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Charles Stewart Parnell

This document was written by Stephen Tonge. I am most grateful to have his kind permission to include it on the web site.

Main Events: Summary

See also this page

1846 Born Wicklow
1875 Elected as an MP for Meath
1876 Joined the Obstructionists
1877 Elected leader of the Home Rule Confederation of Great Britain
1879 Land League founded with Parnell as president
1880 Became leader of the Home Rule Party
Met Catherine O'Shea
1881 Gladstone's Second Land Act
Imprisoned in Kilmainham Jail
1882 Kilmainham Treaty agreed that ended the land War
Phoenix Park murders
National League founded
1884 Reform Bill trebled the Irish electorate
1885 Home Rule Party won 85 seats
Gladstone announced conversion to Home Rule
1886 Liberal party split on Home Rule Bill and the Bill is defeated.
Opposed the Plan of Campaign
1889 Cleared by the Times Commission
1890 O'Shea divorce case.
Gladstone opposed Parnell's continued leadership of the party.
Party split into two factions
1891 Lost a number of by-elections
Married Catherine O'Shea
Died in Brighton in October

The three main phases of his career:

Rise to Political Prominence

The Uncrowned King of Ireland
Land War
The Kilmainham Treaty / Phoenix Park murders
The National League
The 1885 election
The First Home Rule Bill
Liberal Alliance
Times Commission
Plan of Campaign
O'Shea divorce case
Split in the party

Quotes about Parnell:

"My dear boy, we have got a splendid recruit, an historic name, my friend, young Parnell of Wicklow and unless I am mistaken, the Saxon will find him an ugly customer, though he is very good looking" [ Isaac Butt on Parnell]

"An Englishman of the strongest type moulded for an Irish purpose" [Michael Davitt on Parnell]

"His business address was Kill Sassenach, Ballyslaughter, Ireland; but his tastes were in the little villa at Eltham, Kent." [ F.H O'Donnell (Home Rule MP)]

Part 1: Rise to Political Prominence (1875-1882) [back]

Early Life

Parnell was born in 1846. He was the son of a landlord from Avondale, Rathdrum, Co. Wicklow. His great grandfather Sir John Parnell had opposed the Union and his father (who died when Parnell was 13) and grandfather were generous landlords. His mother was the daughter of an American admiral who had fought against the British in the war of 1812. Parnell was to exploit his family's patriotic record when he entered politics.

As a child he was noted for his iron will and single minded determination, qualities that he was later to bring to his political career. He attended school in England where he developed an interest in science that was to remain with him for the rest of his life. He went to Cambridge University where he was suspended after a drunken row (he assaulted a local manure merchant). Many historians that it was at University that he developed his dislike of the English.

After Cambridge he settled into the life of an Irish country gentleman. He was a talented cricket player and grouse-shooter. He was also a keen gold prospector on his estate. Records also show that he was an extremely kind landlord to his tenants and this meant that he built up large debts. These debts may have convinced him that the Land system was not sustainable and needed reform. The years in England left its mark. He was proud and arrogant and spoke with an English accent.

His first involvement in politics was to support his brother's unsuccessful attempt to become MP for Wicklow in 1874. Parnell then failed to get elected for a seat in Dublin in the same year.


In 1875 he entered parliament as MP for Co. Meath. During the election great emphasis was placed on the family's patriotic record.

At first he was a very poor public speaker with a stammer. He was also intensely superstitious. He hated the number 13 and loathed the colour green. This was an unfortunate hatred for a nationalist leader. He made little contribution to parliamentary debate preferring to watch and bide his time.

In 1876 he made his first significant political move in the Commons when he interrupted the Chief Secretary and defended the Manchester Martyrs. He said, "I do not believe, and never shall believe, that any murder was committed at Manchester."

In 1877 Parnell became frustrated with Butt's style of leadership and joined with the "Obstructionists" in Parliament. This was in opposition to the timid tactics of Butt and the majority of Home Rule MPs. The small group of MPs delayed all manner of legislation by long and boring speeches. On one occasion they kept the House sitting for 45 hours. Butt condemned these actions but they were very popular in Ireland. Parnell was conscious of his actions in parliament on the masses in Ireland.

