Parnell, Charles Stewart (1846–91), politician, was born 27 June 1846 in Avondale House, Co. Wicklow, seventh among eleven children of John Henry Parnell and Delia Tudor Parnell (née Stewart).
Ancestry and early life
Parnell was a member of the seventh generation of Parnells in Ireland. Thomas Parnell, the grandson of a mercer and draper of the town of Congleton, Cheshire, came to Ireland shortly after the restoration of the Stuart monarchy and purchased an estate in Queen's Co. (Laois). His elder son, Thomas (qv), was archdeacon of Clogher and a poet, friend of Jonathan Swift (qv) and Pope. Parnell's line descended from the poet's brother John, a barrister who sat in the Irish house of commons, and his son and namesake who also was an MP. The most politically celebrated forebear of Parnell was Sir John Parnell (qv), chancellor of the Irish exchequer 1786–99, and ‘Patriot’ opponent of the act of union, if also of catholic emancipation. His third son, William (qv) inherited the estate of Avondale from Samuel Hayes (qv) in 1795. Of liberal political outlook, and the author of An historical apology for the Irish catholics, he fleetingly represented Wicklow in the British house of commons.
His son John Henry Parnell (1811–59) married (1835) in New York Delia Tudor Stewart (1816–98), daughter of Commodore Charles Stewart, whose sobriquet ‘Old Ironsides’ was a tribute to his naval prowess, which extended to the defeat and capture of two British ships off the coast of Spain in 1812. Parnell's father was well liked, a good landlord, and a staunch Liberal who served as DL and high sheriff for Co. Wicklow.
Parnell's early years at Avondale were passed happily amid siblings and family retainers. At seven, he was sent to a small school for girls in Yeovil, Somerset, under Plymouth Brethren auspices, where he remained until he fell dangerously ill from typhoid. After an interlude of a year or so being taught at home, he briefly attended a private school near Kirk Langley in Derbyshire. He was again educated at home by a succession of tutors from 1856 to 1859. On his father's death in 1859 Parnell, who became a ward of court, inherited the heavily encumbered Avondale estate. The family resided successively in Dalkey, in Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire), and at 14 Upper Temple St., Dublin. At 16 Parnell was sent to a cramming establishment at Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, run by the Rev. Mr Wishaw. He spent three-and-a-half years (1865–9) at Magdalene College, Cambridge. When in May 1869 a drunken altercation turned into a brawl, he was rusticated for the remaining two weeks of the term. He never returned to complete his degree.
Entry into politics and early political career
Parnell returned to Avondale to live for a time the life of a young Anglo-Irish landlord, albeit one struggling to maintain a heavily debt-ridden estate. He was at this time distinguished principally for his aggressive gamesmanship as a cricketer. In 1871–2, seeking to reestablish a broken romance with an American heiress, Parnell joined his brother John (qv) in the US, visiting chiefly the south.
He was a member of the Wicklow militia and represented his diocese in the synod of the Church of Ireland. In 1874 he became high sheriff for Co. Wicklow. There was little to indicate that he was interested in a political career. Declining the casual suggestion of his brother in 1873 that he stand for parliament, he did not dismiss the idea out of hand, declaring himself in favour of the tenants and of home rule.
Parnell made a sudden and belated attempt to contest the election of February 1874. Precluded by his office as high sheriff, he unsuccessfully ran his brother John Howard for Wicklow. Having won the hesitant and somewhat bewildered support of the council of the Home Rule League, Parnell, who showed himself a catastrophically diffident speaker at his adoption meeting, contested and lost Dublin County the following month. On the death of John Martin (qv), friend and brother-in-law of John Mitchel (qv), Parnell contested and won Meath in a by-election in April 1875.
There was a great deal of speculation in the 1880s, originating chiefly in the English press and among English politicians, as to what could have made Parnell a nationalist, a question which his biographers have also sought to address. If casual speculation was irresistible, the issue had as a premise a primitively reductive conception of nationalism, as if some quirk of temperament or peculiarity of personal circumstances was required to account for the embrace of nationalism by an Anglo-Irish landlord. Various theories were canvassed: his patriotic ancestry; his American descent through his mother, whose Fenian leanings were exaggerated, most of all by herself; the ressentiment of a member of the protestant gentry who was not a landlord on a great scale; his experience in Cambridge.
The day on which Parnell took his seat, 22 April 1875, was that on which J. G. Biggar (qv) began the most sustained Irish exercise in parliamentary obstruction, against a coercion bill, entering the commons bearing a pile of blue books from the commons’ library. A trial of strength between the minority which was to become known as the ‘obstructionists’ or ‘obstructives’ and the mild-mannered Isaac Butt (qv), leader of the Irish party, was engaged.
In his maiden speech on 26 April 1875 Parnell asked: ‘why should Ireland be treated as a geographical fragment of England …? Ireland was not a geographical fragment but a nation.’ Thereafter he embarked on an accelerated apprenticeship in parliamentary procedure and technique. On 30 June 1876 Parnell objected to a reference by Sir Michael Hicks Beach (qv) to ‘the Manchester murderers’ and subsequently rejoined: ‘The right honourable gentleman looked at me so directly when he said that any member of this house should apologise for murder, that I wish to say as publicly and directly as I can that I do not believe, and never shall believe, that any murder was committed at Manchester’ (Lyons, Parnell, 54–5). With this exchange Parnell won notoriety at Westminster, and popularity in Ireland. His directness of language and open indifference to the collective sentiment of the house of commons were to provide the basis for his complex entente with Fenianism. An unidentified Fenian eminence told Barry O'Brien (qv): ‘His defence of the Manchester men in the house of commons was a revelation to us; but we never lost sight of him afterwards, and I don't think he lost sight of us’ (Parnell, i, 98). In the autumn of 1876 Parnell and John O'Connor Power (qv) went to the US on an unsuccessful mission to present President Grant with a congratulatory address on the centenary of the American declaration of independence, a mission which foundered for reasons of protocol.
The session of 1877 marked the pursuit in earnest of the policy of obstruction. Every procedural device was availed of to frustrate the enactment of legislation promoted by the government. Butt was driven to condemn Parnell in the commons, and pitted his leadership against the policy of the obstructionists. On 31 July–1 August 1877 Parnell and six other Irish members resisted the final stages of the South Africa bill to legalise the annexation of the Transvaal, forcing the house of commons into a continuous session which extended in all for forty-five hours. On 28 August 1877 at the annual convention in Liverpool of the Home Rule Confederation of Great Britain, whose émigré nationalist membership was far more advanced than that of the Home Rule League in Ireland, Parnell displaced Butt as president.
Parnell continued a series of parleys with influential Fenians, generally resorting in awkward moments to silence or to the suggestion that he would go as far as popular sentiment in Ireland was prepared to go, as he set about reconstituting a dynamic nationalist coalition on his own terms. He first met Michael Davitt (qv), recently released from Dartmoor, and still at the time an unreconstructed Fenian, in Dublin in January 1878. They travelled together to a meeting in St Helens, Lancashire, in May. Davitt urged Parnell to join the IRB, which he declined to do. What Parnell said at the meeting conveyed his deflection of Davitt's advocacy of a withdrawal of Irish members from the commons and the constitution of an informal legislative assembly in Dublin. Parnell identified two scenarios. Either the Irish members would be expelled from the house of commons, ‘which would be equivalent to sending them all back to Ireland, and holding their own parliament in Ireland, and thus they would be themselves repealing the union’; alternatively the government would feel compelled to permit the conduct of parliamentary business by the passage of beneficial Irish measures.
Davitt left for America. In October John Devoy (qv) proferred – subject to the sanction of Charles Kickham (qv) – American Fenian support for Parnell on the basis of five conditions, of which the chief were the substitution for Butt's federal demand of a general declaration in favour of self-government, and a vigorous agitation on the land question ‘on the basis of a peasant proprietary, while accepting concessions tending to abolish arbitrary eviction’. Promoted by Devoy as ‘an Irish new departure’, this initiative was unacceptable to the Fenian old guard, dominated by the deaf and intransigent Kickham. Parnell made no public response. Devoy, John O'Leary (qv), Parnell, and Biggar met at Boulogne on 7 March. Devoy concluded that Parnell, while not definitely decided on the precise modality, ‘would go with the Irish people to the fullest limit in breaking up the existing form of connection with England’. The decisive qualification ‘with the Irish people’ at least has a plausibly Parnellian ring.
