Charles Stewart Parnell

views updated May 29 2018

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. □

Parnell, Charles Stewart

views updated May 18 2018


PARNELL, CHARLES STEWART (1846–1891), Irish nationalist leader.

Charles Stewart Parnell came from an Anglican landed family yet established himself as the leader of a revolt by predominantly Catholic and nationalist tenants against his own class. Unfortunate educational experiences in Britain left him with abiding resentment of British contempt for the Irish, yet he retained a certain social distance from his plebeian followers.

In 1875 Parnell was elected to Parliament as a member of Isaac Butt's Home Rule Party, which advocated limited autonomy for Ireland. Parnell rapidly emerged as a powerful speaker and a prominent "obstructionist." (These were members of Parliament [MPs] who thought Butt insufficiently radical and tried to force Parliament to pay attention to Ireland by systematically disrupting debates with long speeches.) In 1879, as crop failure and falling agricultural prices led to renewed tenant farmer agitation against landlords, Parnell entered into the "New Departure," an alliance with the Land League (founded in 1879 by Michael Davitt) and Irish-American physical-force separatists represented by John Devoy. This increased Parnell's popular support, enabling him to strengthen his support within the Home Rule Party at the 1880 general election and to become its leader shortly afterward. Parnell, a man of few words and significant silences, allowed his new allies to presume his agreement with them while using them for his own political purposes; meanwhile, he recruited able young lieutenants (including William O'Brien, John Dillon, and Timothy Michael Healy).

Many British commentators blamed Parnell for the agrarian violence that accompanied the land agitation; in 1881, after denouncing land legislation passed by the government of Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone as insufficient, he was interned with many other activists. The land agitation was sustained by the Ladies' Land League under Parnell's sister Anna. Violence continued, and in 1882 Parnell and his allies were released in return for his tacit agreement to control the radicals. (Parnell was also motivated by his developing relationship with Katharine O'Shea, the wife of a Home Rule MP, William Henry O'Shea.) This "Kilmainham Treaty" (called after Parnell's prison in Dublin) was limited by British revulsion at the subsequent assassination of a junior minister and a prominent civil servant in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, by members of a separatist splinter group. Parnell's initial reaction was panic over the possible consequences of his previous flirtations with the physical-force movement; but in the long run his position was strengthened by the flight to America of many radical activists. (His abrupt dissolution of the Ladies' Land League earned him Anna Parnell's enmity.)

In the following years Parnell built up a powerful, centrally controlled political organization, secured the support of the Catholic Church, and developed a personality cult through newspaper propaganda and carefully managed appearances. Parnell skillfully played conservatives and liberals against each other in 1884–1885; at the 1885 general election he monopolized the parliamentary representation of nationalist Ireland, electing eighty-six nationalist MPs (against eighteen conservative Irish Unionists) and acquiring a pivotal position within Parliament. Soon after the election it became known that Gladstone now favored the creation of a subordinate Irish Parliament.

The defeat of Gladstone's first Home Rule Bill (1886) by liberal Unionist defectors led to the formation of a pro-Union Conservative government with liberal Unionist support. While Gladstone sought British support for Home Rule by presenting the issue as a moral crusade, Parnell's lieutenants led a renewed land agitation in Ireland. Parnell himself was kept in the public eye by accusations that he had connived at the Phoenix Park murders (on the basis of letters subsequently revealed to have been forged by the journalist Richard Pigott). The government used an inquiry into these allegations to present the whole nationalist movement as a criminal conspiracy.

In 1890 Parnell's leadership was shattered by the public disclosure of his affair with Mrs. O'Shea, after her husband (who had previously connived at the relationship) sued for divorce. After Gladstone, pressured by Protestant zealots among his supporters, declared that he could not deliver Home Rule if Parnell remained leader, the majority of Home Rule MPs voted to depose him. Parnell (who had never forgiven Gladstone for imprisoning him in 1881–1882) and his supporters argued that the majority betrayed nationalist principles by accepting English dictation, and that Parnell remained the best-qualified leader. The bitter political conflict that followed did much to discredit Irish nationalism; Parnell made opportunistic appeals to separatism, while Healy (supported by the Irish Catholic bishops) subjected Parnell to unrelenting personal abuse as a lecherous, selfish, and generally un-Irish Protestant aristocrat. Parnell's frail health was undermined by unremitting campaigning, and on 6 October 1891 he died at Brighton (where he was living with Mrs. O'Shea, whom he had married after her divorce).

