Known as the “Ireland’s Uncrowned King,” Charles Stewart Parnell was haughty and aloof yet became a stirring political leader. He died at the age of 45, after a career marked by dramatic triumphs and a disastrous personal scandal.
For someone strongly associated with the cause of Ireland’s rebellion against British rule, Charles Stewart Parnell had a highly unlikely background. The Parnell family was considered part of the Anglo-Irish gentry, people who had profited from the oppressive landlord system imposed upon Ireland by British rule. His mother was American, and held very strong anti-British views, despite having married into an Anglo-Irish family. Parnell’s parents separated, and his father died while Parnell was in his early teens.
He studied at Cambridge University and was elected to parliament in 1875 as a member of the Home Rule League (later re-named by Parnell the Irish Parliamentary Party). His abilities soon became evident. In 1878, Parnell became an active opponent of the Irish land laws, believing their reform should be the first step on the road to Home Rule.
In 1879, Parnell was elected president of the newly founded National Land League and the following year he visited the United States to gain both funds and support for land reform. In the 1880 election, he supported the Liberal leader William Gladstone, but when Gladstone’s Land Act of 1881 fell short of expectations, he joined the opposition. By now he had become the accepted leader of the Irish nationalist movement.
Parnell now encouraged boycott as a means of influencing landlords and land agents, and as a result he was sent to jail and the Land League was suppressed. From Kilmainham prison he called on Irish peasants to stop paying rent. In March 1882, he negotiated an agreement with Gladstone – the Kilmainham Treaty – in which he urged his followers to avoid violence. But this peaceful policy was severely challenged by the murder in May 1882 of two senior British officials in Phoenix Park in Dublin by members of an Irish terrorist group. Parnell condemned the murders.
In 1886, Parnell joined with the Liberals to defeat Lord Salisbury’s Conservative government. Gladstone became prime minister and introduced the first Irish Home Rule Bill. Parnell believed it was flawed but said he was prepared to vote for it. The Bill split the Liberal Party and was defeated in the House of Commons. Gladstone’s government fell soon afterwards.
In April 1887, the Times published a reproduction of a letter, allegedly bearing Parnell’s signature, that excused the Phoenix Park murders. Proof that the letter was a forgery transformed Parnell into a hero in the eyes of English liberals and he received a standing ovation in the House of Commons. It was the peak of his career.
It was a short-lived resurgence. In December 1889, William O’Shea, formerly one of Parnell’s most loyal supporters, filed for divorce from his wife Katherine on the grounds of her adultery with Parnell. Kitty had in fact been Parnell’s mistress for some years and Parnell was the father of three of her children. The scandal provoked a split in the party and Parnell was replaced as leader.
When his principal ally, the Nationalist Freeman’s Journal, fell to his enemies shortly after his marriage, his cause was clearly lost. He died at his wife’s home in Brighton in October 1891 and was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin. The city, Parnellite to the end, gave him a magnificent funeral.
Photo: Charles Stewart Parnell Memorial at the junction of O’Connell Street and Parnell Street, Dublin