The New Departure

Parnell was also very popular among Irish emigrants in Britain where he gave many speeches. He was elected leader of the Fenian controlled, Home Rule Confederation of Great Britain. Throughout his rise to prominence Parnell had impressed many Fenians including Michael Davitt (released on parole in 1877) and John Devoy, in the United States.

After a series of meetings, Devoy proposed the New Departure. Under this proposal the Fenians would co-operate with Parnell and his supporters for Home Rule and Land Reform. This agreement would guarantee the support of Irish Americans. Parnell refused to commit himself to an alliance with revolutionary nationalism but he realised its usefulness in furthering his career.

After Butt's death the cautious majority of Home Rule MPs had elected William Shaw to replace him. Parnell's bid for leadership would need more support in Ireland. He knew he needed to be associated with a popular movement there. Events were soon to present this opportunity.

The Land League

In 1879 exceptionally wet weather and crop failures in the winter of 1878-9 threatened the rural population of the West of Ireland with the worst economic disaster since the Great Famine. Throughout the rest of the country falling prices affected all classes; large farmers, poor farmers, shopkeepers etc. Many farmers faced the threat of eviction.

Unlike during the famine, the mass of peasantry were not prepared to passively accept their fate. The first successful meeting of tenants was organised at Irishtown in Co. Mayo. They forced the local landlord, Canon Burke to reduce his rents by 25%.

Michael Davitt was shocked by conditions in his native Mayo and helped to organise tenant action in order to get rents reduced. He saw the potential of combining the agitation for land reform and the nationalist movement. Encouraged by Davitt, Parnell made a speech at Westport in June supporting the tenants.

The Land League of Mayo was founded in August and the Irish National Land League in October. Parnell was elected president of Land League. Parnell realised the importance of gaining the support of tenant farmers if he was to become leader of the Home Rule party.

The Land War

The aims of the Land League were to reduce rents in the short term and in the long term to see tenants own their own land. Tenants would put pressure on their landlord to reduce rents. Tenants who were evicted were given financial support. Its tactics involved peaceful protest and passive resistance to eviction. The league used publicity and propaganda to draw attention to the cause in Britain and elsewhere. However Parnell's solution to the land question was different from many of his supporters. He hoped to see a socially stable partnership between reformed landlords and the tenant.

Parnell in America

Money was needed badly for famine relief and to help the new movement. Parnell agreed to go to America to fund-raise. His visit was a great success especially among moderate Irish Americans who were suspicious of the Fenian-dominated Irish American organisations. He raised £72,000 and this money along with other aid helped to alleviate the threat of famine in the West. In two months he visited sixty-two cities and spoke to the House of Representatives.

In 1880, the calling of a general election for April saw Parnell return to Ireland. In Britain the election saw a victory for Gladstone and the Liberals. Parnell was elected for three seats, in Cork, Mayo and Meath. Parnell's supporters performed very well in Connaught where the Land League was strongest.

In May, Parnell was elected leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party by 23 votes to 18. During the summer, as conditions improved, the League went into decline but its fortunes were transformed when the House of Lords rejected a moderate measure of land reform. The movement was transformed into a national movement as it spread into Munster and Leinster.


It was at the same time that Parnell began his fateful relationship with Katherine O'Shea. She and her husband William had been living apart since 1875. It seems to have been love at first sight. In later years William denied knowledge of his wife's affair but this seems highly unlikely. He and Parnell nearly fought a duel in 1881 and in 1882 Parnell had a cricket pitch laid out at Eltham, the O'Shea's home. Paul Bew argues that "Captain O'Shea calculated that Parnell's relationship with his wife might result in some political advancement for himself."

In 1886 Parnell forced the party to accept O'Shea as a candidate for Galway city over the opposition of many in the party. Joseph Biggar commented "the candidate's wife is Parnell's mistress and there is nothing more to be said." O'Shea later voted against the Home Rule Bill and resigned his seat.

Parnell and Katherine had three children.

The Boycott

As the movement spread, crime increased especially in the West. Parnell was very worried about this violence and hoped that the Land League could deflect tenants away from the traditional violence associated with land agitation. He advocated a policy of "moral force" where tenants were to deny all social or commercial contact with anyone who was believed to oppose the aims of the League.

