Some Irish People – Charles Stuart Parnell


Parnell, I suppose, was an aristocrat. His father was a Protestant Landowner,  descended from a family of well-to-do merchants from Cheshire who had come to Ireland 200 years previously.  A cousin was Viscount Powerscourt, descended from Sir Richard Wingfield who had been Marshall of the Queen’s Troops in Ireland 250 years earlier. The Powerscourts are perhaps best known in Ireland for building  the great Palladian Mansion outside Dublin, Powerscourt House, now an up-market Ritz-Carlton spa/hotel. And a Grandfather was Sir John Parnell, Chancellor of the Exchequer in Grattan’s Parliament and the end of the last, 18th, century. On his mother’s side, Parnell had an equally august ancestry. She was Delia Tudor Stewart, daughter of the famous American Admiral Charles Stewart and distantly connected to the English Tudor Royal Family of the 16th century.

ParnELL, his name is now almost universally pronounced, although he himself pronounced it PARn’l. His family like so many in those days, of whatever religion, was a large one, and Charles, Charley as the family called him, was the sixth of eleven surviving children. He was educated primarily by tutors although there was a spell of a year in the house of a Mr. Wishart in Chipping Norton in England, with four other Irish boys, including a cousin and his brother John. Cambridge followed, but this was not a success, so his formal education finished without a qualification. By 1875 he was 29 years old. He had spent time in Paris and in America where brother John was growing cotton in Alabama, fallen in and out of love at least twice, and flirted with the Nationalist Home Rule League started by the somewhat unsavoury Isaac Butt. Now he was elected to Parliament as MP for Meath, and a career which was to make him pre-eminent in Irish affairs during his short life had begun.

The 1870’s were seeing a period of great difficulty for agriculture in Ireland, and for that matter in England too. American and Canadian production was depressing the European markets, and in Ireland this led to an agricultural depression and its concomitant from the post-Famine days, evictions. The position was made worse by the failure of the potato crop again in 1877 and 1878, which as before impacted most on the west, especially Connacht.

Charley was well aware of his own ignorance of Parliamentary affairs, and spent his first few months in the English House of Parliament mainly just watching. He also went to some trouble to cultivate other members from Ireland, and representing as he did a constituency which had previously been held by the late Young Irelander John Martin, it was natural that these should be of the same ilk. There was the small hunchbacked but well educated Catholic convert from Presbyterianism Joe Biggar from Belfast. There was John O’Connor Power from Mayo who would later become a barrister and who with Biggar would introduce filibustering to the English Parliament. There was Edmund Dwyer Gray, a newspaper proprietor from Dublin. There was Frank Hugh O’Donnell, M.P for Dungarvan in County Waterford, who held an MA in literature, history and political economy from Queen’s University in Galway, where he had won several gold medals for his academic performance.  These men were all supporters of the general aims of the Fenians, but they were not rabble rousers. They, and indeed most Republicans of the age, were well educated and deeply thoughtful men. And inspired by Biggar and O’Connor Power’s example and led by Parnell, these people and their colleagues found that by obstructionism they could achieve much in the British Parliament.

The Dictionary defines obstructionism as ‘the deliberate interference with the progress of a legislation by various means such as filibustering or slow walking which may depend on the respective parliamentary procedures’. In England it consisted primarily of the making of very long speeches. It works in a negative way, by extending the debate on a subject so long that no time remains in the session for a vote to be taken. It can very effectively halt Government business which makes it a potent weapon, and Parnell and his associates used it to force attention to the problems of Ireland.

When the agricultural depression began to bite and the evictions started, the disaffected tenants had started to attack the houses, and sometimes the persons, of the landlords in incidents that were reminiscent of the Whiteboys a hundred years before.  Nowadays Westport in County Mayo is a haven for fishermen, whether its game fishing in the sea or trout in the rivers and lakes you’re after, it’s hard to do better! But in June 1879 it was the scene of a meeting reminiscent of the Monster meetings of Daniel O’Connell, at which Parnell, himself a Landlord, spoke out openly and forcefully against the Landlords. He was already known for his powerful advocacy of Home Rule, and now simply by appearing and speaking as he did, the two issues became one in the minds of the people.

