Parnell, Anna (1852–1911)

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Parnell, Anna (1852–1911)

Co-founder and leader of the Ladies' Land League, the first women's political organization in Ireland, which was suppressed by her brother, Charles Stewart Parnell, in 1882. Born Catherine Maria Anna Mercer Parnell on May 13, 1852, at Avondale, near Rath-drum, County Wicklow; drowned off Ilfracombe, Devon, in 1911; daughter of John Henry Parnell (a landowner) and Delia (Stewart) Parnell; sister of Charles Stewart Parnell (1846–1891, Irish reformer and politician); sister-in-law of Katherine O'Shea (1845–1921); educated at home, at the Royal Dublin Society Art School and the South Kensington School of Design; never married; no children.

Following her father's death (1859), the family left Avondale, living in Dublin, Paris and London; while studying in London, attended parliamentary sittings and wrote accounts of them for an Irish-American journal; helped to organize an American fund for the relief of famine in Ireland (1879–80); established the Central Land League of the Ladies of Ireland (LLL), of which she became organizing secretary and effective leader (January 1881); co-ordinated and took part in the League's activities throughout Ireland (1881–82); LLL dissolved by her brother, Charles Stewart Parnell (August 1882), after which she retired from public life; moved to England, where she lived for the remainder of her life (1886); Charles Stewart Parnell died, having lost the support of the majority of his own Irish Party (1891); with publication of Michael Davitt's The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland , which contained criticism of the LLL (1904), was prompted to produce her own account, The Tale of a Great Sham ; unable to find a publisher; lost manuscript of Tale discovered (1959) and published (1986).

The summer of 1882 saw Ireland in a state of acute political tension: the recently released leaders of the Land League were engaged in delicate negotiations with the government; the country had recently been shocked by the murder of the chief secretary and under-secretary by members of a nationalist secret society; and agrarian violence, evictions and distress were widespread in the countryside. On a morning in June, Anna Parnell arrived as usual at the headquarters of the Ladies' Land League, which under her leadership had been in the forefront of the struggle for tenant rights. Among the volunteer workers already in the office was the young Katharine Tynan , who in her autobiography, Twenty-five Years, described Parnell's entrance that day, with "her curiously gentle, gliding pace … the very embodiment … of a delicate austere lady, just verging on spinsterhood." Speaking as softly as ever, but with "a subdued excitement in her face and manner," Parnell told Tynan and the others that she had just encountered the viceroy and his armed escort in the street outside. Said Parnell:

I went out into the roadway and stopped his horse. "What do you mean, Lord Spencer," I said, "by interfering with the houses I am building for evicted tenants?" He only stared at me and muttered something, lifting his hat. I held his horse by the head-piece till he heard me. Then I went back to the pavement.

Horrified, her listeners protested that her action was insane, that she might have been killed, but Parnell was unrepentant. "I had to tell him," she said, "that he ought not to interfere with the housing of the evicted tenants."

This incident epitomizes the passion, courage and disregard for convention which characterized so much of Anna Parnell's history. Born at the family home of Avondale in 1852, she was the tenth child and fifth daughter of John Parnell, a substantial landowner, and his American wife, Delia Parnell . As Roy Foster points out in his biography of Anna's brother, Charles Stewart Parnell, the children of the family divided into two distinct groups, the first generally quiet and retiring, while the second—to which Anna, her older sister Fanny Parnell , and Charles Stewart belonged—was "strong-minded, individualistic … intellectually oriented and politically minded." In this, Foster suggests, they resembled their mother, whose romantic nationalism has often been suggested as a strong childhood influence. In fact, this influence has probably been exaggerated, and Delia was in any case frequently absent during these years. The Parnells' marriage was apparently unhappy, and Delia, a strong-minded but erratic woman, disliked Irish country life, preferring instead to spend long periods in London and Paris; she and most of her children, including the seven-year-old Anna, were in Paris when her husband died suddenly in 1859.

