Charles Stewart Parnell

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Charles Stewart Parnell
Charles Stewart Parnell - Brady-Handy.jpg
Member of Parliament
for Cork City
In office
5 April 1880 – 6 October 1891
Preceded by Nicholas Daniel Murphy
Succeeded by Martin Flavin
Majority 1,505 (26.11%)
Member of Parliament
for Meath
In office
21 April 1875 – 5 April 1880
Preceded by John Martin
Succeeded by Alexander Martin Sullivan
Personal details
Born (1846-06-27)27 June 1846
Avondale, County Wicklow, Ireland
Died Script error: The function "death_date_and_age" does not exist.
Brighton, England
Nationality Irish
Political party Irish Parliamentary Party
Spouse(s) Katharine O'Shea
Children Claude Sophie
Alma mater Cambridge University
Religion Church of Ireland

Charles Stewart Parnell[1] (Irish: Cathal Stiúbhard Pharnell; 27 June 1846 – 6 October 1891) was a Protestant Irish landlord, nationalist, politician, land reform agitator, and the founder and leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party. He was one of the most powerful figures in the British politics in the 1880s when he helped overthrow two British governments. He maneuvered Prime Minister William Gladstone and the Liberals into adopting Home Rule. He succeeded by balancing the constitutional, radical, and economic forces at work in the Irish countryside, and by a skillful use of parliamentary procedure, by creating and leading Britain's first disciplined democratic party, and by holding the balance of power between Gladstone's Liberals and Disraeli's Conservatives. He destroyed himself by an adulterous love affair that made his leadership unacceptable to many religious Catholics and Protestants.[2]

Parnell hailed from a wealthy and powerful Anglo-Irish Protestant family. He entered the House of Commons in 1875, became the leader of the Home Rule League in 1880, and founded the Irish Parliamentary Party in 1882. He led that party until 1891, when he died. Liberal leader H. H. Asquith called him as one of the three or four greatest men of the 19th century, while Lord Haldane described him as the strongest man the House of Commons had seen in 150 years. The Irish Parliamentary Party split during 1890, following revelations of how Parnell's adultery intruded into his political career.[3]

Parnell was a very capable negotiator, and took control of the Irish Nationalist party. Most of the other leaders lived in England and closely resembled Liberal politicians; Parnell insisted on operating independently of the Liberals. But when Prime Minister William Gladstone made Home Rule the central tenet of the Liberal party, Parnell was outmaneuvered. Gladstone stated, "I do not say the ablest man; I say the most remarkable and the most interesting. He was an intellectual phenomenon."[4] Historian A.J.P. Taylor says, "More than any other man he gave Ireland the sense of being an independent nation."[5]

Family background and early life

Charles Stewart Parnell was born in County Wicklow, the third son and seventh child of John Henry Parnell (1811–1859), a wealthy Anglo-Irish landowner, and his American wife Delia Tudor Stewart (1816–1898) of Bordentown, New Jersey, daughter of the American naval hero, Admiral Charles Stewart (the stepson of one of George Washington's bodyguards). There were eleven children in all: five boys and six girls. Admiral Stewart's mother, Parnell's great-grandmother, belonged to the Tudor family, so Parnell had a distant relationship with the British Royal Family. John Henry Parnell himself was a cousin of one of Ireland's leading aristocrats, Viscount Powerscourt, and also the grandson of a Chancellor of the Exchequer in Grattan's Parliament, Sir John Parnell, who lost office in 1799 when he opposed the Act of Union.[6]

The Parnells of Avondale were descended from a Protestant English merchant family, which came to prominence in Congleton, Cheshire, early in the 17th century where as Baron Congleton two generations held the office of Mayor of Congleton before moving to Ireland.[7] The family produced a number of notable figures, including Thomas Parnell (1679–1718), the Irish poet and Henry Parnell, 1st Baron Congleton (1776–1842) the Irish politician. Parnell's grandfather William Parnell (1780–1821), who inherited the Avondale Estate in 1795, was a liberal Irish MP for Wicklow from 1817–1820. Thus, from birth, Charles Stewart Parnell possessed an extraordinary number of links to many elements of society; he was linked to the old Irish Parliamentary tradition via his great-grandfather and grandfather, to the American War of Independence via his grandfather, to the War of 1812 (where his grandfather had been awarded a gold medal by the United States Congress for gallantry). Parnell belonged to the Church of Ireland, disestablished in 1871 (its members mostly unionists) though in later years he began to drop away from formal church attendance;[6] and he was connected with the aristocracy through the Powerscourts. Yet it was as a leader of Irish Nationalism that Parnell established his fame.

Parnell's parents separated when he was six, and as a boy he was sent to different schools in England, where he spent an unhappy youth. His father died in 1859 and he inherited the Avondale estate, while his older brother John inherited another estate in Armagh. The young Parnell studied at Magdalene College, Cambridge (1865–69) but, due to the troubled financial circumstances of the estate he inherited, he was absent a great deal and never completed his degree. In 1871, he joined his elder brother John Howard Parnell (1843–1923), who farmed in Alabama (later an Irish Parnellite MP and heir to the Avondale estate), on an extended tour of the United States. Their travels took them mostly through the South and apparently the brothers neither spent much time in centres of Irish immigration nor sought out Irish-Americans.

In 1874, he became High Sheriff of Wicklow, his home county in which he was also an officer in the Wicklow militia. He was noted as an improving landowner who played an important part in opening the south Wicklow area to industrialisation.[6] His attention was drawn to the theme dominating the Irish political scene of the mid-1870s, Isaac Butt's Home Rule League formed in 1873 to campaign for a moderate degree of self-government. It was in support of this movement that Parnell first tried to stand for election in Wicklow, but as high sheriff was disqualified. He failed again in 1874 as home rule candidate in a County Dublin by-election.

