Charles Stewart Parnell was born in June 1846 and died in 1891. Charles Stewart Parnell is one of the leading figures in recent Irish history and is most associated with Home Rule and the issues surrounding it.

Parnell’s parents were strong Irish nationalists and he grew up with an increasing resentment over London’s dominance of Ireland. Parnell actively involved himself in politics after the execution of three Fenians in 1874. These men became known as the ‘Manchester Martyrs’ and many in Ireland believed that their execution was a gross mis-justice. Parnell, aged 29, quickly made a name for himself and in 1875 he was elected the Member of Parliament for Meath. He joined Issac Butt’s Home Rule Party. Parnell quickly realised that one way of bringing attention to the cause of the Irish was to totally disrupt the workings of the ‘Mother of all Parliament’s’. Parnell became skilled at talking and talking. His speeches could go on for hours and caused great disruption to what were seen to be the sacrosanct ways of Westminster.

In 1879, the Irish National Land League was founded and Parnell was appointed its president. The Land League had three simple policies, the so-called ‘Three F’s’;

Fair rent Fixed tenure Free sale of land

Parnell’s long term target was for the farmers of Ireland to own their own land. Gladstone’s attempts to push through land reform for Ireland was defeated in the House of Lords. This pushed the Land League into supporting acts of violence in an effort to force Westminster into passing land reform acts. In 1880, Charles Stuart Parnell publicly stated his belief:

“When a man takes a farm from which another has been evicted you must shun him on the roadside when you meet him, you must shun him in the streets of the town, you must shun him in the shop, you must shun him in the fairgreen and in the marketplace, and even in the place of worship, by leaving him alone, by putting him in a moral Coventry, by isolating him from the rest of his country as if he were the leper of old, you must show your detestation of the crime he has committed.”

Such a tactic was used against a land agent called Boycott and boycotting was used as a word to describe the tactic espoused by Parnell.

Parnell travelled to America to further his cause and to raise money for the nationalist movement in Ireland. In the latter he was very successful raising £26,000 and many referred to Parnell as the “Uncrowned King of Ireland”.

However, for all the support he received both in America and Ireland, Parnell was singularly unsuccessful in getting any land reform in Ireland. This lead to more violence in rural Ireland and the British government introducing legislation to counter this. A Coercion Act lead to the arrest of Parnell and others in 1881 and the Irish Land League was suppressed. In March 1882, Parnell and Gladstone agreed to the ‘Kilmainham Treaty’. This lead to the release of Parnell and the anger that surrounded the land issue in Ireland abated for a while.

Parnell condemned those who murdered Lord Frederick Cavendish and T Burke in the Phoenix Park murders. Gladstone continued his dialogue with Parnell and remained committed to Home Rule. Towards the end of 1882, things appeared to be going the way of Parnell. In December 1882, the Irish National League was created to replace the Irish land League. Parnell wanted this new party to be under his control with the primary aim of winning Home Rule. By 1884, the Irish National League was very much controlled by Parnell. The strength of the party and Parnell’s standing in Ireland at this time was shown in the results of the 1885 national election. The Irish National League won every seat in Ireland with the exception of Dublin University and eastern Ulster. Nationally, the 1885 election was won by Gladstone and the Liberal Party. Gladstone had made his support for Home Rule clear but this was affirmed in his own mind by the sheer success of Parnell’s party in Ireland. Gladstone’s support for Home Rule brought him into direct conflict with the Conservatives who believed that any weakening of London’s role in Ireland would lead to the break-up of the British Empire as others within the Empire would seek to get the same as the Irish.

The so-called ‘Establishment’ used whatever tactic it could to undermine the position Parnell held in Ireland and to discredit him. In 1887, “The Times” produced a series of articles that, so the paper claimed, proved that Parnell was linked to murders in Ireland. One letter had the signature of Parnell on it – a letter that excused and supported the Phoenix Park murders. The government set-up an enquiry and it took two years before it was proved that all the evidence used by the ‘Times was forged. One of the forgers later committed suicide in Madrid. Parnell received a large sum of money from the “Times” and his name was fully and publicly cleared. 1889 was the year when Parnell’s political power was at its height – Gladstone entertained him at his home at Hawarden and he was made a freeman of Edinburgh. However, after this, his political power declined sharply.

In Victorian Britain, divorce was still seen as a scandalous issue. Marriage was seen as sacrosanct and anyone involved with ‘meddling’ in someone else’s marriage was seen as a “cad” or “bounder”. In December 1889, Parnell became involved in a divorce that was to end his political influence and the trauma of this divorce probably hastened his early death.

Parnell was named in the divorce papers between Captain O’Shea and his wife, Katherine. Many instinctively remembered the recent attempt by “The Times” to set-up Parnell and this was initially seen as another way of undermining the authority of a popular politician. However, Parnell was not set-up – he had been seeing Katherine O’Shea as early as 1880. His close confidants advised Parnell to take time-off from politics to allow the issue to die a natural death. He refused. Parnell managed to split the party that represented many of the people of Ireland at Westminster – the Irish Parliamentary Party. Some sided with Parnell while others did not. Twenty-seven sided with Parnell and forty-four sided with the party’s vice-chairman Justin McCarthy. This split spilled over into Ireland where you were either seen as one of Parnell’s supporters or you were not – it became very black or white. The power of the Roman Catholic Church was important here, especially in rural areas where it held much power. To the Church, the sanctity of marriage was critical and divorce was seen almost as a sin. The biggest sinner of all was the person who was central to the divorce, i.e. the cause of it. Parnell’s political reputation suffered badly but not terminally. In June 1891, he married Katherine and remained active in politics. However, many feel that he pushed his body too hard as he did not spare himself from travelling throughout the country giving speeches about the Irish issue. In October 1891, aged forty-five, Parnell died in Brighton, Sussex.

What was the impact of Parnell?

Parnell brought the whole issue of Home Rule to the forefront of British politics He helped to create a political party that had discipline and could operate effectively at Westminster Parnell successfully courted the support of Britain’s most important politician at that time – William Gladstone Parnell showed that there were sections of the British establishment who would stop at nothing to undermine the cause of the Irish.