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The Politics of Irish Literature
by Malcolm Brown

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The Politics of Irish Literature
From Thomas Davis to W.B. Yeats

by Malcolm Brown

Chapter Sixteen
Parnell and Davitt

ISAAC BUTT'S political ideal was proto-Yeatsian. He deplored rancor, party strife, and loose-lipped demagogues. His code of conduct was pure but futile, and he was quickly overwhelmed in the parliamentary jungle. Two months after the 1874 election victory, Butt proposed that the Commons set up a committee to investigate the sources of Irish unhappiness. His motion lost by a vote of 314 to 50. A formal Home Rule motion followed three months later. It lost, 458 to 61. The adverse majority had expanded by a hundred-odd votes since the first try. And everything was going nicely and according to plan, A. M. Sullivan said. The first step toward Home Rule must display factual demonstration before "the mind and conscience of Christendom." Afterward, "this position made good, we shall in due time advance upon another. Courage, men of Ireland! Courage and perseverance! -- we have struck the road that leads to liberty."

Butt himself offered a less hearty exhortation and no optimism at all. Home Rulers, he said after one of these brutal parliamentary rebuffs, "could place their views fairly and distinctly before the British House of Commons, and leave to them the responsibility of rejecting the demands of the Irish people. . . ." His defeatism was contagious, and the membership in the Home Rule League proved a "dismal" disappointment.


After half a lifetime overseas, John Mitchel now reappeared in Ireland to criticize through precept and example the limitations of Butt's program. He had been put up in absentia for Cork in the election of 1874, but had not won. He now proposed to put his own oar "into the puddle of Irish politics," to campaign in person in Tipperary, famed for its hospitality to revolutionist vote-seekers: "I am savage against that helpless driftless concern called `Home Rule.'" His campaign promised the voters a new mode of English defiance: if elected, he would refuse to sit, thereby establishing the original model of the great Irish boycotts of Westminster in 1919 and of the Dail in 1922. He was elected but the House refused to seat him -- a disappointment, for until he was seated he could not refuse to sit. He stood a second time, was again elected, and was just being rejected by the House a second time when the commotion was ended by his sudden death at his old boyhood home in Newry, county Down --hence "there's a grave at Newry," as Yeats reported. His brother-in-law John Martin, M.P. for Meath, caught pneumonia at the funeral and ten days later he died too. A by-election was required to fill the Meath vacancy. It was won by Charles Stewart Parnell, twenty-eight years old, a Wicklow Home Ruler, the master of the big house at Avondale, a short stroll from Joyce's favorite non-Dublin topographic feature, Tom Moore's "meeting of the waters."

As a great Protestant landlord, Parnell was considered a lucky find for Home Rule. Barry O'Brien, Parnell's Boswell, met Butt on the street one day looking more cherubic than usual. "My dear boy," Butt said, "we have got a splendid recruit, an historic name, my friend, young Parnell of Wicklow; and unless I am mistaken, the Saxon will find him an ugly customer, though he is a good-looking fellow." Before he could be admitted to the party, the Home Rule council had to sit in judgment. John Martin declared, "I would trust any of the Parnells." A. M. Sullivan said, "Let us see him." The consensus was that they "thought him a nice gentlemanly fellow who would be an ornament but no use," another handsome frontwindow display like Edward King-Harman or Rowland Ponsonby Blennerhassett. The fact that Parnell betrayed this expectation is the starting point for a good deal of biographical speculation. Any landlord of a good Protestant Ascendancy family, so the reasoning runs, should have been a nonentity like the rest of his social class.

To explain how he came to be "a traitor to his class," tradition cites a loathing for Englishmen that he picked up from the chilly hospitality afforded Irishmen at Cambridge. The aversion was said to be reinforced by his mother, an American suffering from an extreme case of Anglophobia inherited from her own parent, Commodore Charles Stewart, Parnell's namesake, the doughty skipper of the frigate Constitution in the War of 1812. But Parnell's own Anglophobia was not absolute. For example, he married the sister of a British field marshal. More important, perhaps, Avondale seems to have been less a gentleman's rural seat than a business enterprise, producing lumber and building stone. The American branch of his family, whom he three times visited, was deep in the mania of speculation in railroading and mining in Henry Grady's New South, and his mother was a Wall Street gambler of great determination but indifferent skill. Like Thomas Davis, Parnell was an impassioned mineralogist and prospector. We have met the creative adventurer so often in Irish nationalist politics that Napoleon's on s'engage has forced itself upon us as a lietmotiv. Parnell represents the pure type.

Among the Irish landlords, he was one of the few who foresaw that the old land system was essentially played out and that the wisest course was to accommodate to reality and sauve qui pent. His rent rolls at Avondale were large; but the universal burden of debt on Irish landed estates made any gross rent figures meaningless. One of his parliamentary colleagues, Frank Hugh O'Donnell, got the impression that he was down at the heels, judging by the shabbiness of his London flat out Gower Street beyond the British Museum. If his appraisal was correct, Parnell found himself in the standard predicament of the British upper-class younger son, forced to bestir himself to make his own way and live up to the family name.

