, John Morley, to convey to Parnell and the Irish. Somehow the letter was lost. The devious ways of this kind of communication contained many stages - from John Morley the letter would go to Parnell's emissary, Mrs. O'Shea, thence to Parnell himself, and then on to the Party members. At some stage or other the letter was held up. The result, if it was immediately favourable to Parnell, was ultimately disastrous both to him and his party. For the Irish Nationalists, unaware of the ultimatum, re-elected Parnell. Gladstone's answer was swift - he gave the letter to the newspapers, before the Irish Nationalists knew anything about it. If the nonconformist conscience had stirred uneasily at news of Parnell's divorce, Gladstone's letter brought it wide awake.

Parnell was defiant: he would not resign He had been re-elected; his election must stand. With his back to the wall, fighting a hopeless cause - because it was no longer Ireland's cause - Parnell showed one last flash of tactical genius. He countered Gladstone's published manifesto with one of his own in which he detailed the differences, between Gladstone's Home Rule proposals (made to Parnell privately) and the Irish demand. In this way Parnell tried to shift the issue before his own party from the validity of his re-election to the inexpediency of an alliance with the Gladstone Liberals. Before publishing his manifesto he read it out at a party meeting. The move failed, and Justin Macarthy led a body of dissentients from the room. The split in the Irish Party was complete, and the fight began.

The battleground was Committee Room number 15 of the House of Commons. It no longer exists. Parnell's memory would have been better served if the proceedings he presided over there had vanished with it. Here, for the first time in his political career, Parnell's poise lapsed into a pose, and the deliverer became the dictator. Before, he had led a great cause; now he was trying to drag it in the fetters of his personal misfortune. The very qualities that reared him so high - the fighting spirit of the man, the will and the superb contempt - militating now against the cause they had advanced so well, brought Parnell himself into the range of other people's wills and other people's contempt. In Committee Room 15 Parnell's mystery and magic, the telling silence, the aloof manner and scornful look, degenerated into garrulity, pettiness, abuse. Gladstone he called "that grand old spider," Healy "that cowardly little scoundrel in the corner," and another Nationalist, Dr. Tanner, was "a gutter sparrow."

The end was near; the ground was being cut away from under Parnell’s feet. But the two Parnells, lover and fighter, separate and free at last, had never asserted themselves so vigorously as now, when the sun of Parnell's greatness was setting. He told Mrs. O'Shea at this time, "We know nothing of how or why, but only that we love one another, and that through all the ages is the one fact that cannot be forgotten nor put aside by us." And to a reporter's question at Euston Station as Parnell was entraining for Ireland: "Tell them (the Irish people) that I will fight to the end."

And so Parnell did. He rushed to North Kilkenny, where there was a parliamentary vacancy. They were putting up one of the seceders from his party. Parnell put up his own man and supported him with all his strength. Of no avail. The Fenians were for him; but Healy had risen up strong against him; and Parnell had not reckoned on the power of the Roman Catholic Church. The priest's ban overcame the people's sympathy.

Just before the end Dubliners witnessed a last tableau, triumphant, yet tragic. It was staged before the offices of a newspaper, United Ireland, which had formerly supported Parnell. His enemies had stormed and captured the premises. Parnell came sweeping up at the head of his men. Snatching an iron crowbar, the leader, wild-eyed, dishevelled, a raging wraith of the impassive parliamentarian, leapt on to a step before the front door, and, swinging the heavy crowbar, smashed against the lock till it yielded. A moment afterwards the populace saw him at an upper window. An onlooker's description is worth quoting: "His face was ghastly pale, save only that on either cheek a hectic crimson spot was showing. His hat was off now, his hair dishevelled, the dust of the conflict begrimed his well-brushed coat. The people were spellbound, almost terrified, as they gazed on him. For myself, I felt a thrill of dread, as if I looked at a tiger in the frenzy of its rage."

It was the fitful start of a dying fire. But there were still some months of happiness. In June, 1891, almost exactly eleven years after their first meeting, staged by the Invisible Playwright with such a touch of artistry in the House of Commons, Parnell and Mrs. O'Shea were married.

And, taking everything into account, Parnell was probably more contented now, and at bottom, perhaps, more confident than he had been through all those years. He had lost, but the threatening shadow of retribution that had so long preceded O'Shea's protracted revenge no longer lay across his path. He felt he had still plenty of fight in him, and as for love, his answer to Mrs. Parnell showed that defeat served only to strengthen it:

"I said, 'But, perhaps, I have hurt your work.' 'No, you have not. I sometimes think that is why you came to me, for I was very ill then, and you kept the life in me and the will to go on when I was very weary of it all; and you have stood to me for comfort and strength and my very life. I have never been able to feel in the least sorry for having come into your life. It had to be, and the bad times I have caused you and the' stones that have been flung and that will be flung at you are all no matter, because to us there is no one else in all the world that matters at all - when you get to the bottom of things.'"

In themselves alone these words explain much. Because they might equally well have been spoken by the woman, they justify, perhaps - everything.

One barrier before Parnell's path was lifted, and the toll was taken. There was another.

On Wednesday, September 30th, 1891, after attending a Dublin meeting of the promoters of the Irish Daily Independent newspaper, Parnell left Ireland for the last time. "I shall come back on Saturday week," he said. The leader had always kept his promises with the Irish - it was for this, above all, they admired him. That Saturday week their "uncrowned king" did come back - in a coffin. He had died in his wife's arms about midnight on the following Tuesday.

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