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Charles Stewart Parnell

Charles Stewart Parnell

The Irish nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891) made home rule for Ireland a major factor in Irish nationalism and British politics.

Charles Parnell's County Wicklow, Anglo-Irish, Protestant-gentry family had earned a patriotic reputation in Ireland by opposing the Act of Union with Britain and by supporting Catholic emancipation. His American mother was a passionate Anglophobe. Although Parnell was educated in England, used English speech patterns, and possessed the aloof manner associated with the English establishment, he inherited his family's devotion to Irish interests.

His Obstructionist Tactics

In 1875 Parnell entered the House of Commons, lending his Protestant-gentry respectability to home rule. Two years later he joined Joseph Biggar in systematic obstruction of British legislation. Described by Parnell as an active parliamentary policy, obstruction was a reaction to British indifference to Irish problems, to the cautious and conciliatory parliamentary tactics and leadership of Isaac Butt—father of home rule and chairman of the Irish party—and to the growing cynicism of Irish opinion toward nationalist politics.

Butt joined outraged British politicians and journalists in denouncing the "barbarian" tactics of Parnell and Biggar, claiming they had damaged home rule by alienating British opinion. Parnell insisted that the achievement of home rule depended on the determination of Irish nationalist members of Parliament to demonstrate that the union could be as unpleasant for the British as it was for the Irish.

Avoiding a direct challenge to Butt's control over the moribund Irish party or the impoverished Home Rule League, Parnell awaited the next general election. He used obstruction to attract notice and favor, courting Irish opinion at home and in the ghettos of Britain and the United States. In 1879 Parnell accepted the presidency of the National Land League, a New Departure instrument designed by Irish-Americans to bring republicans into contact with the Irish peasant masses. Financed by Irish-American dollars, the Land League demanded the end of landlordism, but it was prepared to accept agrarian reform along the way.

Leader of the Irish Party

The results of the general elections of 1880 gave Parnell the votes to command the Irish party. William Gladstone, the prime minister, responded to the near-revolutionary Land League agitation with a mixed coercion-conciliation policy. The 1881 Land Act gave Irish tenant farmers secure tenures at fair rents, freeing them from serfdom. But Parnell rejected the act as inadequate, and the government imprisoned him for encouraging agrarian disturbances. He was released in 1882 after promising to accept government improvements in the Land Act in exchange for Irish party support of future Liberal efforts to solve the Irish question. The truce was known as the Kilmainham Treaty.

After 1882 Parnell concentrated on building an effective Irish party to promote home rule. Instead of reviving the outlawed Land League, he used Irish-American money to pay the expenses of talented and sincere nationalists prepared to stand for Parliament. Parnell's genius, Irish-American dollars, and the Reform Bill of 1884 gave the Irish party more than 80 members in the House of Commons.

Irish-Liberal Alliance

With an effective party behind him, Parnell in 1885 played balance-of-power politics in the House of Commons, forcing both Liberals and Conservatives to bid for Irish votes. Gladstone made the highest offer: home rule. The Irish then turned the Conservatives out of office and installed the Liberals. In 1886 Gladstone introduced a home-rule bill which was defeated by defections in Liberal ranks. The Irish-Liberal alliance lasted for 30 years, limiting the freedom of the Irish party and pushing British anti-Irish, no-popery, imperialistic opinion in a conservative direction. Home rule became the most emotional issue in British politics.

At the beginning of December 1889, Parnell was the unchallenged master of Irish nationalism. He dominated Irish opinion, bringing extremist types into the mainstream of constitutional nationalism. He commanded Irish-American financial resources, and he had captured the Liberal party for home rule. But that month the tides of Parnell's fortune began to recede when Capt. William O'Shea submitted a petition suing his wife, Katherine, for divorce, naming Parnell as correspondent.