Speaking at Ennis he outlined this policy:

When a man takes a farm from which another had 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 in the fair green and in the marketplace, and even in the place of worship, by leaving him alone, by putting him in a moral Coventry, by isolating him from the rest of his country as if he were the leper of old, you must show your detestation of the crime he has committed.

Harsh landlords, their agents or farmers who took the farm of evicted tenants were to be included in this policy. This "moral force" became the main weapon of the league. It soon acquired the name "the Boycott" after its most famous victim, Captain Boycott.


Captain Boycott was a former British army officer who was appointed agent for the Lough Mask estate near Ballinrobe of the absentee landlord Lord Erne. Erne kept increasing rents and soon eviction notices were served on eleven families. In 1880, the Land League organised a campaign against Boycott. He discovered he could not hire anyone to work for him, no shop would supply Lough Mask house with food and the servants left, blacksmiths refused to shoe Boycott's horse and the crops were rotting in the fields.

Orange lodges from Cavan and Monaghan sent men to help harvest his crops but the cost was prohibitive and he was forced to leave Ireland. James Redpath, an American journalist who reported on the campaign, coined a new word for the English language ¨C boycott.

The Government responds

Parnell led a movement which was a coalition of many different groups in Irish society.

The Land League

Wanted Three F's
Hoped to see transfer of land from Landlords or saw Land League as part of struggle for independence.
The Catholic Church
Large Tenant Farmers
Majority of Home Rule MPs
Poorer farmers
Radical MPs e.g. John Dillon
Michael Davitt and the Fenians
Irish American Organisations
Powerful and wealthy groups who could vote
Support of these groups had been crucial for Parnell's success

He managed to be all things to all men. The larger farmers were reassured by the fact that he was a landlord while smaller farmers were impressed by his concern for their views.

As the movement spread, the government acted and had Parnell and other leaders prosecuted for conspiring to stop the payment of rents. The jury would not convict them and it became clear that internment was necessary to break the movement.

In February 1881 the government introduced a coercion bill, the Protection of Persons and Property Bill , to do just that. The effect of this legislation was to unify the Home Rule party behind Parnell. Michael Davitt was one of the first to be arrested when the Bill was passed and in the ensuing uproar Parnell and thirty five other Irish members were expelled from the house.

The Second Land Act

There was talk of leaving parliament of pushing for an all out no rent campaign but Parnell urged caution and this route was not followed.

The country was becoming ungovernable as agrarian crime rose dramatically from an average of 200 incidents a year to 2,583 in 1880. This crime varied from sending threatening letters to shooting at landlords or their agents.

Gladstone was concerned about unfolding events in Ireland and he realised reform was necessary and could help to split the land movement. In April his Second Land Act was introduced. He legalised the three Fs and set up a Land Court to set rents for fifteen years.

Parnell's Dilemma

The legislation had the intended result. Parnell was faced with a political dilemma: the movement was split on Gladstone's measure. If he did not wind down the campaign, he risked losing his moderate supporters and the Catholic Church, if he did he would have annoyed much of Irish America and the smaller farmers and his more radical supporters.

Parnell did not commit himself either way though privately he conceded that Gladstone had done enough. He was expelled from parliament before the vote on the Act was taken. It was announced that the Act would be tested while at the same time he made a series of violent speeches attacking Gladstone.


Gladstone's patience gave out and on 13 October Parnell was arrested and lodged in Kilmainham jail. As Parnell noted in a letter to Catherine O'Shea, "Politically it is a fortunate thing for me that I have been arrested as the movement is breaking fast".

Parnell and the other leaders issued a "No Rent Manifesto" from prison a step which took the land league close to open rebellion. As a result ¨C and as Parnell probably hoped ¨C the government banned the Land League.

Parnell predicted when he was arrested that "Captain Moonlight" (secret societies) would take his place. He was proved right. In the absence of an organised political organisation in Ireland, these secret societies flourished and agrarian crime increased dramatically.

The Search for a Compromise

The harsh crackdown had failed and the Chief Secretary's, WE Forster, policies were discredited. The government decided to seek and understanding with Parnell. Captain O'Shea seeking personal advantage established himself and an intermediary between Parnell and the government.

