F. S. L. Lyons has written an excellent biography on the life of one of Ireland’s most controversial political figures. Charles Stewart Parnell is a comprehensive investigation into Parnell’s rise to power during the final decades of nineteenth century Ireland. There are no new theories introduced about Parnell’s accomplishments; there are, however, a number of misconceptions corrected regarding his political motives and achievements, as well as the man’s legacy to Ireland. Lyons carefully traces the course of Parnell’s rise to power, and with equal attention he studies the forces which ended his career in public affairs. It is a clearly written and well-organized book, with conclusions amply supported by sound scholarship. The author has to his credit a number of other books treating Irish political figures and historical events. Charles Stewart Parnell is, perhaps, the most complete biography of Parnell and Irish political activity in the 1870’s and 1880’s currently available to the general reader.
The political issues Parnell encountered as a parliamentarian were firmly rooted in Ireland’s troubled past. Few of them had been resolved during centuries of British occupation and rule. For example, it was only twenty years before Parnell’s birth that Irish leaders managed to obtain Catholic emancipation. And 1845, the year before Parnell’s birth, ushered in another crisis: the Potato Famine (1845-1850), a catastrophe of such magnitude that it temporarily eclipsed all of Ireland’s other pressing problems. In the late 1840’s, the English attempted to combat the disaster by initiating a land reform scheme that was designed to sell estates with vast holdings to investors in England. The plan called for a large influx of foreign capital to revive Ireland’s depressed agrarian economy. The measure failed when speculators purchased the estates and remained absent from their new holdings. Neither the money nor the landlords arrived in Ireland to confront the problem. By 1850, three million people were being fed at public expense, a million had starved to death, and hundreds of thousands had emigrated to Canada and America.
Because the British had proved so ineffectual in successfully resolving any of Ireland’s crucial problems, a new impetus was given to the cause of Irish nationalism. Radical groups sprang up committed to the idea that Ireland should be free to grapple with her own problems without British interference. The Irish Republican Brotherhood (Fenians) was established, their manifesto demanding the violent overthrow of British control. And other groups, less radical, were formed to pressure the British into legislating land reforms and home rule. Complicating the political landscape were the interests of the Protestant minority, the Unionists and anti-Unionists, the Catholic majority, and the Anglo-Irish ruling classes. This was Parnell’s inheritance once he decided to enter the political arena: a confused, demoralized, and leaderless movement in opposition to British rule in Ireland. And according to Lyons, he appeared at first the least likely candidate to organize a movement which would bring the various factions together in a concerted effort to win for Ireland the right to determine her own destiny.
Charles Stewart Parnell was born on June 27, 1846, at Avondale, County Wicklow, into an Anglo-Irish landlord family. His forebears had emigrated to Ireland in the 1660’s, immediately after the Restoration, and had prospered in their adopted home. Charles’ mother was an American and the daughter of Commodore Charles Stewart, captain of the U.S. Constitution, America’s flagship during the War of 1812. She was staunchly anti-English, and it is possible that Charles inherited from her his distrust of British colonial policies. Young Charles received the customary education afforded gentlemen of his class, including studies at English boarding schools and three and one half years at Magdalene College, Cambridge (he left a semester before taking his degree). When he returned to Ireland in 1869, it was to manage the family estate in a responsible manner, not unlike the one practiced by his father, and his father’s father. There were no outward signs that Parnell differed in any appreciable way from other Anglo-Irish landholders: he was educated abroad, a Protestant who spoke the language with an English accent, and who was only mildly curious about politics. In addition, as Lyons points out, he was not a gifted public speaker; also, he...
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