Table of Contents
The Politics of Irish Literature by Malcolm Brown

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The Politics of
Irish Literature

From Thomas Davis to W.B. Yeats
by Malcolm Brown
Part I: The Peculiar Irish Setting
1. History and Poetry: Some Irish Paradoxes
2. Thomas Davis' Ireland
Part II: Young Ireland
3. O'Connell and Davis in Partnership
4. The Nation's First Year
5. The Retreat from Clontarf
6. Black '47
7. '48 and Insurrection
8. Beside the Sickbed: Carlyle, Duffy, Dr. Cullen
9. John Mitchel after '48
Part III: Fenianism
10. Mr. Shook
11. Fenianism Mobilizes
12. O'Leary and the Irish People
13. "The Year for Action"
14. The Agony of Fenianism
Part IV: Home Rule
15. The Ballot Box Once More: Isaac Butt
16. Parnell and Davitt
17. The Land War in Mayo
18. After Kilmainham: Bakhuninism in Phoenix Park
19. After Kilmainham: Davitt and Standish O'Grady Take Stock
20. The Irish Party in Maneuver
21. Enter: W. B. Yeats
22. Catastrophe
23. Poetry Defends the Gap: Yeats and Hyde
24. Literary Parnellism

Praise for
The Politics of Irish Literature
cover thumbnail for "The Politics of Irish Literature" by Malcolm Brown

"This brilliant study of the intersection of politics and literature in Ireland amounts to a dazzling portrait gallery. Reading it one feels about one the breath, warmth, and passions of the dead all come alive again."
-- Sean O'Faolain in the Manchester Guardian

"Mr. Brown's masterpiece has made me want to hire a nearby housetop and recite whole chunks to every passerby..."
-- Michael Foote in the London Evening Standard

"The author of the best book on George Moore now gives us what is in all likelihood the best book on the politics of modern Irish literature."
-- Virginia Quarterly Review

Professor Malcolm J. Brown with his son, Bruce Brown, Sumas, WA, July 1988

University of Washington Professor Malcolm J. Brown (1910 - 1992) with his son, Bruce Brown, in Sumas, WA, July 1988.

Additional reading -- Malcolm Brown's George Moore: A Reconsideration. Also see Bruce Brown's commentary on The History of the Corporation for Malcolm Brown's contribution to that work.

Parnell's personality, like O'Leary's, lies within the domain of belleslettres as well as of history and must detain us for a brief inventory of its possibilities. Yeats said:

... Parnell was a proud man,
No prouder trod the ground.

On that point there is universal assent, though most observers give companion traits no less emphasis. He had a mind that was "purely objective," said T. P. O'Connor, adding that "no man has ever been a confidant of Mr. Parnell." To Michael Davitt he was "proud," also "direct"; but "magnanimity and gratitude he had none," for his mind had "few if any generous impulses." Davitt thought of him as an Englishman, really, while Lord Eversley thought him more of an American, "inflexible," "dogged," an engineer with a "turn for mathematics." The journalist Michael MacDonagh found him "coldly impassive," "diffident," and "proud"; and T. D. Sullivan agreed: "He was a proud man, resolute and obstinate." John Morley described him as "a powerful and an extraordinary personality, cold and long-sighted; in clearness of perception of facts he surpassed anyone whom he had been brought into contact with, either in literature or politics. . . . I had been at his side before and after more than one triumphal occasion, and discovered no sign of quickened pulse." None of these sketches is particularly attractive; and William O'Brien, even when still a youthful worshiper, found in Parnell's basic character a somewhat unheroic virtue: "In essence he was an unaffected Irish country gentleman, with a genius for command and for doing Ireland's business"s-in short, another "good citizen" like Davis.


Among the most censorious of Parnell's critics was John Butler Yeats. I have noted his boundless admiration for Butt; and Parnell and Butt he always paired together as villain and hero. All the Parnell portraits allow the notion of obduracy to creep in beside the praiseworthy "directness" and gift for "doing business." Yeats pere read the trait as a sort of cruelty or spite: "It was spite to which Parnell appealed when he ousted Butt the statesman. The Irish took to hatred when they deserted the statesman Isaac Butt for the politician Parnell." He thought that what was called pride in Parnell was really hauteur: "Isaac Butt could not hate and so had to resign his leadership to Parnell who had no other qualifications for the task except an immense, unrelenting, inexorable hatred, helped by a theatrical trick of pose and hauteur impressive to simple people. William Pitt treated Lords Castlereagh and Liverpool exactly as Parnell treated his lieutenants T. Healy and Sexton, etc., and Chatham so behaved to the whole House of Commons." John Butler Yeats's word "hauteur" echoes the word "cold" that rises insistently into most of the summaries of Parnell's character.

For Yeats fils Parnell was the central figure in a late reshuffling of all his basic antinomical couplings. His father's old animosity against Parnell he turned upside down, making him his hero, tragic Cuchullain disdainful of the ignoble Firbolgs by whom he was dragged down and torn apart. For the sake of symmetry, he might have borrowed his father's pairing of Butt with Parnell, retaining Butt in the dance by converting him to the comic antinome. History suggested the role for Butt. Liam O'Flaherty, another spoiled Catholic like Joyce, was inclined to be cynically amused by the professed altruism of Irish Protestants, especially of those who came forward offering generosity "though free to refuse." Hence his portrait of Butt said: "In control of this [Home-Rule] movement . . . there were at the beginning men whom the Americans would call `morons.' Out of respect for their memory, I refrain from mentioning their names." O'Flaherty's looselipped impertinence could not fit at all into Yeats's scheme of Irish values. Besides, he did not need a comedian, for he had found his archetypal Irish fool in the Liberator, whom he set opposite the tragic Parnell, "Ireland's Antiself." We have questioned O'Connell's fitness for the part Yeats cast him in. Now we need to examine his portrayal of Parnell.