Parnell had a further pressing reason for wanting to get out of Jail, his first daughter with Kitty O'Shea had died and he wanted to be with the grieving mother. As a result of the negotiations the government agreed:

Parnell for his part agreed:

The Phoenix Park Murders

A few days after the release of Parnell an event occurred that shocked opinion in both Britain and Ireland. Forster opposed the Kilmainham Treaty and resigned. His replacement, Lord Frederick Cavendish, and the Under-Secretary Thomas Burke were murdered in the Phoenix Park by a secret organisation called the Invincibles. The government introduced a new coercion bill and Parnell considered retiring from politics but changed his mind on advice from Gladstone.

Parnell benefited politically from the crisis surrounding the murder. The reintroduction of coercion reunited his movement and reduced criticism of the Kilmainham Treaty. The murder discredited the Fenians, many of whom left and joined the Home Rule movement. Parnell's position was now stronger.

The National League

Parnell now adopted a more conservative approach. He wanted to channel the feeling stirred up during the Land War into the National issue. He refused to revive the Land League (and much to the annoyance of his sister, Anna he also dissolved the Ladies Land League) which he had never totally controlled. He replaced it with the National league that had Home Rule as its main aim.

Part 2: The Uncrowned King of Ireland [back]

The role of the National League

Parnell believed that the key to future success was a disciplined and united party under his control. At the time he could only rely on the support of 30 of the 61 Home Rule MPs.

The task of the new organisation was electoral organisation in the constituencies with the aim of getting candidates elected who were loyal to Parnell . The National League set up branches to organise the party at local level. By July 1885 there were over 1,200 of them although they were least numerous in the North East.

The League deployed local officials to endorse prospective candidates and encourage the idea of party discipline. The work was carried out largely at county conventions representing local feeling but the personal role of Parnell in selection was felt strongly. Local Catholic clergy played a prominent role in the selection process. MPs had to take a pledge to act and vote as instructed when elected to parliament.

The Chief

Parnell created the first modern political party in the British Isles. He was now called "the Chief". The success of the new tactics was shown in by-elections between 1882 and 1885 where candidates supporting Parnell were elected in fifteen of the sixteen held.

The Home Rule MPs regarded Parnell with awe and respect and something approaching fear. Parnell left much of the day to day running of the party to a number of talented MPs. These included Timothy Harrington the General Secretary of the League, William O'Brien, Tim Healy and John Dillon.

The Central Board Scheme

Leading Liberals such as Joseph Chamberlain hoped to satisfy the demand for Irish self-government short of Home Rule. He proposed a Central Board Scheme. He argued for the reform of Local government in Ireland and for the creation of a central board that would be chosen by the new elected councils. This board would have powers over issues such as education.

Captain O'Shea acted as a go between and led Chamberlain to believe that Parnell accepted Chamberlain's proposals as a final settlement of the Home Rule issue. When Parnell made it clear that he did not accept them, Chamberlain became a bitter political enemy of Parnell's.

The 1884 Reform Bill

In 1884 the British government extended the franchise and gave the vote to agricultural labourers for the first time. It more than trebled the electorate in Ireland from 220,000 to 730,000 men. The new voters were more likely to vote for the Home Rule party and the possibility of 80 Home Rule MPs for Ireland became a probability.

The Conservative politician Lord Randolph Churchill made a number of overtures to Parnell including a promise not to renew coercion. The Home Rule party voted with the conservatives and the Liberal government fell from office.

Parnell and the Conservatives

A caretaker Conservative government led by Lord Salisbury came to power until elections were held. A number of measures calculated to gain Home Rule support were initiated:

During the election campaign Parnell was in a powerful position. While Gladstone refused to negotiate with Parnell, the Conservatives seemed more promising. However Parnell was being misled as the Conservative leadership were keeping Parnell sympathetic in order to gain electoral advantage.

On the eve of the election Parnell called on the Irish in Britain (estimated at between 750,000 and 2 million) to vote for the Conservatives. He hoped that neither party though would get an overall majority and that they would have to rely on the Home Rule Party to get into power.

