Page 6, 3rd December 1993

3rd December 1993
Page 6
Page 6, 3rd December 1993 — Lost laurels of a patriot

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Locations: Vienna, Berlin


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Lost laurels of a patriot

The Laurel and the Ivy: The Story of Charles Stewart Parnell and Irish Nationalism by Robert Kee, Hamish Hamilton, £20


an altogether admirable book. This is perhaps the most accessible biography of Parnell, written in a clear and easy style. In his preface, Kee describes this as a book for the general reader, but hopes that "some of the detail and even argument here will be new to those familiar with the story". He is too modest. The book is a significant addition to the corpus of information on Parnell. His major original contribution to Parnell scholarship lies in his consideration of the very early years of Parnell's career in politics, which are conventionally discounted.

Kee has done what no-one has troubled to do preciously, namely to collate the reports of early parliamentary interventions with local and national newspaper accounts of his movements and activities outside Parliament.

This technique works extremely well, enabling him, for example, to observe Parnell taking time off from the Meath election of 1875 which returned him to Parliament to appear in the stands at the Rathdrum steeplechases as a steward alongside the other landed proprietors of Wicklow.

Kee captures the fierce elan, the restless energy of the young Parnell, what the Freeman's Journal characterised as early as 1876 as his "indomitable perseverance". He charts the formadon of a public man.

HVI/ Lucy, doyen of parliamentary writers, wrote of "that fresh and convincing argument for Home Rule, Ms Parnell, who combines in his person all the unlovable qualities of an Irish member with the absolute absence of their attractiveness".

Kee is excellent on Parnell as an obstructionist, noting how a dry humour is often at work, the "humour of a man happy enough to let others notice that his eye is in fact on something quite other than the matter immediately in hand".

He is particularly perceptive on Parnell's persistent campaign against flogging in the armed forces, which has never received its due attention. He also voted, in early 1878, against capital punishment. Kee has a good eye for the small, telling detail: the lesser speech, the words of the chairman of the meeting, the slogans on the banners. "Charles Stewart Parnell: Ireland Trusts and Loves You Well" said the banners at Roscommon in November 1879.

He has turned up an intriguing interview with Parnell at Avondale by a correspondent of the Wiener Allgemaine Zeitung, in late 1880, who expecting a hideous revolutionary, was surprised to find a man who "would, in Vienna, be taken for an amiable cavalier; in Berlin for an officer of the Guards in private dress".

Kee's narrative counters the myth, most sedulously cultivated by TM Healy, that Parnell was a lazy and cynical young Protestant landlord, possessed of little more than aristocratic bearing and a modicum of hereditary calculation, who had the good fortune to enter politics on a flowing tide upon which he rode to prominence. Kee shows just how hard-won Parnell's ascendancy was.

It is a moving story. Many of Parnell's utterances at the outset of his career were to be repeated, almost selfconsciously, in its final crisis. Illumining that aspect of his early years in politics where the light of history has shone most faintly, Kee restores the lost dignity of Parnell's career.

Kee is fond of quoting the observation of AJP Taylor that there can never be too many books about Parnell. What he has written is considerably more than just another book on Parnell.

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