At the next meeting in Castlebar in August the Mayo Land League was officially formed with his support. And eight weeks later, still in Castlebar, The National Land League was formed, with Charley Parnell as President and Michael Davitt as Secretary. Its objects were given as

‘..first, to bring out a reduction of rack-rents; second, to facilitate the obtaining of the ownership of the soil by the occupiers. That the object of the League can be best attained by promoting organisation among the tenant-farmers; by defending those who may be threatened with eviction for refusing to pay unjust rents; by facilitating the working of the Bright clauses of the Irish Land Act during the winter; and by obtaining such reforms in the laws relating to land as will enable every tenant to become owner of his holding by paying a fair rent for a limited number of years.’

These objectives were expressed as the three F’s in the public mind, Fair Rent, Fixity of Tenure and Free Sale.

But there was more to it than rent. Evictions, to be sure, were often for the non payment of rent, but equally they were coming to be for pastures. Tillage was being converted to grazing pastures at an increasing rate. And it was all being done by Landlords. They were often absentee landlords with unscrupulous agents doing the actual evicting, agents with no long term interest in the land. And above all, the offending landlords seemed to be English. So the link from the land question to Home Rule was easy to maintain.

The League set about organising resistance to evictions, appeals for reductions in rents,  and assistance for the  work of relief agencies. Landlords’ attempts to evict tenants certainly led to violence, but the Land League denounced it, advocating peaceful resistance, peaceful protest.  One weapon which was proving effective was ostracism, a concept introduced by Parnell in a speech in Ennis in September 1880 – an agent, for example, or an evicting landlord, would be wholly ostracised by the community. Said Charley:

I wish to point out to you a very much better way – a more Christian and charitable way, which will give the lost man an opportunity of repenting. When a man takes a farm from which another has been evicted, you must shun him on the roadside when you meet him–you must shun him in the streets of the town–you must shun him in the shop – you must shun him on the fair green and in the market place, and even in the place of worship, by leaving him alone, by putting him in moral Coventry, by isolating him from the rest of the country, as if he were the leper of old – you must show him your detestation of the crime he committed.”

Deliveries of food or turf would cease, shops would refuse to serve them, the household staff would vanish, labourers failed to turn up to work. One notorious victim in the autumn of the following year, 1880, was an English land agent for Lord Erne, a retired English army Captain named Boycott. Boycott left Ireland in December, but his name lives on in the English language as a synonym for ‘ostracise’.

In England, in 1880, Gladstone had again been returned. His sympathetic views on Ireland were unchanged, but the emasculation of his Land Bill into the Land Act ten years ago had taught him the importance of careful preparation. However Ireland was on the brink of Civil War, and whether or not the Land League supported violence, there had been 1,238 evictions in 1879 and 2,110 in 1880, and these had resulted in 863 and 2,950 ‘incidents’ in the same periods. The unrest in rural Ireland was now so bad that Gladstone felt he had to agree to another of acts to give emergency powers to the administration in Ireland.

These were the so-called ‘coercion acts’, and this one was called  the ‘Protection of Person and Property Act’ and became effective in February of 1881. That was the stick, but a carrot was needed too. Charley had rushed back from a fund raising tour of America for the election, which returned 63 Irish Home Rulers of whom 27 supported Charley. He was exerting all the influence he could to replace the attacks in Ireland with ‘boycotts’, his aim always being the attainment of self Government. And he knew as well as Gladstone that some concession would have to accompany the emergency powers of this Coercion Act. Gladstone would have liked to proceed more cautiously, but Charley’s Irish Home Rulers were insisting on rapid legislation, and the Second Land Act was passed in the spring of 1881.

On the face of it this acceded to the Land League’s objectives. It granted the ‘three F’s’: fair rents that would be agreed by a Land Tribunal, security of tenure, acknowledgement of the tenants’ right to sell their occupancy, and government loans so that tenants could purchase their land, all to be overseen by the new Irish Land Commission. It did not, however, include the more than 100,000 tenants in arrears of rent (one-third of the farmers in Ireland, two-thirds in Mayo) or leaseholders, and from Charley’s perspective that made it of very limited value, since as framed, by excluding the defaulters, the Act did not address the underlying cause of the unrest in the west.