John Parnell's death left his family poorly provided for; his widow and daughters were to have an income of only £100 a year, and Anna was later to write bitterly of Irish landlords' treatment of their own womenfolk, whose allowances were the first economies at times of distress, and who were, she considered, "little less the victims of the landlords than the tenants themselves." Thus, Anna's political views were shaped from the beginning by a strong sense of injustice, both on her own account and on behalf of her gender; though the Ladies' Land League was ostensibly a nationalist and not a feminist movement, it did nonetheless represent an assertion of the right of women to a political voice. Even as girls, Anna and Fanny were passionately interested in politics, both American and Irish, and in the current debate on the role of women; according to one account quoted by Foster, as a young woman Anna was "a regular reader … of New York and Boston journals, and … dipped into the lectures of American oratoresses who stood on the equal rights platform."

Parnell's formal education, like that of most girls of her class, was scanty, but she showed an early talent for art, and went on to take classes first in Dublin and later in London. By now, her brother Charles had begun his political career as a member of Parliament for the Irish Party at Westminster, and Anna frequently attended parliamentary sessions, sitting in the section of the public gallery set aside for women. These debates were often stormy: the Irish Party, in pursuit of its goal of home rule, had adopted a strategy of obstructing parliamentary business, and Charles Parnell himself was rapidly assuming a position of leadership within the party. From her seat in the "ladies' cage," Anna observed these developments, and noted her impressions in a series of well-informed and humorous articles, published in 1880 in an Irish-American paper, The Celtic Monthly.

By the end of the 1870s, however, political unrest in Ireland had given way to agricultural depression, to shortage and even famine, and ultimately to a tenant movement, culminating in the founding, in autumn 1879, of a National Land League, with Charles Parnell as its president. Anna, on a visit to her mother and Fanny, who were now living in America, threw herself into the direction of a Famine Relief Fund, displaying in the process the organizational skill, the self-confidence and the will to command which she shared with Charles, and which marked her later political career.

By mid-1880, with the land agitation intensifying in Ireland, contributions from Irish-Americans were showing a decline. It was at this point that Fanny Parnell conceived the idea of an organization which would, she hoped, bring "women's attributes of compassion and enthusiasm" to the ongoing struggle; as a result of her efforts, the first meeting of the New York Ladies' Land League was held on October 15, 1880. Within a short time, further branches were established throughout America, the success of the movement prompting the Land League in Ireland to consider the possibility of

setting up a similar organization there. The incentive to do so became greater with the increasing likelihood that the government would introduce a Coercion Act, under which the existing League leaders could be arrested: as one of them, Michael Davitt, pointed out, female supporters could be particularly useful in the event of repression, since the government might well be reluctant to move against them. Moreover, he said, his bias notwithstanding:

No better allies than women could be found for such a task. They are, in certain emergencies, more dangerous to despotism than men. They have more courage, through having less scruples, when and where their better instincts are appealed to by a militant and just cause in a fight against a mean foe.

By now, Parnell was back in Ireland, and early in 1881 she received a letter from her brother, as president of the Land League, informing her of the decision to establish a Ladies' Land League (LLL), and asking her to take charge of the new body's Dublin office. This possibility had already been suggested to her by Fanny; initially, however, Anna was unenthusiastic about the proposal, doubting both her own ability to do the job and the willingness of Irish women to join such an organization. She may, too, have been aware that, with the exception of Davitt, the members of the executive were dubious about the idea of a sister movement, which they regarded as a "most dangerous experiment," which might expose the whole cause to "public ridicule." However, she agreed to take on the task, becoming organizing secretary and effective leader of the Central Land League of the Ladies of Ireland, formally established in Dublin on January 31, 1881.

In a declaration issued shortly after its formation, the executive of the LLL appealed to all Irishwomen to take part in its campaign, and outlined its expectations of what that would involve.

You cannot prevent the evictions, but you can and must prevent them from becoming massacres. Form yourselves into branches…. Be ready to give information of evictions in your districts, to give advice and encouragement to the unhappy victims, to collect funds, and to apply those which may be entrusted to you as emergencies arise.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the challenge which it presented to its members, the LLL expanded rapidly. By May 1881, it had 321 branches throughout Ireland, together with others in Britain, the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Public meetings were held throughout the country, at many of which Parnell herself was the main speaker: according to the Nation newspaper in April 1881, "the energy of Miss Anna Parnell is something extraordinary. Her desire to serve the cause of the Irish tenant is so great that she hardly gives herself a moment's rest."