While emphatically not a Fenian, Parnell had an unusually sure imaginative understanding of the Fenian sensibility. His spare and direct method commended itself to Fenians. His attitude to Fenianism was also free from the sententious moralising that always grated on Fenian nerves. He was, for example, quite capable in his conversation of discussing the impracticality of a military insurgency in Ireland for reasons of the configuration of the Irish landscape. While it is difficult to banish the suspicion that Parnell was likely to have been cynically indiscreet in his conversations with American Fenians, as the occasion required, what was remarkable – and what unionist politicians and publicists could never fathom or bring themselves to accept – was how little Parnell needed to offer to attract Fenian support. In the impasse that Fenianism had reached, many of its adherents turned to Parnell. As one of Barry O'Brien's Fenian informants observed: ‘He never led any of us to believe that he would become a Fenian, and nevertheless he gained a complete ascendancy over us’ (Parnell, i, 137).
From December 1878 the mistrust of Isaac Butt's leadership by those who favoured an activist policy was openly expressed. Butt, while he retained a titular leadership, died a broken man in May 1879. Parnell's adroit handling of his relations with the more pragmatic Fenians assisted him in establishing his ascendancy among the obstructionists, in particular over his rivals Frank Hugh O'Donnell (qv) and John O'Connor Power. At a turbulent meeting in Dumbarton, Parnell cold-bloodedly permitted a ferocious denunciation of the absent O'Connor Power, who had taken the Fenian oath, by his Fenian enemies.
Land agitation and leadership
Parnell in the autumn of 1878 had spoken at meetings organised by local tenants’ defence associations in Ballinasloe and Tralee. In what he said he scarcely departed from the Buttite orthodoxy of fair rent and fixity of tenure; he also made vague obeisance to the principle of land purchase.
On his return from the US Davitt revisited his native Mayo. His sympathies were aroused by the parlous state of the people in what was to prove a catastrophic year of 1879 in the west of Ireland. He organised a meeting at Irishtown on 20 April which marked the inception of the land struggle. Before the Irishtown meeting, which he did not attend (O'Connor Power was the only parliamentarian present), Parnell had met Davitt and Devoy, who by now were pulling him in somewhat conflicting directions, as Davitt came to grasp the possibilities for mass agrarian agitation. Parnell met Davitt and Devoy again on 1 June. Devoy always maintained that Parnell agreed to the terms he put for the support of Fenians in their individual capacities, which included doing nothing in the conduct of the public movement to impair or discredit the Fenian ideal of complete independence to be won by physical force: Devoy had to assert the fact of an agreement with Parnell to justify his own course of action to his colleagues in Clan na Gael.
Parnell's attendance at the Westport meetings on 8 June, in defiance of the archbishop of Tuam, John MacHale (qv), was a turning point. With his gift for laconic phrase-making, he told the tenants ‘to keep a firm grip on your homesteads and lands’. He still to some degree held back until the conference in Dublin on 21 October 1879 to establish the Irish National Land League. Elected president of the Land League, he threw himself into active campaigning on the agrarian issue. While the agricultural crisis in the west lent urgency to the demand for rent reduction, Parnell did not espouse compulsory expropriation of landlords, and made plain that the value of a holding should be set high for sale purposes.
Following the arrest of Davitt, Parnell attended in his stead on 22 November a heavily policed and turbulent meeting at Balla, Co. Mayo, to protest against an anticipated eviction. Parnell warned against succumbing to provocation: ‘We have opportunities denied to our forefathers. Remain within the law and the constitution. Let us stand, even though we have to stand on the last plank of the constitution; let us stand until that plank is taken from under our feet.’ In December Parnell embarked with John Dillon (qv) for the US and Canada to raise money for the Land League and for the relief of the starving in the west of Ireland. He was later joined as an aide by the young T. M. Healy (qv). On 2 February he addressed the house of representatives on a gruelling speaking tour. Caught off guard by the dissolution of parliament, Parnell and Healy hastened from Montreal back to New York and thence to Ireland.
The leadership of the Irish party had passed on Butt's death to William Shaw (qv), a banker devoid of political intrepidity. The party remained riven between partisans of an activist parliamentary policy in pursuit of home rule, and those of a more ‘whiggish’ orientation. An ugly episode had flared in August 1879 when the Freeman's Journal of Edmund Dwyer Gray (qv) alleged that Parnell had characterised those parliamentarians who had advocated a moderate pro-government line on the university question as ‘a cowardly set of papist rats’. The allegation was untrue, although Parnell had made sharply disparaging remarks of his pusillanimous colleagues. The episode suggested a belief on the part of his opponents that the rise of Parnell, as a protestant with political associations both with the Fenians and agrarian radicals, could still be headed off by a conjuncture of the more moderate parliamentarians and the catholic church. Parnell's enemies were not equal to the pace of his ascent or to the popular force that propelled it.
It was essential to Parnell's purpose to ensure the return of the maximum number of candidates who favoured an aggressive parliamentary strategy. The organisation on the Parnellite side was hastily improvised and patchy. Parnell was elected for Mayo, Meath, and Cork, and chose to sit for Cork. The election saw the return also of those who would be Parnell's key lieutenants and collaborators: John Dillon (still in the US), Thomas Sexton (qv), Justin McCarthy (qv), T. P. O'Connor (qv), and J. J. O'Kelly (qv); Healy was elected at a by-election later in the year. The Parnellites, while not a majority of the Irish party, were disciplined and purposeful. Parnell was elected chairman of the Irish party over William Shaw, by twenty-three to eighteen at a pre-session meeting in the city hall, Dublin, on 17 May.
One of those who voted for Parnell was William Henry O'Shea (qv), who had been returned with the O'Gorman Mahon (qv) for Clare. Capt. O'Shea was an improbable partisan of Parnell. The son of a Limerick-born solicitor, and a catholic, O'Shea had become a cornet in the 18th Hussars. He married Katharine (1845–1921), thirteenth child of Sir John Page Wood, at Brighton, Sussex, in January 1867. They had three children, and thereafter drifted respectably apart. She became the companion of her very wealthy aunt, Mrs Benjamin Wood, who lived at Eltham, Kent, and who provided for her a house across the park from her own mansion. There remained between Katharine and the captain a lingering cordiality, and their relations were close enough for Katharine to collaborate in the launching of his various entrepreneurial ventures. To this end she had summoned Parnell after the election to dinners in Thomas's Hotel in Berkeley Square, to which he had not come. Not to be put off, she drove with her sister to Westminster to seek him out. Parnell came out to meet her in Palace Yard. The attraction was mutual and immediate. It was in July 1880, and their affair commenced shortly thereafter.
The rejection on 3 August by an overwhelming majority of the house of lords of the compensation for disturbance bill, introduced by the chief secretary, W. E. Forster (qv), was followed by an increase in agrarian violence in Ireland. When parliament was prorogued, Parnell returned to Avondale as was his wont. He spoke at Ennis two weeks later on 19 September. He did not invent but gave authoritative expression to the idea of what became known as the boycott: ‘When a man takes a farm from which another has been evicted, you must show him on the roadside when you meet him, you must show him in the streets of the town, you must show him at the shop-counter, you must show him in the fair and at the market-place, and even in the house of worship, by leaving him severely alone, by putting him into a sort of moral Coventry, by isolating him from the rest of his kind as if he were a leper of old … ’(Lyons, Parnell, 134). Parnell campaigned across the country and made several speeches in this vein. He warned against recourse to physical force, and continued to advocate land purchase at a price (thirty-five years’ rent) far more generous to the landlords than the radicals were prepared to contemplate. At Galway in October he declared that, important as the class of tenant farmers was, ‘I would not have taken off my coat and gone to this work, if I had not known that we were laying the foundations by this movement for the recovery of our legislative independence’ (ibid., 138). This was not merely a gesture of reassurance towards sympathetic Fenians, but a statement of Parnell's overriding purpose of keeping the land question firmly subordinated to the national question.
Gladstone's government now moved towards the legal repression of the land movement. The trial of Parnell and others in Dublin for conspiring to prevent the payment of rents and resisting the process of ejectment ran from 28 December to 23 January, and not very surprisingly ended in a disagreement of the jury. Parnell's position in Ireland was equally predictably fortified. Some two-thirds of the Parnell defence fund was subscribed through the columns of the Freeman's Journal; the organ of moderate nationalist opinion was now staunchly Parnellite. Among the subscribers were two archbishops, three bishops, and a considerable number of priests. Parnell now presided over a national movement which spanned from left to right in catholic Ireland; the scale of his success and the rapidity of its attainment created a new set of challenges that would tax to the utmost Parnell's resourcefulness as a national leader.
Forster's Protection of Person and Property (Ireland) Bill was met with renewed opposition. In a protest prompted by the revocation of Davitt's ticket-of-leave, Parnell and thirty-five members of the party were in succession suspended and removed from the commons. Feelings ran high in Ireland, and Land League radicals advocated drastic responses to the government's repressive measures, chiefly a withdrawal to Ireland of the Irish members and a general strike against rent. The Land League executive met in Paris shortly after Davitt's arrest. Parnell showed up days late, and imposed a policy of ‘widening the area of agitation’ – creating a kind of democratic alliance between the working class in Ireland and England – to avert more radical courses of action which had the capacity to acquire a momentum of their own and to supersede the pursuit of a parliamentary policy.