Historian Kevin Flynn reports:

When Gladstone came to know him in later years, he was astonished to find that Parnell was ignorant even of the basic facts of Irish history. The romantic vision that characterised Young Ireland and the Fenians escaped him completely. He knew little of figures like Sarsfield, Tone or Emmett and even appeared unsure of who won the Battle of the Boyne.[8]

Flynn argues that the primary reason Parnell joined the Irish cause was his "implacable hostility towards England," which probably was founded on grievances from his school days, and his mother's hostility toward England.[9]

Member of Parliament

Parnell was first elected to the House of Commons as a Home Rule League Member of Parliament (MP) for County Meath on 21 April 1875 in a by-election backed by Fenian Patrick Egan.[6] He replaced the deceased League MP, veteran Young Irelander John Martin. He subsequently sat for the constituency of Youghal, Cork from 1880 until 1891.

During his first year Parnell remained a reserved observer of parliamentary proceedings. He first came to attention in the public eye when in 1876 he claimed in the Commons that he did not believe that any murder had been committed by Fenians in Manchester. This drew the interest of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), a physical force Irish organisation that had staged a rebellion in 1867.[10] Parnell made it his business to cultivate Fenian sentiments both in Britain and Ireland[6] and became associated with the more radical wing of the Home Rule League, which included Joseph Biggar (MP for Cavan from 1874), John O'Connor Power (MP for County Mayo from 1874) (both, although constitutionalists, had links with the IRB), Edmund Dwyer-Gray (MP for Tipperary from 1877), and Frank Hugh O'Donnell (MP for Dungarvan from 1877). He engaged with them and played a leading role in a policy of obstructionism[6] (i.e., the use of technical procedures to disrupt the House of Commons' ability to function) to force the House to pay more attention to Irish issues, which had previously been ignored. Obstruction involved giving lengthy speeches which were largely irrelevant to the topic at hand. This behaviour was opposed by the less aggressive chairman (leader) of the Home Rule League, Isaac Butt.

Parnell visited America that year accompanied by O'Connor Power. The question of his closeness to the IRB, and whether indeed he ever joined the organisation, has been a matter of academic debate for a century. The evidence suggests that later, following the signing of the Kilmainham Treaty, Parnell did take the IRB oath, possibly for tactical reasons.[11] What is known is that IRB involvement in the League's sister organisation, the Home Rule Confederation of Great Britain, led to the moderate Butt's ousting from its presidency (even though he had founded the organisation) and the election of Parnell in his place on 28 August 1877.[12] Parnell was a restrained speaker in the House but his organisational, analytical and tactical skills earned wide praise, enabling him to take on the British organisation's presidency. Butt died in 1879 and was replaced as chairman of the Home Rule League by the Whig-oriented William Shaw. Shaw's victory was temporary, however.

New departure

From August 1877 Parnell held a number of private meetings with prominent Fenian leaders. He visited Paris where he met John O'Leary and J. J. O'Kelly both of whom were impressed by him and reported positively to the most capable and militant Leader of the American republican Clan na Gael organisation, John Devoy.[6][10] In December at a reception for Michael Davitt on his release from prison, he met William Carrol who assured him of Clan na Gael's support in the struggle for Irish self-government. This led to a meeting in March 1878 between influential constitutionalists, Parnell and Frank Hugh O'Donnell, and leading Fenians O'Kelly, O'Leary and Carroll. This was followed by a telegram from John Devoy in October 1878 which offered Parnell a "New Departure" deal of separating militancy from the constitutional movement as a path to all-Ireland self-government, under certain conditions: abandonment of a federal solution in favour of separatist self-government, vigorous agitation in the land question on the basis of peasant proprietorship, exclusion of all sectarian issues, collective voting by party members and energetic resistance to coercive legislation.[6][10]

Parnell preferred to keep all options open without clearly committing himself when he spoke in 1879 before Irish Tenant Defence Associations at Ballinasloe and Tralee. It was not until Davitt persuaded him to address a second meeting at Westport, County Mayo in June that he began to grasp the potential of the land reform movement. At a national level several approaches were made which eventually produced the 'New Departure' of June 1879, endorsing the foregone informal agreement which asserted an understanding binding them to mutual support and a shared political agenda. In addition, the 'New Departure' asserted the Fenian movement and its armed strategies.[13] Working together with Davitt (who was impressed by Parnell[14]) he now took on the role of leader of the New Departure, holding platform meeting after platform meeting around the country.[10] Throughout the autumn of 1879, he repeated the message to tenants after the long depression had left them without income for rent:

You must show the landlord that you intend to keep a firm grip on your homesteads and lands. You must not allow yourselves be dispossessed as you were dispossessed in 1847.[15]

Land League leader

Parnell was elected president of Davitt's newly founded Irish National Land League in Dublin on 21 October 1879, signing a militant Land League address campaigning for land reform. In so doing, he linked the mass movement to the parliamentary agitation, with profound consequences for both of them. Andrew Kettle, his 'right-hand man', became honorary secretary.

