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Minority Report

Frank Callanan

Parnell to Pearse: Some Recollections and Reflections, by John J Horgan, with a biographical introduction by John Horgan, University College Dublin Press, 359 pp, €24.80, ISBN: 1906359296

John Joseph Horgan (1881-1967) was a distinguished Cork solicitor, city coroner like his father before him, supporter of John Redmond and champion of dominion status for Ireland within an empire which became a commonwealth. The time frame of this book alone suggests a certain obduracy of perspective. It was written between 1942, when he was sixty-one, and 1946. It is concerned with events that took place up to 1918, when the author was thirty-seven. He lived to be eighty-six.

It is a political memoir written by someone who was not a professional politician (although he could have become a nationalist member for parliament had not his professional career, and his father’s illness over the relevant years, precluded this), nor a key consigliere or apparatchik. He was, however, a formidable member of a highly significant political generation and a participant in Irish nationalist politics, of which he was a privileged observer chiefly through his friendship with John Redmond, whom he admired immensely. The result is that the book is relevant chiefly for the attitudes and the mindsets it conveys, especially those of the author as a highly cultivated and civically engaged haut bourgeois Catholic supporter of parliamentary nationalism with a profound knowledge of his native city and county.

His father, Michael Joseph Horgan, was from merchant and farming stock in Macroom. His mother, Mary Bowring, was from a Dorset family, born in St.Helier. He was thus of Irish-English rather than Anglo-Irish descent, something he ruefully noted he had in common with Patrick Pearse, Terence MacSwiney and Erskine Childers. Horgan himself in 1908 took an English bride, Mary Catherine Windle, daughter of Sir Bertram Windle, who had become president of University College Cork.

His father supported Joseph Ronayne, the neglected first advocate of obstruction who sat for Cork City from 1872 to 1876. (Michael MacDonagh, in his Home Rule Movement, cited Ronayne’s characteristic response to having his leg amputated: “Ah, I’ll never rise to a point of order in the House of Commons again. Nor stand for the city, but sure, I can stump the county.”) Horgan père nominated Parnell for Cork City in 1880. The appearances of the great leader subvert the rather sedate pace of Horgan’s narrative: “On the night before the poll he spoke from the window of the Victoria Hotel on Patrick Street, his slow measured opening words acting, as my father said, “like an electric shock on the excited people.” “Citizens of Cork. This is the night before the battle. To your guns then.” Parnell continued to hold the Cork seat, nominated at each election by Horgan’s father, who acted as his election agent. In August 1880 Parnell acted as Michael Horgan’s best man at his wedding. When he came to fetch the groom he thought him nervous and insisted on his drinking some champagne before setting out for the church. Horgan’s mother used to recall how she sprayed Parnell’s “fair beard with scent”. It was the week before the Irish leader met Katharine O’Shea.

The home in which Horgan grew up was enlivened by the visit of nationalist leaders such as William O’Brien and TM Healy, and Parnell when “he made one of his brief visits to his constituents”. Parnell stayed in the house in January 1885, when he spoke at the Cork Opera House the words that are inscribed on his monument. Horgan writes: “I can still recollect him as I saw him for a few moments the following day ‑ the tall slender figure, the handsome aquiline features, the slightly unkempt beard and piercing eyes. His clear voice had a distinctly English accent.” That evening Parnell gave his lecture to the Young Ireland Society on Irish history. He began to prepare his paper a quarter of an hour before the appointed time and arrived at the meeting an hour and a half later. His address, which Horgan père was too nervous to listen to properly, was rapturously received. “Coming home he was as proud as a child of the whole performance. ‘I think,’ he said, ‘that I got through very well.’”

In the split, Michael Horgan stood by Parnell. When, after Committee Room 15 and the meeting in the Rotunda, Parnell went south to Cork he stayed again in the Horgan home. “I shall never forget his appearance as I saw him standing before the fire in the dining-room just after he arrived. He looked like a hunted fugitive, his hair dishevelled, his beard unkempt, his eyes wild and restless.” Michael Horgan conducted the doomed Parnellite campaign in North Kilkenny. On St Patrick’s Day 1891, Parnell stayed with the Horgans for the last time.

John J Horgan was born less than a year before James Joyce and his account of the effect wrought on his father by Parnell’s death as perceived by a young boy bears comparison with the Christmas dinner scene in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (which Horgan refers to as representative).