Parnell was aware that the coercion act was to be followed by a measure of agrarian redress. Gladstone's land bill was introduced on 7 April 1881. He had considerable difficulty in holding his party together but ultimately, after the passage of the act, succeeded in ensuring that a policy of testing the land act was adopted at a Land League convention in September. To shore up his left flank, he denounced the act in speeches in Ireland. Responding to an attack by Gladstone, Parnell at Wexford referred to the prime minister as ‘this masquerading knight errant, this pretending champion of the rights of every other nation except those of the Irish nation’.
Four days later, in the early morning of 13 October, Parnell was arrested at Morrison's Hotel, on Dawson St., where he habitually stayed in Dublin, and driven through the city to Kilmainham jail. En route, Parnell was permitted to despatch a letter to Katharine O'Shea. A tender letter of reassurance, it had a characteristically lucid postscript: ‘Politically it is a fortunate thing for me that I have been arrested, as the movement is breaking fast, and all will be quiet in a few months, when I shall be released.’ Whatever his earlier misgivings, inside Kilmainham Parnell appended his name to the ‘No rent’ manifesto on 18 October. While many tenants proceeded to avail themselves of the provisions of the land act, the winter of 1881–2 was marked by an increase in agrarian violence. The possibly apocryphal prophecy attributed to Parnell, that if he was arrested ‘Captain Moonlight will take my place’, was borne out. The inference that the Land League had actually restrained agrarian violence weakened the position of W. E. Forster within the cabinet.
Parnell's incarceration brought about a deterioration in his health. He corresponded anxiously with Katharine O'Shea, who was pregnant with their child. Through her husband he also maintained contact with Joseph Chamberlain, who had misgivings about the course of government policy. He was released on parole on 10 April 1882 to attend the funeral in Paris of his nephew. En route to France he went to Eltham, where Katharine placed their dying child Claude Sophie in his arms. He met Capt. O'Shea, who was busying himself with the brokering of an accommodation between Parnell and the government, before catching the night train to Paris. He saw husband and wife again on his way back from Paris, his visit coinciding with the death of his daughter.
In the wake of what was designated ‘the Kilmainham treaty’ – and was more of a conjuncture of political intentions – the release of Parnell, Dillon, and O'Kelly was declared, along with the resignation of W. E. Forster, on 2 May. Events thereafter moved rapidly. Gladstone announced that the existing coercion act would be allowed to expire. Parnell, Dillon, and O'Kelly crossed to London. Davitt's release was announced. Lord Frederick Cavendish (qv), who was married to Gladstone's niece, was named as chief secretary for Ireland.
The Phoenix Park murders and after
On 6 May Cavendish and T. H. Burke (qv), the under-secretary, were slaughtered in the Phoenix Park by assassins who called themselves ‘the Invincibles’. Parnell learned of the murders from the Observer at Blackheath Station on getting out of Katharine O'Shea's carriage. Ashen, his immediate intention was to resign, and when he reached London he sent a message through O'Shea to Gladstone, offering to do so if Gladstone thought it necessary for the maintenance of his position and the carrying out of the policy they had agreed upon. To Justin McCarthy he said: ‘It is always like this in Ireland; whenever she seems to come near the attainment of her desire, some calamity for which she is not responsible strikes in between her and her hopes’ (McCarthy, ‘Parnell’, 629). He signed a manifesto to the Irish people denouncing the murders, and repeated the condemnation the next day in the commons. After a faltering performance in a debate on the Kilmainham treaty, Parnell reasserted his mastery in the bitter weeks that attended the enactment of the prevention of crime act.
The Irish National League was established to replace the defunct Land League at a conference in Dublin on 17 October 1882. This was a political rather than an agrarian organisation and entrenched Parnell's authority. Davitt compounded the loss of his institutional power base by a lonely and spectacularly mistimed advocacy of land nationalisation. The tilt to the right of the centre of gravity of the nationalist movement was ultimately to create problems of a different kind for Parnell.
The possibility of bringing Gladstone to an acceptance of home rule offered Parnell a greater prize than could ever have been obtained from Chamberlain. Largely dispensing for this purpose with the services of the importunate W. H. O'Shea, Parnell opened a conduit of communication with Gladstone through Katharine O'Shea. She met Gladstone on Parnell's behalf on three occasions in the second half of 1881, and thereafter maintained an intermittent correspondence with the Liberal leader. E. W. Hamilton, who had until shortly before been Gladstone's private secretary, in a diary entry for 7 August 1885 edgily referred to her as ‘Parnell's spokeswoman or speaking trumpet’.
In 1883 it was learned that an order had been made on Parnell's petition in the landed estates court for the sale of Avondale. This prompted an extraordinary public demonstration of support. The ensuing national testimonial, whose success was underwritten by a denunciatory circular from the Vatican, was heavily subscribed. When before a banquet in his honour in Dublin Parnell was called on by the lord mayor and other distinguished personages, Parnell interposed: ‘I believe you have a cheque for me’, and cut off the mayor's intended peroration, folding the cheque (for £40,000) and placing it in his waistcoat pocket. This may reflect a reflux of embarrassed pride rather than ingratitude, although Katharine Tynan (qv) said she had always heard the story told ‘as an example of saturnine pride on Mr Parnell's part’ (Twenty-five years, 100).
While the Liberals remained in office, Parnell had, principally through O'Shea, negotiated obliquely with Chamberlain, who was prepared to promote an ambitious measure of local government for Ireland through a ‘central board’. Devoid of political imagination. Chamberlain never grasped the chasm that separated his proposal, which in any event went further than Gladstone's government was then prepared to accept, from the kind of home rule measure that nationalists looked to. Chamberlain's affronted recoil was to have lasting consequences for home rule and for the Liberal party.
The first home rule bill
A tense and complex game was now played out between the Irish and Liberal leaders. In the small hours of 9 June 1885 Gladstone's government was brought down by combined Irish and tory votes. Parnell had secret negotiations with Lord Carnarvon (qv), the lord lieutenant in the incoming Conservative government. Carnarvon was, unlike most Conservatives, prepared to countenance a scheme of home rule. It was a remarkable achievement to have contrived a situation in which such parleys could have taken place between a tory lord lieutenant and a nationalist leader.
While there is some historical debate on the subject, it is doubtful that Parnell seriously believed that a Conservative government would concede home rule. A more plausible (if questionable) criticism is that Carnarvon's receptiveness prompted Parnell to engage a little over-zealously in realpolitik directed against the Liberals in his electoral tactics. What was important for Parnell was to breathe whatever life he could into the premise of the strategic fiction of ‘independent opposition’: that home rule could be won from either of the British parties.
Parnell sent through Katharine O'Shea on 30 October a ‘proposed constitution for Ireland’. Gladstone would not be drawn into a public (or private) commitment to home rule. On 21 November Parnell authorised the release of a truculent manifesto drafted by T. P. O'Connor to the Irish in Great Britain, directing their votes to the Conservatives. The manifesto remains historically controversial, given the narrow defeat of the home rule bill the following year. The result of the election was a triumph for Parnell personally and the National League machine. He had eighty-six seats (eighty-five in Ireland, one in Liverpool). The Liberal total was 335, the Conservative 249.
Parnell's victory was marred by his imposition of Capt. O'Shea (who had adjudged himself unelectable in Clare) in the by-election in Galway caused by T. P. O'Connor's decision to sit for the Scotland division of Liverpool. The proposal to run O'Shea provoked a ‘mutiny’ in Galway, sustained by Healy and Biggar. Parnell was eventually compelled to mortgage his authority by descending personally on Galway. As he told T. P. O'Connor, ‘I'm rather hard to start, but when I do I keep on.’ Biggar, who was Parnell's oldest parliamentary loyalist, held out to the end. He wrote to T. D. Sullivan after O'Shea's election that ‘the Parnell–O'Shea connection is a disgusting one, and unless the former ends it, his ruin and that of his leadership will follow. I wish the party to be ruled by Mr Parnell but not by Mrs O'Shea.’ The imposition of O'Shea, who subsequently refused to vote for the home rule bill, mystified ordinary nationalists and returned to haunt Parnell in the split.
Gladstone was compelled at last to play his hand on home rule, and laboured over the details of the scheme. He met Parnell on 5 April. The main issue between them was finance. Gladstone would not reduce the Irish contribution to the imperial exchequer to below one-fifteenth of the imperial budget for imperial purposes. Parnell commented to William O'Brien (qv): ‘the old gentleman, when it comes to be a question of cash, is as hard as a moneylender’ (Evening memories, 110).