Actually, Parnell and O'Connell are better related as identities than as contraries. In the long view their careers were identical exercises in switching the Irish revolution on and off: Parnell's first exploits in the House of Commons would have delighted the old Liberator for their skill in the use of his own weapon of choice, Irish impudence. A well-worn anecdote tells of his parliamentary initiation. He was seated at Westminster April 22, 1875, an important date for a second reason in the history of the Irish parliamentary party. Just that afternoon Joe Biggar had taken up the experiment of obstructing the business of the House. The debate was on the perennial Irish coercion bill, introduced a month before and passed smoothly through the first and second readings. Butt promised that the party would "exhaust all the forms of the House" before defeat. When Biggar's turn had come round to speak, he appeared in the House chamber laden with government reports. "Mr. Speaker," he said, "in order to save time I have brought in at once all the authorities to which I propose to refer." He then commenced reading in a droning voice from the documents he had brought. After a couple of hours his voice gave out and he was reminded that the rules of the House required that the honorable member must be audible to the Speaker. He then took his glass of water and books up to the ministerial benches directly beside the Speaker and continued as before. After four hours, "unwilling to detain the House any longer," he surrendered the floor. One of his Home Rule colleagues protested, "I think a man should be a gentleman first and a patriot afterwards."

Parnell joined in with Biggar's sport. For two weeks more, half a dozen Irish members dragged out the coercion debate with factious amendments, repeated divisions on motions to adjourn, and irrelevant palaver. Disraeli complained of the waste of time, but courteously. He was reminded, he said, of a similar Irish fight against the coercion bill in 1843 (the same that sent O'Connell and Duffy to Richmond jail). He was moved almost to applaud the Irish pluck, knowing the effort to be altogether futile. And at last, all their ingenuity exhausted, the disrupters were duly overwhelmed. In the parliamentary sense, they had accomplished nothing, but Irishmen back home had watched the spectacle closely. In a great Trafalgar Square rally for Fenian amnesty held later in the summer of 1875, it was noted that the prince of disrupters, Joe Biggar, drew the loudest cheers.

Butt took pains to dissociate himself from the boorish manners of his troublemakers. After the coercion bill had passed, he made a little speech of appreciation for Disraeli's courtesy: "They had nothing to complain of in the manner in which they had been received by the house, and the manner in which their objections had been met would have some effect in mitigating the effect these coercive measures would have upon the minds of the Irish people." Disraeli graciously returned Butt's compliment; but one of the disrupters objected: "I, for one, will not be a party to accepting from the English government chains, however gilded, or however accompanied by courtesy, politeness, or good manners." On this note of bad temper, and with a record of total Irish failure, Parnell's freshman term came to its end.


In his first House session in 1875 Parnell naturally went almost unnoticed. Taking bearings, he quickly realized that Butt's courtly bumbling would never win any Irish advantage. Two projects needed undertaking: first, to build up at home a popular pressure behind the Irish members; and second, to get some sort of discipline into the disorderly Irish parliamentary bloc, to put a stop to the slovenliness exemplified by one member who, when notified by Butt of a caucus, had sent his regrets: "I am desirous of preserving my personal freedom of action."" Parnell's conclusion was, "We do not want speakers in the House of Commons, but men who will vote right."

Like Butt and Sullivan, he pondered on the utility of priests and Fenians as vote canvassers back home. The history of the past quarter-century would naturally lead one to hesitate before relying too heavily on the clergy to build a populist movement. Besides, Cardinal Cullen thought Home Rule "a tool in the hands of journalists and adventurers," and he predicted with uncommon foresight that it would all "end in smoke." The Fenians were not ideal collaborators either. Sullivan, as we have seen, thought that the best juncture of the two contradictory supporters would be a blend, but Parnell altered the metaphor. His political movement would use both forward and backward force, one for acceleration, the other for brakes. Barry O'Brien explained the grand strategy: "He was not a son of the Church. He was not a son of the revolution. But he believed profoundly in the power of the one and of the other, and resolved to combine both. This was a herculean labor, but it was not above the stature of Charles Stewart Parnell."

Had a great expert not established that the phoenix was a bird that could not be blarneyed? John Daly, in fact, had just broken up a Home Rule rally in Limerick on the grounds that the agreed time limit for moral force had run out, and where were the results ? Parnell surmised that he would never get the active support of Fenians without a substantial offer. For overture he pointed to the Parnell family's radical reputation and to his sister Fanny's poems in O'Leary's Irish People. In 18'76 he joined the Amnesty Association and made the release of the newest Fenian prisoners his specialty in the House debates. He publicly championed not only the Manchester martyrs -- "I wish to say as publicly and as directly as I can that I do not believe, and never shall believe, that any murder was committed at Manchester"but Clerkenwell also. Irish newspapers took note, and Parnell emerged from anonymity.


Parnell's second parliamentary session (1876) was as empty as his first. A dozen urgent Irish bills were introduced by the Home Rule members, but all were slaughtered somewhere along the legislative path, with a single exception: a bill to empower Irish municipalities to bestow the freedom of the city upon distinguished persons. It actually passed, received the royal assent, and became the law of the land. (Immediately after passage, the freedom of Limerick was bestowed on Isaac Butt.) Stung by the three futile sessions in a row, the left flank of Home Rule went over to open rebellion against Butt's leadership, while the center deliberated whether to desert him.

Spurred on by outcries for more excitement, the Irish obstructionists went into the House session of 1877 prepared to carry out an elaborate sabotage of the proceedings. This was Parnell's third year, and he had risen to joint triumvirate leadership with Biggar and a new member, a very odd one, Frank Hugh O'Donnell. The three were supported by four others, for a total of seven. Setting immediately to work when the session opened in February, they blocked all routine business, then began to talk non-Irish measures to death. These boisterous sessions were an agony of humiliation to Butt, and after three months he wrote letters to Biggar and Parnell asking them to desist, for they were ruining the chances for passage of the Irish measures by offending the English members. And worse: "I am not insensible of that which is higher than all prudence-the duty of maintaining before the civilized world the dignity of the Irish nation and the Irish cause."

