Parnell and the Land League (2)

Eleanor Hull
Parnell and the Land League | start of chapter

In April 1880 came the general election which placed Gladstone in power, with Forster as Chief Secretary and Lord Cowper as Viceroy of Ireland.

Parnell was returned for three constituencies and chose to sit for Cork City. He was also elected leader of the Nationalist party, and, in Gladstone’s words, there rushed upon him like a flood a social revolution with the Land League for its organ in Ireland and Parnell’s party as its organ in Parliament.

Agrarian agitation and Parliamentary obstruction were to march hand in hand. Gladstone explained to the Queen that the state of Ireland was menacing, and Forster, whom Gladstone was later to describe as “a very impracticable man placed in a position of great responsibility,” introduced a Coercion Bill which practically enabled the Viceroy to lock up anyone he pleased and for as long as he pleased.

The Land League was increasing in power every day, and the country was in a state of violent agitation. Forster professed to believe that if the “village tyrants” who were committing outrages were arrested the disorder would stop, while Parnell called on the Government to cure wrongs and stop convictions, if they wished crime to disappear.

With the League behind him he was ready to defy the House. After a continuous obstruction of several days the closure was applied by the Speaker, and the Bill passed. The Coercion Bill was followed by the Land Bill of 1881, of which we have already spoken. It had as its basis the long-debated “Three F’s.” It was a good Bill, and it passed by a majority of two to one. But Parnell continued the agitation, and used all his authority to keep the tenants from seeking to have their rents fixed by the Land Commission. “He desired,” Gladstone said, “to spread the plague, not to stop it.” He made defiant speeches at Maryborough and Wexford, and on October 12 the Cabinet decided on his arrest.

The step was taken largely to prevent his interference with the working of the Act and to give it a fair chance of quieting the country, and, as such, it seems to have been justified.

The Land League had to advance or retire, and Parnell was determined to keep it alive for further efforts. He was detained with other political prisoners for six months in a light confinement at Kilmainham, and Ireland became once more a prey to violence and disorder. Agrarian outrages increased, and ‘moonlighting,’ raids terrified peaceable inhabitants. The “No-Rent” campaign was actively at work, and Parnell’s own tenants were “acting strictly up to it.”[9]

A new turn was now given to events. It was decided to release Parnell and the “suspects,” to recall Forster, and to send in his place Lord Frederick Cavendish, a high-minded man and good friend to Ireland. Parnell expressed his readiness to advise the tenants to settle with the landlords, to withdraw the “No-Rent” manifesto, and to discourage outrages, if the Government would make a favourable settlement of the question of arrears.

In Forster’s words he offered “that the conspiracy that had been used to get up boycotting and outrages should be put down by the same means,” and a union made with the Liberal party on certain conditions respecting an arrears settlement. “If all England,rdquo; he added, “cannot govern the Hon. Member for Cork, then let us acknowledge that he is the greatest power in all Ireland to-day.”

Gladstone found Parnell’s letter with these proposals “the most extraordinary he had ever read,” and felt highly gratified. The Viceroy saw matters in another light, and resigned; on May 2, 1882, Parnell, O’Kelly, and Dillon walked out of prison, and a few days later, while Forster was speaking against the policy of his release, Parnell, amid deafening cheers, resumed his place in the House. It seemed for the moment that what came to be called “the Kilmainham Treaty” between Gladstone and Parnell might be the beginning of better things, when one of those thunderclaps occurred which have so often darkened the skies of Ireland on critical occasions.

The news was flashed round the world that on the very day when the new Lord-Lieutenant, Earl Spencer, had made his state entry into Dublin the new Chief Secretary and his Under-Secretary, Thomas Henry Burke, walking out to the Viceregal Lodge in Phœnix Park, were set on by a band of assassins from the “Invincibles” and stabbed to death.

The horror that fell on the whole community on that day will never be forgotten in this generation. The assassins, as it turned out afterwards, did not even recognize Lord Frederick Cavendish; they aimed at killing Burke.

Parnell, for once, was shaken out of his self-command; he was prostrated alike by the crime and by the effect it must have on his campaign. The forces of evil with which he had dallied had risen against him to destroy the work on which his heart was set. He offered to resign, and made a straightforward speech in the House condemning the murders, while the Government reverted to their Crimes legislation.