In a bout of activity, he left for America in December 1879 with John Dillon to raise funds for famine relief and secure support for Home Rule. Timothy Healy followed to cope with the press and they collected £70,000[10] for distress in Ireland. During Parnell's highly successful tour, he had an audience with American President Rutherford B. Hayes, on 2 February 1880 he addressed the House of Representatives on the state of Ireland and spoke in 62 cities including in Canada, where he was so well received in Toronto that Healy dubbed him "the uncrowned king of Ireland".[10] (The same term was applied 30 years earlier to Daniel O'Connell.)[16] He strove to retain Fenian support but insisted when asked by a reporter that he personally could not join a secret society.[6] Central to his whole approach to politics was ambiguity in that he allowed his hearers to remain uncertain. During his tour, he seemed to be saying that there were virtually no limits. To abolish landlordism, he asserted, would be to undermine English misgovernment, and he is alleged to have added:

When we have undermined English misgovernment we have paved the way for Ireland to take her place amongst the nations of the earth. And let us not forget that that is the ultimate goal at which all we Irishmen aim. None of us whether we be in America or in Ireland ... will be satisfied until we have destroyed the last link which keeps Ireland bound to England.[17]

His activities came to an abrupt end when the 1880 United Kingdom general election was announced for April and he returned to fight it. The Conservatives were defeated by the Liberal Party; William Gladstone was again Prime Minister. Sixty-three Home Rulers were elected, including twenty-seven Parnell supporters, Parnell being returned for three seats: Cork City, Mayo and Meath. He chose to sit for the Cork seat. His triumph facilitated his nomination in May in place of Shaw as leader of a new Home Rule League Party, faced with a country on the brink of a land war.

Although the League discouraged violence, agrarian outrages grew from 863 incidents in 1879 to 2,590 in 1880[6] after evictions increased from 1,238 to 2,110 in the same period. Parnell saw the need to replace violent agitation with country-wide mass meetings and the application of Davitt's boycott, also as a means of achieving his objective of self-government. Gladstone was alarmed at the power of the Land League at the end of 1880.[18] He attempted to defuse the land question with dual ownership in the Second Land Act of 1881, establishing a Land Commission that reduced rents and enabled some tenants to buy their farms. These halted arbitrary evictions, but not where rent was unpaid.

Historian R. F. Foster argues that in the countryside the Land League "reinforced the politicization of rural Catholic nationalist Ireland, partly by defining that identity against urbanization, landlordism, Englishness and—implicitly—Protestantism."[19]

Kilmainham crossroads

Parnell's own newspaper, the United Ireland, attacked the Land Act[10] and he was arrested on 13 October 1881 together with his party lieutenants, William O'Brien, John Dillon, Michael Davitt and Willie Redmond, who had also conducted a bitter verbal offensive. They were imprisoned under a proclaimed Coercion Act in Kilmainham Gaol for "sabotaging the Land Act", from where the No Rent Manifesto, which Parnell and the others signed, was issued calling for a national tenant farmer rent strike. The Land League was suppressed immediately.

Punch magazine depicts the Fenian movement as Frankenstein's monster to Charles Parnell's Frankenstein, in the wake of the Phoenix Park murders.

Whilst in gaol, Parnell moved in April 1882 to make a deal with the government, negotiated through Captain William O'Shea MP, that, provided the government settled the "rent arrears" question allowing 100,000 tenants to appeal for fair rent before the land courts, then withdrawing the manifesto and undertaking to move against agrarian crime, after he realised militancy would never win Home Rule. Parnell also promised to use his good offices to quell the violence and to

co-operate cordially for the future with the Liberal Party in forwarding Liberal principles and measures of general reform.[20]

His release on 2 May following the so-called Kilmainham Treaty marked a critical turning point in the development of Parnell's leadership when he returned to the parameters of parliamentary and constitutional politics,[21] and resulted in the loss of support of Devoy's American-Irish. However, his political diplomacy preserved the national Home Rule movement after the Phoenix Park Murders of the Chief Secretary Lord Cavendish, and his Under-Secretary, T.H. Burke on 6 May. Parnell was shocked to the extent that he offered Gladstone to resign his seat as MP.[6] The militant Invincibles responsible fled to America, which allowed him to break links with radical Land Leaguers. In the end, it resulted in a Parnell – Gladstone alliance working closely together. Davitt and other prominent members left the IRB and many rank and file Fenians drifted into the Home Rule movement. For the next 20 years, the IRB ceased to be an important force in Irish politics,[22] leaving Parnell and his party the leaders of the nationalist movement in Ireland.[23]

Party restructured

Another hostile Punch cartoon, from 1885, depicting the Irish National League as the "Irish Vampire", with Parnell's head

Parnell now sought to use his experience and huge support to advance his pursuit of Home Rule and resurrected the suppressed Land League on 17 October 1882 as the Irish National League (INL). It combined moderate agrarianism, a Home Rule programme with electoral functions, was hierarchical and autocratic in structure with Parnell wielding immense authority and direct parliamentary control.[24] Parliamentary constitutionalism was the future path. The informal alliance between the new, tightly disciplined INL and the Catholic Church was one of the main factors for the revitalisation of the national Home Rule cause after 1882. Parnell saw that the explicit endorsement of Catholicism was of vital importance to the success of this venture and worked in close co-operation with the Catholic hierarchy in consolidating its hold over the Irish electorate.[25] The leaders of the Catholic Church largely recognised the Parnellite party as guardians of church interests, despite uneasiness with a powerful lay leadership.[26] At the end of 1885, the highly centralised organisation had 1,200 branches spread around the country, though there were fewer in Ulster than in the other provinces.[27] Parnell left the day-to-day running of the INL in the hands of his lieutenants Timothy Harrington as Secretary, William O'Brien, editor of its newspaper United Ireland, and Timothy Healy. Its continued agrarian agitation led to the passing of several Irish Land Acts that over three decades changed the face of Irish land ownership, replacing large Anglo-Irish estates with tenant ownership.

