On This Day-Drivetime – 27.6.1846 – Charles Stewart Parnell, is born


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No one could have predicted that the hesitant, almost inarticulate candidate for the Irish parliamentary party in the by-election in Dublin in 1874 would go on to be proclaimed as the Uncrowned King of Ireland and then brought to earth by the same people who had deified him in the first place.

For most of the first thirty years of his life Charles Stewart Parnell was a member of the family who were the benevolent landlords of Avondale in Co.Wicklow – an estate of 4000 acres that produced a modest income by the standards of the late 19th century. Parnell did what most of the members of his class did. He rode to hounds in the winter and played cricket in the summer – he was a decent batsman and wicketkeeper.

Then, suddenly, at the age of 28, he offered himself to the Irish parliamentary party, then led by Isaac Butt, as a candidate for the vacant seat in County Dublin. As he could afford to pay for his own campaign and didn’t have to worry about loss of earnings should he win the seat – ordinary MPs were not paid until the early 20th century – he got the nod from the party bosses. They quickly regretted their decision. The young Charles Stewart Parnell was a dreadful candidate. He could hardly put two words together and was so nervous as a public speaker that he could do little more than stammer on the hustings. The electorate was unimpressed and he was easily defeated.

He was given a second chance and did better the following year winning a by-election in Meath. For two years Parnell kept his own counsel in the House of Commons. He watched and waited. Then, in a move apparently out of character with his social status, he threw in his lot with a group of converted Fenians and blocked much House of Commons business by filibustering – making long speeches on very little indeed – much to the annoyance of the British MPs and most of the Irish ones as well.

Parnell would go on to lead his party, deliver some significant land reform, and significantly advance the cause of Home Rule before his involvement in the divorce of Katharine O’Shea brought him crashing to earth. She was, by the way, only called ‘Kitty’ by her adversaries, the name was a term of abuse reserved for Victorian prostitutes.

Parnell, though briefly beloved of the nationalist Irish, was not held in such high esteem by many of his party colleagues. He was seen as aloof, arrogant, and often lazy. Unlike, for example, other Victorian politicians, who were enthusiastic correspondents, Parnell would not have been good on email. He treated the reams of correspondence that arrived for him on a daily basis with utter contempt. He rarely opened a letter, leaving that to others to do on his behalf. He was very superstitious, with a particular aversion for the month of October. Naturally, that was the month, in 1891, in which he died at the age of 45. Bizarrely, for someone who led the Irish constitutional nationalist movement for a momentous decade, he also loathed and feared the colour green.

Charles Stewart Parnell, politician, Uncrowned King and chromophobe, was born 168 years ago, on this day.

 

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Russell v Pigott – Times Commission, 1889 – On this day – 10 November, 1832 the birth of Russell

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Born plain Charles Russell, in Newry, Co.Down, the man who would become Baron Killowen and who would torment Richard Pigott in the witness box in his defence of Charles Stewart Parnell, was one of five children. He was also the only sibling in the Russell family who did not enter the religious life. His three sisters all became nuns, his brother a Jesuit priest.

He was a highly successful QC in London, a moderate nationalist MP, and rose to become Lord Chief Justice of England, the first Catholic t hold the office in centuries. However, it is for his forensic grilling of the dubious journalist, turncoat and pornographer Richard Pigott at the Times Commission hearings in February 1889 that he is justly celebrated.

Pigott had sold the Times a pup … at least twice over.  He had passed on, for payment, a letter that suggested Parnell supported those who carried out the brutal Phoenix Park murders of Chief Secretary of Ireland, Lord Frederick Cavendish, and Under Secretary Thomas H.Burke in May 1882. Parnell vehemently denied the veracity of the letter. A Commission was established which, in essence, pitched the Times newspaper against Parnell and most of the senior members of his party.

The letter in question, published in facsimile by the Times in April 1887, was one of a number that had been forged, quite cleverly, by Pigott himself.  He had, however, left a couple of hostages to fortune in the material he had supplied to the Times. Pigott was not quite as literate as one might have expected a former newspaper editor to be. He was a dreadful speller.  Observers who closely examined the cache of correspondence he had provided to the Times noted a couple of howlers.  In one case, for example, he had spelt the word ‘hesitancy’ as h-e-s-i-t-e-n-c-y.

When he began his cross-examination of this crucial Times witness Russell puzzled the onlookers by handing Pigott a sheet of paper and asking him to write a number of words on it. One of those was ‘hesitancy’. He then casually took back the paper, glanced at it, and ignored it for most of the next two days.

It was only after reducing Pigott to a gibbering wreck and catching him out in his elaborate system of lies, that Russell returned to the mysterious paper. After a few more barbed questions he pointed out that in one of the letters retained by the Times the word hesitancy had been misspelt. The erroneous spelling, he demonstrated, was precisely that chosen by Pigott the previous day when asked to do so by Parnell’s counsel. Pigott went a couple of stages beyond gibbering wreck and no one in the court had any doubt but that he had forged all the letters upon which the Times depended to make its case.

Pigott fled shortly after the court adjourned, admitted his guilt in a letter to the tribunal and shot himself dead in Madrid. Parnell subsequently sued the Times for defamation in a London libel court and won £5000. In future years at public meetings when a heckler wished to suggest that a platform speaker had ‘sold out’ or betrayed his cause, the aggrieved party would yell ‘spell hesitancy’ at the top of his voice.

Charles Russell, inquisitor extraordinare and nemesis of the hapless Richard Pigott was born 181 years ago on this day.

‘Parnell Reconsidered’ – Pauric Travers and Donal McCartney – published by UCD press

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Each year at the Parnell Summer school (and the Spring Day) deals with a current topic of interest – in recent years the Irish media and education in Ireland have been considered. But space is also left for one or two papers annually devoted to further investigations of Parnell, Parnellism or of the period when ‘The Uncrowned King of Ireland’ was in his pomp. A number of those papers has now been collected by Professor Pauric Travers of St.Patrick’s, Drumcondra and Professor Donal McCartney (professor emeritus UCD) in a new volume Parnell Reconsidered and published by UCD Press.

In the words of the UCD Press website:

‘Among the questions reconsidered are what Parnell understood by Home Rule; his attitude to separatism and his position in the nationalist spectrum; his extraordinary relationship with Gladstone; the context and significance of his famous ne plus ultra speech delivered at Cork in January 1885 and his defiant manifesto ‘To the Irish people’, issued after the O’Shea divorce scandal; and the role of the United Ireland newspaper in his career and his sometimes troubled relationship with the Press generally. New and revealing perspectives are offered on Parnell’s attitude to religion; the impact of scandal on his career and reputation; the telling of national myth and the challenge to male authority presented by Anna Parnell and the Ladies Land League; the role of Paris in Parnell family history; and the part played by the drink trade in the nationalist movement and Parnell’s skilful response to conflicting demands in this area.’

The essay on the Parnellite newspaper United Ireland, entitled ‘Mr.Parnell’s rotweiler’ was written by yours truly and is a rather more pithy version of a Trinity College PhD thesis. It could also stand as an abstract of a book on the subject of William O’Brien’s newspaper that will be published by Irish Academic Press in 2014.

My thanks to Pauric and Donal for being wonderful, patient editors and to Donal for reading the damn thesis before it was submitted.

Link to UCD press website here