- The Washington Times - Friday, April 16, 2010


By Lawrence M. Woods

University of Oklahoma Press, $36.95, 296 pages, illustrated


Born in 1854 to a distinguished Irish family, prominent in the Protestant Ascendancy, Sir Horace Plunkett had a distinguished political career in his native country, playing a role in its assumption of self-government and eventually serving as a senator in the Senead Eirean of the newly formed Irish Free State in the 1920s. Before Irish Home Rule, he represented an Irish constituency in the British Parliament at Westminster and was knighted by King Edward VII during that monarch’s visit to Ireland in 1903.

There have been other biographies of this important historical figure, but this is the first one to concentrate on the time that Plunkett spent as a youthful pioneer in what was still Wyoming Territory. As the author, Lawrence M. Woods, an attorney in Worland, Wyo., writes in his introduction:

“Although the time he spent in that country was only a fraction of his life, [Plunkett‘s] American experience left a lasting imprint on his later life. Indeed, there is compelling evidence that the Horace Plunkett who left the range in Wyoming was different from the Horace Plunkett who first arrived there a decade earlier.”

Mr. Woods modestly avers that his book is not a full-scale biography, but in fact it covers and interprets the many facets - as politician, economist, businessman, agronomist and unofficial diplomat, to say nothing of confidant of statesmen on both sides of the Atlantic - of Plunkett’s long life (he died in 1932), drawing on the copious diaries he kept for half a century.

As an observer and even a player of sorts in the evolution of Wyoming into statehood, we see the moderate, meliorist views that were so typical of him expressed on the topic of female suffrage. (Wyoming was one of the first places in this country and indeed the world to allow women to vote.)

Witnessing a lynching in Omaha in 1891, the author tells us, “Plunkett declared that he never wanted to see such a scene again, ‘but it was worthwhile to see it once.’ Then, in typical fashion, he wrote his analysis of the incident. ‘It was partly indignation, more cruelty. … The institution [i.e., lynching] must prevail until the administration of the law is true & SURE.’ ”

Plunkett’s reaction to this barbarous spectacle reveals the qualities that most define him: judiciousness, detachment, thoughtfulness - and chilliness.

Plunkett’s moderation was evident in the role he played in Irish politics. Although a Unionist, he had a strong sense of Irish identity, and unlike most of his confreres vigorously opposed partition. As president of the IrishConvention during World War I, he angered both sides by derailing at least temporarily the division of the country.

One of the most important lessons he derived from his American experiences, it seems to me, was his belief in federalism, and his vision of Ireland was of a federation that would have allowed Protestants and Catholics on that island to participate in a united Ireland. Given the tragic bitter legacy of partition between north and south that has left marooned minorities on both sides, it is a great pity that his viewpoint did not prevail.

Plunkett’s chief legacy to his native land was to its agriculture. While still a member of the British Parliament, he got it to recognize the need for a separate department of agriculture for Ireland, and such was his credibility and stature that he was chosen to head it, keeping the position even after his moderate Unionist stance cost him his seat in the 1900 election.

Thus, thanks largely to Plunkett, Ireland had its own agency to promote and regulate the agricultural sector so crucial to its economy a quarter century before achieving political autonomy. It seems somewhat ironic, given the reputation of the American West for rugged individualism, that the chief agricultural lesson this Irishman seems to have brought home from there was a belief in the necessity of cooperatives, particularly in dairy farming, but it produced results in Ireland.

As an aristocrat from the British Isles, Plunkett was by no means alone out West in Wyoming. At times, the Who’s Who of his associates reads like “Debrett’s Peerage,” with everyone from Princess Diana’s great-grandfather to Winston Churchill’s uncle. Apparently, younger sons of great British families did not only go out in the words of the poet Hilaire Belloc to “govern New South Wales.” Apparently, the American West had its own pull that could trump the attractions of the British Empire.

One thing that jumps out from the pages of this book is Plunkett’s connections to many great figures of his time, from British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour to President Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote to him in 1906 with characteristic gusto “By George, I wish you were an American and either in the Senate, or my Cabinet.”

Plunkett’s work in Irish agriculture did not stop his frequent trips across the Atlantic, and when Roosevelt and his Secretary of the Interior Gifford Pinchot were engaged in their efforts at land conservation, they turned to Plunkett, who played a crucial role in formulating the report of their Country Life Commission.

Mr. Woods reports that “Roosevelt was anxious to give some public recognition to Plunkett for his work with the U.S. government, and just before he left the White House in March of 1909, he wrote to the British ambassador ‘We Americans owe much to Ireland and Sir Horace Plunkett in the work we are keen in trying to do in the United States.’ ”

Although Plunkett’s relations with Presidents Taft and Wilson were never as close or as personally warm as with their great predecessor, they nonetheless esteemed his advice, as shown repeatedly in these pages. After the outbreak of war in 1914, Plunkett’s ties to Wilson’s eminence grise, Col. House, enabled him to function as an unofficial emissary between the British and American governments, especially after his friend Balfour became foreign secretary in the coalition government.

Unfortunately, because of Plunkett’s discretion in what he confided even to his diaries, some of the details of his role are lost. But reading between the lines, he seems to have been of use, and perhaps it was that very quality of discretion that allowed both sides here and elsewhere in his life to repose such confidence in him.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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