Charles Stewart Parnell, the 'un-crowned King of Ireland'

Parnell next turned to the Home Rule League Party, of which he was to remain the re-elected leader for over a decade, spending most of his time at Westminster, with Henry Campbell as his personal secretary. He fundamentally changed the party, replicated the INL structure within it and created a well-organised grass roots structure, introduced membership to replace "ad hoc" informal groupings in which MPs with little commitment to the party voted differently on issues, often against their own party.[28] Or they simply did not attend the House of Commons at all (some citing expense, given that MPs were unpaid until 1911 and the journey to Westminster both costly and arduous).

In 1882, he changed his party's name to the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP). A central aspect of Parnell's reforms was a new selection procedure to ensure the professional selection of party candidates committed to taking their seats. In 1884, he imposed a firm 'party pledge' which obliged party MPs to vote as a bloc in parliament on all occasions. The creation of a strict party whip and formal party structure was unique in party politics at the time. The Irish Parliamentary Party is generally seen as the first modern British political party, its efficient structure and control contrasting with the loose rules and flexible informality found in the main British parties, which came to model themselves on the Parnellite model. The Representation of the People Act 1884 enlarged the franchise, and the IPP increased its number of MPs from 63 to 85 in the 1885 election.

The changes affected the nature of candidates chosen. Under Butt, the party's MPs were a mixture of Catholic and Protestant, landlord and others, Whig, Liberal and Tory, often leading to disagreements in policy that meant that MPs split in votes. Under Parnell, the number of Protestant and landlord MPs dwindled, as did the number of Tories seeking election. The parliamentary party became much more Catholic and middle class, with a large number of journalists and lawyers elected and the disappearance of Protestant Ascendancy landowners and Tories from it.

Towards home rule

Parnell's party emerged swiftly as a tightly disciplined and, on the whole, energetic body of parliamentarians.[29] By 1885, he was leading a party well-poised for the next general election, his statements on Home Rule designed to secure the widest possible support. Speaking in Cork on 21 January 1885, he stated:

We cannot ask the British constitution for more than the restitution of Grattan's parliament, but no man has the right to fix the boundary of a nation.

No man has the right to say to his country, "Thus far shalt thou go and no further", and we have never attempted to fix the "ne plus ultra" to the progress of Ireland's nationhood, and we never shall.[10]

Both British parties toyed with various suggestions for greater self-government for Ireland, in March 1885 the settlement that the radical MP Joseph Chamberlain proposed involved democratic county councils which in turn would elect a Central Board for Ireland, which was thrown out by the Cabinet. Gladstone on the other hand saying he was prepared to go 'rather further' than the idea of a Central Board .[30] After Gladstone's government fell in June 1885, Parnell urged the Irish voters in Britain to vote against the Liberals. The delayed November general elections (boundaries were being redrawn after the Third Reform Act) brought about a hung Parliament in which the Liberals with 335 seats won 86 more than the Conservatives, with a Parnellite bloc of 86 Irish Home Rule MPs holding the balance of power in the Commons. Parnell's task was now to win acceptance of the principle of a Dublin parliament.

Parnell at first supported a Conservative government – they were still the smaller party after the elections – but after renewed agrarian distress arose when agricultural prices fell and unrest developed during 1885, Lord Salisbury's Conservative government announced coercion measures in January 1886. Parnell switched his support to the Liberals.[10] The prospects shocked Unionists. The Orange Order, revived in the 1880s to oppose the Land League now openly opposed Home Rule. On 20 January, the Irish Unionist Party was established in Dublin.[31] By 28 January, Salisbury's government had resigned.

The Liberals regained power on 1 February, their leader Gladstone – influenced by the status of Norway, which at the time was self-governing but under the Swedish Crown – moving towards Home Rule, which Gladstone's son Herbert revealed publicly under what became known as the "flying of the Hawarden Kite". The third Gladstone administration paved the way towards the generous response to Irish demands that the new Prime Minister had promised,[32] but was unable to obtain the support of several key players in his own party. Lord Hartington (who had been Liberal leader in the late 1870s and was still the most likely alternative leader) refused to serve at all, while Joseph Chamberlain briefly held office then resigned when he saw the terms of the proposed bill.

On 8 April 1886, Gladstone introduced the First Irish Home Rule Bill, his object to establish an Irish legislature, although large imperial issues were to be reserved to the Westminster parliament.[6] The Conservatives now emerged as enthusiastic unionists, Lord Randolph Churchill declared, "The Orange card is the one to play".[33] In the course of a long and fierce debate Gladstone made a remarkable Home Rule Speech, beseeching parliament to pass the bill. However, the split between pro- and anti-home rulers within the Liberal Party caused the defeat of the bill on its second reading in June by 341 to 311 votes.[34][35]

Parliament was dissolved and elections called, with Irish Home Rule the central issue. Gladstone hoped to repeat his triumph of 1868, when he had won a General Election on the topic of Irish Disestablishment (which had been a major cause of dispute between Conservatives and Liberals since the 1830s), but the result of the July 1886 general election was Liberal defeat. The Conservatives and the Liberal Unionist Party returned with a majority of 118 over the combined Gladstonian Liberals and Parnell's 85 Irish Party seats. Salisbury formed his second government – a minority Conservative government with Liberal Unionist support.

The Liberal split made the Unionists (the Liberal Unionists sat in coalition with the Conservatives after 1895 and would eventually merge with them) the dominant force in British politics until 1906, with strong support in Lancashire, Liverpool & Manchester, Birmingham (the fiefdom of its former mayor Joseph Chamberlain who as recently as 1885 had been a furious enemy of the Conservatives) and the House of Lords where many Whigs sat (a second Home Rule Bill would pass the Commons in 1893 only to be overwhelmingly defeated in the Lords).