Downfall and Death

Irish nationalists assumed that Parnell would emerge from the courtroom an honorable man. Parnell, however, anxious to marry Katherine O'Shea who had been his mistress since 1880, decided not to contest William O'Shea's charges, and his image was tarnished by the captain's testimony. Although the Irish party reelected Parnell its chairman in November 1890—just after the divorce—British Nonconformists demanded that Gladstone separate the Liberals from a public sinner. Gladstone insisted that the Irish party drop Parnell as its leader. On Dec. 6, 1890, after days of bitter debate, a majority of home-rule members of Parliament decided that the fate of Irish freedom was more important than the position of one man. Parnell, a supreme egotist, refused to accept the realities of the Liberal alliance. He appealed to the Irish people in three by-election contests. Opposed by the Catholic hierarchy and clergy, Parnell lost the by-elections and his health in the process. He died of rheumatic fever at Brighton on Oct. 6, 1891.

Parnell bequeathed a shattered parliamentary party, a bitter and divided nationalist opinion, and the myth of a martyred messiah. He became a symbol of resistance to British dictation, clericalism, and inhibiting Victorian and Irish Catholic moralities.

Further Reading

Still the best biography of Parnell is Richard Barry O'Brien, The Life of Charles Stewart Parnell (2 vols., 1898; repr. 1968). Briefer is Jules Abels, The Parnell Tragedy (1966). See also St. John Ervine, Parnell (1925), and William O'Brien, The Parnell of Real Life (1926).

Lawrence J. McCaffrey, Irish Federalism in the 1870's: A Study in Conservative Nationalism (1962), discusses the beginning of Parnell's political career and his contest with Butt. Parnell's leadership of the Irish party and the forces of nationalism in the 1890s is brilliantly analyzed in Conor Cruise O'Brien, Parnell and His Party, 1880-1890 (1957). Francis Stewart L. Lyons, The Fall of Parnell, 1890-91 (1960), is a detailed, objective, and very well-written analysis of the factors and motives that destroyed Parnell's leadership and split Irish nationalism. Thomas N. Brown's excellent Irish-American Nationalism (1966) discusses the relationship between Parnell, Irish-American nationalism, and home rule. Herbert Howarth, The Irish Writers' Literature and Nationalism, 1880-1940 (1958), contains an interesting interpretation of the impact of the Parnell myth on Irish writing.

Additional Sources

Bew, Paul, Charles Stewart Parnell, Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1991.

Byrne, Edward, Parnell: a memoir, Dublin: Lilliput, 1991.

Foster, R. F. (Robert Fitzroy), Charles Stewart Parnell: the man and his family, Hassocks Eng.: Harvester Press; Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1976.

Kee, Robert, The laurel and the ivy: the story of Charles Stewart Parnell and Irish nationalism, London: Hamish Hamilton; New York, N.Y., USA: Penguin Books, 1993.

Kissane, Noel, Parnell: a documentary history, Dublin: National Library of Ireland, 1991.

Lyons, F. S. L. (Francis Stewart Leland), Charles Stewart Parnell, New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Parnell in perspective, London; New York: Routledge, 1991. □

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Parnell, Charles Stewart

Charles Stewart Parnell (pär´nəl, pärnĕl´), 1846–91, Irish nationalist leader. Haughty and sensitive, Parnell was only a mediocre orator, but he possessed a marked personal fascination and was a shrewd political and parliamentary tactician. He succeeded in uniting the moderate and militant Irish nationalists in the drive for land reform and Home Rule and brought the Irish question to the forefront of British politics.

Political Career

The son of a Protestant landowner, he attached himself to the Home Rule movement of Isaac Butt and was elected to the British Parliament in 1875. He quickly developed an obstructionist policy in Parliament, where his filibusters gave the Irish contingent a prominence far beyond its numbers. Although these tactics lost him the approval of Butt, they brought him the support of the militant Fenian movement.

Joining the Fenians in their agitation against the Irish land laws, Parnell became president of the National Land League (see Irish Land Question) in 1879. He encouraged the use of the boycott as a means of bringing pressure on the landlords and their agents, but the agitation also produced much violence, and the harsh Coercion Bill of 1881 was passed (over Parnell's opposition) to check it.

In 1881, Parnell started United Ireland, a paper in support of the Land League, edited by William O'Brien. Arrested for his activities and put in Kilmainham jail, Parnell directed O'Brien to compose a manifesto against rent payment. Parnell's popularity increased, and he came to be referred to as the "uncrowned king of Ireland." He was released (1882) by the so-called Kilmainham treaty, by which the government agreed to settle the question of arrears in land rent if Parnell would help check violence against landlords.

