The divided Irish; an historical sketch

CHAPTER XVI.

During some years of Conservative government, the success with which Mr. Parnell guided his party aroused admiration among his supporters and alarm among his opponents. His authority over Irishmen recalled that of O’Connell, but with the remarkable difference that he exercised an influence over the Irish in America and in the Colonies which hardly lay in O’Connell’s power to acquire to the same extent. These two leaders were great contrasts in personal character. O’Connell, joyous, talkative, and warm-hearted, was a thorough representative of the southern Irishman, while Mr. Parnell, calm, cold, and reserved, was a man whom the Irish masses would probably have much disliked as an opponent. He seemed to have little in common with them, except their political cause. As a Protestant landlord, moreover, it appeared the more extraordinary how he maintained firm control over a party most of whom were openly hostile to his religion and race. Yet for several years he was not only obeyed but trusted by the Irish Catholic masses with a devotion rarely shown by free men to any parliamentary leader. His opponents, therefore, beheld with dismay the apparent friendship, if not alliance, between him and Mr. Gladstone, when an unexpected event occurred to the consternation of the Home Rulers. Mr. Parnell had long calmly defied all political opponents, but for sudden mutiny among his followers he was evidently unprepared. It was a trial which proved too severe even for his resolute and hitherto undaunted spirit. The sudden revolt of his adherents against him, soon followed by his death, occasioned inevitable changes in Irish feeling. Yet they were entirely confined to his former partisans, his opponents viewing his policy and the rival leaders of his party with undiminished and about equal distrust. The revolt against his leadership was nominally, at least, caused by the result of a divorce trial in which he was corespondent. This case resulted in his making no defence, thereby admitting the charge against him. After this event, his followers held meetings, at which it was first resolved to continue their allegiance to him, until a letter of Mr. Gladstone to his former Irish chief secretary, Mr. John Morley, declared that he could not now view Mr. Parnell, or act with him as, the recognised leader of a political party. This intimation, calmly expressed in the decisive peculiar language of which Mr. Gladstone is such a master, caused an immediate division among the parliamentary members of the Home Rule Party. Their majority took Mr. Gladstone’s view, while a small yet energetic minority, headed by Mr. John Redmond, resolved to support Mr. Parnell’s leadership, declaring that whatever his moral conduct might have been, his political career entitled him as much as ever to their confidence. The Irish Roman Catholic clergy almost unanimously declared against Mr. Parnell. When charged by his followers with deserting an ally whom hitherto they had steadily supported, they replied that they fully expected after the trial he would have voluntarily resigned the leadership of the Home Rule party, and that this disappointed expectation was the cause of their silence for some time after its result was known. Meantime Mr. Parnell’s energetic resolve to continue his leadership, despite his abandonment by a majority of his followers, probably hastened his death. He exerted himself desperately to retain their allegiance, addressed meeting after meeting, vehemently appealing to both friends and foes to prove that he had ever justly forfeited the confidence of his political party. To his avowed astonishment, he found the majority of his former adherents throughout Ireland oppose his authority, while their new leaders a Ivised his retirement into private life, at least for a time. Foremost among them were the Roman Catholic clergy, headed by the bishops, whose example was scrupulously followed sooner or later by all the Roman Catholic priests in Ireland. A few, who were at first slow to abandon confidence in him, were silenced or convinced by the example and reasoning of their spiritual superiors. The energy of the Catholic clergy, always so influential in Irish politics, was turned suddenly against Mr. Parnell with much the same enthusiasm as hitherto they had shown in his favour.