In deference to Butt's feelings, Parnell, Biggar, and O'Donnell took a recess from obstruction in the early summer. Six weeks later they burst out again. As the session drew toward its close, the Irish measures were pushed off the House calendar to make way for an important imperial measure, the South Africa bill. The disrupters subjected it to violent attack. Parnell openly proclaimed his purpose to be sabotage, and the Hansard stenographer tried to catch his words above the uproar: "The hon. member, who spoke amid much confusion, and who was twice called to Order by the Chairman, was understood to say -- As it was with Ireland so it was with the South African Colonies. . . . Therefore as an Irishman, coming from a country which had experienced to the fullest extent the results of English interference in its affairs and the consequences of English cruelty and tyranny, he felt a special satisfaction in preventing and thwarting the intentions of the Government in respect of this bill." After a week of chaos, the government decided to break the filibuster simply by refusing to vote a motion to adjourn until the disturbance had physically exhausted itself.

The bill was taken up at five in the afternoon on July 31, 1877. All night long the obstruction continued, clause by clause: a move to amend, a division on the amendment, a move to adjourn, a division on the motion. At three in the morning Butt appeared on the floor to denounce his Irish colleagues: "If I thought the hon. member for Dungarvin [O'Donnell] represented the Irish party, and the Irish party represented my countryand he does not represent my country-I would retire from Irish politics as from a vulgar brawl. . . ." He was overapologetic, for a sporting spirit had overtaken the English members. At seven o'clock Biggar went into the House library to catch a nap so that he could spell off his exhausted companions in relay. He could not sleep, though, and at eight he was back on the floor with the cheerful announcement, "Mr. Chairman, sir, I am the better able to go on, having had a long sleep and a good breakfast." Late in the morning Parnell left the floor for a rest break, and was still out when the rebellion suddenly collapsed at noon. At two in the afternoon the bill was passed amid prolonged cheers, closing twenty-one hours of sitting, the longest session to date in the history of Parliament.

Why did the government permit Irish obstruction to be carried on when it could-and eventually did-put a stop to it as soon as it was minded to? One reason, no doubt, was that the rebellion did the government position no real damage. However noisy the new mode of combat, the Irish benefit was still exactly nil. Moreover, Butt and the government both apparently believed that the obstructionists would hang themselves if given enough rope. In this belief they could not have been more mistaken. Obstruction of the House was essentially theater, staged not for London but for Dublin and Cork. There it brought the house down.


So far, Parnell's career followed the biological law that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. Parliamentary obstruction was nothing more than O'Connellism brought up to date. The collapse of the all-night rebellion on the 1877 South Africa bill brought Home Rule to the same hard question that O'Connell found himself facing on the Saturday evening before the monster meeting scheduled at Clontarf in 1843. Popular commotion had been excited to the maximum pitch possible under a purely theatrical offensive; so what next? Unwilling to risk the next step forward for fear of revolution, O'Connell had destroyed himself just here. But after 1843 Irish nationalist political evolution had moved to a new level, and Parnell now had an alternative answer at hand: when he had gone with O'Connell as far as he could, then he might shift over and go a bit of the way with John O'Leary and John Devoy.

The left wing of Home Rule was located in the English branch, called the Home Rule Confederation. Its membership was drawn from expatriated Fenian-oriented industrial workers who were immune from the respectability of the Committee of Sixty-one and impatient with Butt's timidity. Its guiding spirit was John Barry, an English traveling man in linoleum who holds the peculiar distinction in Irish history of belonging simultaneously to the Bantry band (as a Sullivan cousin) and to the IRB. In 1877 Barry gave Butt the honorific title of president of the English confederation, but in 1878 he decided to take it back.

In midsummer the English Home Rule Confederation met for its annual convention in Liverpool. Butt appeared late and spoke briefly. He was hissed on the platform. An hour or so and he was gone. A friend had once told him: "To deal with these obstructives at a public meeting is for a Gentleman to enter into a personal contest with Chimney Sweeps." He felt somewhat the same way himself and was at the moment attempting to avenge himself upon the chimney sweeps by attacks not clearly permissible under the code of a gentleman-to expose Parnell for having appeared on the same platform with the "notorious atheist Bradlaugh," and O'Donnell for having graduated from one of the "godless" Irish colleges. Here was another case of that tedious iterative pattern of Irish politics in which demoralization automatically awakened the lightly slumbering madness of bigotry. Butt's letters were private, but his hostility was open enough. It was a foregone conclusion that the Liverpool convention would repudiate him. In his place, on the nomination of John Barry, it elected Parnell. The date, August 28, 1877, marked the accession of Parnell to the leadership of Irish nationalism.

His public build-up could now begin, following modern lines. At just this stage of his emergence from the chrysalis, the Nation acquired a new London correspondent, the famous-infamous Timothy M. Healy. He was another Bantry boy, a nephew of the Sullivans', a cousin of John Barry's. He had been a stenographic clerk on the railroad at Newcastle until Barry found a place for him in the London office of his linoleum firm. By day he worked the commercial line and sat at night in the press gallery of the House of Commons, composing his weekly "London Letter" for his uncle's Dublin journal. His chore was to downgrade Butt and to upgrade Parnell, twin labors undertaken with youthful fanaticism. Everybody knew already about Butt's stumbling, but Healy's study of Parnell's growing mastery on the floor of the House had the force of a creative discovery. He became Parnell's hero-worshiper, the first of the millions. His laudation was not destined to be perpetual; but of all Parnell's close acquaintances, he remained his shrewdest observer. "Parnell's great gift," he once said, "was his faculty of reducing a quarrel to the smallest dimensions," a talent in which Healy himself was undoubtedly deficient.