Pigott forgeries

Parnell next became the centre of public attention when in March and April 1887 he found himself accused by the British newspaper The Times of supporting the brutal murders in May 1882 of the newly appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland, Lord Frederick Cavendish and the Permanent Under-Secretary, Thomas Henry Burke in Dublin's Phoenix Park, and of the general involvement of his movement with crime (i.e., with illegal organisations such as the IRB). Letters were published which suggested Parnell was complicit in the murders. The most important one, dated 15 May 1882, ran as follows:

Dear Sir, – I am not surprised at your friend's anger, but he and you should know that to denounce the murders was the only course open to us. To do that promptly was plainly our best policy. But you can tell him, and all others concerned, that, though I regret the accident of Lord Frederick Cavendish's death, I cannot refuse to admit that Burke got no more than his deserts. You are at liberty to show him this, and others whom you can trust also, but let not my address be known. He can write to House of Commons.

Yours very truly, Chas S. Parnell.[36]

However, a Commission of Enquiry, which Parnell had requested, revealed in February 1889 after 128 sessions that the letters were a fabrication created by Richard Pigott, a disreputable anti-Parnellite rogue journalist. Pigott broke down under cross-examination after the letter was shown to be a forgery by him with his characteristic spelling mistakes. He fled to Madrid where he committed suicide. Parnell was vindicated, to the disappointment of the Tories and the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury.[37]

The 35-volume commission report published in February 1890, did not however clear Parnell's movement of criminal involvement. Parnell then took The Times to court and the newspaper paid him £5,000 damages in an out-of-court settlement. When Parnell entered parliament on 1 March 1890 after he was cleared, he received a standing ovation from his fellow MPs led by Gladstone.[10] It had been a dangerous crisis in his career, yet Parnell had at all times remained calm, relaxed and unperturbed which greatly impressed his political friends. However, while he was vindicated in triumph, links between the Home Rule movement and militancy had been established. This he could have survived politically were it not for the crisis to follow.

Pinnacle of power

During the period 1886–90, Parnell continued to pursue Home Rule, striving to reassure English voters that it would be no threat to them. In Ireland, unionist resistance (especially after the Irish Unionist Party was formed) became increasingly organised.[6] Parnell pursued moderate and conciliatory tenant land purchase and still hoped to retain a sizeable landlord support for home rule. During the agrarian crisis, which intensified in 1886 and launched the Plan of Campaign organised by Parnell's lieutenants, he chose in the interest of Home Rule not to associate himself with it.[6]

All that remained, it seemed, was to work out details of a new home rule bill with Gladstone. They held two meetings, one in March 1888 and a second more significant meeting at Gladstone's home in Hawarden on 18–19 December 1889. On each occasion, Parnell's demands were entirely within the accepted parameters of Liberal thinking, Gladstone noting that he was one of the best people he had known to deal with,[6] a remarkable transition from an inmate at Kilmainham to an intimate at Hawarden in just over seven years.[38] This was the high point of Parnell's career. In the early part of 1890, he still hoped to advance the situation on the land question, with which a substantial section of his party was displeased.

Divorce crisis

Parnell's leadership was first put to the test in February 1886 when he forced the candidature of Captain William O'Shea, who had negotiated the Kilmainham Treaty, for a Galway by-election. Parnell rode roughshod over his lieutenants Healy, Dillon and O'Brien who were not in favour of O'Shea. Galway was the harbinger of the fatal crisis to come.[6] O'Shea had already separated from his wife Katharine O'Shea, but would not divorce her as she was expecting a substantial inheritance. Mrs. O'Shea acted as liaison in 1885 with Gladstone during proposals for the First Home Rule Bill.[39] Parnell later took up residence with her in Eltham, Kent in the summer of 1886,[10] and was a known overnight visitor at the O'Shea house in Brockley, London.[40] When Mrs O'Shea's aunt died in 1899, her money was left in trust.

On 24 December 1889, Captain O'Shea filed for divorce, citing Parnell as co-respondent, although the case did not come for trial until 15 November 1890. The two-day trial revealed that Parnell had been the long-term lover of Mrs O'Shea and had fathered three of her children. Meanwhile, Parnell assured the Irish Party that there was no need to fear the verdict; he would be exonerated. During January 1890, resolutions of confidence in his leadership were passed throughout the country.[10] Parnell did not contest the divorce action at a hearing on 15 November, to ensure that it would be granted and he could marry Mrs O'Shea; so Captain O'Shea's allegations went unchallenged. A divorce decree was granted on 17 November 1890, but Parnell's two surviving children were placed in O'Shea's custody.

News of the long-standing adultery created a huge public scandal. The Irish National League passed a resolution to confirm his leadership. The Catholic Church hierarchy in Ireland was shocked by Parnell's immorality and feared that he would wreck the cause of Home Rule. Besides the issue of tolerating immorality, the bishops sought to keep control of Irish Catholic politics, and they no longer trusted Parnell as an ally. The chief Catholic leader Archbishop Walsh of Dublin came under heavy pressure from politicians, his fellow bishops, and Cardinal Manning; Walsh finally declared against Parnell. Emmet Larkin says, "For the first time in Irish history, the two dominant forces of Nationalism and Catholicism came to a parting of the ways.[41]

In England one strong base of Liberal Party support was Nonconformist Protestantism, such as the Methodists; the 'nonconformist conscience' rebelled against having an adulterer play major role in the Liberal Party.[42] Gladstone warned that if Parnell retained the leadership, it would mean the loss of the next election, the end of their alliance and also of Home Rule. With Parnell obdurate, the alliance collapsed in bitterness.[43]

