The Laurel and the Ivy
Washington Post Book World, 1994


by Robert Kee
Hamish Hamilton/Viking; 659 pp; $29.95

ALTHOUGH THE FINAL PRICKS of militant Irish nationalism are still being felt in the news, people now tend to think of Charles Parnell mainly as a remote romantic personage out of the somber Irish past. He was, indeed, a man who loved not wisely but too well, who fell from power through illicit passion, and brought Ireland's hopes and prospects down with him. He was to become the hero of a film starring Clark Gable, and a martyr in the scalding lament that closes the splendid Christmas dinner scene in James Joyce's Portrait of Artist as a Young Man.

That Parnell is a figure of scandal and endless speculation, mostly about the kind of adulterous, overlapping domesticity that he shared with Katie O'Shea (never Kitty, Kee assures us) and Katie's husband Captain Willie O'Shea. Willie waited nearly a decade before asking for the divorce that destroyed Parnell. The still tantalizing question: what made Willie wait so long?

In this leisurely, repetitive but admirably even-handed account, journalist-historian Robert Kee gets around to the scandal. But his essentially chonological approach very properly puts us in touch first with the Parnell who really matters - the difficult man and master politician who in a brief period, from 1874 to 1889, gave demoralized Ireland a powerful political party, a solid hope for Home Rule and an expanding sense of national destiny.

In England Parnell did this as an Irish MP. Following a policy of "obstruction" he drove the House of Commons wild with procedural delays, endless interventions and practical amendments designed either to improve conditions in Ireland or to remind the English that the terrible troubles in Ireland would not be cured until the Irish were put in charge of their own affairs. Parnell agitated for all manner of small reforms that most directly affected the Irish back home - an end to flogging and capital punishment, amnesty for political prisoners, special masses for Catholics in the armed services. But both in England and in Ireland he concentrated most on the appalling conditions of the downtrodden Catholic tenant farmers, who were evicted wholesale during famine years, had almost no recourse with regard to high rent and could almost never own land. If evicted from a farm they were paid nothing for improvements they had made on it.

Parnell linked hope of owning land with love of country and raw nationalism, and his first aim was to achieve Home Rule. In his view that was to be done by constitutional means, not armed rebellion: "I call for no vain, no useless sacrifice." Still, he regularly made use of and encouraged disorder and violence. Through the Land League, he made sure the British would stay troubled by Ireland's troubles. The League helped organize tenants to stand up to landlords; to pay no exhorbitant rents; to refuse to work land from which another tenant had been evicted and to boycott - a procedure Parnell invented - any tenant who did so. Don't shoot him, he counseled, but "cast him out as an unclean thing." The League raised money for families who had been evicted unfairly. Fullscale social breakdown was always just offstage. "If the 500,000 tenant farmers of Ireland struck against the 10,000 landlords," he thundered to an Irish crowd," I should like to know how they [the British] would get police and soldiers enough to make them pay."

Both in character and circumstances Parnell was a man unlikely to be cast in the role of humanitarian land reformer or stereotyped Irish pol. He was a Protestant. He was a landlord with 5,000 acres in County Wicklow. He detested the color green. Though well favored and imperially slim, he was arrogant, pugnacious and a loner. Until he took up politics the only things he had shown an interest in were women, mathematics and cricket. With the exception of Mrs. O'Shea he kept his emotions under icy control. At one point when she urged him to apologize for missing a party meeting at the last moment (he did so to have a few more hours with her) he snapped "I could never keep my rabble together if I were not above the human weakness of apology." When Michael Davitt, founder of the Land League, first met Parnell he noted admiringly that the man was "without a hint of Celtic character or a trait of its racial enthusiasms. An Englishman of the strongest type moulded for Irish purpose." The English took a different view. At school in England and Oxford (where he was once described as a "genuine" loafer) Parnell told his brother: "These English despise us because we are Irish. "

He was fortunate to be working in the last third of the 19th century. The ghastly potato famines and exodus to America of a million Irish in 1848-49, a few years after he was born, had inclined the British somewhat toward reforms. The recent failure of the 1867 Fenian uprising had given extreme Irish nationalists (constantly egged on and financed by Irish Americans safe across the water) at least some doubts about direct armed rebellion as a way to independence. In the end Parnell's greatest single collaborator in reform for Ireland turned out to be British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone. By 1881 Gladstone's Liberal Party had passed laws that accomplished for Irish tenants a good deal of what Parnell had agitated for, and the Prime Minister soon agreed to forgive tenants' back rent overdue as a result of more famine and evictions. In that case, Parnell said, he would use his influence to reduce" Agrarian outrages, "which at the time meant threatening, or shooting, landlords and cutting off the ears and tails of livestock.

The sunny uplands of cooperation and even more parliamentary influence now beckoned. Home Rule, which a decade earlier had been a subject for disdain in the House of Commons became a major part of the program of a powerful Liberal government. Parnell had become Ireland's uncrowned King, his picture on posters and banners, his name in songs sung by crowds of thousands who came to hear him talk. By then, too, he had met Katie O'Shea.

She was 35, a rich and decorative Englishwoman with three children. Her Anglo-Irish husband, Captain Willie O'Shea, needed Parnell's help in politics "Make him all happy and comfortable" Willie told her. And so she did. Their love was instantaneous and enduring. Willie was often away in Spain on business - or at his pied à terre in London. Parnell lived with Katie as much as he could as a family guest in her big house in Eltham. Their floods of letters and telegrams strike one either as touching or grotesque. He called her "my own little wifey;" and signed himself "Your own King." In the less than a decade they had together she bore him two children. Willie, meanwhile, alternated with Parnell at home and helped keep up public appearances.

In Parliament Parnell was a respected figure, with 86 highly disciplined Irish Home Rule MP's behind him. By voting en bloc it sometimes controlled the balance of power in the House of Commons. Ireland was a force to be reckoned with, and by the late 1880s it seemed possible that Gladstone's Home Rule Bill would pass. Then, late in 1889, Willie filed for divorce. He had just discovered, he claimed, that Parnell was sleeping with his wife.

The scandal did in Parnell politically, wrecked the power of the Irish National League and, what really matters, sabotaged hopes of Home Rule for Ireland. By discrediting the parliamentary route to national independence it encouraged the most violent Irish nationalists. Because the divorce stirred such high passions, Kee suggests, history has made more of a mystery than need be about when and why finally Willie blew their collective cover.

Quite simply, there was a ton of money involved. Katie's Aunt Ben, most properly Victorian in her views, contributed the equivalent of 160 thousand modern pounds to the O'Sheas each year, including rent on Willie's London flat. She had, moreover, made Katie sole heir to a fortune equivalent of 7 million of today's pounds, tied up legally so that Willie, who was a spendthrift, could never touch it. Had she known the true situation, both the yearly income and the bequest would have been out of the question. Aunt Ben lived to age 96. By the time she died in 1889 Willie no longer needed Parnell's help. He realized that there was no longer need to keep up appearances. Besides, if he discredited Katie with a divorce he might help her other relatives to break the will, and get a good deal of money. So he did that.

Katie and Parnell married the instant the divorce laws set them free. He died only months later of a heart attack. To his credit he had offered years before to give up his career entirely if she would only come away with him openly. Had she agreed - or if heSW had given her up - the history of Ireland from that day to this might have been very different. But it was already a great deal better because he had lived at all.