During these first months of its existence, the LLL acted, officially at least, in full co-operation with the Land League; thus, finding its records in disarray, its members took on the compilation of a detailed register of estates, described admiringly by Davitt as "the most perfect system that can be imagined," while also organizing propaganda, sending representatives to monitor evictions and to urge support for the campaign, and offering practical assistance to those expelled for non-payment of rent. However, while some of the male leaders saw the LLL as primarily a charitable organization, Anna "strongly objected" to such a view. It was, she stressed, "a relief movement" rather than a charity, and on one occasion, praised for her ability to "work as well as weep," she retorted that she would leave the weeping to the men. Other differences also became apparent: the Ladies received little in the way of advice or material assistance from the parent body, and, as their confidence and capabilities grew, were more inclined to criticize its policy and management. As Anna declared, albeit lightly, in April, "I observe that we have succeeded today in getting rid of the men nearly entirely—and I am sure that we all feel much more comfortable in consequence." More serious were emerging political disagreements, with the LLL interpreting the ultimate aim of the movement in a more radical light than the male leadership. Thus, while Anna believed that "the programme of a permanent resistance until the aim of the League shall be attained, was the only logical one," her brother and his colleagues favored a more pragmatic approach. For Charles Parnell, the land war was part of a wider movement for Irish political independence; he was, therefore, anxious not to alienate more prosperous farmers who sought, not land redistribution, but simply secure possession and a reduction in rent, and were unlikely to subscribe to any policy, such as a comprehensive rent strike, which would leave them liable to eviction. While official rhetoric advocated payment of rent only "at the point of a bayonet," in practice, as Anna found, "the Land League had by no means the same objection to rent being paid as we had." Increasingly, she and the other Ladies became aware that, in encouraging the tenants' resistance, they were acting in opposition to League policy, and succeeding only in "raising forlorn hopes in the people."

As women operating in the political domain, the Ladies also faced criticism from other quarters, including members of the Catholic clergy. In March, for instance, Archbishop McCabe of Dublin issued a pastoral letter in which he denounced the organization as "degrading" to Irishwomen, who "are asked to forget the modesty of their sex, and the high dignity of their womanhood by leaders who seem utterly reckless of consequences." Supporters of the Land League, both lay and clerical, were quick to rush to the Ladies' defense, but there were many, even among these, whose attitude was distinctly ambivalent. Thus, the editor of the Irish Canadian newspaper regretted not so much the archbishop's condemnation, as the extreme language used; he himself, he acknowledged, regarded this organization of females as "bordering on the questionable." The hostile Times took a loftier line, dismissing the women's capacity for action with the remark that "when treason is reduced to fighting behind petticoats and pinafores, it is not likely to do much mischief."

In October 1881, however, the LLL acquired a new importance with the banning of the Land League and the arrest of those leaders not already in prison. The women's organization now assumed the task for which it originally had been intended, taking control of all the functions of the League to such effect that Cowper, the current viceroy, demanded "new measures" to deal with the continued agitation which, he alleged, "has been taken up by women [who] go about the country conveying messages and encouraging disaffection." In December, the LLL itself was suppressed, and in defiance of the ban, mass meetings were held all over the country on January 1, 1882. As one observer remarked, "five thousand ladies of Ireland were calling on the government to arrest them, and were preaching Land League doctrines as they were never preached before." Over the following months, LLL meetings were broken up by the police and a number of its members arrested, with 13 members serving jail sentences on a variety of charges. The women's willingness to face the indignities of imprisonment—and without the privileges which the male prisoners enjoyed—was an embarrassment to many Land League supporters: an editorial in the League paper United Ireland contrasted the courage of the Ladies with the apparent tameness of their male colleagues. "Shall it be said," it asked:

That, while the Ladies' Land League met persecution by extending their organisation and doubling their activity and triumphing, the National Land League to which millions of men swore allegiance melted away and vanished the moment Mr Forster's policemen shook their batons at it?