Back home, the obstructionists tried to force themselves onto Butt's Dublin executive board. When they failed, Parnell dropped his open factiousness and with charming generosity praised Butt's leadership. He settled down to bide his time until the next general election: "I am young. I can wait." And Butt, not quite understanding the import of the remark, replied, "Hear, hear!"


Irish members made no scandalous headlines in the next House session. Their parliamentary obstruction was perfunctory and halfhearted. Parnell himself had other projects on his mind. He had moved on from parliamentary vendetta to the next problem, the search for a mechanism to tap the power of Irish militancy. He understood, said John Barry later, that "a Fenian was a man who was ready to go into penal servitude for Ireland." He felt therefore that "the Fenians were the men to drive the ship, but he wanted to steer it himself." After the Liverpool convention, he spent most of his energy for the next two years in a courtship dance with Fenians, now pursuing and now allowing himself to be pursued, a diverting and productive way to bide his time until the Home Rule movement could ripen.

Fenian orthodoxy still permitted no dalliance with "spouters." The question was asked with great solemnity, How can Fenians take the oath of allegiance to their enemy the queen? -- a Gordian knot that troubled the philosophical until de Valera cut it in 1927. Kickham thought the Home Rule movement merely another dishonest futility; and the sworn Fenians who took part in it he considered no better than police spies. O'Leary thought it "honest incompetence" and "clever roguery." In New York, Rossa and Devoy attacked the Home Rule Fenians with their normal violence of language.

Still, Parnell was able to penetrate Fenianism's ideological fortress through several important friendships. His House comrade Joe Biggar was a sworn Fenian, joining for the purpose, he said later, of "winning them over to constitutionalism." During the 1877 obstruction circus he was sitting on the IRB supreme council, together with John Barry. But late in that year both men had been censured by the supreme council for parliamentarianism, and when they would neither repent nor resign, they were expelled, cutting Parnell's tie with the Fenian center. But just at this moment, he met Michael Davitt, a Fenian treason-felony convict seven years imprisoned. With several others he was released on ticket of leave at Christmas 1877 thanks to Parnell's agitations through the Amnesty Association. Parnell went out to Kingstown to meet the prisoners as they came off the mail boat and took them all to breakfast at Morrison's Hotel. (At table one of the released convicts fell over dead, giving Parnell a shock that he never forgot.) Davitt and Parnell began to explore the possibilities of joint activity, and in due time they sealed the most explosive political partnership in modern Irish history.


Davitt, like Parnell, was then thirty-one. He was the son of a Mayo Catholic peasant, born near Castlebar during the famine, where Carlyle shortly afterward passed through to inspect the "human swinery." The family survived the starvation, but when Davitt was six, they were evicted during the great postfamine clearances. They migrated to Lancashire, settling down in an Irish-speaking community of cotton-mill hands. The boy went into the mill to earn his own living at age eleven. A year later, he lost his right arm in a machine. Maimed, discarded by the factory, illiterate, he found refuge in a Wesleyan school. The lone Catholic boy was put at ease by all the Methodists, and he concluded that religious bigotry is not inevitably the natural condition of man. He proved a good scholar, and at fifteen was hired as a bookkeeper in a printing shop.

In 1865, Stephens' year for action, he took the Fenian oath, and soon rose to the position of head center. Under orders, he had reported to Chester Castle for MacCafferty's 1867 arms raid. He was unable to shoot off a gun, but was prepared to carry powder and ball to the troops. When Colonel Ricard Burke disappeared off the scene into Clerkenwell, Davitt replaced him as head of Fenian arms procurement in England. In May 1870 he was apprehended by the police in Paddington Station in the act of handing a sack containing fifty revolvers to a Fenian confederate. He was convicted and sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment. Just when O'Leary, Rossa, and Devoy were coming out of prison, he went in-an unlucky chance, for another amnesty could not be expected for a very long time, seven years in his case. From his treatment as a prisoner, he inferred that the government's object was to destroy him by exposure, malnutrition, neglected illness, and insanity. But when Parnell asked him on a train trip what he planned to do, he replied, "I shall rejoin the revolutionary movement, of course."

He saved his sanity during those seven years in Dartmoor by thinking, by trying to locate the missteps that had brought Fenianism to disaster. Something was obviously wrong with Stephens' system, and he was pained to believe that his life was all but wrecked in order to procure firearms simply because dogma asserted that he must, and "without the consolation of knowing that one of them was ever shouldered to smite an enemy of my country." He thought Stephens' great cadre was admirable in many ways. Yet it was rendered too narrow by its scornful refusal to touch any meaningful immediate issue. At the same time it was too broad; for in trying to correct his narrowness, Stephens became intoxicated with big numbers for their own sake and distended his elite corps by mass recruiting until he had enrolled a hundred thousand secret conspirators, an absurdity on the face of it. Irishmen make impossible conspirators anyhow, he said. (This was later to be Joycean doctrine; and it was endorsed by Joyce's friend Sheehy-Skeffington in a biography of Davitt that Joyce is known to have read. Davitt differed with Joyce, though, in tracing the characteristic to an Irish love of making conversation rather than to a genetic urge to betray.) Davitt thought Stephens would have been better off if he had sworn no member into the conspiracy until he could put a rifle in his hand; meanwhile he should have built up a militant, open, mass organization with more animal spirits than Fenianism's anemic orphan, the old Brotherhood of St. Patrick. In any case, some new approach was essential "if Irish revolutionists were ever to accomplish anything beyond wasting themselves in barren conspiracy and in English convict cells."