I had never seen him cry before and it was terrible to see. He had with him United Ireland, Parnell’s paper, but he could not read it. He asked me to read out the dramatic leading article on “the dead chief”. Even I, who could not fully realise the issues involved, felt the loss Ireland had sustained. I read the article, full of impassioned denunciation of the men who had hounded Parnell to his death. It made a bitter and lasting impression on my childish memory – as indeed my father intended it should.

If John J Horgan remained faithful to the memory of Parnell, it is not quite to the Parnell of his father. The son’s is a Parnell mediated through his esteem for Gladstone, his ardent Catholicism and his Redmondism, in the sense of his support for Redmond’s moderate leadership of the Irish parliamentary party after the reunification in 1900 which marked the formal end of the “Parnell split”. Thus, while laudatory of what Parnell achieved, Horgan is slightly repelled by his harshly lucid realpolitik. There is an early moralising contrast between Parnell the “egotistic realist” and Davitt the “unselfish idealist”: “Parnell was undoubtedly the greater statesman but Davitt the nobler man.”

This sense also informs the disquietingly fatuous statement in Horgan’s foreword of what Parnell and Pearse had in common, which subverts the antithesis he intended to assert by his title:

Separated by a quarter of a century the careers of these two men were strangely alike. Both were partly English by ancestry. Both ‘loved not wisely but too well’. Parnell an ignoble woman, Pearse a noble ideal, in the one case Katharine O’Shea, in the other Kathleen ni Houlihan. The life of the former ended in national disaster, and so ended also, as I and those who think with me believe, the life of the latter. The legend of each still persists.

No controversialist, seized of an important theme, can afford to bloat his argument with such collateral whimsicality. One could discount this as an unhappy bellelettristic flourish, but it serves to affirm a question as to Horgan’s judgement. Political realism and rigour are not always best served by the obligatory pedantry of the practising lawyer.

It should be said that we do not know the number of Parnellite militants in the split who were condemnatory of Katharine O’Shea. She had no admirers in Parnell’s parliamentary party, many of whose members no doubt privately shared the view expressed by John Horgan, less as a matter of sexual morality than as a bewildered hypothesis to explain Parnell’s spurning of compromise in the split. One might think at least that Michael Horgan, who had written in his diary, as quoted by his son, on the day of Parnell’s funeral that “I would prefer to be poor Parnell in his coffin than Tim Healy”, would not have countenanced referring publicly to Katharine Parnell, whom his leader married in June 1891, as “an ignoble woman”.

On the schisms in parliamentary nationalism, before and after 1900, Horgan is sometimes penetrating. He is particularly good on the rift between the sternly doctrinaire John Dillon and the sensible and phlegmatic Redmond on Conservative-sponsored sub-home rule ameliorative measures which consumed nationalist energies over the period 1898 to 1903 to a degree which it is now almost impossible to conceive. Of the “constructive unionist” local government and land reforms of the late1890s, Dillon was, as Horgan wrote, opposed implacably to the Tories dona ferentes, while Redmond “held that every concession made by the English government only increased the strength of the national demand and prepared the people for freedom”. He is good on the relentless carousel of relations between Tim Healy and William O’Brien. A magnificent Healyism was pronounced in his presence on the subject of O’Brien’s extravagantly conspiratorial imagination: Healy said that “if there was a mouse hole in the room and O’Brien saw it, it instantly became the cave of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”.

Horgan is an important witness to the playing out of the contest between Redmond and O’Brien, whose bastion was Cork city and county. Horgan’s insistent adherence to an essentially national over a regional narrative here entails at least a loss of local colour. There is little of the pathos of Frank O’Connor’s “The Cornet Player who betrayed Ireland” (unpublished in book form till 1981), whose mise-en-scène is the clash of O’Brienism and Redmondism in urban Cork and which is O’Connor’s beautifully achieved regional reprise-sequel to Joyce’s “Ivy Day in the Committee Room”.

Horgan pays high tribute to, and bitterly mourns Redmond. Having watched Redmond’s coffin brought through the streets of Wexford covered with the flag that had lain on Parnell’s, he wrote in his diary that “the hopes of a generation lie buried in his grave”. He was markedly less sympathetic to John Dillon. When Dillon rejected an intelligent initiative of his that parliamentary nationalists and Sinn Féin should unite to promote Irish demands at the Peace Conference, which might have permitted the survival in some form of the influence of the Irish party, Horgan resigned his offices in the party organisation and did not participate in the electoral armageddon of December 1918. It is at this point that Parnell to Pearse ends.