On 8 April 1886 Gladstone introduced the government of Ireland bill. Opponents of home rule sheered away from the extremities of the Liberal party, the radicals led by Chamberlain and the whigs by Hartington. At one o'clock on the morning of 8 June the bill was defeated on its second reading by forty votes. Gladstone's scheme fell short of conceding dominion status, never mind the separation for which Fenians aspired. Asked directly in the house of commons if he accepted the bill as a final settlement, Parnell replied: ‘Yes’. That home rule was seen as home rule under Parnell did much to ensure its unquestioning acceptance by nationalists in Ireland.
Parnell as a parliamentary leader
The recollection of the leading liberal journalist A. G. Gardiner of the effect produced by Parnell in the house of commons (Prophets, 106) can stand for many other set-piece descriptions of the Irish leader:
‘He sat in the corner seat below the gangway, cold, isolated, silent, a man nursing his gloomy wrath and his unconquerable hope. The sad eyes looked out with a sleepless passion from under the level and lowering brows. He affected you like the thunder-cloud. Presently, you felt, the forked lightning would leap out of the gloom and strike the offending earth. He held you by the fascination of the unknown. He was a dark secret – an idea incarnate.’
Parnell was not a great set-piece orator in the late nineteenth-century manner. He disliked the house of commons but, speaking with clarity and without ornament, commanded complete attention. Gladstone observed to John Morley (qv) that he had ‘the rarest of all qualities in a speaker – measure. He always says exactly as much as, and not any more or less than, he means to say.’ Morley noted that his speeches were ‘studded with incisive remarks singularly well compressed’ (Recollections, i, 241). In the great episodes of adversity he rose to vehemence. Curzon recalled: ‘He had no great command of language. But as he hissed out his sentences of concentrated passion and scorn, scattering his notes as he proceeded upon the seat behind him, he gave an impression of almost daemonic self-control and illimitable strength’ (Parliamentary eloquence, 50).
Parnell's self-control under pressure was a central feature of his public image. Ethnic stereotypes rendered his reserve a political issue. In an almost Shavian aperçu, J. L. Garvin wrote in 1898 that Parnell in the commons ‘reversed the traditional relations of the races by making Englishmen furious while he remained calm’. Parnell was highly effective as a political leader in the round. Justin McCarthy recalled: ‘In the council-room he was often slow, uncertain, undecided; sat silently listening to the opinion of others, put off his own judgement to the last, sometimes gave no opinion of his own, but suddenly adopted the opinion of another man … But it was not in council that he showed himself at his best. It was in the crisis that his genius came suddenly out’ (McCarthy, ‘Parnell’, 631).
He was an astute judge of men, and skilfully deployed the individual aptitudes of his lieutenants. After meeting Parnell at Brighton before the split, Morley reported to Gladstone that Parnell's observations on his colleagues were ‘curiously shrewd, very benignant (save as to Healy), and hitting on the exact word for each, with singular precision’. While the party under his leadership was highly disciplined, Parnell was generally disinclined to rein his followers in unless they directly cut across a policy or strategy on which he insisted. Asked why he did not keep his ‘young barbarians’ in order, Parnell responded: ‘Ah! I like to see them flesh their spears’ (R. B. O'Brien, Parnell, i, 378).
It became a cliché, originating in English parliamentary gossip and press commentary, that Parnell was arrogant and dismissive towards the members of his party. This was denied in the journalistic writings and memoirs of the members of the party. He was certainly brusque in defence of his privacy, and mistrustful of the Irish tendency to indiscretion.
Parnell's predicament 1886–90
The four-year period that followed the defeat of the home rule bill put to the test a different facet of Parnell's political capacity. He had to hold together what was now an exceedingly broad national coalition during a period of Conservative government. He needed to maintain the momentum of Irish nationalism without alienating Liberal sympathy and moderate opinion in Britain. He had also to try to mitigate the petrifying effects of the Liberal embrace of home rule on the anti-home-rule policy of the Conservative party. While he was to be remorselessly assailed by Healy in the split for abdicating his political responsibilities over this period, Parnell conducted himself with extraordinary adroitness.
What rendered him vulnerable to Healy's charge were his frequent disappearances and absences over this period from parliament and public platforms in Ireland. The reasons were various. His fragile health plagued him. Much of his work, notably in relation to the special commission, was not public. He deliberately chose a relatively low profile, and practised his habitual economy of method, at a time of heavily constrained political opportunity. He also put his relations with Katharine O'Shea on a footing of settled domesticity.
However lucidly conceived his strategy, he was recklessly indifferent to the political effects of his absence. If nothing else, Parnell's disappearances (coupled with his often sepulchral aspect whenever he did turn up) seriously unsettled his followers. His physical demeanour in times of illness had always been a matter of public comment. He was seriously ill for an extended period in mid 1887. On 18 May 1887 Justin McCarthy reported: ‘Parnell appeared in the lobby. “Appeared” is a fitting word to use, for no apparition – no ghost from the grave, ever looked more startling among living men. Only one impression was produced among all who saw him – the ghastly face, the wasted form, the glassy eyes gleaming, looking like the terrible corpse-candles of Welsh superstition. If ever death shone in a face it shone in that. I came on John Morley a moment later. We both could only say in one breath “Good God! have you seen Parnell?” ’ (Our book of memories, 108).
Try as they might, it was difficult for even his most loyal parliamentary followers to resist correlating Parnell's absences to his relationship with Katharine O'Shea. There was a tendency towards psychological reductionism. Never quite able to suppress an edge of sour moralism where Parnell was concerned, Michael Davitt professed to have discerned a deepening of Parnell's suspiciousness of character ‘due in all probability to the habits of deception and subterfuge to which he was driven by the necessity of concealing his life and relationship with the lady who had his will and character in her keeping’ (Fall of feudalism, 657–8).
In the split, Healy accused Parnell of having in this period succumbed to his own myth. There is little to sustain this. The principal discernible effect of his spectacular political success lay in a tendency to conceive his strategy in increasingly abstract terms; hence his neglect of the human impact created by his absences. Like everything else about him, Parnell's hubris took an uncommon form.
The ‘Plan of Campaign’, first promoted in an article in United Ireland on 23 October 1886, contemplated the collective proffering of reduced rents by tenants on individual estates; if the rent tendered was refused, the monies were to be applied to the support of any tenants ejected for non-payment of rent. John Dillon and William O'Brien emerged as its chief supporters, vociferously abetted at one remove by Healy. The Plan brought closer to the surface the difference between Parnell's approach to the land question and that of his principal lieutenants. Parnell looked to the combination of land purchase (preferably deferred until after home rule) with the retention of a residential landlord class. He looked with suspicion on what he rightly discerned as an endeavour to infuse the politics of home rule with a contrived agrarian ardour. Aside from being difficult to operate, susceptible to legal sanction, and incurring responsibility for the tenants who were evicted, the Plan risked alienating Liberal opinion.
Morley conveyed to Gladstone on 7 December Parnell's assurance that ‘the fixed point in his tactics is to maintain the Liberal alliance’. Parnell summoned William O'Brien, emerging like a phantom from the fog at Greenwich observatory. He deprecated the rhetorical excesses of the Plan, and secured O'Brien's agreement that it would not be extended beyond the estates already involved. Parnell held himself aloof from the Plan but was anxious, as Morley reported to Gladstone, that ‘there should be as little in the way of public disavowal as might be’. Ultimately in May 1888, at the Eighty Club, Parnell made plain his reservations, extending only heavily qualified ex post facto support for the Plan of Campaign. Parnell had been placed by the Plan of Campaign in a difficult if not impossible position. Reluctant for good political reasons to disavow the Plan from the outset, his course of action left him open to the taunt of Healy and others of having exhibited a cold-hearted indifference to the fate of the evicted tenants, the ‘wounded soldiers’ of the land war marshalled in piteous array by the anti-Parnellites in the split.
‘Parnellism and crime’
On 7 March 1887 The Times commenced publication of a series of articles under the title ‘Parnellism and crime’ which culminated in the publication on 18 April of a facsimile of a sensational letter in Parnell's name which implicated him in the Phoenix Park murders. The letter was a forgery, and condemned as such by Parnell. It was, moreover, a crude and improbable fabrication, but one which in the supercharged political atmosphere commanded the enthusiastic credulity of unionists and widespread public credence in Britain. The letter and others were the work of Richard Pigott (qv), and its publication stirred the demi-monde of ex-nationalist adversaries of Parnell.
Parnell initially held back from taking action. In the wake of a failed libel action instituted by F. H. O'Donnell in somewhat suspicious circumstances, he was driven to demand the appointment of a select committee. Salisbury's government responded with a proposal for the establishment of a judicial commission, with a remit extending beyond the authenticity of the disputed letters, to inquire into Parnellite complicity in political and agrarian crime in Ireland. Against the wishes and counsel of the Liberal leadership, Parnell played the part of an unwavering duellist and accepted the government's choice of weapons.
