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Parnell, Pigott, Peace and other Christmas thoughts

By Mícheál MacDonncha

One of the most famous scenes in Irish literature is the Christmas dinner in James Joyce's semi-autobiographical novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. This is based on a real event in the young Joyce's life. As a boy, he was at the Christmas dinner table when his father and a family friend, a veteran Fenian, clashed with another guest over the betrayal of Charles Stuart Parnell by his Irish Party colleagues and the Catholic hierarchy. The exchanges became increasingly heated until the Yuletide party broke up in tears and bitter recrimination.

By then, Parnell was dead and his legend was already in the making. Joyce and his father were staunch Parnellites and the Dublin writer's work has added its own gloss to the Parnell legend.

It is not the only unhappy association of Christmas and the 'Uncrowned King'. The first blow of the axe which brought down Parnell was struck on Christmas Eve 1889, when Captain William O'Shea filed for divorce.

For nearly a decade, the Irish leader had walked a tightrope that was both political and personal. He lived as man and wife in all but law with Katharine O'Shea, estranged wife of William O'Shea, a political chancer who was nominally an Irish Party MP but who was really an ambitious Liberal, prepared to do anything to secure high office. He had effectively split with his wife before she and Parnell first met. O'Shea knew from early on about the relationship but he did not interfere, seeing in it an opportunity for advancement. Katharine was a shrewd woman with an 'in' to the leadership of Gladstone's Liberal Party and she and O'Shea acted as conduits between Parnell and Gladstone at a time when there were no official negotiations.

William O'Shea used his position as supposed intermediary to inflate his own political importance. He misrepresented what Parnell was prepared to accept as a compromise with the British government. He connived with Joseph Chamberlain, the powerful Liberal MP who was opposed to Gladstone's Irish Home Rule policy. When none of this was rewarded with power, he waited for his moment to destroy Parnell, with the encouragement of Chamberlain and other anti-Irish elements in the British establishment.

The Tories and The Times, the political party and the newspaper of the British establishment, had shown what they were capable of just a few months before O'Shea filed his divorce case. The Times ran a long series of articles attempting to link Parnell and the Irish Party at Westminster directly to 'agrarian crimes' and 'outrages'. These were the many violent incidents during the Land War that saw land agents, landlords and farmers who took the land of evicted tenants attacked and sometimes killed, and the destruction of landlords' crops and livestock. In a tactic which has echoes right up to this week, there was an effort to criminalise the Irish agrarian and political struggle. The Times series was called 'Parnellism and Crime'.

The most outrageous accusation was made with the help of a Dublin hack journalist called Richard Pigott. When the official Fenian newspaper, The Irish People, was suppressed by Dublin Castle in 1865, Pigott saw his opportunity and, for purely mercenary reasons, turned his own journal, The Irishman, in a pro-Fenian direction. Sales soared, Pigott profited and it is believed he even pocketed subscriptions for Fenian prisoners' families. When his ventures failed, he turned to Dublin Castle.

It was Pigott who forged the letters in Parnell's name that tried to link him to the assassination by the Invincibles of Lord Frederick Cavendish and Under-Secretary Burke in the Phoenix Park in 1882. But Pigott did not act alone. He was the creature of The Times and the British 'securocrats' of the day, who were determined to bring down Parnell, thwart Home Rule and smash any movement towards Irish independence. Under cross-examination at the public inquiry, Pigott's forgeries were exposed. He left the witness box a devastated and pathetic figure.

Pigott fled to Madrid, where he is supposed to have shot himself in his hotel room. But doubts were raised about whether it was suicide. He may have been trying to extract more money from his sponsors through threatening to expose them. Like many a paid perjuror hired by the British before and since, Pigott became a liability once he had outlived his usefulness. There was always the danger that he would indeed expose his 'handlers'. At the very least, his death was most convenient for them.

Having defeated the British establishment conspiracy against him, Parnell was at the height of his powers. He was acclaimed by much of British public opinion and established a closer relationship with Gladstone, who was pledged to introduce a new Home Rule Bill. His success in Ireland had been based on his political skill in harnessing the land struggle and using its energy to build a political movement for Irish self-government. He was deliberately vague about the extent of autonomy he sought for Ireland so that he could rely on the support of both 'constitutional' nationalists and Fenians. In Britain, he and his Irish Party won much support for Home Rule but his alliance with the Liberals was a double-edged sword.

As long as the strength of Parnell's party was based on unity and self-reliance in Ireland, there was little that could be done to thwart it. But increasingly, it was Parnell's relationship with Gladstone that kept down the tensions within his party - including tensions over the open secret of Katherine O'Shea. The centre of gravity had shifted to Westminster, with Irish nationalist hopes pinned on Gladstone and the Liberal Party.

In December 1890, the contradictions were exposed. O'Shea had been granted his divorce, the scandal was public and the Irish Party had to decide if Parnell should remain as leader. At first they backed him. But behind the scenes, the Liberal Party leadership had made it known that if Parnell stayed on that would be the end of the alliance and of Home Rule. Most of the MPs stampeded away from Parnell. Too late, Parnell declared that the independence of the Irish Party was the most important principle but it was the Liberal alliance he created that now contributed to his downfall.

Christmas 1890 saw Irish nationalism hopelessly divided. Parnell fought his corner for nearly a year. On his side were most of the nationalists of Dublin, the Fenians, the workers of the towns and cities and the smaller tenant farmers and farm labourers. Ironically, it was the latter two groups who had fared worst from land reforms but they backed Parnell against the British, the Catholic bishops and the increasingly venomous anti-Parnellites.

Next year, we mark the centenary of Sinn Féin, and the Parnell experience played no small role in leading to its foundation. Arthur Griffith, a young supporter of 'the Chief' during the split, never forgot how dependence on a British political party brought down the nationalist movement and this was crucial to his advocacy of Irish self-reliance and withdrawal of MPs from Westminster.

But that's not the only echo for our own day in this story. Take the case of Richard Pigott, hack journalist and hired liar. We should consider the establishment of the Richard Pigott Award for Scurrilous Journalism. My first nominee would be Paul Williams of the Sunday World. No dirt is too toxic for him to throw at Irish republicans. Among his latest offerings was the despicable lie that the Sinn Féin election campaign in Dublin last summer was funded by drug money.

It is because the political project undertaken by republicans is of such significant proportions, and so challenging, that so many opponents and enemies large and small will circle around it. But whether they be minnows that swim in sewers or sharks like the British securocrats, their efforts will be in vain.

Republicans know our history. We have learned its lessons. We expect the kind of dirty tricks that we have seen throughout the peace process and throughout Irish history. And more importantly, we have a strategy that relies on our own beliefs and our own political strength first and foremost. That is the literal meaning of Sinn Féin.

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