CHAPTER IV. AN APPRECIATION OF PARNELL
With the death of Parnell a cloud of despair seemed to settle upon the land. Chaos had come again; indeed, it had come before, ever since the war of faction was set on foot and men devoted themselves to the satisfaction of savage passions rather than constructive endeavour for national ideals. We could have no greater tribute to Parnell's power than this - that when he disappeared the Party he had created was rent into at least three warring sections, intent for the most part on their own miserable rivalries, wasting their energies on small intrigues and wretched personalities and by their futilities bringing shame and disaster upon the Irish Cause. There followed what Mr William O'Brien describes in his Evening Memories as "eight years of unredeemed blackness and horror, upon which no Irishman of any of the three contending factions can look back without shame and few English Liberals without remorse."
And thus Ireland parted with "the greatest of her Captains" and reaped a full crop of failures as her reward. Too late there were flashing testimonials to his greatness. Too late it became a commonplace observation in Ireland, when the impotence of the sordid sections was apparent: "How different it would all be if Parnell were alive." Too late did we have tributes to Parnell's capacity from friend and foe which magnified his gifts of leadership beyond reach of the envious. Even the man who was more than any other responsible for his fall said of Parnell (Mr Barry O'Brien's Life of Parnell):
"Parnell was the most remarkable man I ever met. I do not say the ablest man; I say the most remarkable and the most interesting. He was an intellectual phenomenon. He was unlike anyone I had ever met. He did things and said things unlike other men. His ascendancy over his Party was extraordinary. There has never been anything like it in my experience in the House of Commons. He succeeded in surrounding himself with very clever men, with men exactly suited for his purpose. They have changed since - I don't know why. Everything seems to have changed. But in his time he had a most efficient party, an extraordinary party. I do not say extraordinary as an opposition but extraordinary as a Government. The absolute obedience, the strict discipline, the military discipline in which he held them was unlike anything I have ever seen. They were always there, they were always ready, they were always united, they never shirked the combat and Parnell was supreme all the time."
"Parnell was supreme all the time." This is the complete answer to those - and some of them are alive still - who said in the days of "the Split" that it was his Party which made him and not he who made the Party. In this connection I might quote also the following brief extract from a letter written by Mr William O'Brien to Archbishop Croke during the Boulogne negotiations:
"We have a dozen excellent front bench men in our Party but there is no other Parnell. They all mean well but it is not the same thing. The stuff talked of Parnell's being a sham leader, sucking the brains of his chief men, is the most pitiful rubbish."
Time proved, only too tragically, the correctness of Mr O'Brien's judgment. When the guiding and governing hand of Parnell was withdrawn the Party went to pieces. In the words of Gladstone: "they had changed since then" - and I may add that at no subsequent period did they gain the same cohesion, purpose or power as a Party.
It may be well when dealing with Parnell's position in Irish history to quote the considered opinion of an independent writer of neutral nationality. M. Paul Dubois, a well-known French author, in his masterly work, Contemporary Ireland, thus gives his estimate of Parnell:
"Parnell shares with O'Connell the glory of being the greatest of Irish leaders. Like O'Connell he was a landlord and his family traditions were those of an aristocrat. Like him, too, he was overbearing, even despotic in temperament. But in all else Parnell was the very opposite of the 'Liberator.' The Protestant leader of a Catholic people, he won popularity in Ireland without being at all times either understood or personally liked. In outward appearance he had nothing of the Irishman, nothing of the Celt about him. He was cold, distant and unexpansive in manner and had more followers than friends. His speech was not that of a great orator. Yet he was singularly powerful and penetrating, with here and there brilliant flashes that showed profound wisdom. A man of few words, of strength rather than breadth of mind - his political ideals were often uncertain and confused - he was better fitted to be a combatant than a constructive politician. Beyond all else he was a Parliamentary fighter of extraordinary ability, perfectly self-controlled, cold and bitter, powerful at hitting back. It was precisely these English qualities that enabled him to attain such remarkable success in his struggle with the English. Pride was perhaps a stronger motive with him than patriotism or faith."
We have here the opinions of those who knew Parnell in Parliament - the one as his opponent, the other as, perhaps, his most intimate friend - and of an independent outsider who had no part or lot in Irish controversies. It may be perhaps not amiss if I conclude this appreciation of Parnell with the views of an Irishman of the latest school of Irish thought. Mr R. Mitchell Henry, in his work, The Evolution of Sinn Fein, writes: