Charles Stewart Parnell was born in Avondale, County Wicklow, of gentry stock. He was 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 (1778-1869) (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 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 .
The Parnells of Avondale were descended from an English merchant family, which came to prominence in Congleton, Cheshire, early in the seventeenth century where as Baron Congleton two generations held the office of Mayor of Congleton before moving to Ireland. 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); he belonged to the disestablished Church of Ireland (its members mostly unionists) though in later years he was to drop away from formal church attendance ; he was connected with the aristocracy through the Powerscourts and distantly connected to the Royal Family. 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 was sent to different schools in England, where he spent an unhappy youth. His father died in 1859 and he inherited the Avondale estate. The young Parnell studied at Magdalene College, Cambridge (1865-9) but forced by 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 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 his home county of Wicklow in which he was also 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 . Perhaps due to lack of interest in other enterprises, 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. His chance came when in an 1875 by-election backed by Fenian Patrick Egan he entered parliament for County Meath. He subsequently sat for the constituency of Cork City from 1880 until 1891.
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 . Parnell made it his business to cultivate Fenian sentiments both in Britain and Ireland 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 (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. 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 . 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. 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-orientated William Shaw. Shaw's victory was temporary, however.
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. On 1 June Parnell and the American Fenians forged an understanding binding them to mutual support and a shared political agenda . Working together with Davitt who was impressed by him , he now took on the role of leader of the New Departure, holding platform after platform meetings around the country . Throughout the autumn of 1879 he repeated the message to tenants: "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," after the long depression left them without income for rent. He 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. At the age of thirty-two and after just over four years in parliament he had put into place a political coalition without precedent in Irish politics.
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 the collected £70,000 for distress in Ireland. During Parnell’s highly successful tour he had an audience with the American President, on 2 February 1880 he addressed the House of Representatives on the state of Ireland and spoke in sixty-two cities including in Canada, where he was so well received in Toronto, that Healy dubbed him "the uncrowned king of Ireland" . He strove to retain Fenian support but insisted when asked by a reporter that he personally could not join a secret society . 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."
His activities came to an abrupt end when the United Kingdom general election, 1880 was announced for April and he returned to fight it. The Conservatives were defeated by the Liberal Party, William Ewart Gladstone was again Prime Minister. Sixty-three Home Rulers were elected, twenty-seven Parnell supporters, Parnell being returned for three seats in Cork, 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 widely from 863 incidents in 1879 to 2590 in 1880 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 Captain 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 . He attempted to defuse the land question with Balfour’s dual ownership Second Land Act of 1881 but it failed to eliminate tenant evictions.
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. 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 , and resulted in losing the 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 . The militants Invincibles responsible, fled to America which allowed him 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, the IRB ceasing to be an important force in Irish politics .
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, Henry Campbell 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 or if they did, often voted against their own party . 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 its 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 and ensured, that party MPs voted as a bloc in parliament on all occasions. The creation of a strict party whip and formal party structure was unique in party politics. The Irish Parliamentary Party is generally seen as the first modern 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 their party structures on the Parnellite model.
The changes impacted on 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.
"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" .
Parnell's unified Irish bloc had come to dominate British politics, making and unmaking Liberal and Conservative governments in the mid-1880s as it fought for self government for Ireland, initially of course within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Both UK parties discovered common ground on which they could negotiate political understanding with Parnell. When Gladstone’s government fell in June 1885, the delayed November general elections, (boundaries were being redrawn) brought a complete Parnellite dominance 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.
He at first supported a coalition with the Conservatives but after renewed agrarian distress arose when agricultural prices fell and unrest developed during 1885 the Conservative government announced coercion measures in January 1886. Parnell switched his support to the Liberals and the government fell . The Liberals regained power, their leader Gladstone now under Parnell’s sway moving towards Home Rule, which Gladstone’s son revealed publicly under what became known as the Hawarden Kite.
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 . By 28 January Salisbury’s government had resigned. 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 . The Conservatives now emerged as enthusiastic unionists, Lord Randolph Churchill declared The Orange card is the one to play . Gladstone committed the more progressive section of his party to support the cause of Irish Home Rule. In the course of a long and fierce debate he made a remarkable Irish Home Rule Speech, beseeching parliament to pass the bill. However, Unionist anti-home rule protest demonstrations resulted in a split between pro- and anti-home rulers within the Liberal Party and the defeat of the bill on its second reading in June by 341 to 311 votes.
Parliament was dissolved and elections called, Irish Home Rule the central issue. The result of the July 1886 general election was again Liberal defeat, the Conservative anti-Home-Rulers and the Liberal Unionist Party returned with a majority of 118 over the combined Gladstonian Liberals and the retained 85 Irish Party seats.
''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.
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. 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. For while he was vindicated in triumph, links between the Home Rule movement and militancy, had been established. This he could have politically survived were it not for the crisis to follow.
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 . A remarkable transition from an inmate at Kilmainham to an intimate at Hawarden in just over seven years . 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 which a substantial section of his party were displeased with, insufficient achieved for the tenantry of the smaller tenants
Parnell’s leadership was first put to the test in February 1886 when he forced the candidature for a Galway seat by-election of Captain William O'Shea who had negotiated the Kilmainham Treaty. He 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 . O’Shea had already separated from his wife Mrs Katharine O’Shea but would not divorce her as she was expecting a substantial inheritance. Parnell first had contact to Mrs. O’Shea when she acted as liaison in 1885 with Gladstone during proposals for the First Home Rule Bill . He later took up residence with her in Eltham, Surrey in the summer of 1886 . When Mrs O’Shea’s aunt died in 1899, her money was left in trust (later inherited by cousins).
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. It was soon 'revealed' (though it had been widely known among politicians at Westminster) that Parnell had been the long term partner of Mrs O'Shea (also known derogatively as "Kitty") and had fathered three of her children. . Meanwhile Parnell assured the Irish Party 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 .
Parnell did not contest the divorce case on 15 November so as to assure that it would be granted in order that he could marry Mrs O’Shea; so Capt. O’Shea’s allegations went unchallenged. A divorce decree was granted on the 17th of November 1890 and Parnell’s two children placed in O’Shea’s custody (his first child had died when he was in Kilmainham gaol). The next day the Irish National League passed a resolution upholding his leadership. The Catholic Church hierarchy in Ireland was largely silent, some bishops explicitly declaring the issue to be purely political , though divorce is forbidden under Catholic doctrine and most of Parnell's supporters were members of the Catholic Church. As co-respondent, Parnell was legally the apparent cause of the divorce, so that it was rather the ‘nonconformist conscience’ in England which openly rebelled against him , and resulted in Gladstone’s warning, given to Justin McCarthy as intermediary, that if Parnell retained leadership it would mean the loss of the next election, the end of their alliance and also of Home Rule. When the annual party leadership election was held on the 25th, this threat was not conveyed to the members whom Parnell managed to control, until they loyally re-elected their 'chief' in his office . Gladstone published his warning in a letter the next day; subsequently, angry members demanded a new meeting, called for 1 December.
During the meeting, when Parnell had challenged Gladstone's intervention with the question, "Who is the master of the party?"; Timothy Healy, a notoriously waspish MP, responded with the legendary quip "Who is the mistress of the party?", Parnell retorted, how dare he in an assembly of Irishmen insult a woman . Healy continued in public with a series of polemics to viciously attack Parnell, articulating an aggressively Catholic nationalism. Parnell in contrast had insisted in a major speech in Belfast in May 1891
"It is undoubtedly true that until the prejudices of the Protestant and Unionist minority are conciliated …..
Ireland can never enjoy perfect freedom, Ireland can never be united."
All of his former close associates, Michael Davitt, John Dillon, William O’Brien and Timothy Healy deserted him to join the Anti-Parnellites. The bitterness of the split was to tear the country apart and resonated well into the next century.