But Ministers kept their word about the Arrears Bill; Parnell, too, kept his, and slowed down agitation. Henceforth he wished solely to advance Home Rule, for which purpose he established the National League, though keeping in the background the ultimate aim of a peasant proprietary of land. He became more moderate, and more in horror of anarchy, though he felt the result of moderation in the loss of the more violent of his supporters; Davitt and Dillon disapproved his course, and Brennan and Egan denounced his “moderation.”

Parnell’s inexorable will and dauntless courage were sorely tried, but he held his party together by his commanding personality and at moments by an irresistible charm. He refused, however, to take any active part in the “Plan of Campaign” launched by William O’Brien for the purpose of keeping alive agitation and forcing the landlords to accept what the tenants considered a fair rent, and for a time he practically retired from public life.

He was ill and disheartened, and while at Kilmainham he had come to the conclusion that “everything connected with the Land League movement was hollow and wanting in solidity.”[10]

Lord Spencer had a hard task to face when he reached Dublin, and his régime was fiercely attacked. Random arrests, trials for sedition, and packed juries gave plenty of fuel for the Land League campaign; it was gravely questioned whether several of the executed men were the real culprits.

Meanwhile, dynamite plots, boldly supported by the Irish World and financed from America, spread from Ireland to England, where arms and dynamite factories were discovered and attempts made to blow up public buildings in the Metropolis.

There was an epidemic of outrages, and the social fabric in Ireland seemed to rock. The country appeared to be a society on the eve of dissolution. Landlords and sheriffs alike were intimidated. Gladstone believed that Parnell was the one restraining influence which kept down outrage, and his Cabinet was convinced that he “was sincerely anxious for the pacification of Ireland.”[11]

Parnell was engaged in welding into a compact body his adherents in the Commons, with the intention of making the independent Nationalist party the arbiter of the fate of the two opposed English parties and forcing from them the reforms he demanded. The 1885 election was to be fought on new lines, for Gladstone’s Reform Act of 1884 had added some 500,000 electors, largely Home Rulers, to the poll.

Ever since his release from Kilmainham the Irish leader had been coquetting with various members of the Tory party.

Lord Randolph Churchill repudiated the policy of coercion and foreshadowed a change of policy. Chamberlain was strongly in favour of a large measure of local government for Ireland, with a central council in Dublin. Above all, Lord Carnarvon, the Viceroy, appeared sincerely attached to the plan of Home Rule, but feared that he would find difficulties with his colleagues in the Cabinet.

Negotiations were set on foot, and were carried on, when not directly with the Irish leader, by means of intermediaries, among them being Captain O’Shea with Chamberlain and Mrs. O’Shea with Gladstone, Parnell took the field and raised the banner of Home Rule, declaring that he had only one plank, Legislative Independence. But his speeches met with a united note of hostility from the Tory Press, and the party wavered under the threat of a strong adverse vote at the coming election.

As they cooled, Gladstone became more propitious, and Parnell’s promise that “Whigs and Tories would be seen vying with each other to settle the Irish question” was actually becoming true. The Liberals came in by a majority of eighty-two, and Parnell had behind him a solid party of eighty-six Home Rulers, which he could use to force the situation on either side.[12]

English parties were reduced to a state of impotence, and Parnell proposed to keep them so till the question of Home Rule was settled. He was at this moment one of the most powerful and most unpopular men in England. But he remained convinced that no Government would do more for Ireland than it was forced to do.

In 1885 Lord Salisbury accepted office with reluctance, not only because of serious differences within his own party, but because of the uncertainty of the Irish vote. His fears were realized; a Coercion Bill was introduced and within a month the Government was defeated on an amendment of Jesse Collings on an Agricultural Bill, and Gladstone again took office.

But the diversity of views in the Cabinet on the Irish question at once came to the front, and Chamberlain, who remained firm to his plan for local government, withdrew, carrying with him Trevelyan and Sir Charles Dilke.

The first business was to draft a Government of Ireland Bill. A year before, when Lord Hartington expressed his dissent from Gladstone’s then half-formed plans, the elder man had prophesied that in the end there would have to be given “at least what they [Chamberlain and Dilke] recommend.”

But the success of the Home Rule party at the polls had led the Nationalists “to raise their terms,” and any measure of local government, however extended, had now no chance of being accepted.

