On first looking into Bertie’s autobiography

Contributed by Myles Dungan

The late Enoch Powell wasn’t right about much but he was unerringly accurate when he pointed out that ‘all political lives end in failure’ – including his own.

Take the case, for example, of a man who led the Irish people, unchallenged by anything other than a barely audible dissenting murmur for just over a decade.  He took his party to three consecutive electoral victories and was that political rarity, a sea green indispensable.

Often a stumbling and unconvincing public speaker, despite his undisputed political authority, when his name became associated with a potentially career ending scandal he promised his party and his people that his reputation would be vindicated once he finally had his day in court. He got a massive ‘dig out’ from citizens who were concerned at the state of his finances. He was accused of pocketing funds and turning them to his own use. And when he signally failed to justify his actions before a tribunal, the people who had lionised him for a decade, at first, didn’t seem unduly perturbed. It was only when his political allies turned on him spectacularly that he was finally jettisoned.

Familiar? Undoubtedly.  While the details outlined may resonate with the biography of one of our more recent chieftains the politician in question here is the Wicklow patrician, Charles Stewart Parnell rather than the Northside populist.

The ‘Uncrowned King of Ireland’ was about as invulnerable as any Irish politician has ever been. He succeeded in assembling a coalition of fully and slightly constitutional nationalists which settled many of the outstanding issues of the centuries-old Irish land struggle and which set the country on a course towards full-scale peasant proprietorship and the Irish Farmers Association. His alliance of convenience with the British Liberal Party had put Home Rule on the agenda and (major difference approaching) he had emerged unscathed from a full-blooded Tory and media-inspired tribunal that sought to discredit him by linking him directly to the Phoenix Park murders.

In 1883 he was the subject of the mother of all ‘dig outs’. It was on a par with the covert financial endowment of former Taoiseach Charles Haughey and makes the burnt offerings laid before the altar of the Iar-Taoiseach seem like the lighting of a penny candle by comparison. And it was all totally above board. The so-called Parnell Tribute, amounting to £38,000 in the 1880’s – the equivalent of more than  €2m today – was a magnanimous ‘thank you’ from a grateful nation to a leader who had impoverished himself in the pursuit of justice for his people. No ‘Thanks very much Big Fella’ for this Charlie. No Manchester whip-around for the man who championed the Manchester Martyrs. No ambiguity about personal / political contributions for this lanky public representative whose career was greatly enhanced by his contacts in Mayo.

He was, in 1890, ar droim muice, an expression with which he himself would only have been familiar in its English translation, ‘on the pig’s back’. He was untouchable. Despite his probable antipathy towards the word, he was invincible.

Later on, after the infamous O’Shea divorce, when it all went sour and he was fighting for his political life, that spirit of generosity had evaporated to the extent that his enemies claimed that among the sins of this newly coined devil incarnate was the misappropriation of funds intended for his party. A decade of unparalleled achievement came to nothing in a political world where asset can turn into liability with startling rapidity. But, as he was dead within the year, there was no time for an autobiography, ghost-written or otherwise.

In all of this are there any lessons to be learned in the frailty and transitory nature of indispensability by any twenty-first century Irish politicians? Perish the thought.

Myles Dungan has just published two books, The Captain and the King: William O’Shea, Parnell and Late Victorian Ireland (New Island) and Conspiracy: Irish Political Trials (RIA/RTE) and is doing a PhD in history at TCD.

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