So began the special commission, in which the resources of the British government were laid at the disposal of The Times newspaper. Parnell took over the direction of the Irish case, which he rightly saw as directed primarily at himself as the leader of Irish nationalism. Pigott took the stand on 20 February. Foundering under cross-examination, he signed a full confession in the home of Henry Labouchere (qv), partially recanted the confession in an affidavit, and, fleeing London, sent again the confession from Paris. He shot himself in Madrid on 28 February. With Pigott's failure to attend for the fourth day of his evidence, Parnell stood at his zenith in England. In the commons he impassively endured a tumultuous ovation from the Liberals who had doubted his ability to achieve so complete a vindication in the matter of the letters.
Parnell erred in not withdrawing from the special commission at that point, in disregard of the advice of many Liberals and Nationalists so to do. The proceedings dragged on anti-climactically, remarkable chiefly for Parnell's own evidence, which was less than wholly assured. Cross-examined in relation to something he had said in 1881, he had exhaustedly responded: ‘it is possible that I was endeavouring to mislead the house on the occasion’. It was only on 16 July 1889 that counsel for the Irish nationalists withdrew, after the refusal of their application to inspect the books of the Irish Loyal and Patriotic Union to ascertain the circumstances in which the forged letters were procured. The commission, when it reported on 13 February 1890, found that the respondents had entered into a conspiracy to promote an agitation for the non-payment of rent, and the allegation as to links with extreme nationalists were merely ‘not proved’.
In London on 23 May 1889 Parnell declared that if the constitutional movement was to fail, if it was to become evident that they could not by parliamentary action restore self-government to Ireland, ‘I for one would not continue to remain for twenty-four hours longer in the house of commons at Westminster … the most advanced section of Irishmen, as well as the least advanced, have always thoroughly understood that the parliamentary policy was to be a trial and that we did not ourselves believe in the possibility of maintaining for all time, or for any lengthened period, an incorrupt and independent Irish representative at Westminster.’
This elaborate caveat was not prompted by any immediate threat to his parliamentary strategy. On the contrary, it was made at a time when, as he said at Edinburgh two months later, ‘nobody can pretend … that constitutional action during the last ten years has not been most abundantly vindicated by its results’. The immediate purpose of the speech was to propitiate Fenian sentiment: nothing had more severely taxed the tolerance of those Fenians who were prepared to lend support to Parnell than his virtual writing off of Fenianism as a force in Irish politics in the course of cross-examination before the special commission earlier that month. More generally it was a lucid if abstract restatement of the contingent nature of the Liberal alliance. What it was not was a preemptive repositioning in anticipation of the adverse impact of Capt. O'Shea's divorce proceedings: he did nothing politically to that end.
The latent line of fissure on the land question threatened to break open prior to the split. Nationalists, and with them many Liberals, were disconcerted by the studious moderation of Parnell's response to A. J. Balfour's (qv) land purchase bill of 1890. Alfred Robbins of the Birmingham Daily Post noted that Parnell's speech on the vote on the chief secretary's office in July ‘has caused some irritation among advanced Gladstonian Liberals, who frankly describe him as “a tory on the land question”. From some points of view it is strange that they have not discovered this before’. The same speech prompted a ferocious attack on Parnell from Healy's friend and confidant Harold Frederic in the New York Times.
The ‘Union of Hearts’ before the split
Parnell was not only the leader of the Irish nation, but in the setting of British and Irish politics the figure who best emblematised the democratic future: this drew Liberals to Parnell from 1886, and gave Conservative hatred of him some of its edge. It is difficult to retrieve from the debris of the split the élan of the Union of Hearts in 1886–90. Gladstone was acclaimed in Ireland and Parnell lionised by English Liberals.
With Gladstone's embrace, home rule became the defining, polarising issue of the British two-party political system. The expectations which crystallised around the Union of Hearts in British politics were rife with possibilities for future misunderstandings as a result of the Irish party failing to behave as was expected of the junior partner (in British politics) of the Liberal party. Moreover, the closer the juncture of the Liberals and the Nationalist party, the less the prospects of securing the acquiescence of the Conservative party (which controlled the house of lords) in the enactment of home rule, and of achieving marginal accommodations with the Conservatives on subsidiary Irish questions.
The supreme practitioner of the art, or strategic fiction, of independent opposition, Parnell alone of his party fully grasped the difficulties which attended the Liberal–Nationalist project. Amid the ‘flowing tide’ he struggled to maintain the character of the alliance as a matter of power relations between nations rather than of sentimental or ideological affinity between parties. He had always shown himself, notably in his political relations with Davitt, instinctively suspicious of the recasting of the Irish national demand as a radical issue, an item in the programme of contemporary progressive causes, whatever the moral preeminence or political priority accorded it.
Parnell's concerns were directed to the English political arena. He never saw the alliance as imperilling his leadership of Irish nationalism. The vehemence of his rhetoric in the split may be attributed in part to furious self-reproach on this count. When he proclaimed at Maryborough in May 1891 that ‘the Liberal alliance which was watched by me most carefully has not degenerated into a fusion, by turning an honourable and self-respecting alliance into a dishonourable blending or fusion’, he was (as well as furthering his attack on ‘Liberal dictation’) drawing on his intimation of the dangers attending such ‘fusion’ in the British domain which had preoccupied him in 1886–90.
Parnell's attitude towards Gladstone had always been sceptical. He had, as Edward Byrne wrote, ‘no genuine respect’ for Gladstone. He found Gladstone's prolixity and sententiousness grating, and regarded his moral fervour with suspicion. Their alliance sharpened a certain objective jealousy on Parnell's part. In Cork in 1887, when nationalist enthusiasm for Gladstone was running high, John J. Horgan, with whom Parnell was staying, asked him what he thought then of Gladstone. Parnell responded frigidly: ‘I think of Mr Gladstone and the English people what I have always thought of them. They will do, what we can make them do’ (R. B. O'Brien, Parnell, ii, 176). The excesses of his retaliation against Gladstone in the split were to do him immeasurable damage. Even though he sought latterly to moderate his attacks, he was never quite able to come to terms with Gladstone's popularity in Ireland, or to dissemble what had become an open loathing of the Liberal leader.
The O'Shea divorce and the Irish party schism
Capt. O'Shea filed a petition for divorce, naming Parnell as co-respondent, on 24 December 1889. Parnell sought to convey the public impression that it was a renewal of The Times attack by other means. Parnell himself never relinquished the conviction that O'Shea was behind the forgeries. According to Labouchere, writing on Parnell's death in Truth, Parnell had objected to his demonstration of Pigott's authorship of the forged letters that ‘it cannot be Pigott, because I know that it is O'Shea’. The implicit promise of triumphant vindication, and the absolute silence that settled over the subject of O'Shea's proceedings in Ireland over the year that elapsed before the hearing, ensured that the nationalist public was wholly unprepared for the thunderclap of the divorce court.
In the proceedings Parnell and Katharine pursued an uncertain course. The fixed point of Parnell's strategy was that once the issue was engaged, there had to be a divorce. He and Katharine did not have resources to make the very substantial payment (a figure of £20,000 was mooted) that would have been involved had O'Shea been prepared to accept a settlement on the basis of his consenting to the grant of a decree of divorce on Katharine's counterclaim. That O'Shea had instituted his proceedings only after the death of Mrs Benjamin Wood on 19 May 1890 did not of itself mean that he would agree to such accommodation. The bequest to Katharine of her aunt's enormous estate was not actually available to her, in consequence of the institution of proceedings challenging the will by other relatives, joined by her husband.
The divorce petition was heard over two days, 15 and 17 November 1890. Parnell was not represented, and the evidence was not contested by Katharine O'Shea's counsel, enabling the captain to play unchallenged the role of the trusting husband betrayed. He was granted a conditional decree of divorce. Just as Parnell had been determined that, whatever else, there should be a divorce, so he was constrained – until the elapse of the six-month period before any decree could be made absolute – not to say anything that would suggest connivance on the part of Capt. O'Shea and thereby prompt the intervention of the queen's proctor and the possible annulment of the conditional decree.
The Irish elected Parnell as sessional chairman of the Irish party on 25 November, many of its members apparently persuaded that Parnell was going to resign once reelected. Gladstone immediately published his letter to John Morley of 24 November, stating that Parnell's continued leadership of the Irish party would render his own leadership of the Liberals ‘almost a nullity’.
Parnell retaliated with his inflammatory ‘Manifesto to the Irish people’ in which he attacked Gladstone's presumption in intervening on the question of the Irish leadership, and gave a highly tendentious account of his discussions with Gladstone at Hawarden the previous December in relation to the provisions of a future home rule bill. The manifesto, which opened with the histrionic recital: ‘the independence and integrity of a section of the Irish party having been sapped and destroyed by wire-pulling of the English Liberal party’, urged the Irish people not to ‘consent to throw me to the English wolves now howling for my destruction’. Parnell needed to lay a principled ground for his furious fight to retain his leadership, but the extravagance of the manifesto compromised from the outset his hard-won mystique as the coolly reticent leader of Irish nationalism. Harold Frederic wrote in the New York Times: ‘The manifesto published this morning came with the detonating force of a dynamite explosion. It is a terrible thing to have to record the public suicide of a great public man.’
