Who Was Charles Stewart Parnell?

This article will describe the life of Charles Stewart Parnell and the influence that this man had on Irish history, Irish literature and how he met his downfall.

Called the 'uncrowned King of Ireland' Charles Stewart Parnell is remembered by the Irish as a fighter for freedom, as an unsung hero and as a victim of the British Government and of the Catholic Church. This article will describe the life of Parnell, his place in Ireland's history, his impact on subsequent literary works and the ideals that he championed.

Born on the 27th June 1846 at Avondale in County Wicklow, Ireland, Charles Stewart Parnell had both American and Anglo-Irish ancestry. From a wealthy family he was educated at private schools before graduating from Cambridge University. Elected as the MP (Member of Parliament) for Co. Meath, Ireland in 1875 he entered the House of Commons in London. Daniel O'Connell had won the right for the Irish to be represented in Parliament just before Parnell was elected.

Many of the Irish in Parliament had begun to believe that peaceful negotiations in their attempt to obtain Home Rule (or self-government) for Ireland were not working. Parnell quickly became the champion and leader of the Home Rule lobbyists despite the fact that he was a protestant who had little in common with the native Irish Catholics. He became President of the Nationalist Party in 1877 and favored disruptive and 'strong-arm' tactics.

Issac Butt, a protestant Dublin lawyer had laid the ground in Parliament before Parnell came to power. Butt had set up the Home Government Association to negotiate for Irish Home Rule. However, Parnell, along with Michael Davitt (an ex-'Fenian' - rebel Irish republican) believed that more forceful measures were required. Along with Davitt, Parnell founded the (mostly catholic) Land League, an organization that aimed to redistribute farmland back to the native Irish.

The formation of the Land League was not self-serving because Parnell was himself a wealthy landowner. The Great Famine in Ireland (1845-1850) was still fresh in Irish minds, a time when many absentee British landlords had evicted Irish tenants. The Land League decreed that landowners who had evicted tenants could now no longer invite new tenants, they developed a policy urging the Irish to boycott English goods and urged Irish farmers to refuse to rent from or work on farms owned by English landlords.

The first English victim of these policies was Captain Charles Boycott. He found that no one would work on his Irish farm nor would they buy his produce. Captain Boycott, in a desperate attempt to stay in business, recruited workers from the North of Ireland.

The British government under Prime Minister Gladstone were incensed by this turn of events and passed the Coercion Bill making it illegal for the Irish to refuse to work for or to boycott produce from English landlords. Parnell and his men attempted to postpone parliamentary work (principally using disruption techniques) and attempted to lobby English MPs to support their Home Rule Cause. His disruption tactics landed Parnell in Kilmainham jail in 1881. Chaos ensued in Ireland, which led to the Kilmainham Treaty that was drawn up in May 1882 by Gladstone and the subsequent release of the Nationalist Party's leader.

By 1882 Parnell looked certain to succeed in his quest to obtain Home Rule for Ireland. Unfortunately something happened to stop this becoming a reality. Two British officials, Lord Frederick Cavendish (the Chief Secretary of Ireland) and his Under-Secretary, T.H. Burke, were stabbed to death in Phoenix Park, Dublin. Their killers were members of a secret society known as 'The Invincibles' and were widely regarded as Irish terrorists.

The murders assisted Parnell in that he managed to persuade many Irish people to abandon the radical Irish National League and support his more moderate Home Rule Party. He also publicly condemned the murders but then a London newspaper, The Times, published a letter, which they said Parnell had written. In the letter 'Parnell' supported the murders and the paper accused him of inciting Irish terrorism. The case went to Court and the letter was declared a forgery. Despite the adverse publicity linking Parnell with violent Irish factions, he became even more popular.

In 1886, a few years after the murders, Gladstone's Home Rule Bill was defeated in the Commons but optimism that Ireland would soon obtain its freedom was still high. Disaster struck however for a second time and this would eventually lead to Parnell's downfall. His seven-year affair with a married woman, Katie O'Shea, came to light when her husband Captain William O'Shea (one of Parnell's party aides) filed for divorce in 1889 naming Parnell as the adulterer. Captain O'Shea was impotent and had known about (even given his silent consent to) the affair. The court case brought many incriminating details about Parnell to the public's attention and eventually ruined his career. It also prevented Home Rule from becoming a reality for many years in Ireland.

Parnell and Katie O'Shea married after her divorce became final but the Catholic Church in Ireland and England declared the whole affair a scandal. He was subsequently and falsely accused of a whole range of exorbitant acts including embezzling party funds to pay for his affair. His old partner, Michael Davitt, along with another Irish MP, Tim Healy, urged the Irish party to dismiss Parnell. Thus, Parnell was finally betrayed by the people he had fought so valiantly during his career to free - the Irish.

He died on October 6th 1891 in Brighton, England at the age of 45. Some say he died after a bout of rheumatic fever, others 'of exhaustion' while still others said he died of a broken heart. 150,000 people attended his funeral at Glasnevin cemetery, his casket led by a group of radical Fenian men. Many native Irish people believed that Parnell alone could have led Ireland to Independence and he is still remembered today on Ivy Day, 6th October, when supporters wear a sprig of ivy on their clothing.

The city of Dublin commemorates Parnell in two places: there is a monument on O'Connell Square (Henry Bacon was the architect and it was unveiled October 1st, 1911) and another Square, Parnell Square, was named after him. The Garden of Remembrance, a part of Parnell Square, is dedicated to all those who lost their lives during the years fighting for Irish freedom.

Redmond succeeded Parnell in Parliament as the advocate for Irish Home Rule, but Independence for Ireland was not achieved until the time of Eamonn de Valera (1931) and after thus after the Easter Uprising of 1916. Northern Ireland still remains part of the United Kingdom today.

Parnell's legacy is depicted in many literary works, and for the Irish writer, James Joyce, he was an undisputed hero. Joyce wrote about the story of Parnell in a great many of his books including: 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man', 'Ulysses' and in the essay 'The Shade of Parnell'. Principally, Joyce portrayed him as a betrayed hero, a God who was likened to Christ and to Moses. Like Moses Joyce believed Parnell had arrived at the entrance to the Promised Land (an independent Ireland) but was refused entrance. Disgusted with his countrymen's treatment of his hero, Joyce returned to worship of Parnell over and over again in his most famous literary works.

In conclusion, Charles Stewart Parnell was a fighter for Irish liberty, a spokesman for the working class and a charismatic leader. Folklore has it that, like Elvis, he is not really dead and will return one day to 'free' the island of Ireland. He is remembered in Ireland as a hero for the Cause and it is ironic that his human side ultimately caused his downfall.

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