The 1885 Election

The November election was a resounding success for the Home Rule party that won 85 seats (and 1 for Liverpool). It captured every seat in Munster, Leinster (except Trinity College) and Connaught and a majority of the seats in Ulster (17-16).

The result in Britain left the Liberals with 335 seats and the conservatives with 249 (a gap of 86). Parnell was of no use to the Conservatives who announced that they were going to reintroduce coercion. In January the Liberals under Gladstone came to power with Home Rule party support.

The Hawarden Kite

Meanwhile an event had occurred that would have seemed inconceivable only a few years previously. In December Gladstone's son, Herbert announced that his father now supported Home Rule. This event became known as the Hawarden Kite after Gladstone's family home where it was announced.

Gladstone had been impressed by the large majority in Ireland in favour of Home Rule. The announcement split the Liberal party as the Radical and Whig wings left the party as they opposed Home Rule.

Divisions in the Liberals
Radicals led by Joseph Chamberlain
Opposed to Home Rule
Left the party to form the Liberal Unionists
Majority who were supporters of Gladstone Whigs led by Lord Hartington
Opposed to Home Rule
Left the party to form the Liberal Unionists

Opposition to the Home Rule Bill

When the Bill was introduced into parliament in April, it aroused strong passions. It contained a limited measure of self government for Ireland but with no role for the Irish parliament in Imperial matters: Crown, defence and foreign affairs.

A large number of other powers including customs duties, coinage and the police (temporarily) were also reserved for the Westminster parliament. No Irish MPs were to attend Westminster. Even this limited form of self-government was opposed strongly in both Britain and Ireland. There were riots in Belfast and the newly formed Irish Unionist party led by Col. EJ Saunderson led the opposition. They feared domination by the Catholic majority. This fear was summed up in the phrase "Home Rule is Rome Rule."

British Unionists

The measure was also unpopular in Britain where it was opposed by the Conservatives and the Radical and Whig wings of the liberal party. Lord Randolph Churchill, sensing a political opportunity for the Conservatives to return to power, played the "Orange Card". He went to Belfast where he declared in a speech "Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right".

Many in Britain opposed Home Rule as they felt that it would weaken the empire and loyal Protestants would be deserted. Some felt that the Irish were not fit for self government and pointed to violence of the Land War and the Phoenix Park Murders (Lord Hartington's brother was Lord Frederick Cavendish).

The Defeat of the Bill

When a vote was taken on the Bill, due to Liberal defections, the measure was defeated by 341 votes to 311. Gladstone called a new election and fought on the single issue of Home Rule. While the election changed little in Ireland, the voters in Britain delivered its verdict ¨C a resounding "No!"

The Conservatives and their Liberal Unionist allies won 394 seats to the Liberals' 191. Lord Salisbury became PM. The issue had united the Conservative party and their hold on power was now secure. Parnell had won a commitment from the Liberals in favour of Home Rule but at the price of complete dependence on the Liberals, the tactic of independent opposition was now dead. As Paul Bew noted "Home Rule could only be obtained from the Liberals and as a consequence the Liberal alliance was essential to Irish party."

The Plan of Campaign

Parnell spent most of the next years in England, living with Katherine. His health was poor and many who saw him at the time were shocked by his appearance. He probably had Bright's disease (a kidney disorder). He worked to preserve the Liberal alliance and disapproved of actions that would endanger this alliance. One such action was the start of a new land campaign in the autumn of 1886, the Plan of Campaign.

Gladstone had proposed a large land purchase scheme with his Home Rule Bill. When the bill failed, the proposed Land Act was also dropped. Conditions for farmers remained bad with prices falling. The period of rent set by the Land Court of fifteen years was too long and in many cases the rent set in 1882 was too high in 1886. The new campaign was organised by Parnell's lieutenants, Timothy Harrington, William O'Brien and John Dillon.

The strategy for the new campaign was for tenants on an estate to go to their landlord and demand a rent reduction. If the landlord refused they would pay him no rent but pay the rent into an estate fund that would be used to help tenants that were evicted. The National League guaranteed that it would help tenants who got into financial difficulties.

Parnell's opposition

Parnell opposed the plan and had it limited to the estates where it was already in operation (116 in total). He objected to the plan on the grounds of financial costs (the new Chief Secretary Arthur Balfour recognised this flaw and nearly bankrupted the National League).

