There are some who would dispute the greatness of Parnell - who would deny him the stature and the dignity of a leader of men. There are others who would aver that Parnell was made by his lieutenants - that he owed all his success in the political arena to their ability and fighting qualities and that he was essentially a man of mediocre talents himself.

It might be enough to answer to these critics that Parnell could never hold the place he does in history, that he could never have overawed the House of Commons as he did, nor could he have emerged so triumphantly from the ordeal of The Times Commission were he not superabundantly endowed with all the elements and qualities of greatness. But apart from this no dispassionate student of the Parnell period can deny that it was fruitful in massive achievement for Ireland. When Parnell appeared on the scene it might well be said of the country, what had been truly said of it in another generation, that it was "as a corpse on the dissecting-table." It was he, and the gallant band which his indomitable purpose gathered round him, that galvanised the corpse into life and breathed into it a dauntless spirit of resolve which carried it to the very threshold of its sublimest aspirations. To Isaac Butt is ascribed the merit of having conceived and given form to the constitutional movement for Irish liberty. He is also credited with having invented the title "Home Rule" - a title which, whilst it was a magnificent rallying cry for a cause, in the circumstances of the time when it was first used, was probably as mischievous in its ultimate results as any unfortunate nomenclature well could be, since all parties in Ireland and out of it became tied to its use when any other designation for the Irish demand might have made it more palatable with the British masses. Winston Churchill is reported to have said, in his Radical days, to a prominent Irish leader: "I cannot understand why you Irishmen are so stupidly wedded to the name 'Home Rule.' If only you would call it anything else in the world, you would have no difficulty in getting the English to agree to it."

But although Isaac Butt was a fine intellect and an earnest patriot he never succeeded in rousing Ireland to any great pitch of enthusiasm for his policy. It was still sick, and weary, and despondent after the Fenian failure, and the revolutionary leaders were not prone to tolerate or countenance what they regarded as a Parliamentary imposture. A considerable body of the Irish landed class supported the Butt movement, because they had nothing to fear for their own interests from it. They were members of his Parliamentary Party, not to help him on his way, but rather with the object of weakening and retarding his efforts.

It was at this stage that Parnell arrived. The country was stricken with famine - the hand of the lord, in the shape of the landlord, was heavy upon it. After a season of unexampled agricultural prosperity the lean years had come to the Irish farmer and he was ripe for agitation and resistance. Butt had the Irish gentry on his side. With the sure instinct of the born leader Parnell set out to fight them. He had popular feeling with him. It was no difficult matter to rouse the democracy of the country against a class at whose doors they laid the blame for all their woes and troubles and manifold miseries. Butt was likewise too old for his generation. He was a constitutional statesman who made noble appeal to the honesty and honour of British statesmen. Parnell, too, claimed to be a constitutional leader, but of another type. With the help of men like Michael Davitt and John Devoy he was able to muster the full strength of the revolutionary forces behind him and he adopted other methods in Parliament than lackadaisical appeals to the British sense of right and justice.

The time came when the older statesman had perforce to make way for the younger leader. The man with a noble genius for statesman-like design - and this must be conceded to Isaac Butt - had to yield place and power to the men whose genius consisted in making themselves amazingly disagreeable to the British Government, both in Ireland and at Westminster. "The Policy of Exasperation" was the epithet applied by Butt to the purpose of Parnell, in the belief that he was uttering the weightiest reproach in his power against it. But this was the description of all others which recommended it to the Irish race - for it was, in truth, the only policy which could compel British statesmen to give ear to the wretched story of Ireland's grievances and to legislate in regard to them. It is sad to have to write it of Butt, as of so many other Irish leaders, that he died of a broken heart. Those who would labour for "Dark Rosaleen" have a rough and thorny road to travel, and they are happy if the end of their journey is not to be found in despair, disappointment and bitter tragedy.

Parnell, once firmly seated in the saddle, lost no time in asserting his power and authority. Mr William O'Brien, who writes with a quite unique personal authority on the events of this time, tells us that there is some doubt whether "Joe" Biggar, as he was familiarly known from one end of Ireland to the other, was not the actual inventor of Parliamentary obstruction. His own opinion is that it was Biggar who first discovered it but it was Parnell who perceived that the new weapon was capable of dislocating the entire machinery of Government at will and consequently gave to a disarmed Ireland a more formidable power against her enemies than if she could have risen in armed insurrection, so that a Parliament which wanted to hear nothing of Ireland heard of practically nothing else every night of their lives.

Let it be, however, clearly understood that there was an Irish Party before Parnell's advent on the scene. It was never a very effective instrument of popular right, but after Butt's death it became a decrepit old thing - without cohesion, purpose or, except in rare instances, any genuine personal patriotism. It viewed the rise of Parnell and his limited body of supporters with disgust and dismay. It had no sympathy with his pertinacious campaign against all the cherished forms and traditions of "The House," and it gave him no support. Rather it virulently opposed him and his small group, who were without money and even without any organisation at their back. Parnell had also to contend with the principal Nationalist newspaper of the time - The Freeman's Journal - as well as such remnants as remained of Butt's Home Rule League.

About this time, however, a movement - not for the first or the last time - came out of the West. A meeting had been held at Irishtown, County Mayo, which made history. It was here that the demand of "The Land for the People" first took concrete form. Previously Mr Parnell and his lieutenants had been addressing meetings in many parts of the country, at which they advocated peasant proprietorship in substitution for landlordism, but now instead of sporadic speeches they had to their hand an organisation which supplied them with a tremendous dynamic force and gave a new edge to their Parliamentary performances. And not the least value of the new movement was that it immediately won over to active co-operation in its work the most powerful men in the old revolutionary organisation. I remember being present, as a very little lad indeed, at a Land League meeting at Kiskeam, Cork County, where scrolls spanned the village street bearing the legend: "Ireland for the Irish and the Land for the People."