The issue of the leadership of the Irish party in the wake of the Gladstone letter was debated at a reconvened meeting of the party in Committee Room 15 of the house of commons (1–6 December 1890). Parnell from the outset ruthlessly sought to derive maximum advantage from his occupancy of the chair. It was immediately apparent that his supporters were in a minority. A hiatus in the proceedings ensued with the resolution proposed on 3 December by J. J. Clancy (qv) to elicit assurances from Gladstone in relation to the points of dispute raised in Parnell's manifesto. The initiative foundered on the stated refusal of the Liberal leadership to become formally involved in the deliberations of the Irish party on the issue of the Irish leadership: whether any assurances would have been acceptable to Parnell is open to question. The same day that Clancy proposed his resolution, the standing committee of the Irish catholic hierarchy denounced Parnell as unfit on moral grounds to lead the Irish people. The old Irish party met for the last time on 6 December. When John Redmond (qv) characterised Gladstone as ‘the master of the party’, Healy interjected: ‘Who is to be the mistress of the party?’ Shortly afterwards the majority of the party followed Justin McCarthy out of the committee room.
The split in Ireland
In Dublin on 10 December Parnell passed through thronged streets from the Mansion House past the old parliament house to the Rotunda. There he delivered the most passionate and personally charged speech of his life, in which he spoke of walking ‘with you within the sight of the promised land, which, please God, I will enter with you’. The following day he led the forcible repossession of the offices of United Ireland (‘a by no means appropriate appellative’, as Leopold Bloom, inserted into the scene by Joyce (qv) to return Parnell's hat, mildly observes in Ulysses).
The first by-election of the split took place amid a general expectation, at the outset at least, that Parnell, defeated in Committee Room 15, would maintain his supremacy in the country. Kilkenny North, designated by The Times ‘a priest-ridden agricultural constituency’, was considered representative. Michael Davitt, an ideological enthusiast for the Liberal–Nationalist alliance, who in his naive and pedantic way believed Parnell had misled him on the subject of his relationship with Katharine O'Shea, was Parnell's most formidable opponent in Kilkenny North, rallying the miners of Castlecomer and lending to the right-wing catholic opposition to Parnell a vestige of radical credibility. The sociological pattern of the split was set. Parnell enjoyed strong support in the town, and among the voteless poor. The smaller and middling farmers were opposed to him. The priests threw all their weight against him, and the Fenians were conspicuous among his supporters.
The campaign was brutal and turbulent: Parnell was struck by a projectile at Castlecomer. Parnell himself was agitated, his rhetoric intemperate. A close and perceptive observer, John McDonald of the Liberal Daily News, reported: ‘Mr Parnell's face was thinner than ever I had seen it. The lustre of the eyes was gone. They seemed tired and dazed. He smoked, or rather half-smoked numbers of cigarettes, throwing one away and lighting another. His gesticulations, his familiarities with followers, were utterly different from anything I had seen in his demeanour before. The “uncrowned king” is breaking down.’ Kilkenny North was a catastrophe for Parnell, his candidate defeated by 2,527 to 1,326. McDonald wrote of Parnell at the declaration of poll in the courthouse: ‘Bandage or no bandage, and in spite of his commonplace, almost slovenly attire, you would have picked him out of a crowd of ten thousand men. He stood proudly erect. Not the shadow of emotion or feeling of any sort passed over Mr Parnell's face when the figures were read out. The face was as calm and fixed as the face of a marble in the British Museum.’
The last chance of a negotiated settlement foundered at Boulogne, where on 30 December Parnell met William O'Brien, who was joined by John Dillon in mid January. While the Liberal leadership was more forthcoming in the matter of assurances on home rule than during the debates in Committee Room 15, Parnell was immovable. On one point he was clear, and almost certainly correct. A withdrawal would not be temporary. As he had told Morley on 25 November, ‘if he gave up the leadership for a time, he should never return to it; that if he once let go, it was all over’ (Gladstone, iii, 440). Thus it was that Parnell, ‘strong to the verge of weakness’, in James Joyce's superb epithet, chose to fight on. With the failure of the negotiations at Boulogne, Dillon and O'Brien crossed to Folkestone, where they were arrested and taken to Galway to serve the six-month sentence for conspiracy imposed on them the previous year.
After Kilkenny, Parnell recovered much of his lost poise. Healy wrote in sarcastic admiration in March: ‘Mr Parnell has resumed his demeanour and soared home into the trackless altitudes of statecraft.’ Parnell had seriously compromised his mystique, and his support remained that of a clear minority; the split had the stability of allegiance that tends to characterise Irish schisms. While he fiercely castigated his opponents’ submission to Liberal ‘dictation’, Parnell did not repudiate the Liberal–Nationalist alliance. His so-called ‘appeal to the hillsides’ did not entail the abandonment of constitutional politics: the nature of the split's controversy was such that Fenians needed little prompting to rally to Parnell's cause. His rhetoric was chiefly directed to the point that he alone could be trusted to secure an acceptable measure of home rule.
In early April Parnell lost the second by-election of the split, in Sligo North. The margin of 3,261 to 2,493 was the narrowest of the three by-elections of the split.
Marriage and death
In the early morning of 25 June 1891, two days before his forty-fifth birthday, Parnell married Katharine O'Shea at the registry office in Steyning, near Brighton. In Ireland this was treated as an aggravation of his moral offence: the Nation published the entry in the register beneath the words of Matthew 14: ‘And he that shall marry her that is put away commiteth adultery’. Parnell's marriage afforded his more opportunistic supporters a final chance to review their allegiances; foremost among these was Edmund Dwyer Gray (qv) (d. 1945), whose Freeman's Journal was facing eclipse in the face of competition from the anti-Parnellite National Press which Healy had established in March. It was characteristic of Parnell that he refused to take the opportunity of deferring his marriage until after the by-election pending in Carlow. The election became an ugly carnival of popular moralism inspired by the motifs of Healy's rhetoric. The anti-Parnellite won by a crushing margin of 3,755 against 1,549 on 7 July 1891.
Immediately on their emergence from Galway Jail, Dillon and O'Brien declared their opposition to Parnell, ending Parnellite hopes that they might refuse to associate themselves with Healy. Parnell, in Thurles when the news broke, responded impassively. His train reached Kingsbridge late on the Sunday evening. As Parnell's brake emerged from the station a great cheering crowd lined the quays and the streets into the city. The houses were lit up and rockets launched as he passed. He was now the acknowledged leader only of the capital city.
When Parnell set out for his last meeting at Creggs on the Roscommon–Galway border on the night mail from Broadstone, the 20-year-old Arthur Griffith (qv), who was among those who saw him off, recalled that he looked ‘wretchedly ill’. He remained in Dublin for three days after his return from Creggs, and was seriously debilitated by the time he reached Brighton. He died in Brighton on the evening of 6 October 1891. It was a month he had always dreaded, often saying to his brother: ‘something is sure to happen in October’ (Parnell, 266).
Parnell's haggard appearance over the previous year did not diminish the shock created by his death. T. P. O'Connor observed: ‘…nobody ever thought it would end so disastrously. There was infinite faith in Mr Parnell's luck for one thing.’ Parnell was buried in Dublin on 11 October. His body was brought back to a city swept by wind and rain. It lay in state in the morning in City Hall, where he had first been elected leader of the Irish party just over a decade previously. He was buried in Glasnevin as the shooting star which would become a recurrent symbol in his literary cult flashed overhead.
Katharine Parnell lived on in deteriorating circumstances and died in Littlehampton, Sussex, on 5 February 1921. After Claude Sophie, who died shortly after her birth, Parnell and Katharine had two further daughters, Clare (1883–1909) and Katharine (‘Katie’) (1884–1947). Clare, who bore a haunting resemblance to Parnell, died in labour. Her son Assheton Clare Bowyer-Lane Maunsell, a lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers, died of enteric fever in India on 29 July 1934, aged 24. As Parnell's biographer F. S. L. Lyons (qv) wrote, ‘the line of direct descent from Parnell therefore ends in a cemetery in Lahore.’
