Parnell, Anna Mercer (Catherine Maria) (1852–1911), nationalist and land activist, was born 13 May 1852 at Avondale, Co. Wicklow, the family estate of the Parnell family; she was the second youngest of six daughters and five sons of John Henry Parnell, an Anglo-Irish landowner, and Delia Tudor Stewart Parnell, daughter of an American commodore famous for his naval victory against the British in 1812. Following the death of John Henry Parnell in 1859 the family left Avondale and settled in Dublin, where Anna and her sisters received an uneven education through a series of governesses. Their American mother permitted her daughters a degree of personal freedom unusual in upper-class Victorian society, and Anna epitomised the ‘new woman’ of that era. After a brief stay in Paris she enrolled at the age of eighteen at the School of Art of the Royal Dublin Society, moving to London aged twenty-two to study at the South Kensington School of Design. Despite initial success as a student, she did not continue her career as a painter; her only extant paintings are in private hands in Ireland.
After her brother Charles Stewart Parnell (qv) was elected MP for Meath for the Irish Party in 1875 Anna developed an interest in Westminster politics; in 1877 she attended the house of commons in order to witness the obstructionist tactics implemented by the party. Her series of articles, razor sharp in observation, ‘How they do in the house of commons: notes from the ladies’ cage’, was published in America in the Celtic Monthly (May–July 1880). Her description of women's exclusion from the visitors’ gallery was portrayed with sardonic humour, while her writing made clear her belief in women's equality and in the necessity for minority groups to undertake vigorous action to achieve political ends.
The Irish National Land League, with Charles Stewart Parnell as president and Michael Davitt (qv) as secretary, was formed in 1879 when Anna was in Bordentown, New Jersey, visiting her mother and sisters. Tenant farmers were to offer a ‘fair rent’ to landlords, paying nothing if the landlord refused the offer. Anna and her sister Fanny (qv) worked in New York for the Famine Relief Fund. Davitt, when in New York, cooperated closely with Anna, and appreciated her administrative and intellectual capabilities. She returned to Ireland in late 1880 to witness the intensification of the campaign. A land act, aimed at pacification of the unrest, and a coercion act, providing for immediate imprisonment, were introduced by the government.
Davitt, on the eve of a second period of imprisonment, proposed to the league the founding of a women's branch, similar to the Ladies’ Land League formed by Fanny Parnell in New York. Parnell and others in the leadership disliked the suggestion, but in the end agreed. Anna was summoned to take charge of the Ladies’ Land League (LLL) in Dublin, and became its organising secretary on 27 January 1881. The executive included a number of young women with close connections to nationalist causes, who shared Anna's dismissal of attempts to limit their activities to philanthropy. She travelled throughout Ireland, encouraging resistance to unjust rents, urging men to leave women free to organise independently. Over 500 branches were formed and in October, when the Land League was suppressed, the LLL took sole responsibility for the continuation of the campaign. Highly critical of a situation – illustrated by the slogan ‘Rent at the Point of a Bayonet’ – that saw landlords receiving their rent while the league incurred legal costs, Anna condemned the policy as a ‘Great Sham’, and attempted to encourage a genuine resistance to landlordism. The LLL took seriously the No-Rent Manifesto issued by the imprisoned leaders of the Land League, which was aimed at pacifying Irish-American criticism, though Anna considered it had come too late.
The LLL was proclaimed an illegal organisation in December 1881, but its members held mass meetings on 1 January. With the Kilmainham treaty of May 1882 the government came to an agreement with Charles Stewart Parnell to release prisoners and amend the 1881 Land Act in return for an end to the agitation. The women refused to continue as a charitable agency only, and bitter negotiations between themselves and the Land League leadership took place before the LLL was final dissolved on 2 August. Henry George, the American agrarian radical, supported the women, telling Helen Taylor, stepdaughter of John Stuart Mill, of their shabby treatment by their male colleagues. Anna, who had suffered a collapse through overwork and the shock of Fanny's sudden death on 19 July, was partly removed from the discussions and their outcome, but afterwards she refused ever again to speak to her brother.
Anna Parnell moved to England, retaining friendships with LLL members and remaining interested in Irish affairs. She demonstrated her strong commitment to rights for women by supporting Helen Taylor's (unsuccessful) attempt in 1885 to become a parliamentary candidate. Her personal circumstances were difficult as she was reliant on the erratic payment of a small annuity from her brother John Howard Parnell (qv). Friends arranged for additional income through the publication of her volume of poetry, Old tales and new (1905), which mixed political polemics with tales of betrayal. Anger at the ‘impudent libels’ of Davitt's Fall of feudalism (1904) provoked her to write ‘The tale of a great sham’; it provides a full account of the Land League years, but includes few personal details. In 1908 she spoke on behalf of Sinn Féin in North Leitrim, but her dismissal of all politicians prompted a hostile reaction from her audience. Thereafter she concentrated on writing, and planned to have her manuscript published in Bean na hÉireann, the journal of Inghinidhe na hÉireann; in order to ensure that her editor, Helena Molony (qv), could continue work, she paid a fine that Molony incurred for protesting against a royal visit in 1911. But the manuscript disappeared and was only rediscovered and published in 1986. Its appearance stimulated reassessment of the Land League period and of women's contribution to its evolution.
In 1910 Anna inherited a small legacy from her mother's estate and moved to Ilfracombe, Devon, where she lived under the name ‘Cerisa Palmer’. She died 20 September 1911, while swimming in heavy seas at the Tunnels open-air baths; she was buried on 23 September at the Church of the Holy Trinity, Ilfracombe. The only surviving photograph of her (c.1878) is held in a private collection. The manuscript of The tale of a great sham, together with Ladies’ Land League correspondence, is located in the NLI. Correspondence between Anna Parnell and Helen Taylor is located in the Mill–Taylor Collection at the London School of Economics.