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Charles Stewart Parnell

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Charles Stewart Parnell (June 27 1846 - October 6 1891) was an Irish political leader and one of the most important figures in nineteenth century Ireland and the United Kingdom. William Ewart Gladstone thought him the most remarkable person he had ever met. A future Liberal prime minister, Herbert Asquith described him as one of the three of four greatest men of the nineteenth century, while Lord Haldane described him as the strongest man the British House of Commons had seen in one hundred and fifty years.

Family Background

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Charles Stewart Parnell
The 'uncrowned King of Ireland'
Charles Stewart Parnell1 was born in County Wicklow, of gentry stock. He was the third son and seventh child of John Henry Parnell, a wealthy Anglo-Irish landowner, and his American wife Delia Stewart, daughter of the famous American naval hero, Commodore Charles Stewart (the stepson of one of George Washington's bodyguards). Commodore Stewart's mother, Parnell's grandmother, belonged to the Tudor family and so could claim a distant relationship with the British Royal Family. John Henry Parnell himself was a cousin of one of Ireland's leading aristocrats, Lord Powerscourt. Thus from birth Charles Stewart Parnell possessed an extraordinary number of links with a whole variety of elements of society; from the established Church of Ireland to which he belonged (and most of whose members were unionists) and the aristocracy through his cousins, the Powerscourts, to the American War of Independence and the War of 1812 (where his father-in-law had been awarded a gold medal by the United States Congress for gallantry) right to a distant link with the Royal Family. Yet it was as a leader of Irish nationalism that Parnell established his fame.

The young Parnell studied at Magdalene College, Cambridge and in 1874 became high sheriff of his home county of Wicklow. The following year he entered parliament as member for County Meath, supporting the Home Rule party.

Leader

Parnell, though a surprisingly poor speaker in the House of Commons, showed himself to be a skilled organiser. By 1880 he had replaced Isaac Butt and William Shaw as chairman of the Irish Parliamentary Party, formerly known as the Home Rule League.

Under his leadership, the Irish Parliamentary Party became perhaps the first professionally organised political party anywhere in Britain and Ireland. Professional selection of candidates took place, with party MPs (who previously had been notorious for their lack of unity) whipped to vote as a block. Parnell's unified Irish block came to dominate British politics, making and unmaking Liberal and Conservative governments in the mid 1880s as it fought for home rule (internal self government within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland) for Ireland. In the mid 1880s, Liberal Party leader William Ewart Gladstone committed his party to support for the cause of Irish Home Rule, introducing the First Home Rule Bill in 1886. However the measure failed to pass the British House of Commons, following a split between pro- and anti-home rulers within the Liberal Party.

Though home rule was a central demand of the Irish Parliamentary Party, it also campaigned for Irish land reform. In its campaign, some of its members worked closely with a radical agitation organisation known as the Irish Land League. These associations led various members, including John Dillon, Tim Healy, William O'Brien and Parnell himself to serve periods in prison. The agitation led to the passing of a series of Land Acts that over three decades changed the face of Irish land ownership, replacing large Anglo-Irish estates by tenant ownership.

The Piggott Forgeries

In March 1887, Parnell found himself accused by the British newspaper The Times of support for the murderers of the Chief Secretary for Ireland Lord Frederick Cavendish, and the Permanent Under Secretary for Ireland, T.H. Burke. Burke and Cavenish had been brutally stabbed to death on May 6 1882 in the Phoenix Park in Dublin. Letters were published which suggested Parnell was complicit in the murders. However a Commission of Enquiry, set up to destroy Parnell, vindicated him, as did a libel action instituted by him, when it was revealed in February 1890 that the letters were in fact a fabrication created by Richard Piggott, an anti-Parnell journalist who promply committed suicide. They have gone down in history as the Piggott Forgeries. (See Phoenix Park Murders)

Mrs. O'Shea

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Parnell's Grave
in the predominantly Roman Catholic Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin, alongside
Eamon de Valera, Michael Collins and Daniel O'Connell.
Parnell was viewed as an Irish national hero, referred to as the Uncrowned King of Ireland, a term originally coined to describe Daniel O'Connell. However Parnell's triumph was shortlived, when it was 'revealed' (though it was widely known among politicians at Westminster) that Parnell had been the longterm lover, and father of some of the children of, Catherine O'Shea (generally referred to as Kitty O'Shea) the wife of a fellow MP, Captain Willie O'Shea, who had initiated divorce proceedings having failed to secure a large inheritance due to his wife. Under pressure from the religious wing of the Liberal Party, Gladstone reluctantly indicated that he could not support the Irish Parliamentary party as long as Charles Stewart Parnell remained its leader.

Parnell refused to resign, leading to a wholescale party split between Parnellites and Anti-Parnellites. When at a party meeting, he challenged Gladstone's intervention with the question, "Who is the leader of the party?" a notoriously waspish MP, Tim Healy responded with the legendary "Who is the mistress of the party?" putdown.

See also: Diocese of Meath

Death

Parnell was deposed as leader and fought a long and bitter campaign for re-instatement. He and Catherine married following her divorce, only for him to die suddenly in their home in Brighton, his health destroyed by the pressures of political campaigning. Though an Anglican, he was buried in Dublin's largest Roman Catholic cemetery, Glasnevin. Such was his reputation that his gravestone carries just one word in large lettering, PARNELL.

Notes

1 Most contemporaries pronounced his name as par-nell with the emphasis on the latter part of the name. He himself disapproved of this pronunciation, pronouncing his name par-nell, with the emphasis on the start of the name.

Additional Reading