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Political Figures in Star of the Sea
The Role of Historical Political Figures in Star of the Sea
The historical political figures featured by Joseph O’Connor in Star of the Sea serve several roles in the novel. Functioning as a postmodern questioning of objective reality, an allusion to the continuing Irish struggle long after the events in Star of the Sea conclude, or a reminder that many English and Protestants did, in fact, fight for the rights of deeply oppressed Irish Catholics, the political figures of the novel serve diverse but important roles throughout Star of the Sea.
Although this theme is more prominent among O’Connor’s artistic figures, a postmodernist questioning of objective reality through the use of historical people also exists among the political figures. Naomi Jacobs writes in The Character of Truth: Historical Figures in Contemporary Fiction that “The presence of the historical figure signifies our questioning of the artificial boundaries between truth and lie, history and fiction, reality and imagination” (xxi). Perhaps the best example of this questioning occurs with women’s education reform advocate and suffragist Emily Davies, who in the world of Star of the Sea is good friends with David Merridith’s sister Natasha; Natasha is even said to have edited Davies’s real-life work The Higher Education of Women (O’Connor 103). This mixing of the historical and the fictional aids O’Connor in the questioning of any one objective history, which is a particularly important examination to make in the context of a postcolonial novel, due to the colonizing country’s suppression of the atrocities it has committed against the colonized.
Other political historical figures are used by O’Connor to remind readers that the Irish struggle for independence continued long after the end of the potato famine. John Mitchel and James Connolly are both quoted in epigraphs decrying Irish oppression, Mitchel in 1856 and Connolly in 1916; prefacing the novel with these quotations reminds or informs readers before the novel even begins that the struggle for Irish independence and horrors committed by the English continued long after the potato famine. The third historical figure serving as a reminder of the continuing struggle, Charles Parnell, who advocated for Ireland in Parliament during the 1870s and 80s, is alluded to in the novel’s epilogue as a final reminder of the post-novel fight for independence (O’Connor 366).
Finally, O’Connor works in Star of the Sea to paint a nuanced portrayal of the English by mentioning political figures who supported the Irish cause. Angela Burdett-Coutts, for example, along with Charles Dickens, runs a safehouse for prostitutes, many of whom were poverty-stricken, starving Irish women, as we see in the novel. Additionally, we are reminded that Theobald Wolfe Tone, Irish but not Catholic, nonetheless “fought and died for Ireland as captain of the revolutionaries in ’98” (O’Connor 67).
O’Connor’s use of historical political figures in Star of the Sea clearly serves a diverse set of purposes throughout the course of the novel. However, what these diverse purposes all have in common is that they demonstrate the complexity and deftness with which O’Connor weaves his tale.
Jacobs, Naomi. The Character of Truth: Historical Figures in Contemporary Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990. Print.
O’Connor, Joseph. Star of the Sea. Orlando: Harcourt Books, 2002. Print.
Researcher/Writer: Audrey GunnBack to Historical Figures
Technical Designers: Lindsey Atchison and Sarah Liebig
Political Figure from Avondale House, Ireland
Charles Parnell was born in County Wicklow, Ireland, in 1846 to an Anglo-Irish landlord father and American mother, who had “inherited an anti-British republicanism” from her own father (Wallace 118). Educated in England, Parnell was an “arrogant and unruly child” who was forced out of Cambridge after his participation in a drunken brawl in 1869 (Wallace 118).
“The Irish parliamentarian Mr Charles Parnell, who bravely led the poor of his country towards some variety of liberation, was on one occasion described in the House of Commons as ‘little better than the Monster of Newgate.’”
-Star of the Sea, 366
In 1875, Parnell, with a hostile attitude toward the British government, ran for office, and was elected Home Rule MP for County Meath, Ireland. Parnell accumulated other offices in short order, including president of the Home Rule Confederation of Great Britain, president of the Irish National Land League, and, in 1880, leader of the Irish parliamentary party. Parnell advocated land reform, believing that once this was achieved, “Protestant landlords like himself would have no reason to support the Union with Great Britain" (Wallace 118).
In October of 1881, Parnell and other Land League members were jailed in Dublin; however, the British government was facing so much terrorism from secret rebel societies that they negotiated the “Kilmainham Treaty,” which put a stop to the rebels’ acts of terrorism in exchange for land reform. Parnell and the others were freed from jail in May of 1882 (Wallace 118-119).
By 1885, Parnell, who was now called “The uncrowned king of Ireland,” had 85 MPs following him, enough to control parliamentary decisionmaking (Wallace 119). However, scandal broke out in 1889 when Parnell was found to have fathered three girls by his married mistress, Katherine O’Shea. Parnell lost much of his support and power, and died in Brighton two years later, on October 6, 1891 (Wallace 119).
Within Star of the Sea, Parnell isn’t mentioned until the novel’s epilogue, which is dated to the 1916 Easter Rising. Parnell himself was just a year old during the 1847 famine, and wasn’t active in politics until the mid-1870s. His mention in the epilogue serves the purpose of demonstrating the real-life struggle for Irish independence that continued long after the famine was over, simultaneously showing the continued Irish resistance to colonization and the contempt the English held for the Irish long after the famine ended. The quotation above, which compares Parnell to the novel’s “Monster of Newgate,” suggests that the English see Parnell as no better than a brutal murderer, while failing to realize that their actions towards the people of Ireland, in particular during the famine, make this accusation rather hypocritical.
Wallace, Martin. 100 Irish Lives. Totowa: Barnes & Noble Books, 1983. Print.
O’Connor, Joseph. Star of the Sea. Orlando: Harcourt, 2002. Print.
Researcher/Writer: Audrey Gunn
Technical Designers: Lindsey Atchison and Sarah Liebig
Back to Political Figures in Star of the Sea