Davitt hardly knew what the new approach ought to be, but his prison meditations had discovered one new rule on which he felt assured. It was the necessity of "parallel action." Fenianism and parliamentary Home Rule in 1878 must learn to live and work in the same Ireland, he thought, disagreeing at need, but agreeing on the one point that neither would deny the other the right to exist. This was a conclusion Parnell had already reached and incorporated into his actions. Naturally, some criterion would be needed to distinguish a genuine from a bogus nationalist. It could be found in the touchstone question, Do you believe in the necessity for the severance of Ireland from England? Someone asked Parnell the question. Supreme under cross-examination, he replied that when the people were ready, he would be ready. Later, with the same question in mind, he gave the reply carved on his Dublin monument, "No man has a right to fix the boundary of the march of a nation."

If Davitt was determined to climb down out of the thin atmosphere of pure-doctrine Fenianism and take note of the immediate problems of the hour, what issue might command his effort? Irish nationalist sentiment arose out of numberless concrete nodes of deprivation: the empty Dedalus larder, the dung-dodgers at Mrs. Casside's front door, the cold ashes on the Cavan peasant's hearth in Kavanagh's poem, and so on. The points cohered into clusters, "problems," which Yeats in his insulation thought of as "abstractions." To locate these problems one did not have to search under the bushes. The need was rather more one of selection from the embarras de richesse. The Fenians had fought off grievances like harpies. Davitt, for himself, started out fresh from prison working with the amnesty agitation and prison reform, but soon he was deep in the problems of the Irish land.


In the first few years of the 1870s Irish crops and prices were good, so that rents went up and the tally of agrarian crimes came down. In mid-decade agricultural prices weakened as the United States began to dump cheap wheat from the newly plowed prairies on the European docks. In the late years of the decade the decline of prices accelerated. Gladstone's Land Act of 18'70 had not hindered the rise of rents; and now it gave no general immunity against eviction, for tenants in arrears were not protected. The pressures of Irish disaffection were thus rather low at the beginning of the 1870s, but rose to explosive force at the close. Isaac Butt's spirited start and poor finish at the tape were coordinated with this gross materiality.

Davitt went out to his birthplace in Mayo and made a great hit. He was physically impressive in a style opposite to Parnell's. He was striking in coloration, a "black Irishman" of the west, with dark eyes and olive skin. Gauntness, a stoop, heavy facial lines, and the empty sleeve showed him to be a hardened veteran of some new kind of modern war. Mayo welcomed him home with bonfires on the hilltops. Castlebar, like Yeats's "cold Clare rock and Galway rock and thorn," was in the heart of the most miserably poor district of the west. Rack-renting of small tenancies was still the basic Mayo economy, with the potato the staple of life just as in O'Connell's time. For twenty years past, Tipperary and west Cork had been the hotbeds of rural Ireland, and Mayo was the place where Stephens found recruiting all but hopeless. Now the tables were turned: Mayo was awake. Two crop failures in succession had brought back memories of starvation to frighten and anger the western peasantry. Just a month out of prison, Davitt was not quite reoriented, but he could offer the Mayo peasants generalized counsel. He believed that they should not allow another "social suicide" like the one in 1847, when a peasant dutifully paid his rent and said his prayers, then went off and died in the comer simply because he had been told that it was God's will. Something would have to be done. He discussed the problem with Parnell, but not very conclusively.

Six months out of prison, Davitt went to the United States to see his mother, to confer with old Fenian comrades, and to give lectures-for as Sheehy-Skeffington noted, "the American love of lectures is notorious." He found that the foremost Irish-American revolutionary, John Devoy, had suddenly defiled the purity of his Fenianism. He was not only ready to talk "parallel action" with the parliamentarians but had become an enthusiastic Parnellite from having read the headlines in the papers: "All Night Debating," "Speaker in a Fit," and so on, as F. H. O'Donnell humorously parodied them. On the land issue Devoy was ahead of Davitt. The standard agrarian demand of Irish parliamentarians was for the Three Fs, which conceded tenantry to be an immortal institution and hoped only to temper its barbarism. The land bill that Butt presented in the House for the annual slaughter went no further, nor did Parnell's thoughts on the agrarian issue, nor Davitt's either. But in America all the radical Irishmen were afloat on the wave of greenback populism; some were already using Henry George's awesome slogans, "nationalization of the land" and "the single tax"; and all had gone over to the call for the total liquidation of Irish rack-rent tenantry. They would, at the very least, substitute for the Three Fs a demand for a peasant proprietary. Unconcerned with the Jacobin connotation still clinging to that demand, Davitt took it for his main platform, using the more daring slogans of Henry George to give undertone and body to his oratory.

In the autumn of 1878, while Davitt was in Missouri on a lecture tour, Devoy read a news dispatch that led him to conclude-wrongly-that Parnell had seized full control of Home Rule from Butt. On impulse he decided to send Kickham a cable to be handed to Parnell if he was so minded, offering him the support of American Fenianism, conditional upon certain familiar principles: the ultimate goal of national severance, exclusion of all sectarian issues from nationalist politics ("no priests in politics"), the formation of a disciplined Irish parliamentary bloc, and solidarity with "all struggling nationalities in the British empire or elsewhere." Added to the old principles was the important new clause: "vigorous agitation of the land question on the basis of a peasant proprietary, while accepting concessions tending to abolish arbitrary eviction." On receiving the cable, the doctrinaire Kickham did nothing at all. Several days later Devoy published it in the New York Herald, which referred editorially to the clause on the land program as "a New Departure," giving it its permanent name in Irish history.