The Phoenix Park murders of 1882 shocked Parnell as much as they did the English, but the Irish leader opposed the coercive Crimes Act that followed and was therefore charged with encouraging terrorism. Nonetheless, he retained the confidence of his followers both in Ireland and in America, where the fact that he was a grandson of the American naval hero Charles Stewart added to his appeal.

In 1885 the Liberals' threat to renew the Crimes Act of 1882 led Parnell to throw the Irish vote to the Tories and thus bring down the government of William Gladstone. It was, however, an uncomfortable alliance, and in 1886 Parnell swung back to the Liberals, who returned to power. Gladstone then introduced in Parliament the first Home Rule Bill (1886), but the Liberal party split on the issue, and Gladstone's government fell again. In 1887, the London Times printed a series of hostile articles called "Parnellism and Crime," ending with a facsimile letter, purporting to carry Parnell's signature and apologizing for his denunciation of the Phoenix Park murders. A special commission found (1889) that the letter had been forged; and, although some of Parnell's activities were censured, he and his associates were exonerated.

Fall from Power

In 1889, Parnell was named as corespondent in a divorce suit brought by one of Parnell's colleagues, Captain O'Shea, against his wife, Katharine. Adultery was proved, the divorce granted (1890), and in 1891, Parnell married Katharine. The episode ruined his political influence; he was denounced both by the English liberals and by the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Ireland, and the Irish nationalists split into Parnellites and anti-Parnellites. His efforts to reunite the party failed and broke his health.

Bibliography

See biography by R. B. O'Brien (2 vol., 1898; repr. 1968); studies by C. C. O'Brien (1954, rev. ed. 1957), F. S. L. Lyons (1960, 1977), J. Abels (1966), M. Hurst (1968), R. R. Foster (1976), A. O'Day (1986), D. Boyce (1991), and R. Kee (1994).

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Parnell, Charles Stewart

Parnell, Charles Stewart (1846–91). The most effective and charismatic Irish constitutional nationalist leader. Born in Co. Wicklow into an Anglo-Irish protestant family, Parnell inherited the Avondale estate, and became MP for Meath in 1875. He quickly associated with the obstructionist wing of the Home Government Association. He led the ‘New Departure’ of 1878–9, bringing together ex-Fenians, Irish-American nationalists, and advocates of land reform. He became president of the Irish Land League in 1879, and forced Gladstone to grant major changes in the 1881 Land Act. To preserve control of an increasingly radical movement, Parnell initially resisted the Act's implementation and was imprisoned. In the ‘Kilmainham treaty’, 1882, he agreed to an amended Land Act and to keep to parliamentary opposition only. For the next three years, Parnell concentrated on developing a disciplined parliamentary party, enabling advantage to be taken of the favourable electoral circumstances in 1885–6. Skilful manœuvring of support between Conservatives and Liberals culminated in Gladstone's Home Rule Bill 1886, the summit of Parnell's career. Following the bill's defeat, his effectiveness was compromised by the Liberal alliance and his remoteness from Ireland. Accused of association with Fenian violence in The Times in 1887, he was proved innocent in February 1889, only to be ruined by being cited as co-respondent in O'Shea's divorce in 1889/90. Deserted by an unholy alliance of the nonconformist Liberal conscience with the catholic hierarchy, Parnell was forced to choose between resignation or alliance with the Liberals. After his party split, he led unsuccessful polemical campaigns in by-elections in early 1891. Parnell wed Katharine O'Shea in June 1891, but died that autumn. The melodramatic circumstances of his fall encouraged a romantic myth which obscured his essential conservatism and the limitations of his achievement. His long-term aim to reconcile declining landlordism with advancing nationalism failed totally.

Michael Hopkinson

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"Parnell, Charles Stewart." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Parnell, Charles Stewart

Parnell, Charles Stewart (1846–91) Irish nationalist leader. In 1875, he entered the British Parliament. Parnell led the parliamentary movement for Irish Home Rule. His filibustering tactics won the support of the Fenian movement. In 1879, Parnell became president of the National Land League. He was imprisoned in 1881–82. In 1886, he supported Gladstone's introduction of the Home Rule Bill. In 1889, his career collapsed when he was cited as co-respondent in the divorce of William O'Shea, whose wife, Kitty, he later married.

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