At this point I must mention a wholly unrelated affair, an affair of the heart, because it was to have overriding significance ten years later. Charley started what was to be a long term relationship with a colleague’s wife, the wife of Captain William O’Shea, M.P. In his brother John Parnell’s words:

The first meeting between Charley and Mrs. O’Shea was at a dinner-party in London, when she referred to him by the name under which he is still known in the West of Ireland – ‘The Uncrowned King.’ An intimate friendship had sprung up between Charley and the O’Sheas, who were then living near to one another at Eltham in Kent. In 1881 Captain O’Shea found a portmanteau belonging to Charley in his house. He immediately challenged him to a duel in France, but the matter, through the intercession of Mrs. O’Shea, was smoothed over.

Ten years later the O’Sheas were divorced, and Charley married Katherine O’Shea. Popularly she was known as Kitty O’Shea, but Kitty was not merely a familiar version of Katherine, for in the London vernacular of the time it meant ‘prostitute’. Charlie called her ‘Katie’.

Back in Ireland in 1881 Charlie and his party leaders attacked the Land Act. This they did in the full knowledge that the hostile Secretary for Ireland, ‘Buckshot’ Forster, would move against them, and they were in due course arrested under the Coercion Act for ‘sabotaging the Land Act’ and lodged in Kilmainham gaol.

He was treated at Kilmainham as a political prisoner,’ wrote his brother John, ‘being given a well-furnished room and allowed to smoke and get his meals in from outside. He was able also to write and receive letters, subject to their being inspected by the police authorities, and his fellow-suspects in the prison were allowed to dine with him. He was also allowed to receive visitors, and a great many of his friends availed themselves of this opportunity. Another concession was his being allowed a few days’ absence on parole, in order to go over to Paris to his sister Theodosia (Mrs. Thompson), whose son was at the point of death. Owing to the freedom which he was allowed, Charley was as free to rule from Kilmainham as Napoleon was from Elba. In his sitting-room at the prison he openly held conferences with his lieutenants, and carried on the business of the League which it had been designed to crush by his arrest.’

The phraseology is interesting, for Charley was in effect, as President of the Land League, the de facto ruler of Ireland, much as Daniel O’Connell had been forty years before. Charley negotiated a deal with Gladstone from Kilmainham, through the good offices of his friend Captain O’Shea (this was before the ‘portmanteau incident!’). A treaty was agreed, the Kilmainham Treaty it was called. Another interesting choice of words, since treaties are normally concluded between sovereign States. This one stated that Charley would openly support the Land Act in exchange for Gladstone’s agreement to include the 100,000 tenants in arrears of their rent in its provisions. Charley had won.

He was released on May 2nd 1882. He was more than ever convinced of the uselessness of violence and the potential for negotiation, but four days later, on May 6th 1882, the newly appointed Chief Under Secretary for Ireland Lord Frederick Cavendish  and  the long serving Permanent Under Secretary at the Irish Office Thomas Henry Burke were murdered whilst walking in Phoenix Park. The perpetrators were an extremist Fenian splinter group and were arrested, condemned and in due course hanged. Charley was horrified at the murders. The Kilmainham Treaty could hardly have been followed by a worse or more inauspicious event. Especially as Cavendish, who had just that day arrived in Dublin, was Gladstone’s nephew, and very close. Charlie promptly issued a statement:

We feel that no act has ever been perpetrated in our country, during the exciting struggle for social and political rights of the past fifty years, that has so stained the name of hospitable Ireland as this cowardly and unprovoked assassination of a friendly stranger.’

He offered his resignation to Gladstone, which was courteously refused. Having now read countless versions of Charley’s life, I am inclined to think that the Phoenix Park Murders marked him permanently. He was never the same again.

