The latter part of the 19th century was a tumultuous period in Irish history, mainly because of the Land War: an agricultural crisis filled with violence and civil unrest throughout the island. The most significant period was between 1879 and 1882.
During this time a long lasting radical agrarian-peasant-revolution seemed imminent.
The rise of the man who became known as “the uncrowned king of Ireland” came about mainly because of the politics that subsequently arose from the Land War. By the beginning of 1880 Protestant Irish landlords were a stable social class with immense power.
By the second half of 1881, however, it was clear the political landscape had been completely transformed. A Catholic middle class, who would go onto hold the reigns of power in 20th century Ireland, were now slowly emerging as a dominant force. But they still needed a big personality to drive their political agenda.
As the masses actively engaged in political life and began sowing the possible seeds for some kind of revolution, a vacuum appeared in Irish political life. This empty space made room for a unifying charismatic figure who could give the masses the kind of fiery rhetoric they wanted to hear. It would also unite Catholic farmers into believing that they could build a better life for themselves and for posterity.
Parnell became that unifying force. The key to his politics was direct and effective: hoodwink the masses into believing they were participating in revolutionary politics. The truth was slightly more sinister. But it enabled a very conservative man to easily become a demi-god to most of the Irish electorate.
The printed word would lend a special hand in cementing Parnell’s status as a cult figure.
From the mid to late 19th century in Ireland, print media was going through a period of enormous change and expansion. Between 1851 and 1881 the number of Irish newspapers doubled. Meanwhile, literacy rates increased from 47%t to 75%.
Print media began having an enormous influence on how the common man thought and consumed his political ideas on a daily basis.
From 1881 to 1890 a newspaper acting as a complete propaganda tool for Parnell was printed once a week: it was known as United Ireland.
The popular historian and RTÉ broadcaster, Myles Dungan, has recently published Mr Parnell’s Rottweiler: it documents the rise and fall of this newspaper, carefully exploring in each chapter the complex nature of editorial policy, which was extremely dictatorial.
The book spends considerable time discussing the antics of a fiercely nationalistic man called William O’Brien, who was just 29-years-old when he took on the job as editor of United Ireland.
“The relationship between Parnell and O’ Brien was mentor and mentee,” Dungan explains.
“O’ Brien never really challenged Parnell and maintained an enormous personal regard for the man, even though they had their political differences.”
“O’Brien knew what his job was. United Ireland, in many respects, was like the [Russian communist] newspaper, Pravda. Wednesday’s truth was not necessarily Thursday’s truth. And if things shifted around, then the paper was there to follow whatever the new direction was. But the very existence of United Ireland — its style and tone — meant that it associated Parnell with a radicalism that was not actually there or real.”
“This worked in Ireland to his advantage, because Parnell was then seen as a far less conservative figure than he actually was, especially by people who could have made a lot of trouble for him.”
Dungan’s thesis can be summarised as thus: the narrative that United Ireland created was often a fictional one. Nevertheless, it was an extremely important tool that enabled Parnell to galvanise support for the Home Rule Movement.
The newspaper gave the outward appearance of Parnell being a revolutionary hero. The reality was that he was a conservative protestant, aristocrat, who wanted to implement a constitutional form of politics without any radical change whatsoever.
Dungan further reiterates how this propaganda was fed out through the newspaper’s editorial position every week.
“There was constant praise for Parnell in Untied Ireland which created this semi-mythical figure.”
“Parnell’s conservatism is the triumph of genes and of class.
He had this attitude that his class should be ruling Ireland but they were going about it the wrong way. What he was trying to do was to sort out the land problem: to get the British government on his side to buy out the landlords.
He was of the opinion that there would still have been an aristocratic class that would rule Ireland.”
Dungan also discuses the hypocrisy at play within the newspaper, particularly when it came to the subject of censorship.
“United Ireland talked a lot about how it was being censored [by the British establishment] ” he says.
“But this doesn’t square up to some of its own actions. I have documented in the book where the paper’s editor, William O’Brien, ensured through his own editorial policy that a [unionist] journalist called Andrew Dunlop was physically attacked at a Plan of Campaign meeting.”
“This is a very sinister form of censorship, where United Ireland were endangering the lives of other journalists. So the paper became almost like a policeman of Parnelitte orthodoxy.”
“Its attachment to freedom of speech was only skin-deep.
Freedom of speech [in the paper’s eyes] was fine as long as you were making the right speech. “
Dungan believes that many Irish historians who are an authority on Parnell — such as the late F.S.L. Lyons — have been seduced by the man’s charisma in their scholarship. Such historical narratives, he suggests, build Parnell into an iconic figure, failing to recognise the sinister brand of politics buried beneath the surface of the man’s politics.
“Parnell had an extremely complex personality, which often wasn’t admirable, “ says Dungan.
“He was also a very controlling and domineering figure who had contempt for a lot of people. There was a touch of Charley Haughey about him. He inspired awe, got a tremendous following, and ordinary people tended to get behind him.”
“But Parnell, like Haughey, had this aristocratic aura about him. There are other similarities as well. What hasn’t been assessed in Parnell’s career by historians hitherto was he how he dealt with money.”
“There is this tremendous arrogance, contempt, and aloofness that Parnell had for people around him. He had little time for his party’s supporters as well.”
Dungan suggests that the reason for Parnell’s vast popularity and success was due to the fact that he was so estranged from the electorate he represented.
As an aristocrat who went to public school in Cambridge, he was clearly of a different social class from the people he was leading. This, then, suggests the historian, ironically gave Parnell- until his sudden downfall and subsequent early death in 1891- an enormous advantage over his followers, who were used to figures of authority telling them what to do.
“Irrespective of Irish people’s attitude towards landlords, they understood Parnell’s right to have authority because he was from a different class. Had he been one of their own, they would have been less respectful to him. And it would have been more difficult for him to become the messianic figure that he became,” Dungan explains.
“Ultimately though, Parnell was a very complex figure who was basically prepared to destroy everything he created because of his own ego.”