On 10 December Parnell arrived in Dublin to a hero’s welcome . He and his followers later forcibly seized the offices of the party paper United Irishman. His prestige had risen to unprecedented heights but the crisis crippled this support, and most rural nationalists turned against him. In the December north co. Kilkenny by-election he attracted Fenian "hillside men" to his side. This ambiguity shocked former adherents, who clashed physically with his supporters, his candidate beaten by almost two to one . 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, the clergy not united .
He fulfilled his loyalty to Katharine when they married on 25 June, 1891 in Steyning registry office , West Sussex, after Parnell unsuccessfully sought a church wedding. On which day the Catholic hierarchy, worried by the number of priests who had supported him in north Sligo, issued a near-unanimous condemnation of his conduct (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 co. Carlow having lost the support of the Freeman's Journal when its proprietor Edmund Dwyer-Gray deflected to the anti-Parnellites. On the difficult campaign trail, his health visibly faded since Kilmainham gaol and seriously deteriorating during the year, quicklime was thrown at his eyes by a hostile crowd in Castlecomer, co. Kilkenny. Fr. PJ Ryan, a Land League protagonist, called in medical aid given by his brother, Dr Valentine Ryan of Carlow Town, a Home Rule sympathiser. Parnell continued the exhausting life of an Irish public agitator, refused to regard parliamentary pressure as outmoded and looked to the next election to restore his fortunes. On 27 September rather than disappoint his followers in the west he addressed a crowd in pouring rain at Creggs on the Galway–Roscommon border and contracted pneumonia.
He returned to Dublin, departing by mail boat on 30 September ("I shall be all right. I shall be back next Saturday week."). He died in his home in Brighton of a heart attack in his wife’s arms on 6 October. He was only 45 years of age. Though an Anglican, his funeral to the Irish National Catholic Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin on 11 October 1891, was attended by more than 200,000 people . Such was his reputation that his gravestone of unhewn Wicklow granite, erected in 1940, carries just one word in large lettering: PARNELL.
His brother John Howard inherited the Avondale estate which he found 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. The capital city Dublin commemorated Parnell with the naming of Parnell Street, Parnell Square and the Parnell Monument on central O'Connell Street.
He is also commemorated on the first Sunday after the anniversary of his death on October 6th, 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 cold 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 then gathered to honour their lost leader.
Yet he condoned radical republican and atheist Charles Bradlaugh and associated with the Roman Catholic Church, was linked both with the landed aristocracy class and the Irish Republican Brotherhood, with speculation in the 1990s 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 . 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. Thomas Kettle#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. .Historians believe Parnell and Timothy Healy shared that viewpoint . In later years the double effect of the Phoenix Park trauma and the O’Shea affair reinforced the conservative side of his nature .
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 began the process that undermined his own Anglo-Irish caste and destroyed landlordism. 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 in the United Kingdom and converted the British Prime Minister Gladstone to Irish Home Rule.
Over a century after his death he is still surrounded by public interest. His early 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. Historians speculate as to whether, had Parnell lived and home rule been granted a decade earlier, All-Ireland independence could have, in time, flowed from such a settlement and have meant there would have been no Easter Rising, no Anglo-Irish War, no independent twenty-six county Free State and no ensuing Civil War? The enactment of All-Ireland independence could certainly only have taken place with the consent of all of Ulster, its inclusion in an All-Ireland parliament, at the time, a debatable issue. However, after Edward Carson the Ulster leader, backed by the Ulster Covenant and his armed Ulster Volunteers, forced through his amending "exclusion of Ulster Bill" to the 1914 Third Home Rule Act, and with the establishment of a Northern Ireland Home Rule Government in Belfast under the Government of Ireland Act 1920, Unionist opposition since 1885 to "All-Ireland independence" proved itself to be extremely resilient and steadfast.
The scale of Parnell's impact can be seen in the fact that parties from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have tried to claim him as "one of their own", as more recently have some in Sinn Féin. The uniqueness of his appeal was shown when, in the early 1890s two visiting members of the Royal Family, the Duke of Clarence and the Duke of York (later King George V), paid a private visit to the grave of the "uncrowned king of Ireland" in Glasnevin.
Ultimately the O'Shea divorce issue and Parnell's premature death changed the shape of late nineteenth century 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.
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