Parnell, Thomas (1679–1718), anglican clergyman and poet, was born in Dublin. His grandfather was a Cheshire man who had supported Cromwell and thought it as well, following the restoration, to go to ground in Ireland where he bought a large estate. His father, also named Thomas, is described in the records of TCD as generosus (a gentleman), and he was probably the Thomas Parnell who married an Ann Grice in the Dublin diocese in 1674. Thomas jr attended the popular Dr Jones's school in Ship St. before entering TCD in 1692. He graduated BA (1700) and was ordained in the established church (1703). Some lesser preferments followed quickly. He was appointed a minor canon of St Patrick's cathedral, Dublin (1704), and to the sinecure of archdeacon of Clogher (1706). Around the same time he married Nancy Minchin, for whom he wrote the poem ‘My days have been so wondrous free’. They had two sons and a daughter, but neither of the sons survived to maturity. Parnell is said to have been so affected by his wife's early death (1712) that he turned to drink. His departure for London in 1712 was probably with a view, partly at least, to overcoming the trauma of the same event. He was to find Jonathan Swift (qv), who was at this time a trusted adviser to the ruling tory government, helpful in getting him the entrée to literary circles, resulting in his contributing verse to Addison's Spectator as well as to Steele's Guardian.
In 1713 he published his Essay on the different styles of poetry, a lengthy exposition in verse. Four of his poems were included in Steele's Poetical miscellanies (1714), while his long poem ‘Homer's battle of the frogs and mice’ appeared in 1717. The rest of a very considerable corpus of verse was published posthumously at various dates. Indeed, around sixty of his poems appeared in print for the first time in 1989. With Swift, Pope, Gay, and Arbuthnot, Parnell was a member of the Scriblerus Club, which during a brief existence in 1714 sought to expose, in the fictional Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus, false scholarship and literary bad taste. For a time he was in demand as a preacher in London churches before Archbishop William King (qv) of Dublin, on the recommendation of Swift (now dean of St Patrick's), presented him in 1716 to the vicarage of Finglas, near Dublin. This living was said to be worth about £400 a year, a large sum in those days, but he was not to enjoy this plum appointment for long. In July 1718 he took ill at Chester on his way to Ireland and died there aged 38. He is buried in Trinity church, Chester.
In the midst of so much neglect of other talented voices – Winstanley, Laurence Whyte (qv), Dunkin, Philip Francis (qv) – Parnell is the great survivor among the Irish poets of the eighteenth century. The literary company he kept during a short life had a spin-off effect in keeping his memory green throughout that century, with a short biography by Goldsmith (qv), inclusion in Johnson's Lives of the poets, and a highly prestigious folio edition of his collected works in Glasgow (1786). In modern times the Cuala Press, Dublin, published a selection of his verse in the 1920s, and the final accolade was Rawson and Lock's edition of his collected poems (1989), where he is accorded the full American treatment. All this in spite of the fact that much of his verse has not worn well at all. There is also the problem of the limits he himself imposed on the scope of his verse when he proclaimed that he would ‘let other men describe with flowing lines/how Damon courts or Amarillis shines/but for your subject chuse a theme divine’ (Rawson & Lock, 360). This resulted (although there were some notable exceptions) in an evident reluctance to come down to earth, which manifested itself in his choice of themes (predominantly biblical and classical mythology), in the personification of this, that, and nearly everything, in a preference for the abstract over the concrete. It may be that he felt inhibited by his clerical calling from writing, as many of his lay contemporaries did, rather bluntly and earthily about everyday events and characters. However, this is not to gainsay his great competence as a poet within the strictures and fashions of his time and the self-imposed restrictions mentioned.