Who is this book for? It is written in part to elucidate and explain Ireland to English readers. This reflects a role that Horgan carried out throughout his life, receiving English political visitors at his home, Lacaduv on the Lee Road. It reflects also the trajectory of the Gladstonian Liberal-Nationalist union of hearts and the effort that involved in the education of the sympathetic English in the affairs of Ireland, and is the last Irish political publication to derive from that trajectory. It is also addressed to Irish posterity, particularly perhaps his own.

The republication of Parnell to Pearse by University College Dublin Press is supplemented by a valuable and impressively researched biographical introduction by John Horgan, grandson and namesake of the author, which carries the story forward through the final half-century of his grandfather’s life. Horgan continued to practise law and was elected to the Cork Harbour Commissioners from 1912. He was a notable patron of the arts. His abiding preoccupation with politics was reflected in his continuing to write political articles in periodicals, notably the Jesuit Studies and as the (anonymous) Irish correspondent of the pro-commonwealth Round Table. He was an unsuccessful candidate for the Senate in 1925 and in 1938. He was appointed chairman of the Intoxicating Liquor Commission by Kevin O’Higgins in February 1925, which recommended a reduction in the number of licensed premises. His advocacy of a new city management system for Cork inspired the Cork City Management Act of 1929, which was to provide the template for the management system in Irish local government

A fissure ran through his political attitudes. He was civically active and prominent in a state that had come into being in a manner of which he did not approve and which was unable to overlook. Thus, reviewing Padraic Colum’s biography of Arthur Griffith in the Belfast Telegraph in 1959, he wrote: “Poor little Griffith. He and his friends unjustly and bitterly accused John Redmond of agreeing to the division of Ireland, but whilst Redmond had never agreed to a permanent division, they themselves, tricked in the end by Lloyd George, had perforce to do so.”

A decade earlier Horgan denounced the proclamation of the Irish republic by John A Costello’s first inter-party government. This prompted Nicholas Mansergh to complain privately of the adoption by the Irish correspondent of The Round Table of the standpoint of “an unrepentant Redmondite who believes that everything went wrong in 1916”. This perhaps was harsh and somewhat ideologically ruthless, but it is hard to agree with the contemporary John Horgan that it was “more caricature than characterisation”. Horgan is on stronger grounds in complaining that Mansergh’s critique ignored the much that was positive in his grandfather’s assessments of post-1922 Ireland, and that his position on Northern Ireland was determined by his concern at the deepening of the separation of the two Irish states, and his sagacious contempt for the belief that Britain would solve the problem of partition.

John J Horgan, as he grew older, showed a capacity, driven by his nagging preoccupations with partition and Irish language policy, to develop the liberal or even moderately progressive views that were not as uncommon among the politicians and professionals of his generation as is generally imagined .He responded sympathetically to Noel Browne’s Mother and Child scheme , wrote a trenchant introduction to Michael Sheehy’s ahead of its time Divided We Stand: A Study in Partition (1955), greeted the visit of Sean Lemass to Stormont a decade later with a loud exhalation of relief , and having been in his youth an early and highly committed member of the Gaelic League agreed to become a patron of the Language Freedom Movement. The King Charles’s head of the events of 1916-22, and 1949, continued to intrude, if with diminished frequency. In looking to the European Economic Community the Irish government “must now accept without demur a derogation of our sovereignty far greater than any which was entailed by our merely nominal membership of the Commonwealth”.

It is strange to have a book concerned so much with national politics in Cork conclude in 1918. That sense is deepened by the impact of the remarkable exhibition currently at the National Photographic Archive in Temple Bar of the photographs from the War of Independence and the Civil War of WD Hogan, a Dublin-based commercial and press photographer who supplied photographs to the Freeman’s Journal and Cork Examiner, many of them taken in Cork. These include a photograph taken from the top of a building of the crowd below milling around Michael Collins, only the back of whose head can be seen as he makes his way to the platform from which he addressed the great public meeting of March 1922. It is a stunning Irish political photograph, of tumultuous motion arrested, as of a sudden storm in a field of corn. This was a stage of the escalating drama that had already swept away the ancien régime of the Irish party of John Redmond, a party whose memory Horgan seeks to salvage and salute, not entirely without success.

Of the crudely posited but serviceable contest of Parnell and Pearse we are destined to hear more over the next six years. “The legend of each still persists.” It is no longer as certain as once it seemed that the sacral cult that Pearse so methodically set in train will continue to prevail. We shall see.


Frank Callanan is a Dublin-based barrister. He is author of The Parnell Split 1890-91, and is currently working on a book on the politics of James Joyce.

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