Party divides

Parnell issued a manifesto on 29 November saying a section of the party had lost its independence; he falsified Gladstone's terms for Home Rule and said they were inadequate. A total of 73 members were present for the fateful meeting in committee room 15 at Westminster. Leaders tried desperately to achieve a compromise in which Parnell would temporarily withdraw. Parnell refused. He vehemently insisted that the independence of the Irish party could not be compromised either by Gladstone or by the Catholic hierarchy.[6] As chairman, he blocked any motion to remove him. On 6 December, after five days of vehement debate, a majority of 44 present led by Justin McCarthy walked out to found a new organisation, thus creating rival Parnellite and anti-Parnellite parties. The minority of 28 who remained true to their embattled 'Chief' continued in the Irish National League under John Redmond. However, all of his former close associates, Michael Davitt, John Dillon, William O'Brien and Timothy Healy deserted him to join the anti-Parnellites. The vast majority of anti-Parnellites formed the Irish National Federation, later led by John Dillon and supported by the Catholic Church. The bitterness of the split tore Ireland apart and resonated well into the next century. Parnell soon died, and his faction dissipated. The majority faction henceforth played only a minor role in British or Irish politics.

Undaunted defiance

Parnell fought back desperately, despite his failing health. On 10 December, he arrived in Dublin to a hero's welcome.[6] He and his followers forcibly seized the offices of the party paper United Irishman. His prestige had a year before reached new heights, but the crisis crippled this support, and most rural nationalists turned against him. In the December North Kilkenny by-election, he attracted Fenian "hillside men" to his side. This ambiguity shocked former adherents, who clashed physically with his supporters; his candidate lost by almost two to one.[10] Deposed as leader, he fought a long and fierce campaign for re-instatement. He conducted a political tour of Ireland to re-establish popular support. In a North Sligo by-election, the defeat of his candidate by 2,493 votes to 3,261 was less resounding.[10]

He fulfilled his loyalty to Katharine when they married on 25 June 1891 after Parnell had unsuccessfully sought a church wedding. On the same day, the Irish Catholic hierarchy, worried by the number of priests who had supported him in North Sligo, signed and published a near-unanimous condemnation: "by his public misconduct, has utterly disqualified himself to be … leader."[44] Only Bishop Edward O'Dwyer of Limerick withheld his signature. The Parnells took up residence in Brighton.

He returned to fight the third and last by-election in County Carlow, having lost the support of the Freeman's Journal when its proprietor Edmund Dwyer-Gray defected to the anti-Parnellites. At one point quicklime was thrown at his eyes by a hostile crowd in Castlecomer, County Kilkenny. Parnell continued the exhausting campaigning. One loss followed another but he looked to the next general election in 1892 to restore his fortunes. On 27 September, he addressed a crowd in pouring rain at Creggs, subjecting himself to a severe soaking. On the difficult campaign trail, his health seriously deteriorated; furthermore he had cancer of the stomach. He was a dying man at age 45.[6]

Parnell's grave in the predominantly Catholic Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin, alongside Éamon de Valera, Michael Collins and Daniel O'Connell.


Parnell's grave, circa 1914.

He returned to Dublin on 30 September. He died in his home at 10 Walsingham Terrace, Hove (now replaced by Dorset Court, Kingsway) on 6 October 1891 of pneumonia and in the arms of his wife Katharine [6] He was 45 years of age. Though an Anglican, his funeral on 11 October was at the Irish National nondenominational Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin, and was attended by more than 200,000 people.[10] His notability was such that his gravestone of unhewn Wicklow granite, erected in 1940,[45] reads only "Parnell".

His brother John Howard inherited the Avondale estate. He found it heavily mortgaged and eventually sold it in 1899. Five years later, at the suggestion of Horace Plunkett it was purchased by the state. It is open to public view and is where the "Parnell Society" holds its annual August summer school. The "Parnell National Memorial Park" is in nearby Rathdrum, County Wicklow. Dublin named Parnell Street and Parnell Square. At the north end of O'Connell Street stands the Parnell Monument. This was planned and organised by John Redmond, who chose the American Augustus Saint Gaudens to sculpt the statue; it was funded by Americans and completed in 1911. Art critics said it was not an artistic success.[46]

He is also commemorated on the first Sunday after the anniversary of his death on 6 October, known as "Ivy Day," which originated when the mourners at his funeral in 1891, taking their cue from a wreath of ivy sent by a Cork woman "as the best offering she could afford," took ivy leaves from the walls and stuck them in their lapels. Ever after, the ivy leaf became the Parnellite emblem, worn by his followers when they gathered to honour their lost leader.[47]

Since the centenary of his death in 1991, Magdalene College, Cambridge, where Parnell studied, has offered the Parnell Fellowship in Irish Studies, which is awarded to a scholar for up to a year for study without teaching or administrative responsibilities. Parnell Fellows have often been historians, but have spanned a wide range of disciplines, including Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney.