Parnell also feared that a new land war would place a strain on the Liberal alliance. Ironically he was wrong: the scenes of eviction and events such as the Mitchelstown Massacre increased popular sympathy in Britain for Irish tenants. As far as Parnell was concerned the political objective of Home Rule was far more important than any new land struggle. His opposition to the plan annoyed Dillon and O'Brien who turned against Parnell at the time of the split in the party in 1890.

The Times Commission

In 1887 the anti-Nationalist paper, The Times published a series of articles entitled "Parnellism and Crime". The articles included a series of letters alleging that Parnell had known of and approved of the Phoenix Park murders. Parnell immediately dismissed the letters as forgeries. The Conservative government, eager to discredit Parnell and the Nationalist movement, set up a Special Commission to investigate the letters and the allegations.

For two years the Commission carried out what was effectively a trial of nationalism and the Land League but the climax of the commission came when under cross-examination a journalist Richard Piggott was proved to have forged the letters. Piggott fled to Spain where he committed suicide when he was arrested.

Note This was the letter that exposed Piggott as the forger:

Dear E

What are these people waiting for? This inaction is inexcusable. Our best men are in prison and nothing is been done. Let there be an end to this hesitency. You undertook to make it hot for old Forster and Co. Let us have some evidence of your power to do so. My health is good, thanks.

Yours very truly
Chas. S. Parnell

Under a brilliant cross-examination Parnell's lawyer Charles Russell handed Piggott a piece of paper and asked him to write a number of words dictated by Russell. As an afterthought he was asked to write the word hesitancy. Piggott spelt the word incorrectly and was exposed as the forger.

Parnell ¨C at the height of his power

Parnell now enjoyed increased power and prestige. His position in Ireland seemed unassailable. His political enemies had been discredited. He received a standing ovation from Liberal MPs when he returned to the House of Commons. In December 1889 he was invited to Hawarden. Here Gladstone and Parnell discussed the outlines of a new Home Rule Bill. Public opinion in Britain was also moving in favour of the Liberals with a string of by-election victories.

However as Paul Bew writes "such unparalleled dominance was not to last long." On Christmas Eve 1889, Captain William O'Shea filed for divorce naming Parnell as co-respondent (the guilty party).

Part 3: Fall from Power [back]

"It was therefore Captain O'Shea and the divorce case which brought down Parnell" [Paul Bew]

Parnell and the divorce case

The case attracted little attention before it came to court. Gladstone and most leading politicians had known about the affair for years. It was expected that Parnell would be able to defend himself or that it was another Liberal-Unionist plot to discredit Parnell.

The divorce case came to court in November 1890. To general surprise Parnell did not contest the allegations and this allowed O'Shea to give his side of the story unchallenged. This was a major tactical error. Parnell's motives are unclear. Maybe he felt morally married to Katherine already or that his private life was no one else's business. He also felt that he had followed a gentleman's code of honour and that Captain O'Shea had not been deceived. In any case both wanted to marry as quickly as possible especially as they had two children.

Note: Why did O'Shea divorce his wife in 1890?

It was clear that O'Shea knew what was going on although he denied it during the divorce case. It is likely that money was the motivating factor. Katherine had a very old aunt in her nineties who was expected to leave a large sum of money to her niece. O'Shea expected to be bought off from this money. He wanted £20,000.

When her aunt did eventually die in 1889 she left her money to Katherine but in such a way that O'Shea wasn't legally entitled to any of it. He contested the will along with Katherine's brothers and sisters. A divorce case where Katherine was proved an adulteress would strengthen their case. She settled with her family on the will and was then later embezzled by her solicitor and died in relative poverty in 1921.

The reaction in Britain

The sordid details of deception had a very damaging effect on British public opinion where many people were shocked when Parnell was revealed as an adulterer. Pressure now came from the influential Non-conformist wing (Protestants who were not members of the Church of England) of the Liberal party. They called on Gladstone to cut his links with the adulterer. Gladstone became convinced that the Liberals had no chance of winning the next election unless he distanced himself from the discredited leader.

