Charles Stewart Parnell

Charlie Parnell was a native of beautiful rural Wicklow. He came from Anglo-Irish stock and his mother was American. He was a Protestant and landowner by birth, which occurred in 1846, and resided at the much loved family home of Avondale. He was a great cricket fan and played a lot in his early years. He attended Magdalen College Oxford for four years, but was disciplined shortly before his exams and never returned. As a landowner he had a guaranteed income at home and he never really fitted in to the Oxford University social spectrum.

On return to Wicklow he got involved in the workings of the community, becoming High Sheriff in 1874. Having become interested in the eternal Irish political issue of land tenure, he was chosen to represent Meath in the Westminster Parliament.

As he advanced his career, it became apparent that his skills were quite unique. Daniel O’Connell was a larger than life character who was not fully appreciated in the House of Commons, but Parnell’s gifts were entirely different. He was a tall and upright figure, with a big beard and auburn hair. He was urbane and detached with a measured and sophisticated demeanour that hid his feelings that would come to the surface when roused or when he chose to access them.

At first he hated public speaking and it was pure torture for him on a fund raising tour of the USA where he talked constantly. He managed to develop into a speaker who commanded the attention of the listener. His aloofness and control of intellect, words and mood helped deliver a convincing argument in Westminster where such a style could be best appreciated.

The first major issue, was land reform. Most of Irish land was owned by Anglo-Irish Protestants like himself. What land there was available was rented out to the Irish people for agricultural use. Rents could be crippling, especially when there was a bad harvest or even famine. These conditions would also contribute to epidemics of disease. He was a generous landlord and was particularly interested in the lot of the Irish peasant.

In Westminster he united with radical elements of the Home Rule League to obstruct the business of the House until it paid greater attention to Irish issues. Land reform is always a complex issue wherever it occurs. Parnell believed that real reform could only be achieved by a radical socialist strategy. The land leaguers encouraged tenants not to pay rent and shunned landlords who evicted tenants unfairly. Some of these activities ended in violence and during that time the bad harvests exacerbated the problem.

In 1881 he was arrested for sedition and was incarcerated in Kilmainham jail. He negotiated with Gladstone, who was sympathetic to Ireland, in order to work together. In doing so he formed an alliance to reject violent methods, and promoted Home Rule as well as land reform. The strategy was that a free Ireland could work it out on its own. Inevitably this led to the desire for Irish independence and at least a return to an Irish Parliament that had been dissolved with Union of 1801.

Parnell was a private man, who kept his own counsel. He appeared to be carried along with the mob, when they were roused to action. His austere presence was useful in restraining the more violent tendencies. At heart he was a conservative, but had a strong desire to help the Irish peasant.

The true love of his life was Katie O’Shea, the wife of a fellow Irish MP, William O’Shea. The original marriage was effectively over and it appears that there had been affair between Parnell and Katie since 1881. He fathered three children with her, and his priority was to be with her in Eltham, rather than the work in parliament. He managed to keep this liaison a secret. But there always was a mysterious side to Parnell. He rarely shared his true feelings, except with Katie. He would disappear for a few days and no-one would know where he was.

He had become leader of the Irish Home Rule Party and had achieved demi-god status in Ireland. He was glorified as the Chief by many Irish people he encountered. He was cheered by adoring crowds on many occasions. Katie memoirs indicate how much he hated this hero-worship. In private he even could not stand the colour green which usually bedecked any platform he was to speak from.

In the late 1880’s, Parnell negotiated with Liberal Prime Minister Gladstone. They were preparing to vote on an Irish Home Rule Bill and settle land reform at the same time. The action in Westminster was quite intense and there were Conservative and even Liberal Unionists that were opposed to the deal. The end came when the O’Shea divorce was made public and Gladstone, a famous non-conformist Protestant, warned the Irish Party they could not accept an adulterer as an ally. This ended acrimoniously and Home Rule did not pass and the Government fell.

Parnell refused to resign, expecting to be vindicated. But he had lost support, despite soon marrying Katie, and then fell into an illness that killed him in Brighton 1891.

I suppose Parnell was carried along with the tide of Nationalism that would rise in Ireland every so often. He would see himself as a patriarchal figure over the Catholic Irish, hoping to unite them with the Protestant landowners. He would speak of uniting the green and the orange in a United Ireland as Wolfe Tone had espoused previously. But his understanding of Ulster politics was weak. In speaking to Gladstone he seemed not to know who won the Battle of the Boyne. People assumed that he could unite catholic and protestant, but the landed gentry he came from were entirely different to the northern Unionists.

His un-Irish style made him easier to deal with for the English leaders. But deep down he may have hankered after a simple, but more than comfortable, life in the hills of Wicklow with the woman he loved. His greatest love was the stumbling block on which the future of Ireland fell for thirty years. Ultimately despite his sophisticated and determined approach, he became a living myth with great expectations placed on his young shoulders. He wanted to free Ireland and in doing so free himself to live the quiet life with his family. A more committed man might have striven harder for glory, but he chose romance. The tragedy was that illness took him and allowed him only six months of marriage.

So be careful what you fight for.

Conway-Laird (2017)

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