Such comparisons of the performance of the female and male Land Leaguers were hardly calculated to calm the leadership's distrust of the women's role. Moreover, in its efforts to carry out League policy, the LLL was faced with the difficulty, as Anna expressed it, of trying to "make ropes of sea sand." Charles Parnell, without consulting the Ladies, who would, after all, have the responsibility of trying to persuade tenants to observe it, had finally issued a "No-Rent Manifesto." However, the declaration was more a cover for compromise with the government than a realistic policy, and Charles, because of his enforced absence, could evade responsibility for its almost inevitable failure. Increasingly, with the implementation of William Gladstone's 1881 Land Act, which granted tenants the right of free sale and introduced a method of arbitration in rent disputes, the more prosperous farmers came to terms with their landlords, leaving only the rural poor and the landless still defiant; violence and intimidation intensified, and this new crime wave was attributed to the policies pursued by the Ladies. In fact, agrarian violence was an established feature of Irish rural life, and Parnell himself was said to have predicted that if he were imprisoned, "Captain Moonlight" would take his place. Moreover, such activity was fostered not only by the government's refusal to make concessions, but also by the policies of the Land League itself, which throughout its campaign had employed a rhetoric which it had no intention of putting into practice, creating confusion and frustration among the most disadvantaged sectors of the rural population.

I consider the actions of particular individuals are unimportant in history, while the actions of groups, classes, etc. of persons are most important, because the former are not met with again, and the latter are.

—Anna Parnell

The worsening conditions, together with a vastly increased work load, added to the difficulties of Anna and the Ladies, as they faced the likelihood of a defeat for which they, rather than the male leaders, would take the blame. When, in early 1882, Charles and his lieutenants ordered the abandonment of the "no-rent" call, the Ladies refused to comply, despite their own realization that the policy had now little chance of success; their intransigence intensified Charles' distrust, and his determination to reach an agreement with Prime Minister Gladstone. The worsening situation also presented the LLL with serious financial difficulties. With the escalation in the number of arrests, requests for financial assistance multiplied, and Anna calculated that the Ladies had spent almost £70,000 over a period of 12 months, most of it on relief for evicted tenants and on assistance for prisoners and their families.

With the signing of the "Kilmainham Treaty" with Gladstone, and the release of the prisoners in May 1882, Charles entered a new phase in his political life, in which the Ladies were an embarrassing irrelevance. While thanking them for the "noble manner" in which they had contributed to the campaign, he believed, in reality, that they had done considerable damage. The murders of the new chief secretary and under-secretary, occurring only a few days after his release, intensified his determination to destroy an organization which he had always detested, and which, under the control of his sister, "as like him as a woman can be like a man," according to Tynan, "had taken a course of its own, and one in many ways opposed to his wishes and policy."

Anna and the Ladies, for their part, fully reciprocated his hostility, distrusting the "fictitious triumph" of the deal which he had made with the government; far from wishing to continue their activities, they expressed their desire to disband without "unnecessary delay," looking forward to their release, in Anna's words, from a "long and uncongenial bondage." However, they agreed to continue in existence pending a decision by the leadership on their future role. One proposal was that, while the LLL itself should be dissolved, the women should continue to perform a purely benevolent function within the movement. This option was scornfully rejected, partly because the Ladies had strong political objections to offering relief without resistance, partly because they refused to act as "a perpetual petticoat screen behind which [the men] could shelter, not from the government, but from the people." In addition, there was friction over financial affairs, with the male leadership accusing the Ladies of extravagance. While Anna argued that the LLL should dissolve unilaterally on the grounds of insolvency, a majority of her colleagues on the executive opposed this, believing that to make the quarrel public would undermine the credibility of the movement as a whole. In August, however, with the Ladies' overdraft standing at £5,000, the men declared that they would discharge the debt only if the Ladies disbanded on their terms, that is, with the women continuing to provide clerical assistance. Evading this condition by a subterfuge, the LLL dissolved itself. "Thus," as Anna wrote in The Tale of a Great Sham, "the Israelites made good their escape, and … at length the ghost of the Ladies' Land League rested in peace."