Gladstone acts

The annual election of the leader of the Home Rule party was due in November. Gladstone conveyed his feelings about Parnell privately to Justin McCarthy, the vice-chairman of the party. Parnell refused to step down (even temporally) and McCarthy did not tell other party members about Gladstone's concerns.

Parnell was duly elected leader unopposed. Many MPs hoped that Parnell would retire with honour after the vote. He refused to resign and instead called for party unity. Gladstone now publicly expressed his concerns and the issue was now in the open. Put simply it was either Home Rule or Parnell. Without Gladstone's support Home Rule was not a possibility. On the other hand many felt, should the Irish Party be dictated to by a British politician?

A Grave Political Misjudgment

Thirty-one MPs called for a special meeting of the party for 1 December. Before the meeting Parnell published a manifesto titled "To the People of Ireland". He attacked the Liberal alliance and claimed that a portion of the party was too dependent on the Liberals. He revealed details of the Home Rule negotiations with Gladstone the previous year.

The manifesto struck a chord with some in the party but ended any possibility of an understanding with Gladstone. Parnell seemed to have lost his political judgemental. Five leading MPs including, William O'Brien and John Dillon, and two Catholic archbishops (Walsh and Croke) called on the party to change the leader.

Committee Room 15

On 1 December the party met in Committee Room 15 of the House of Commons. Parnell's supporters argued against Liberal interference and the importance of independent opposition. His enemies argued that the cause of Home Rule was more important that any individual and that Parnell's leadership endangered it.

Parnell used his position as chairman to prevent a vote. Frustrated 45 MPs led Justin McCarthy left the room leaving Parnell with 27 loyal supporters. It would take another 10 years before the spilt was healed.

The battle in Ireland

On returning to Ireland Parnell received a hero's welcome in Dublin. A by-election in Kilkenny was marred by political insults and violence. Parnell's candidate was defeated by a margin of two to one.

In France (Boulogne) attempts at mediation by O'Brien and Dillon failed. Parnell refused to resign until the scandal blew over. He probably felt that if he retired it would be impossible to return to the leadership.
Two more by-elections followed in April (North Sligo) and July (Carlow). In both Parnell's candidates were defeated. Meanwhile on 25 June in a registry office in England he married Katherine O'Shea.


The viciousness of the political struggle weakened Parnell and his health deteriorated visibly (much to the delight of some anti-Parnellites). On 27 September he was soaked at a meeting at Creggs in Co Roscommon He returned to Brighton where he died in the arms of Katherine O'Shea on 6 October. His body was taken to Dublin where 150,000 people attended his funeral.

His fall from power was to inspire great sympathy among later generations and he became a tragic hero. As FSL Lyons wrote ,

The idea of the lonely, heroic figure, deserted by his party, fighting to the end against overwhelming odds, had a nobility which made an irresistible appeal to thoseˇ­like Yeats, whose piety and indignation were stirred by the spectacle of greatness overthrown by mediocrity.

Assessment: Strengths and Weaknesses

Parnell possessed enormous political skills and abilities but also weaknesses.

His main achievements were in the field of practical politics and these included:

Here are excerpts from three of Parnell's speeches where he discussed the nature of Irish independence. The first one is to an American audience, the second to an Irish one and the third was given to the House of Commons.

  1. When we have undermined English misgovernment, we have paved the way for Ireland to take her place among the nations of the earth. And let us not forget that is the ultimate goal at which all we Irishmen aimˇ­None of us whether we are in America or Ireland, or wherever we may be, will be satisfied until we have destroyed the last link which keeps Ireland bound to England.
  2. No man has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation. No man has the right to say to his country: thus far shall thou go and no further. We have never attempted to fix the "ne plus ultra" to the progress of Ireland's nationhood and we never shall.
  3. We look upon the provisions of this bill as a final settlement of the "Irish Question" and I believe the Irish people have accepted it as a settlement.

However there were a number of weaknesses in both his political successes and his own leadership:

Until the divorce case he managed to hold together a complex coalition of Irish society against attacks from all sides and gave Irishmen a sense of their own worth.

His goal of domestic self-government as a solution to the Irish Question may never have been achieved, but he ensured that the desire for self-government was a political reality with which British governments would continue to have to deal.

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