Parnell's followers saw him as a martyr, and the split between Parnellites and Anti-Parnellites continued until 1900. The failure of Gladstone to pass Home Rule in 1892–1893 and the weak and divided state of nationalism contributed to the growth of a Parnell legend; since he had skillfully maintained ambiguity about his ultimate aims, separatists and liberal Unionists as well as parliamentary nationalists could lay claim to him. (He is now often regarded as a conservative seeking to maintain a role for his class in a changing Ireland.) Writers such as James Joyce and William Butler Yeats saw him as the inspired hero destroyed by ungrateful and hypocritical philistines; the defeat of his campaign for Home Rule is one of the great might-have-beens of British and Irish history.

See alsoGreat Britain; Ireland; Nationalism.


Bew, Paul. C. S. Parnell. Dublin, 1980.

Callanan, Frank. The Parnell Split, 1890–91. Syracuse, N.Y., 1992.

Kee, Robert. The Laurel and the Ivy: The Story of Charles Stewart Parnell and Irish Nationalism. London, 1993.

Lyons, Francis Stewart Leland. Charles Stewart Parnell. New York, 1977.

O'Brien, Richard Barry. Life of Charles Stewart Parnell, 1846–1891. New York, 1898.

Patrick Maume

Parnell, Charles Stewart

views updated May 29 2018

Parnell, Charles Stewart

Irish Parliamentary Party leader Charles Stewart Parnell (1846–1891) was born on 27 June 1846 at his family's estate at Avondale, Co. Wicklow. Parnell went to school in England and attended Cambridge University but did not graduate. He was elected Home Rule MP for Meath in 1875 and made a name for himself by obstructing the business of Parliament. After Isaac Butt's death in 1879, Parnell became the de facto leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), but he came to lead the wider nationalist movement only when agricultural depression revived the land question in the late 1870s. When Michael Davitt organized the Irish Land League in 1879, Parnell, himself a Protestant landowner, realized the league's political potential and became its president. Widespread agrarian violence characterized the ensuing Land War of 1879 to 1881, and Ireland seemed on the verge of revolution. Capitalizing on British fears, Parnell wrested the Land Act of 1881 from the British government. This legislation finally granted Irish tenants the "three Fs"—fair rent, fixity of tenure, and free sale.

Fearing continued agrarian instability, in 1882 Parnell shifted his focus to winning Home Rule in the British Parliament. Parnell gave the IPP a national organization by creating the Irish National League and established greater discipline and loyalty to himself within the IPP. These steps paid off when the IPP won a record eighty-six seats in the 1885 election. This electoral mandate gave Parnell the leverage necessary to convince the British Liberal Party to support Home Rule. Although the 1886 Home Rule bill failed to pass, Parnell had placed Irish self-government on the Liberal agenda.

Parnell rapidly fell from the heights that he had reached in 1886. The new Conservative government's fierce opposition to Home Rule left Parnell with less political flexibility. Parnell also faced a public outcry in 1887 when The Times incorrectly linked him to the infamous Phoenix Park murders. But it was Parnell's personal life that ultimately ended his career. In December 1890 British Liberals and Irish Catholics turned on Parnell after news surfaced of his long-standing love affair with Katharine O'Shea, the wife of a Home Rule MP. Most members of the IPP repudiated Parnell's leadership, and although he fought to maintain his position, his political career was over. Physically exhausted, Parnell died on 6 October 1891. Parnell was an exceptional figure: a Protestant landlord who advocated land reform for Irish Catholic tenants and a distant and rather difficult man who during the 1880s was the charismatic uncrowned king of Ireland.

SEE ALSO Butt, Isaac; Davitt, Michael; Home Rule Movement and the Irish Parliamentary Party: 1870 to 1891; Home Rule Movement and the Irish Parliamentary Party: 1891 to 1918; Ladies' Land League; Land Acts of 1870 and 1881; Land War of 1879 to 1882; Newspapers; Plan of Campaign; Protestant Ascendancy: Decline, 1800 to 1930; Primary Documents: Establishment of the National Land League of Mayo (16 August 1879); Call at Ennis for Agrarian Militancy (19 September 1880); Land Law (Ireland) Act (22 August 1881); On Home Rule and the Land Question at Cork (21 January 1885); On Home Rule at Wicklow (5 October 1885); The Irish Parliamentary Party Pledge (30 June 1892)


Bew, Paul. C. S. Parnell. 1980.

Kee, Paul. The Laurel and the Ivy. 1993.

Lyons, F. S. L. Charles Stewart Parnell. 1977.

Patrick F. Tally

Parnell, Charles Stewart

views updated May 21 2018

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

Parnell, Charles Stewart

views updated Jun 27 2018

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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