The height of the Land War (1879-1882) saw the founding of the Ladies Land League. The League was the forerunner for other organisations such as Inghinidhe na hÉireann and Cumann na mBan. Anna Parnell, one of the Anglo-Irish protestant elite, was their leader. Anna’s League was not just for fund-raising or a stand-in until the men of the Land League returned from prison. It was Anna who showed women how to fight for what they believed in. Both the Men’s and the Ladies Land League supported withholding rent from landlords and boycotting, but more importantly the ladies helped support evicted tenants and oversaw the building of new shelters.
The Ladies’ Land League set about its appointed task of processing applications, supplying money for relief purposes and distributing literature. Finding the Land League records to be deplorably kept, the women compiled their own ‘Book of Kells’, with detailed information on every Irish estate, described by Michael Davitt as ‘the most perfect system that can be imagined.’ In spite of the male executive’s ambivalence and criticism from some Catholic church leaders and many newspapers, numbers grew rapidly, with more than five hundred branches of the Ladies’ Land League throughout Ireland by the beginning of 1882. Members included the poet Katherine Tynan and eighteen-year old Jennie O’Toole from Baltinglass, who as Jennie Wyse Power would play a leading part in the nationalist movement and in the early years of the Irish Free State.
In October 1881, Charles Stewart Parnell was arrested together with most of the leaders of the Land League, and in retaliation issued the No Rent manifesto. The Ladies, who had not been consulted about this move, were faced with the prospect of trying to enforce a policy which had little chance of success, but they soldiered on, assisting evicted tenants and their families, organising the provision of huts in which they could be housed, and providing for growing numbers of male prisoners and their dependents. In December the Ladies’ Land League was also suppressed and a number of their members were arrested and imprisoned, but the ban failed to end their activities: indeed, as the nationalist United Ireland pointed out, while the men of the Land League had ‘melted away and vanished the moment Mr Forster’s policemen shook their batons’, the women ‘met persecution by extending their organisation and doubling their activity and triumphing.’
As the campaign dragged on, relations between the Ladies and the Land League worsened. With evictions giving rise to widespread agrarian violence, Charles Stewart Parnell’s need to reach a resolution with William Gladstone became more pressing, and in April 1882 he and the other leaders were released from gaol as part of an agreement to end the agitation. Shortly afterwards the Ladies’ Land League, disillusioned by the outcome of the campaign, expressed its wish to disband, and after prolonged wrangling succeeded in doing so. The gulf between the Land League and the Ladies was epitomised by the estrangement between Anna and her brother which lasted until his death ten years later. According to his wife, Parnell regretted the breach, and tried unsuccessfully on a number of occasions to repair it, but Anna ignored his letters and refused to acknowledge him when they met accidentally. After his death, however, she did write to the Irish Times to object to the choice of Glasnevin as his burial place: his body ‘belonged to the Irish people’, she said, only if their having killed him gave them a title to it.
Her sister Fanny’s death in July 1882, combined with the stress of the campaign and its aftermath, left Anna in a state of physical and nervous collapse, from which she did not recover for several months. For the rest of her life, she lived mainly in England, sometimes under a false name and at times in considerable poverty. Although she remained in contact with former Ladies, such as Jennie Wyse Power, she played little part in nationalist politics, and the response when she did campaign for the Sinn Féin candidate in North Leitrim in 1908 persuaded her that ‘the character of Irishmen is at present incompatible with any great change for the better in Ireland.’ However, Michael Davitt’s charge, in The fall of feudalism in Ireland, that the Ladies had encouraged agrarian violence, galvanised her to produce her own account of the Land League years, The tale of a great sham. In it she argued that the Land League in fact failed in its objective by neglecting to pursue the No Rent Manifesto to its logical conclusion. She also complained about the hostility of the Land League leaders towards the Ladies throughout the campaign: regarding the women as subservient assistants rather than equal partners, they had relied on them to carry on Land League policies in their absence while seeking to reassert control over them as soon as this should become practicable. Failing to find a publisher for her work, she entrusted the manuscript to Helena Molony, editor of the nationalist woman’s paper Bean na h-Eireann. Molony, too, was unable to get the work published, and in the upheavals which followed, the parcel disappeared from view.
In 1910 Anna moved to Ilfracombe on the north Devon coast in England. On 20 September 1911, she drowned while swimming, and was buried in the churchyard there a few days later. The centenary of the Land League in 1979 passed with scarcely a mention of Anna Parnell, and it was not until the publication, in 1986 of the rediscovered Tale of a great sham that a reassessment was possible of a woman regarded by some contemporaries as the equal in ability and judgement of her celebrated brother, and without question a central figure at a pivotal moment in Irish history.