No private papers of Parnell or Katharine Parnell survive. The limited surviving correspondence of Parnell and related material is dispersed and to be found principally in the Gladstone papers in the BL; in the Davitt and Dillon papers in TCD; in the Harrington papers and miscellaneous other papers in the NLI. Sydney P. Hall's portrait of Parnell, gaunt and commanding, painted posthumously, is in the NGI; drawings by Hall of Parnell at the special commission are in the NGI and in the National Portrait Gallery in London. A portrait of Parnell hangs in the Mansion House, Dublin. There are fine photographic portraits of Parnell by William Lawrence (qv), Dublin. Striking photographs of Parnell, reputedly the last, were taken by Katharine O'Shea in Eltham. There is a vast number of engravings and cartoons of Parnell published in contemporary Irish and British newspapers and illustrated magazines. Parnell liked the work of J. D. Reigh; a portrait by Reigh was reproduced and enclosed as a supplement with the historic edition of United Ireland published on 10 October 1891 on his death. Harry Furniss (qv) drew brilliant cartoons of Parnell in a fluid line. The chromolithographic portrait of Parnell published in Vanity Fair on 11 September 1880 was considered an excellent likeness; its unexpected depiction of a russet Parnell, of rural landlord aspect, is a corrective to the images of Parnell in black and white. The Parnell monument in O'Connell St., Dublin, is by Augustus Saint-Gaudens (qv). There are a number of extant copies of the fine portrait bust executed by Mary Grant in Chelsea in 1892. The illustration by Jack B. Yeats (qv) to his brother's ‘Come gather round me Parnellites’, published in A Broadside, new ser., no.1. (January 1937), beautifully captures the slightly archaic manner in which Parnellites celebrated the memory of their dead chief.
Parnell had embodied in a way no Irish leader had before him a sense of Irish statehood. Winston Churchill later wrote of him as ‘a being who seemed to exercise unconsciously an indefinable sense of power in repose – of command awaiting the hour’ (Great contemporaries, 307). His career and the movement he led brought about a transformation of the relationship of Ireland to Britain, and to the world. ‘Under his rule’, James O'Kelly (qv) wrote in 1894, ‘Ireland was a nation’ (Callanan, Parnell split, 302).
The structure of his myth was counter-expectational. At every point there was a defiance of settled anticipation, an eluding of conventional stereotypes. Much of what was characterised as Parnell's enigma derived from his defiance of English expectations of Irish nationalism and of the Anglo-Irish. With remarkable skill and daring, he sought to turn his stature back on Ireland, to redress the deficiencies and imbalances of the Irish polity.
Perceptions of Parnell in Britain were also caught up with late nineteenth-century preoccupation with greatness. An uneasily repressed sense among his adversaries that he might indeed possess the attributes of greatness infused the fervour of the Times onslaught on Parnell. In contemporary British assessment Parnell was generally denied greatness, by reason of what was deemed the narrowness of his political sympathies, although the extent of the fascination he exerted somewhat belied this. ‘It is not easy to recognise in Parnell the sovereign element that men call greatness’, wrote John Morley, Gladstone's hagiographer, in 1917 (Recollections, i, 245). Gladstone himself was less grudging, characterising Parnell as a remarkable political prodigy, who was, as he told Barry O'Brien in 1897, ‘an intellectual phenomenon’ (Parnell, ii, 357).
Parnell's career, fused with the political reconstitution of the country he led, was extraordinarily dynamic in its compressed evolution. His own transformation into a public man was rapid and assured. In parliament he overcame his deficient early speaking style; a French observer wrote on his death: ‘Sa victoire dans le parlement était, d'abord et surtout, une victoire sur lui-même’ (‘His victory in parliament was, first and above all, a victory over himself’). The achievement was not purely personal: biography and nation-formation intertwined. He seized imaginatively the hopes of the Irish people, and gave them definition and realisable form. It was the unfolding of Parnell's strategy, in its classicism and plenitude, through a series of discrete political episodes which he negotiated with sure and incisive judgement, that gave his career its deepest fascination and mystery to those around him. T. M. Healy, the most attentive student of Parnell's rise, wrestled with this issue in United Ireland on the eve of the 1885 election: ‘It is not clear whether, when he set out on his work, he proposed any definite policy to himself, but simply acted in revolt against a system which allowed the enemy to escape all convenience, while the most terrible losses were being inflicted upon Ireland. Slowly, but with certainty, his work evoked an echo in the country.’ Justin McCarthy wrote somewhat vaguely, but with greater elegance, of the dead leader: ‘Mr Parnell's policy grew upon him, and developed within him, as events went on’ (‘Parnell’, 632).
Parnell enjoyed an intense contemporary fame. There is little to bear out Healy's assertion that Parnell, ‘moulded … in a sort of English matrix’ of hostile fascination, became possessed by his own myth. There was something inviolately private and detached about this Irish leader in the age of Victorian celebrity. Joyce's invocation of ‘the light of his mild, proud, silent and disconsolate sovereignty’ captures something of Parnell's relation to his physical surroundings, to parliament, to the attention of journalists and the press of the crowd in his passage through those clamorous years.
Parnell's embrace of nationalism was instinctual, and, once his mind was turned to politics, immediate. The decision to enter politics and to do so as a nationalist were executed in a characteristic swift and single movement. In the years of his ascendancy Parnell's provenance was not an issue that troubled the Irish nationalist people. He was trusted implicitly: neither his landlord status nor his protestantism qualified that trust. That Parnell as a member of the Anglo-Irish gentry had taken up a cause that he did not have to, attracted gratitude and admiration. In his rhetoric in the split, Healy assailed Parnell as ‘Mr Landlord Parnell’, and accused Parnell's supporters of succumbing to a demeaning obsequiousness to one not of their race. While his rhetoric was effective in dispelling the residual respect and gratitude many nationalists felt towards Parnell, whether it commanded actual credence is more uncertain. The anti-Parnellite argument – that Parnell's continued leadership jeopardised the success of the Liberal–Nationalist alliance – was pragmatic, almost utilitarian. The dominant rhetorical idiom within anti-Parnellism was, however, that of Healy's revanchiste catholic nationalism.
His realpolitik and the issue of his ‘anti-Englishness’
Parnell's conception of politics was harshly lucid and bereft of sentiment. Where relations of power were concerned he was temperamentally disinclined to think in conventional moral terms. He insisted that the choice of parliamentary methods was dictated by practical considerations and the prospect of success. This was a fundamental axiom of his political career, which addressed the concerns of Irish nationalists disinclined, on the basis of historical experience, to believe in the prospects for effective parliamentary action, and enabled him to bring the maximum pressure to bear in the British theatre of his political strategy. From his application of this tenet derived much of the suppleness and vigour of his practice of constitutional politics. His career evidenced time and again – most strikingly in its final crisis – that he would in almost all contemporarily conceivable circumstances hold to a constitutional course.
The dubious proposition that Parnell was driven by an implacable dislike of England or the English originates in contemporary commentary, chiefly in England, and has endured in some memoirs relating to Parnell and in popular biographical treatment, but is grounded on little in the way of evidence. In its contemporary form it served as a working hypothesis to account for all that was unbiddable or seemed incomprehensible in Parnell's personality and politics. ‘Incorruptible, sitting apart, jealous, solitary, with great intensity of purpose and very narrow sympathies’, the Spectator wrote apprehensively in 1880, ‘his mind reminds us of some of those who were most potent in the making of the great French revolution’.
The idea of Parnell's anti-Englishness owed much to his deliberately cold demeanour in the commons. He rigidly eschewed anything that smacked of deference or gratitude in his dealings with English politicians. He was dismissive, sometimes with a chilling edge, both of the hypocrisies of coercion and of patronising professions of benevolent intent towards Ireland. He quite deliberately did not dissemble the ‘hard attorneyism’ of his political technique. ‘Dealing with him was like dealing with a foreign power’, as Charles Dilke told Barry O'Brien (Parnell, i, 225). Edward J. Byrne (qv) once unguardedly asked Parnell why public men were so vain. Affronted, Parnell replied: ‘Out of the necessity of the case, Byrne’ (Parnell, 23–4).
There is little in the writing on Parnell of those who knew him best on the nationalist side to bear out the view of Parnell as anti-English. Justin McCarthy eloquently argued the contrary; although admittedly he was the most mild-mannered of Parnell's lieutenants, to whom Parnell was unlikely to unburden himself of dark hatreds had he possessed them. McCarthy recalled: ‘ “It will all come right in the end”, he used to say. “They will find that we have a real political purpose in what we are doing, and they will do us justice yet” ’ (‘Parnell’, i, 636). The idea of Parnell being in the grip of a racial aversion to the English is hard to reconcile with his sceptical disposition and the well attested equanimity of his private conversation, as well as – more trivially – with the personal circumstances of his later life. Parnell was from the early 1880s effectively resident in England. At their last meeting before the divorce decree, he told John Morley he thought ‘Ireland a very good place to live out of, and England the best of countries to live in’ (Recollections, ii, 256–7), a genially paradoxical remark for an Irish leader.