Gladstone’s present policy shaped itself into two measures, a Home Rule Bill establishing a domestic legislature to deal with Irish affairs, and a Land Purchase Bill for buying out the landlords and creating a peasant proprietary, but the latter Bill was quickly dropped.

Parnell fought for good financial terms, and by his close, tenacious mastery of details won the approval of the greatest financier of his time.

“He never slurred over difficulties, nor tried to pretend that rough was smooth … Of constructive faculty he never showed a trace. … But he knew what he wanted.”[13]

The chief point of antagonism was the question of the retention or exclusion of Irish Members from Westminster, the limits of their interference, and what branches of legislation were to be excluded from the purview of the Irish Parliament; but the Bill was hammered into shape, and introduced in a crowded House on April 8, 1886.

The debate was long, serious, and brilliant. Lord Hartington and Chamberlain opposed the Bill along with John Bright, who had many times in the past spoken in favour of Irish claims. Lord Salisbury made an alarmist speech, and Chamberlain discussed federation.

Every individual in the three kingdoms seemed to feel himself effected by the Bill, and fought for or against it. Some accepted the principle of the Bill, but demurred upon detail, but, on the whole, it was discovered that a widespread desire existed throughout the country to give the Irish people greater control over their own affairs. Parnell’s speeches were masterly, grave, and responsible, and were said by a competent judge “to make even able disputants on either side look little better than amateurs.”[14]

He hesitated over the exclusion of customs and excise from the control of the Irish Parliament and at the contribution of £3,344,000 to the Imperial Exchequer, but on May 10, he said that he believed the Irish people would accept the measure as a final settlement. Gladstone, then seventy-six years of age, pleaded with passion and oratory for his Bill. Yet when the division was taken the Bill was lost by thirty votes, and Gladstone dissolved Parliament. A Unionist majority of 110 was declared at the polls, and Gladstone resigned.

On March 7, 1887, the first of the letters on “Parnellism and Crime” appeared in The Times. Into that sordid attempt to incriminate Parnell by the use of forged letters, it is unnecessary to go. Pigott, who had been paid to write them shot himself after the trial. The case dragged on for months before a Special Commission, but though it threw much light on the working of secret societies in Ireland it failed to convict Parnell of complicity.[15]

On his acquittal he was received in the House with a great ovation, every member of the assembly rising and cheering himself hoarse. But the moment of triumph was brief. On December 24, 1889, the long-expected blow fell, and Captain O’Shea filed a petition for divorce on the ground of Parnell’s adultery with his wife.

A divorce was granted, and Parnell married Mrs. O’Shea, but the matter was taken up strenuously by different sections of the public, and Gladstone wrote a letter saying that he would retire from the leadership of the Liberal party if Parnell did not retire. Parnell had just been re-elected leader of the Nationalist party, but Gladstone’s letter split the party, and he was called upon to resign. A short time later Parnell was no more. He died at Brighton on October 6, 1891.

It is difficult to define the secret of Parnell’s influence over his followers. He had none of the arts of popularity, neither oratory, wit, or subservience to the demands of his audience. Often, when they expected to be roused, his manner and words chilled them; he met his admirers with frigidity when they looked for cordiality, and, in later life, in proportion as the veteran statesman who fought his battles glowed with enthusiasm, Parnell displayed an unsympathetic and almost cynical manner. English society bored him, and he showed the contempt he felt for it. Yet he was capable of rousing large Irish audiences to a pitch of excitement which only O’Connell had been able to equal, and the ablest men of the day felt and acknowledged his power.

Gladstone admired his business-like way of approaching great questions and his clear head for finance. He ascribed much of his influence to the fact that Parnell always said exactly what he meant and no more, and Parnell, in return, recognized alone in Gladstone a force of will and a Parliamentary resource equal to and even surpassing his own.

His great and rare gift of dominating men and controlling them Gavan Duffy ascribes to his intense individuality, and Chamberlain to his tenacity of purpose, which made him indifferent to anything which stood in the way of the aim he had in view. Ireland, which is quick to recognize sincere devotion to her interests, saw in him a man solely bent on serving her cause; and she repaid him by an unquestioning obedience.

Men understood his purpose who disapproved his methods, and they learned by experience that his judgment in tactics seldom failed. Mrs. O’Shea, seeing him from another angle, compared him to a volcano under a sheet of snow.