Parnell's biographer once asked Sir Charles Dilke to what he attributed Parnell's success, and Dilke said, "To his aloofness." Later he asked a Fenian, "What was it about Parnell that struck you most?" He got the reply: "His silence. It was extraordinary." When Parnell read Devoy's cable in the newspaper, he put this special talent into practice: he said nothing. But since he might have denounced the offer and did not, his silence could only be interpreted as a vociferous acceptance. Supposing that possibility, all the Fenians on both sides of the Atlantic began an excited debate of the New Departure. In the United States, Devoy's prestige carried the day, supported by an uninhibited Irish-American greenback populist named Patrick Ford, editor of the Irish World. The American debates amended the clauses of Devoy's cable slightly. Particularism asserted itself and scratched the clause about Ireland's solidarity with other nationalities in in the British empire. The nonsectarian plank also mysteriously disappeared. In place of the sections dropped, Thomas Davis' program for fostering Irish industries was added, and also a demand for the right to carry arms, fighting the battle of 1865 ten years too late. The agrarian clause stood unaltered.

Everybody was ready to go with the New Departure except the principals. At the end of 1878 Devoy and Davitt went to Europe to win the assent of the Fenian supreme council on the one hand and of Parnell himself on the other. They took their case first to the IRB. At a Paris meeting in January 18'79 the question was argued for four days, and at the end the New Departure was voted down overwhelmingly. John O'Leary, the strongest mind on the supreme council, understood well enough that the Irish land problem had reached a new crisis, but he could not see that any of the proposed solutions had anything to do with Irish nationalism. Henry George he rejected out of hand, and he still thought peasant proprietary unimportant compared to severance from England. And as for the parliamentary half of the New Departure, he believed as strongly as ever that the very atmosphere at Westminster was poison to even the strongest Irish will. He was certain only of his own fallibility. Pure doctrine Fenianism was at the moment undeniably paralyzed, and why should its paralysis be forced on everybody else? He took up an attitude of pessimistic but not unfriendly neutrality to the New Departure; but as for the supreme council of the IRB officially blessing it, he voted no.

The IRB's refusal was naturally unacceptable to Devoy and Davitt. Having already split once when the Dynamitards went their separate way, the Fenian movement now split again. Henceforth there was a pure doctrine wing, called "Old Fenians," represented by O'Leary and Kickham, and a legal-activity-pending-insurrection wing, known as "Ribbon Fenians," represented by Devoy and Davitt. There was a mild scuffle to win the members, but it was not much of a contest really. Richard Pigott's newspaper, the Irishman, opted for the Old Fenian wing, but the rank and file mostly went the New Departure way, preferring active pragmatism to stagnant purity. As a result, O'Leary found himself isolated as a kind of a venerable crank during the height of the Parnellite excitement, in that lonely time when Yeats first knew him.

Repelled by the IRB, Davitt and Devoy now turned to their second mission, the assault upon the "cold and enigmatical" Parnell. They invited him to a meeting in Boulogne, together with Biggar and O'Leary. A similar exploratory meeting had been held a year earlier, but to no purpose: Parnell had again exercised his talent for silence and said nothing, but left the meeting with the private remark, "The Fenians want to catch us, but they are not going to." In this next meeting he was more voluble, and Devoy got the impression that he meant business. Three weeks later all met again secretly in Dublin, and Parnell was urged to put himself at the head of the agrarian agitation. This time his reply was, perhaps. Thereupon Davits went into Mayo to begin organizing hungry tenants.

The agrarians won their first Mayo victory before a month had passed. Davitt tells us of an ugly situation at Irishtown involving the parish priest, one Father Burke, who had just inherited from his brother a property with twenty-two tenants. All were in arrears and Father Burke had taken legal steps to evict the lot of them. The Mayo agrarians called a protest meeting,* and when the scheduled day-Sunday, April 19, 1879 -- arrived, it was the old story of the monster meetings: Where did all the people come from? Seven thousand tenant farmers arrived on foot, escorted by a bodyguard of five hundred more on horseback. A Ribbon Fenian speaker named Thomas Brennan was rather bold and blunt in his exhortation:

. . . I have read some history, and I find that several countries have from time to time been afflicted with the same land disease as that under which Ireland is now laboring, and although the political doctors applied many remedies, the one that proved effectual was the tearing out, root and branch, of the class that caused the disease. All right-thinking men would deplore the necessity of having recourse in this country to scenes such as have been enacted in other lands, although I for one will not hold up my hands in holy horror at a movement that gave liberty not only to France but to Europe. If excesses were at that time committed, they must be measured by the depth of slavery and ignorance in which the people had been kept, and I trust Irish landlords will in time recognize the fact that it is better for them at least to have this land question settled after the manner of a Stein or a Hardenberg than wait for the excesses of a Marat or a Robespierre.

Thoroughly cowed, Father Burke surrendered, hastily reducing the rent by one-fourth and dropping his action to evict the laggard tenants. This was big news, and it spread through the western peasantry speedily. The agrarians then moved to the next step, a second tenant mass meeting to be held at Westport in June, with Parnell for the main speaker-if he would come. The oratory at Irishtown had been rather free, even seditious. Parnell asked Butt's legal opinion about the risks in this kind of mass activity and was advised against involving himself in it, since he could be made "responsible for every foolish thing done by the members of the branches." On the other hand, as Devoy made plain to Parnell, the American purse strings would loosen for nothing less than the New Departure. A week before the Westport meeting, Davitt and Devoy met Parnell in Dublin and got his acceptance. Years later Parnell said, "I saw that it was necessary for us to take the risk." He gave his word that he would be at Westport. Immediately Devoy sailed for New York to start raising money.