His supposed conservatism
It says much that two of the most dubious generalisations concerning Parnell would ordinarily be considered somewhat contradictory: that he was anti-English and conservative. The argument that Parnell's underlying or substantive political orientation (a speculative concept in relation to the leader of a home rule agitation) was conservative has a lineage which stretches back to suspicions of Parnell on the left of the Gladstonian Liberal party in the late 1880s. He was, Labouchere pronounced on his death, ‘in truth, a Conservative, and he had very little sympathy with Liberal aspirations’. Some Conservative commentators canvassed a similar view, in characterisations of the Irish leader which were often highly perceptive without actually being right. Among nationalists Joe Biggar had famously mused: ‘I wonder what are Mr Parnell's real politics.’
The idea of Parnell's conservatism is based on an extrapolation of his views on the land question, which were to the right of most of his party, and closer to the Conservatives than to the Liberals. Parnell sought to ensure the retention of a scaled-down residential landlord class under home rule, to maintain a class who could contribute to Irish economic development; to contrive a political balance; and to secure ultimate Anglo-Irish and Conservative assent to a scheme of home rule. His conception of unionism was based on the Irish landlord class. He had little knowledge or experience of the north-east of Ireland. Like virtually all his contemporaries, irrespective of party allegiance, he saw Irish unionism as a unitary phenomenon. Parnell's embrace of the land question at the outset, his sympathy for the Irish working class, the often radical tendency disclosed in his early career as an obstructionist, the generally neglected influence of his involvement in the lost world of Irish émigré politics in Britain, all make it difficult to classify Parnell as a conservative.
Moreover, the thesis of Parnell's conservatism ignores the Parnell of the split. Healy's National Press charged: ‘His policy is himself, his end is himself, his devotion is to himself.’ Yet whatever degree of cynicism or desperation is imputed to Parnell, the political intelligence and the depth of conviction he displayed, the consistency with his early career on which he insisted, and the depth, if not the breadth, of allegiance he attracted, were such that his campaign to reconstitute his leadership in 1890–91 cannot be discounted as merely a late opportunistic deviation.
In looks Parnell was extremely striking. By the time of the split his haggard appearance, for which the Irish public was unprepared, bore the impress of the illnesses he had borne since the 1886 election. As a young man his dress was sharply elegant. Latterly, even when he was seeking to escape public recognition or to swathe himself against the cold, his dress frequently oscillated between the slapdash and the eccentric. H. W. Lucy wrote of Parnell's attire on one occasion in 1885: ‘the dress is a triumph of laborious art giving Mr Parnell an appearance which is a cross between Oscar Wilde and a scarecrow’. Labouchere wrote that ‘occasionally he would appear in a well-fitting coat and well “groomed”, but he was usually unkempt and ill-dressed’. During the special commission, he recalled, Parnell went about ‘arrayed in an old white coat, with handkerchief half covering his face, a slouched hat over his head, and a black bag in his hand’.
Parnell's resolve masked high sensitivity. Justin McCarthy wrote shortly after Parnell's death: ‘The Parnell I knew was a singularly sensitive and nervous man. He was all compact of nerves – like an Arab horse.’ Sometimes he appeared lost in distant thought, all the while remaining alert to what was being said. T. P. O'Connor wrote a little novelistically in an obituary in the Sunday Sun: ‘He was curiously unconscious sometimes of his surroundings, and used to sit with those strange, red-brown eyes of his, as though, like the raven, he had fallen into a sleepless and unending dream.’
Parnell was devoid of conventional self-consciousness. T. P. O'Connor wrote in the mid 1880s of the difficulties in describing the mind of a man who was ‘neither expansive nor introspective. It is one of the strongest and most curious peculiarities of Mr Parnell not merely that he rarely, if ever, speaks of himself, but that he rarely, if ever, gives any indication of having studied himself. His mind, if one may use the jargon of the Germans, is purely objective’ (Parnell movement, 339). Justin McCarthy wrote: ‘He had not the slightest interest in what are called “problems of life”. I never heard from him a word that appertained to anything metaphysical or psychological, or to any form of self-analysis – that morbid pastime of the age’ (‘Parnell’, 631).
Parnell was not possessed of strong religious convictions. There are a few suggestions that his protestantism bore some Plymouth Brethren influence, derived from his family and from Wicklow. He was superstitious (the severely rationalist Morley recalled him saying he had ‘strange and vivid forebodings’), and somewhat hypochondriacal. This cast of mind may be explicable in terms of his exposure to his father's early death, and the death by 1882 of five of his ten siblings, as well as by his consciousness of his own physical frailty. He is said to have believed he would not live beyond 48, the age at which his father died. The chief political anomaly of his superstitiousness was his aversion to the colour green.
Parnell saw Avondale infrequently in the decade of his hegemony, chiefly when parliament rose. His interests were not primarily agricultural. Parnell invested heavily in mining and quarrying ventures in Wicklow, in particular stone quarrying at Big Rock, near Arklow, from which he supplied paving setts to Dublin corporation. He expended money and effort in seeking to revive the old lead mine and to relocate the lodes of iron and seams of copper that had formerly been worked in the vicinity of Avondale. Through the late 1880s his chief recreation was the quest for gold in Wicklow, assaying samples of ore in his workshops successively at Etham and Brighton. He ruefully informed the royal commission on mining royalties in March 1891: ‘I fear the quantity of gold in Wicklow is very limited.’
In the split, stung by Healy's ‘Stop thief’ allegations, he asserted: ‘The money I have received from the people of Ireland I have given back to the people of Ireland.’ The extent of his expenditure ensured that while his personal tastes were frugal, he was never free from financial worries. There was good reason for his amusement, noted by Edward Byrne, at a comment of Randolph Churchill, of whom he was fond: ‘He laughed heartily – and his laugh was very rare, although he had a cheery and most genial smile – at one expression of Lord Randolph's who said that “the only paupers in Ireland were the Irish landlords” ’ (Parnell, 251). Parnell observed morosely to his brother: ‘politics is the only thing I ever got any money from’ (J. H. Parnell, Parnell, 288).
In late April 1891 Parnell wrote from Brighton to the directors of the Dublin Wicklow & Wexford Railway Co., seeking to defer the payment of freight charges, ‘without which I shall find it impossible to keep the works at Wicklow going, which still mean a loss to the company in freights as well as a loss to the locality’. John Howard Parnell disposed of the remaining Parnell interest in the quarries in 1898, and was obliged to sell Avondale in 1900.
Parnell's shooting lodge at Aughavanagh was, he told Morley, his favourite place. An excellent shot with rifle or revolver, Parnell latterly ceased to care for shooting game, instead accompanying the party. From Kilmainham in 1881, when the Land League were seeking to impose sanctions on hunting, Parnell had despatched a subscription to the Wicklow Hunt.
The later myth
With Parnell's death, his posthumous myth embarked on its strange odyssey. John Redmond's Parnellite party kept alive the memory of Parnell while seeking, from after the 1892 election, to close off the quarrel of the split. The debate on Gladstone's second home rule bill of 1893 became the occasion for Parnell's remaining parliamentary loyalists to render a valedictory hommage to the dead leader. The attendance at the annual processions in Dublin on the anniversary of his death began to fall off shortly thereafter. It suited both the anti-Parnellite majority and the Parnellite minority to distance themselves from the issues of 1890–91 and to laud the pre-split Parnell who had led an unbroken movement. It was this cropped and bland effigy of Parnell that provided from 1900 the tutelary emblem of the reunited Irish party. By the time the Parnell monument was unveiled on 1 October 1911, the future of home rule seemed assured. John Redmond prematurely declared: ‘We have got back, at long last, to the point to which Parnell had led us, before he and our cause were submerged in that catastrophe of twenty years ago.’
Parnell was not readily assimilable to the more ideologically driven nationalisms of the early twentieth century. Patrick Pearse (qv) treated Parnell somewhat guardedly: ‘the pale and angry ghost of Parnell’ was edged out of his canonical four ‘master minds’ of separatist nationalism. Arthur Griffith more lucidly asserted that ‘the era of constitutional possibilities for Irish nationality ended on the day Charles Stewart Parnell died’.
The memory of Parnell flared with R. Barry O'Brien's sympathetically perceptive Life of Charles Stewart Parnell in 1898. Katharine Parnell's Charles Stewart Parnell: his love story and private life, published in 1914, shattered the collusive reticence that had settled over Parnell's personal life and the issues of the split. The disclosure of the extent of her political role across the gap of a quarter-century prompted muted consternation among his surviving lieutenants. Its portrayal of a private Parnell countered the perception of Parnell's hegemonic coldness and refigured the Parnell myth.
The great resurgence of Parnell's memory came in the late poetry of W. B. Yeats (qv) and in the writings of James Joyce. These aptly marked the zenith of, and brought to a conclusion, the extraordinary intersection of high Irish literature and nationalist politics from the time of his death. If the independent Irish state has never quite known what to do with Parnell, something of his myth endures.