The country people were present from far and near. Cavalcades of horsemen thronged in from many a distant place, wearing proudly the Fenian sash of orange and green over their shoulder, and it struck my youthful imagination what a dashing body of cavalry these would have made in the fight for Ireland. Michael Davitt was the founder and mainspring of the Land League and it is within my memory that in the hearts and the talks of the people around their fireside hearths he was at this time only second to Parnell in their hope and love. I am told that Mr John Devoy shared with him the honour of co-founder of the Land League, but I confess I heard little of Mr Devoy, probably because he was compulsorily exiled about this time.[1]

In those days Parnell's following consisted of only seven men out of one hundred and three Irish members. When the General Election of 1880 was declared he was utterly unprepared to meet all its emergencies. For lack of candidates he had to allow himself to be nominated for three constituencies, yet with marvellous and almost incredible energy he fought on to the last polling-booth. The result was astounding. He increased his following to thirty-five, not, perhaps, overwhelming in point of numbers, but remarkable for the high intellectual standard of the young men who composed it, for their varied capacities, for their fine patriotism, and their invincible determination to face all risks and invite all dangers. It has been said of Parnell that he was an intolerant autocrat in the selection of candidates for and membership of the Party, and that he imposed his will ruthlessly upon them once they were elected. I am told by those who were best in a position to form a judgment, and whose veracity I would stake my life upon, that nothing could be farther from the truth. Parnell had little to say with the choosing of his lieutenants. Indeed, he was singularly indifferent about it, as instances could be quoted to prove. Undoubtedly he held them together firmly, because he had the gift of developing all that was best in a staff of brilliant talents and varied gifts, and so jealousies and personal idiosyncrasies had not the room wherein to develop their poisonous growths.

I pass rapidly over the achievements of Parnell in the years that followed. He gave the country some watchwords that can never be forgotten, as when he told the farmers to "Keep a firm grip of your homesteads!" followed by the equally energetic exhortation: "Hold the harvest!" They were his Orders of the Day to his Irish army. Then came the No-Rent Manifesto, the suppression of the Land League after only twelve months' existence, Kilmainham and its Treaty, and the Land Act of 1881, which I can speak of, from my own knowledge, as the first great forward step in the emancipation of the Irish tenant farmer. Mr Dillon differed with Parnell as to the efficacy of this Act, but he was as hopelessly wrong in his attitude then as he was twenty-two years later in connection with the Land Act of 1903. In 1882 the National League came into being, giving a broader programme and a deeper depth of meaning to the aims of Parnell. At this time the Parliamentary policy of the Party under his leadership was an absolute independence of all British Parties, and therein lay all its strength and savour. There was also the pledge of the members to sit, act and vote together, which owed its wholesome force not so much to anything inherent in the pledge itself as to the positive terror of a public opinion in Ireland which would tolerate no tampering with it. Furthermore, a rigid rule obtained against members of the Party seeking office or preferment for themselves or their friends on the sound principle that the Member of Parliament who sought ministerial favours could not possibly be an impeccable and independent patriot.

But the greatest achievement of Parnell was the fact that he had both the great English parties bidding for his support. We know that the Tory Party entered into negotiations with him on the Home Rule issue. Meanwhile, however, there was the more notable conversion of Gladstone, a triumph of unparalleled magnitude for Parnell and in itself the most convincing testimony to the positive strength and absolute greatness of the man. A wave of enthusiasm went up on both sides of the Irish Sea for the alliance which seemed to symbolise the ending of the age-long struggle between the two nations. True, this alliance has since been strangely underrated in its effects, but there can be no doubt that it evoked at the time a genuine outburst of friendliness on the part of the Irish masses to England. And at the General Election of 1885 Parnell returned from Ireland with a solid phalanx of eighty-four members - eager, invincible, enthusiastic, bound unbreakably together in loyalty to their country and in devotion to their leader.

From 1885 to 1890 there was a general forgiving and forgetting of historic wrongs and ancient feuds. The Irish Nationalists were willing to clasp hands across the sea in a brotherhood of friendship and even of affection, but there stood apart, in open and flaming disaffection, the Protestant minority in Ireland, who were in a state of stark terror that the Home Rule Bill of 1886 meant the end of everything for them - the end of their brutal ascendancy and probably also the confiscation of their property and the ruin of their social position.

Then, as on a more recent occasion, preparations for civil war were going on in Ulster, largely of English Party manufacture, and more with an eye to British Party purposes than because of any sincere convictions on the rights of the ascendancy element. Still the Grand Old Man carried on his indomitable campaign for justice to Ireland, notwithstanding the unfortunate cleavage which had taken place in the ranks of his own Party, and it does not require any special gift of prevision to assert, nor is it any unwarrantable assumption on the facts to say, that the alliance between the Liberal and Irish Parties would inevitably have triumphed as soon as a General Election came had not the appalling misunderstanding as to Gladstone's "Nullity of Leadership" letter flung everything into chaos and irretrievably ruined the hopes of Ireland for more than a generation.

And this brings me to what I regard as the greatest of Irish tragedies - the deposition and the dethronement of Parnell under circumstances which will remain for all time a sadness and a sorrow to the Irish race.


[Footnote 1: Devoy, although banished, did turn up secretly in Mayo when the Land League was being organised, and his orders were supreme with the secret societies.]