Personal politics

Parnell's personal political views remained an enigma. An effective communicator, he was skilfully ambivalent and matched his words depending on circumstances and audience though he would always first defend constitutionalism on which basis he sought to bring about change, though hampered thereat by the crimes that hung around the Land League and by the opposition of landlords aggravated by attacks on their property.[6]

Parnell's personal complexities or his perception of a need for political expediency to his goal permitted him to condone radical republican and the atheist Charles Bradlaugh, while he associated himself with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Parnell was a close friend and political associate of fellow land reform activist Thomas Nulty, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Meath, until Parnell's divorce crisis in 1889.[48][49] Charles Parnell was linked both with the landed aristocracy class and the Irish Republican Brotherhood, with speculation in the 1890s that he may have even joined the latter organisation. The historian Andrew Roberts argues that he was sworn into the IRB in the Old Library at Trinity College Dublin in May 1882 and that this was concealed for 40 years.[50] In Barry O'Brien's Parnell, X, Fenian Parliamentarian John O'Connor Power, relates, 'And, in fact, I was, about this time [1877], deputed to ask Parnell to join us. I did ask him. He said "No" without a moment's hesitation.'[51] He was conservative by nature, leading some historians to suggest that personally he would have been closer to the Conservative rather than to the Liberal Party, but for political needs. Andrew Kettle, Parnell's right-hand man, who shared a lot of his opinions, wrote of his own views, "I confess that I felt [in 1885], and still feel, a greater leaning towards the British Tory party than I ever could have towards the so-called Liberals."[52] In later years, the double effect of the Phoenix Park trauma and the O'Shea affair reinforced the conservative side of his nature.[6]

Overall assessment

Memorial at the junction of O'Connell Street and Parnell Street, Dublin

Charles Stewart Parnell possessed the remarkable attribute of charisma, was an enigmatic personality, politically gifted and is regarded as one of the most extraordinary figures in Irish and British politics. He played a part in the process that undermined his own Anglo-Irish caste; within two decades absentee landlords were almost unknown in Ireland. He created single-handedly in the Irish Party the first modern disciplined political party machine with its whip, holding together all strands of Irish nationalism and harnessing Irish-America into the Irish cause. He had the power to make and unmake governments and converted the Gladstone to Irish Home Rule.[53]

Over a century after his death he is still surrounded by public interest. His death, and the divorce upheaval which preceded it, gave him a public appeal and interest that other contemporaries, such as Timothy Healy or John Dillon, could not match.

Writers sometimes speculate as to whether, had Parnell lived, the enactment of All-Ireland Home Rule with the consent of all of Ulster and its inclusion in an All-Ireland parliament, could have taken place. That this would have pre-empted the need for Edward Carson, the Ulster leader, backed by the Ulster Covenant and his armed Ulster Volunteers, to force through his amending "exclusion of Ulster Bill" to the 1914 Third Home Rule Act. Which subsequently resulted in the establishment of a Northern Ireland Home Rule Government in Belfast under the Government of Ireland Act 1920. Had All-Ireland home rule evolved earlier, there perhaps would have been no Easter Rising, no Anglo-Irish War, no independent twenty-six county Free State and no ensuing civil war.[54] However, as Murphy shows, it's all unlikely because Unionist opposition after 1885 to any form "All-Ireland Home Rule" proved to be extremely resilient and steadfast.[55]

The scale of Parnell's impact can be seen in the fact that Irish parties from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have tried to claim him as "one of their own".

Ultimately the O'Shea divorce issue and Parnell's premature death changed the shape of Irish politics, to an extent that can be but speculated. He had been prepared to sacrifice everything for his love to Mrs O'Shea, including the cause to which he had devoted his political life. For generations of Irish people, his life as the "lost leader" was highly dramatic and deeply tragic, against whose mythical reputation no later leader who lived a normal lifespan and who faced the practicalities of governance that Parnell never faced, could hope to prevail.[56]

Portrayal in fiction

Parnell on the Irish £100 note (1996 to 2002)

In Knut Hamsun's 1892 novel Mysteries, the characters, on a couple of occasions, briefly discuss Charles Stewart Parnell, particularly in relation to Gladstone: "Dr. Stenerson had a high opinion of Parnell, but if Gladstone was so opposed to him, he must know what he was about—with apologies to the host, Mr. Nagel, who couldn't forgive Gladstone for being an honourable man". Parnell's death shocks the character Eleanor in Virginia Woolf's novel The Years, published in 1937: " could he be dead? It was like something fading in the sky."

Parnell is toasted in the famous 1938 poem of William Butler Yeats, "Come Gather Round Me, Parnellites", while he is also referred to in "To a Shade", where he performs the famous "C.S.Parnell Style", and in Yeats' two-line poem "Parnell".

In W. Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge, published in 1944, the author mentions Parnell and O'Shea: "Passion is destructive. It destroyed Antony and Cleopatra, Tristan and Isolde, Parnell and Kitty O'Shea."

Parnell is the subject of a discussion in Irish author James Joyce's first chapter of the semi-autobiographical novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, first serialised in The Egoist magazine in 1914–15. Parnell appears in several stories in Dubliners, notably in "Ivy Day in the Committee Room". He is also discussed in Ulysses, as is his brother.[57] The main character in Finnegans Wake, HCE, is partially based on Parnell;[58] among other resemblances, both are accused of transgressions in Phoenix Park.

Parnell is a major background character in Thomas Flanagan's 1988 historical novel, The Tenants of Time.

Parnell was played by a clean-shaven Clark Gable in Parnell, the 1937 MGM production about the Irish leader. The film is notable as being Gable's biggest flop and occurred at the height of his career, when almost every Gable film was a smash hit. Parnell was portrayed by Robert Donat in the 1947 film Captain Boycott. In 1954, Patrick McGoohan played Parnell in "The Fall of Parnell (December 6, 1890)", an episode of the historical television series You Are There.

In 1991, Trevor Eve played Parnell in the television mini-series "Parnell and the Englishwoman."

