- The Ivy Leaf: The Parnells Remembered
The Ivy Leaf is a charming set of essays from the hands of two authors, Donal McCartney and Pauric Travers. Each chapter originated in a talk, some dating back more than two decades, delivered at various commemorations of Charles Stewart Parnell and to the flourishing Parnell Summer School held each summer at the Parnell home, Avondale County Wicklow. This is not a conventional biographical work. The eleven essays are not solely on Charles Parnell; they also take up his wife, brother, and other family members and demonstrate that in spite of the paucity of Parnell letters there remain many fresh insights into the life of the Chief and his family. The book has two functions: the overt one of re-examining the Parnells, and the covert one of assessing how history and commemorations are constructed. A short bibliography of relevant publications on the Parnells and their era is appended.
Travers's account of Parnell's political speeches is especially enjoyable. Parnell, as is well known, wrote few letters, and the reminiscences of contemporaries are notoriously unreliable. Travers provides a much needed lesson on the pitfalls of using this sort of material; in doing so, he offers a useful corrective to J. R. Vincent and A. B. Cooke's The Governing Passion (1974), which maintained that only private letters revealed the true opinions of political leaders. To apply this thesis to Parnell is to suggest that there is, effectively, no useful information for his life. Travers instead urges that speeches are indeed a valuable source but warns that it is dangerous to take them out of context or to assume that ideas expressed at one time are thereafter fixed. But, he notes, historians have not always exercised such caution. He points out historians, notably F. S. L. Lyons and Paul Bew, whose respective mining of speeches was influenced by the tenor of their eras. Both constitutionalists and physical-force nationalists, he notes, have claimed Parnell. Travers follows P. S. O'Hegarty's suggestion that the man and his impact can be distinguished, and Parnell's impact was exerted most deeply in the separatist tradition.
His assessment, however, that newspaper reports of speeches must be treated [End Page 733] with circumspection is slightly misleading. Certainly, the texts available in the British and Irish press are accurate, especially those from around 1880; those printed during Parnell's American tour are less so. The late H. G. C. Matthew illuminated the work of the shorthand staff of the Central News Agency in recording the speeches of key figures. As Matthew observed, the texts were sold in three lengths, and modern readers need to be aware of the format being published. During 1891, for instance, The Times frequently published the medium-length reports. Despite this, Travers's piece ought to find a welcome place on the reading list of Irish history and the study of historical methodology generally.
The book's treatment of Parnell's family is sensitive and nuanced. Travers's essay on Anna Parnell is short but commendable. Like so many figures on the fringe of radical and feminist movements, she came from a privileged background. Travers reveals that while she contributed to the progress of national regeneration, self-government, the decline of empire, the achievement of women's suffrage, and the advance of women's rights, she ended her life with a strong sense of sadness, illness, disillusionment, and betrayal. McCartney's fascinating essay on John Howard Parnell reveals the older Parnell brother as less clumsy and untalented than he is usually depicted. He had the treble misfortune of being inarticulate, associated with the minority Parnellite party in the 1890s, and then at odds with the reunited Irish national movement in the early twentieth century. In short, he has lacked able counsel at the bar of history, but McCartney here takes up his case.
Extending the themes of reassessment and the moulding of historical memory, McCartney's fine essay...