To a man of his determined, resolute, if not haughty spirit, this transformation was infinitely more trying than the most vehement opposition of consistent or recognised opponents. The enmity of the greater portion of the British press, the indignant distrust of nearly all his Irish fellow-Protestants, and the censure of the most able British statesmen, he had alike steadily defied for many years. He, indeed, never seemed much affected, or even interested, far less influenced, by anything that his consistent opponents said or did. But the sudden opposition of the majority of his adherents, transformed into vehement denouncing foes, entirely owing to the divorce case, without reference to political conduct, proved beyond his bodily or mental powers to withstand. After hurrying eagerly from place to place throughout Ireland eloquently defending himself, and exhorting his former followers, like a deserted commander, to return to their obedience, while bitterly denouncing what he thought their extraordinary ingratitude, he died October, 1891, leaving his party strangely disunited. The previous scenes of reproach, complaint, and recrimination in Committee Room No. 15 of the House of Commons, Westminster, between Mr. Parnell and his revolted followers were an explanatory revelation. They showed a resolute leader who, though a Protestant landlord, claimed and had long enjoyed almost absolute authority over a majority of Irish members, most of whom eagerly opposed the religious and political interests of his own class. Chiefly through his influence,energy,and perseverance, the House of Commons was filled with Irish members, the majority of whom acknowledged . him their leader, and certainly obeyed him with more confidence or docility than any British Premier had possessed for some time. His sudden deposition, therefore, was all the more surprising and irritating to a man of his imperious resolute spirit. While he bitterly reproached the revolted majority of his former adherents for alleged desertion, they, supported by the Roman Catholic clergy, replied that for a long time they had steadily followed his guidance, till the result of the trial made his position as their leader a scandal or impossibility, and earenstly advised his retirement, at least for a while, from public life. At the same time they practically transferred their confidence almost entirely to Mr. Gladstone by thus acting towards their late leader, in accordance with his intimation. This veteran statesman’s vast abilities displayed perhaps an unprecedented knowledge on almost every important subject, whilst his peculiar policy towards foreigners, especially Greeks and Italians, combine to make him probably the most remarkable statesman of this century.* In his old age he was fated after a long eventful public life to encounter and finally control the eager passions, enthusiasm, and aroused energies of the Irish majority, both in and outside Parliament. Although this majority was represented by active men young enough to be his sons or grandsons, he virtually triumphed over the increasing infirmity of his age by controlling them more and more while they were in the zenith of their health and strength. The proof of his mental supremacy appeared when, at his written intimation, the Irish leader was transformed from being a popular favourite loaded with thanks, praises and compliments, into an object of general reproach, and political degradation, and was even exposed to personal danger. Yet a minority, firmly adhering to him, exchanged with the revolted majority an amount of bitter recrimination which, in real intensity, equalled or exceeded their previous united charges against British rule and the tyranny of the landlords. This class, together with the Protestant minority, chiefly in Ulster, who had alike always desired the British connection, beheld the sudden division among their foes with surprise and relief, and to some extent sympathised with the fallen leader. This sympathy, however, effected no reconciliation between them, and merely arose from the idea that he was treated ungratefully by followers who owed their political advancement to him. This charge of ingratitude to Mr. Parnell, so strongly urged by himself and maintained since his death by devoted adherents, met with a firm, doubtless sincere, denial by the Irish majority, who in their conduct to the abandoned leader, as in most matters, were guided by their clergy. The latter steadily declared that, despite Mr. Parneli’s abilities and great services to the policy they approved, yet his exposed immorality made him unfit to lead and direct the people over whom his influence was vast and increasing. In these scenes of mutual recrimination a vast amount of talent and energy was practically wasted, or rather perverted. Unionists may naturally rejoice at a quarrel among formerly allied foes, but impartial persons must regret that probably no civilised country displays so much ability as Ireland, which is so often directed against its best interests. The Home Rulers censured each other’s motives as well as conduct with the same bitterness they had before expressed against Unionists, and which the latter had expressed against them. Ireland continues so influenced by Party spirit that neither talent nor virtue is much respected in opponents. Impartial persons wishing to know the truth about political Irishmen would find it hard to ascertain in Ireland. Enthusiastic praise, or vehement censure, both alike unreasonable, are usually expressed about them by opposing parties. Walter Scott, in his noble historical novels, often makes heroes and heroines of people opposing his own opinions. His conduct in doing so is generally praised throughout Great Britain. In Ireland the perfect fairness of mind which alone enables men to appreciate real merit in religious and political opponents, would obtain comparatively little admiration or approval. The demoralising effect of Irish politics, through inducing men, like retained advocates, to exaggerate the faults of opponents, and to hide, deny, or extenuate those of partisans, is clearly proved in Ireland’s history and condition. Doubtless the same unscrupulousness formerly prevailed in Britain and throughout the Continent, but the vast extension of national intercourse and education has greatly modified it, as shown by European legislation generally. In Ireland, despite the legal freedom granted to all British subjects throughout the empire, the feelings of the masses, both Catholic and Protestant, can hardly be termed friendly to the liberty of fellow-subjects in either religious or political questions. Ireland became divided into three parties, the Unionists comprised a Protestant majority and a Roman Catholic minority, while the majority of the Home Rulers, nearly all Roman Catholics, selected Mr. Justin M’Carthy, M.P., as their leader; and the minority, consisting chiefly of Roman Catholics, chose Mr. John Redmond as the successor to Mr. Parnell.

In most elections since Mr. Parnell’s death the M’Carthyite party have defeated the Parnellites or Redmondites, who nevertheless continue to show an energy perhaps rather exceeding that of their Home Rule opponents. Their able newspaper, The Daily Independent, still advocates the late leader’s policy, but there can be no doubt that it has ceased to rule the Irish majority in all details which are opposed by their clergy. The Protestant minority also, both Prelatists and Presbyterians, especially in country districts, are in politics more guided by their clergy than has long been the case in Great Britain. Although, doubtless, the advice of clerical politicians is usually well meant and often judicious, yet it can hardly be denied that it is sometimes more calculated to deter their respective denominations from religious changes or conversions, than to encourage or even sanction that tolerance of spirit so beneficial to all divided communities in every civilised country.

*”The most brilliant intellect that has been placed at the service of the State since Parliamentary government began.”—Extract from Lord Salisbury’s speech in the House of Lords, March 12th, 1894.

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