In fact, Anna herself had already effectively withdrawn from leadership of the League, following the sudden death in July of her sister, Fanny, which, combined with the effects of strain and overwork, precipitated a complete physical and nervous collapse. However, it is clear from her own account that she had no intention of continuing her association with a movement within which women had no status and with whose aims and methods she so deeply disagreed. Embittered by her brother's attitude towards the LLL, she broke off all relations with him, creating an estrangement which lasted until his death almost ten years later. No less disillusioned with Irish politics in general, she cut herself off almost entirely from public and political life, and after her recovery moved to England, where she was to live, in obscurity and often in poverty, for most of the rest of her days. She did, however, retain some links with Ireland: in 1900, for instance, she sent a donation to Maud Gonne 's Patriotic Children's Treat, and in 1907 she was invited by a new nationalist party, Sinn Fein, to speak on behalf of their candidate in a by-election, although the experience apparently gave her little reason to revise her unfavorable view of Irish political life.

By the summer of 1911, 59-year-old Anna Parnell was staying in lodgings at Ilfracombe in Devon. An enthusiastic swimmer since childhood, she bathed every day, and on September 20, disregarding a warning of dangerous seas, she went swimming as usual. She was seen to be in difficulties and the alarm was raised, but by the time rescuers reached her, she was dead. She had been living under a false name, and it was only on the following day that she was identified as Anna Parnell, "one of the two splendid sisters who did so much to make Parnell what he was," as the local paper reported. Unlike her brother, however, whose funeral in Dublin had been the occasion for a massive outpouring of grief and remorse, Anna Parnell was buried quietly in Ilfracombe, in the presence of just seven strangers, and far away from the scenes of her greatest efforts and notoriety.

For Parnell, history was about movements and not personalities; characteristically, therefore, her concern in her final years was not to justify her own actions, but to offer a true account of the struggle of which she had been a part. In 1904, Michael Davitt published his Fall of Feudalism in Ireland, in which he accused the Ladies' Land League of abetting agrarian violence. "Everything recommended, attempted, or done in the way of defeating the ordinary law…," he claimed, "was more systematically carried out under the direction of the ladies' executive than by its predecessor." Deeply hurt and angered by Davitt's interpretation, Parnell set out to write her own version of the land war, The Tale of a Great Sham. Described by its editor, Dana Hearne, as "a searing attack on the male leadership of the Land League and a penetrating critique of its major political strategy," the Tale also demonstrated clearly the subordination of female interests and concerns within a male-dominated nationalist body. Unable to find a publisher for her work, in 1909 Anna handed it over to the republican activist Helena Molony (1884–1967), then editor of the paper Bean na hEireann. Shortly afterwards, during a police raid on the journal's offices, the parcel containing the manuscript disappeared. Only rediscovered in 1959, it was finally published in 1986, so that at last, almost a century after the events which it described, Anna Parnell's personal account of the work, the achievements, and the fate of the Ladies' Land League could be known.


Cote, Jane McL. Fanny and Anna Parnell: Ireland's Patriot Sisters. London: Macmillan, 1991.

Foster, R.F. Charles Stewart Parnell: The Man and His Family. Sussex: Harvester Press, 1976.

Parnell, Anna. The Tale of a Great Sham. Ed. with an introduction by Dana Hearne. Dublin: Arlen House, 1986.

Tynan, Katharine. Twenty-five Years: Reminiscences. London: Smith, Elder, 1913.

Ward, Margaret. "The Ladies' Land League," in Irish History Workshop. Vol. 1, 1981, pp. 27–35.

suggested reading:

Bew, P. Land and the National Question in Ireland, 1858–82. Dublin: 1980.

Foster, R.F. Modern Ireland, 1600–1972. London: Allen Lane, 1988.

Rosemary Raughter , freelance writer in women's history, Dublin, Ireland