Cardinal Cullen was gone now, having died during the preceding autumn. He was irreplaceable; but Irish history is rich in examples of the stochastic process that surprises and yet does not. The prelate who took the lead in attacking Davitt was the apologist of Young Ireland, the denouncer of Sadleir and Keogh, the protector of subversive priests-Archbishop MacHale, in whose archdiocese the land war in Mayo was rapidly unfolding. Two days before the Westport meeting, MacHale sent a letter to the Freeman's Joumal threatening open war if Parnell should dare to appear on behalf of this "occult association" that had been "organized by a few designing men, who, instead of the well-being of the community, seek only to promote their personal interests." Having just emerged from seven years in Dartmoor, Davitt found this last part of MacHale's message particularly marvelous. After reading the letter, some of the scheduled speakers sent Davitt their regrets, and when he went to the hotel in Dublin to meet Parnell for the train trip to the west, he was not sure of his star speaker. "Will I attend?" said Parnell. "Certainly. Why not? I have promised to be there, and you can count upon my keeping that promise." Davitt was overwhelmed with gratitude. The anecdote has fixed itself in Irish history as a token of Parnell's courtly generosity and bravery before the wrath of archbishops. We see the scene also as Shakespearean and the outcome, a deposition. Parnell wanted to steer, said Barry O'Brien, and Davitt was only too glad to leave him in command of the ship.


It was not in MacHale's power to stop the tenant movement. The crowd at Westport was much larger than at Irishtown. Robespierre and Marat were missing from the proceedings, but Davitt hinted that peasant proprietary was within grasp: "Instead of `Agitate, agitate,' the cry of the present should be `Organize, organize.' " Parnell met the occasion at Westport head-on. With an incongruity that went unnoticed, he declared that "the maintenance of the class of landlords" must cease, and his speech was best remembered for a fighting phrase: "You must show them [the landlords] that you intend to hold a firm grip of your homesteads and lands. You must not allow yourselves to be dispossessed as your fathers were dispossessed in 1847. You must not allow your small holdings to be consolidated."

Parnell's advice to the Mayo farmers to hold a firm grip of their homesteads was more timely than he thought. The Westport meeting had taken place in the first week of June 1879. It had been a long winter and a wet spring. Heavy rains fell on into midsummer; and six weeks after Parnell's speech, the potato blight suddenly returned with disastrous virulence, destroying the entire crop in Connaught and creating all the natural conditions of 1847. In England the political mood was also reminiscent of 1847. In Ireland, however, the spirit was very different; now "the movement" was rising toward crescendo, not expiring in a dying fall. Hence the cost of the 1878-79 potato blight in human lives would finally add up to zero.

Famines, it appeared, have other causes than the demographic and horticultural. Responding to bold leadership, tenants poured into the new organization by the hundreds every day. Within a month of the Westport meeting they had set up the Land League of Mayo. In another six weeks it had burst its bounds and grown to national scope, becoming the Irish National Land League. In October Parnell was elected president to preside over an executive committee made up of Ribbon Fenians, among them Davitt, Thomas Brennan-the "Marat and Robespierre" orator at Irishtown-and Patrick Egan, the treasurer.** A year later the league had set up five hundred local branches and enrolled two hundred thousand members. Its membership overseas grew to equal size. It was, Davitt said, "the most formidable movement that had confronted the English rulers of Ireland in the century."

Just before Christmas 1879, one year to the day from the time Devoy and Davitt had set out from New York to bring the New Departure to Ireland, Parnell sailed from Southampton for the United States to collect a war chest for the collision that lay ahead. His American tour was a "triumphal procession." Lalor's phrase, "the land of Ireland for the people of Ireland," was a constant oratorical effect. Parnell told the Irishmen of Cincinnati that "we shall kill the landlord system" breaking the "last link" of the chain that supported British rule. In Cleveland he greeted the Irish-American militiamen in his guard of honor with the approved Fenian sentiment that "each one of them must wish, with Sarsfield of old, when dying upon a foreign battlefield, `Oh! that I could carry these arms for Ireland.' " He added, "Well, it may come to that some day or other"; but when he got to Rochester, he warned his listeners that it was "a great responsibility" for any captain to hurl "our unarmed people on the points of British bayonets." He was so swamped with engagements that he cabled Tim Healy in London to hurry across and serve as his private secretary. He had an audience with President Hayes and addressed the Congress. On entering a city he was sometimes greeted with artillery salvos like a chief of state, and when his train came into Montreal at dusk, every house in the city put a lighted candle in the window. In Montreal Healy called him "the uncrowned king of Ireland."

In the midst of his American triumph Parnell received a cable: Parliament dissolved, general election called. Disraeli's dissolution statement declared Ireland to be in a state of rebellion. Escorted by the New York Sixty-ninth Infantry, General Corcoran's old Fenian regiment from the Army of the Potomac, Parnell sailed for Queenstown to plunge into the general-election campaign of March-April 1880.

Next chapter...

"The Politics of Irish Literature" © Copyright 1973 Malcolm Brown

* Davitt was accidentally detained and did not attend the meeting.

**Egan's name was later borrowed by Joyce for no discoverable purpose to attach to the milk-drinking "son of the wild goose" in Ulysses.

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