See also


  1. Most contemporaries pronounced his name /pɑːrˈnɛl/, with the stress on the second syllable. Parnell himself disapproved of this pronunciation, pronouncing it /ˈpɑːrnəl/, with the stress on the first syllable.
  2. Robert Kee, The Laurel and the Ivy (1994)
  3. English (2007), p. 223
  4. R. Barry O'Brien (1898). The Life of Charles Stewart Parnell -- 1846~1891. p. 1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. A. J. P. Taylor (1980). Politicians, Socialism, and Historians. p. 91.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. 6.00 6.01 6.02 6.03 6.04 6.05 6.06 6.07 6.08 6.09 6.10 6.11 6.12 6.13 6.14 6.15 6.16 6.17 6.18 6.19 6.20 6.21 Bew in ODNB (2004–05)
  7. "Parnell and the Parnells". Retrieved 15 November 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Kevin Haddick Flynn, "Parnell: The Rebel Prince," History Today, (2005) 55#4
  9. Flynn, "Parnell: The Rebel Prince," History Today, (2005) 55#4
  10. 10.00 10.01 10.02 10.03 10.04 10.05 10.06 10.07 10.08 10.09 10.10 10.11 10.12 10.13 10.14 Hickey et al (2003) pp. 382–385
  11. Jackson (2003) p. 45
  12. Jackson (2003) p. 42.
  13. Jackson (2003) p.48
  14. Collins (2008) p.45
  15. Collins (2008) p.47
  16. Williams (2003) p. 88
  17. Lyons (1973) p. 186
  18. Collins (2008) pp.50–53
  19. R.F. Foster, Modern Ireland, 1600-1972 (1988) p 415.
  20. Alan O'Day (1998). Irish Home Rule, 1867-1921. Manchester UP. p. 77.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. Jackson (2003) p.53
  22. Collins (2008) p.60
  23. Collins (2008) p. 60
  24. Jackson (2003) p.54
  25. Jackson (2003) p.56
  26. Maume (1999) p. 8
  27. Collins (2008) p.65
  28. A land bill introduced by party leader Isaac Butt in 1876 was voted down in the House of Commons, with 45 of his own MPs voting against him.
  29. Jackson (2003) p. 56
  30. Jackson (2003) p.63
  31. Collins (2008) p.79
  32. Jackson (2003) p.66
  33. Collins (2008) p. 80
  34. Chronology of Parnell's life in the Parnell Society website
  35. Stephen et al (2010) pp. 334–33
  36. McCarthy (1897)
  37. Jackson (2003) pp.85–86
  38. Jackson (2003) p.87
  39. Kehoe (2008): Ch.12 "Emissary to the Prime Minister"; Ch.13 "The Go-between"
  40. Reynolds's Weekly Newspaper, Sunday 16 November 1890, issue 2101; Daily News, 17 November 1890, issue 13921; Birmingham Daily Post, 17 November 1890, issue 10109
  41. Emmet Larkin, "The Roman Catholic Hierarchy and the Fall of Parnell," Victorian Studies (1961) 4#4 pp 315-336
  42. Christopher Oldstone-Moore, "The Fall of Parnell: Hugh Price Hughes and the Nonconformist Conscience," Eire-Ireland (1996) 30#4 pp 94-110.
  43. Philip Magnus, Gladstone: a biography (1960) pp 390-94
  44. "Charles Stewart Parnell", University College Cork
  45. Horgan (1948), p. 50
  46. Timothy J. O'Keefe, "The Art And Politics Of The Parnell Monument," Eire-Ireland (1984) 19#1 PP 6-25.
  47. As recorded in The Ivy Leaf, The Parnells Remembered MacCartney, Donal & Travers, Pauric; UCD Press (2006) The Ivy Leaf tradition
  48. Lawlor, David (2010). "Political priests: the Parnell split in Meath". Retrieved 8 June 2014. External link in |website= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  49. O'Beirne Ranelagh, John (2012). A Short History of Ireland (3 ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 300. ISBN 1139789260. Retrieved 8 June 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  50. Roberts (1999) pp. 456–457. This is based on a 1928 letter from a radical Land League activist, Thomas J Quinn, to William O'Brien, found in the William O'Brien Papers, University College Cork. Quinn, who emigrated to Colorado in 1882, told O'Brien that in Colorado he made the acquaintance of the former radical Land League organiser Patrick Joseph Sheridan, who privately told him that he had sworn Parnell into the IRB under these circumstances. Historians Paul Bew and Patrick Maume, who discovered this material, state that, probably, Quinn is reporting correctly what Sheridan told him, but that it cannot be proven that Sheridan was telling the truth.
  51. O'Brien, The Life of Parnell, 1910, pp. 110, 125.
  52. Kettle (1958) p. 69
  53. Lyons, Charles Stewart Parnell, (1973)
  54. Daniel Mulhall, "Parallel Parnell: Parnell delivers Home Rule on 1904," History Ireland (2010) 18#3 pp 30-33.
  55. William Michael Murphy, The Parnell myth and Irish politics, 1891-1956 (Lang, 1986).
  56. Frank Callanan, The Parnell Split, 1890-91 (1992)
  57. Gifford, (1989) p. 172
  58. Finnegans Wake p.25, describing HCE, refers to Parnell's support for tenants and later divorce scandal: "If you were bowed and soild and letdown itself from the oner of the load it was that paddyplanters might pack up plenty and when you were undone in every point fore the laps of goddesses you showed our labourlasses how to free was easy." See also Tindall (1996) pp. 92–93.



  • Foster, Roy. "Interpretations of Parnell." Studies: An Irish Quarterly (1991) 80#321 pp 349-357. Reviews the many interpretations of his personality, political ideas, and historical significance; says none are completely satisfying.

External links

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