However in the immediate future he was to work closely with Gladstone. He returned to Ireland where he founded the Irish National League on the ashes of the Land League, but with rather different aims, or at least emphasis. Where the Land League was all about land, the National League’s stated objectives were Home Rule, and increased enfranchisement. This was followed by the creation of the Irish Parliamentary Party which pulled together the diverse Irish MP’s into a proper, structured, formalised political party. In fact this may well have been the first such party in the United Kingdom, as British political parties were still very informal. Then in 1884 came another Reform Act which extended the franchise and doubled the number of Irish electors to over 500,000. The elections of 1886 brought a complete Parnellite dominance of 86 Irish Home Rule MPs, and this now meant that Charley controlled  the balance of power in the English House of Commons.

But it was not to last. The Home Rule Bill which Gladstone was forced to introduce as the price of Charley’s support was defeated, the Liberal Government fell, and in the ensuing elections the Conservatives under Lord Salisbury won. Home Rule was to break Gladstone in the end – with the Irish Parliamentary Party’s support he came back as Prime Minister for a few months in 1886, introduced another Reform Bill, and suffered the same defeat and fall from power as before. In 1892 he was re-elected Prime Minister for the fourth and final time. In February 1893 he re-introduced a Home Rule Bill. It provided for the formation of a parliament for Ireland, a regional assembly like that which was to come in Northern Ireland from the  Good Friday Agreement 105 years later. The Home Rule Bill did not offer Ireland independence, nor had the Irish Parliamentary Party asked for independence. The Bill was passed by the Commons, but rejected by the House of Lords on the grounds that it had gone too far.

The new Conservative Government was led by Lord Salisbury, and surprisingly he immediately introduced The Purchase of Land (Ireland) Act 1885, also known as the Ashbourne Act. It set up a five million pound sterling fund, worth about $830 million today,  and any tenant who wanted to buy land, had access to these funds. They took a loan from the government and could pay it back in monthly instalments at 4% per annum over 48 years. Anyone could now buy land, if the owner wished to sell it. His critics said he was merely trying to ‘kill Home Rule by kindness’. It certainly boosted Charley’s reputation.

Charley had kept trying hard and working for Home Rule until 1889, and in terms of popularity he was on the crest of a wave in Ireland. But then came a crushing blow. Captain William O’Shea filed for divorce from his wife Katie, citing Charley. Since Charley had already had three children with her, he had no defence, nor did he offer any. This was 1889, not 1989. Divorce was not socially acceptable in Victorian England by a society which had accepted Charley’s ten year long adulterous affair without a murmur. And in Ireland, Charley’s followers were shocked to the core. The Catholic Church then, as now, does not allow divorce and regards adultery as a grievous sin. The Uncrowned King of Ireland was dethroned overnight. He married Katie, of course, in 1891. But a few months later he was dead. He was just 46 years old.

Posterity treated him more kindly. Gladstone described him as the most remarkable person he had ever met.

I do not say the ablest man;” he went on, “I say the most remarkable and the most interesting. He was an intellectual phenomenon”.

Herbert Asquith, Prime Minister from 1908 to 1916, described him as one of the three or four greatest men of the nineteenth century, while Lord Haldane, that great English World War 1 politician, described him as the strongest man the British House of Commons had seen in 150 years.

Perhaps the most telling commentary on his life and its end came from Yeats. I reproduce his poem ‘Come Gather round me’ below. Interestingly, that poem makes me suspect that everyone, not just Charley and his family themselves, pronounced the name PARnell. Try reading it as ParnELL. To me anyhow, PARnell scans better.

Come gather round me, Parnellites,
And praise our chosen man;
Stand upright on your legs awhile,
Stand upright while you can,
For soon we lie where he is laid,
And he is underground;
Come fill up all those glasses
And pass the bottle round.

And here’s a cogent reason,
And I have many more,
He fought the might of England
And saved the Irish poor,
Whatever good a farmer’s got
He brought it all to pass;
And here’s another reason,
That Parnell
loved a lass.

And here’s a final reason,
He was of such a kind
Every man that sings a song
Keeps Parnell
in his mind.
For Parnell
was a proud man,
No prouder trod the ground,
And a proud man’s a lovely man,
So pass the bottle round.

The Bishops and the party
That tragic story made,
A husband that had sold his wife
And after that betrayed;
But stories that live longest
Are sung above the glass,
And Parnell
loved his country
And Parnell
loved his lass.

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