Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Unlucky Green

He was the most famous Irishman of his era and yet he abhorred the color green, considered it the height of bad luck, and blanched at the many gifts and awards presented to him in the national color.

One of the shrewdest political tacticians, his parliamentary battles with Prime Minister William Gladstone were legendary, and yet he was hopelessly superstitious.

A belief in predestination led him into divorce court thereby sacrificing the last chance to gain a united Ireland with a minimum of violence.

Charles Stewart Parnell is no less a paradox now than he was as uncrowned King of Ireland between 1880 and 1891. Mysterious and aloof he rarely entertained questions let alone criticisms.

Though we can now rake through the minutiae of his life, a veil of secrecy and claustrophobia still shrouds the man.

Sound a bit like Sherlock Holmes? Well, the analogy is not far off the mark as the fictional Holmes and the larger-than-life Parnell strode the same foggy Victorian streets of London when a right to privacy was still accepted.

Still, how Mister Parnell could live for almost a decade and raise two children with Catherine O’Shea without the knowledge of his party or the press is hard to fathom in our own media-intrusive age.

And yes, her name was Catherine. In a successful effort to demean her, Tim Healy, one of Parnell’s bitterest opponents, coined “Kitty” – then a codeword for prostitute.

But even Healy had no idea of the depth of attachment of Parnell for Mrs. O’Shea until her husband sued for divorce on Christmas Eve 1889. Nor indeed did anyone suspect that Mrs. O’Shea’s two girls were Parnell’s children.

Ireland was “shook” by the news of the divorce proceedings. In typical fashion, Parnell ignored both the consternation and ramifications. He was the king, what would be would be. Religion and money, however, always trump destiny.

Parnell had aligned himself with Gladstone’s Liberals in a “union of hearts” that promised Home Rule for Ireland. However, the god-fearing Methodist wing of the Liberal Party could have no dealings with an adulterer. The pragmatic Gladstone let it be known that the Irish would need a new leader.

This split the Home Rule Party; many stood with Parnell because of loyalty and a rejection of English interference, but a majority sided with Healy and the Catholic Church, long suspicious of a charismatic Irish Protestant leader. The battle was fierce, sectarian and bitterly personal – many families split on the matter.

And money? Well, back in 1880 when Parnell was first introduced to Catherine O’Shea she was to be the benefactor of an old Aunt’s huge estate. Catherine and her husband, Capt. William O’Shea, had more or less gone their separate ways on the understanding that on the old lady’s demise Capt. Willie would “be well looked after.” Alas, the aunt lived on “to spite them all.”

Shortly after the old lady’s expiration, O’Shea arrived at Catherine’s house expecting that a financial deal would finally be hammered out.

Parnell refused to sully his hands with such negotiations, while Catherine was “short” with Willie who stormed out and filed for divorce.

Parnell achieved one goal – he finally married the woman he loved. However, since his girls were born while Catherine was married to Willie, the good captain threatened to use them in all future legal negotiations.

Undaunted, Parnell fought on believing that “no matter what the Irish will not desert me.” In torrential rain he delivered an election speech at Creggs on the Galway-Roscommon border, took ill and died barely a week later in Catherine’s arms.

Though they had deserted him in large numbers, the Irish people were stunned. Over 200,000 attended his funeral in Dublin.

Catherine was not amongst them. Overcome, she sank into a lonely life hallucinating that Parnell appeared to her late at night.

Ireland never achieved unified Home Rule. Would things have been different had there been another outcome to the negotiations between Catherine and Willie O’Shea on that awful night of Dec. 23rd, 1889?

Perhaps, Parnell was right, green was an unlucky color for him - and Ireland.

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