Charles Stewart Parnell

(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: Parnell fused disparate peoples and organizations into a cohesive Irish Nationalist party for the purpose of achieving home rule for Ireland.

Early Life

Charles Stewart Parnell was born on June 27, 1846, at Avondale, the Parnell estate in County Wicklow. He was the eighth child of John Henry and Delia Stewart Parnell. His father’s family was Anglo-Irish, while his mother was of American ancestry, although not much should be made of this fact. His heritage was Protestant, but he was to become more of an unbeliever than a believer. Parnell was hardly serious about his education, even during his three and a half years at Cambridge. When he left Cambridge, he returned to Avondale, which he had inherited on his father’s death in 1859.

Parnell was a tall, athletic-looking man. He wore a beard and a mustache, but contemporaries regarded his eyes, which were a reddish-brown, as his most distinctive feature. He possessed an iron will, but was mild and gentle in personal intercourse. A brother described him as having a “courteous but frigid exterior,” and claimed that he became even more reserved as he matured. Parnell also had a nervous temperament.

Life’s Work

Parnell was first returned to the House of Commons in April, 1875, as a member for Meath. He entered Parliament as a proponent of home rule for Ireland, and it was as a member of Parliament that he was to make his name, although his maiden speech was uneventful except for the assertion that Ireland was a nation, not a geographical fragment of England. He was early recognized as one of the more advanced “home rulers” and became a supporter of Joseph Biggar’s policy of obstructing English legislation as a way to pressure England into making concessions to Ireland. The most blatant use of this procedure occurred on July 31 and August 1, 1877, when the House was kept in session continuously for forty-five hours as seven Irishmen, including Parnell, thwarted the wishes of three hundred Englishmen.

By 1879, Parnell was becoming the leader of the nationalist movement. He was president of the Home Rule Confederation of Great Britain and of the recently formed Irish National Land League but had not been chosen as Isaac Butt’s successor as leader of the Irish parliamentary party after Butt’s death. That honor had gone to an avowed moderate, William Shaw, although his tenure was short-lived. After the general election of 1880, which saw Parnell begin to assert his authority over the party and to emerge from the election with twenty-four supporters out of sixty-three home rulers, Parnell was elected as chairman of the parliamentary party. One of his supporters for the leadership was William Henry O’Shea, and it was not long before Parnell was addressing O’Shea’s wife, Katherine, as “My dearest love.” This was an association that was to have momentous consequences.

Bringing Irishmen of different persuasions together was Parnell’s great accomplishment. From 1879 to 1885, he devoted his energies in and out of Parliament to promoting the national cause. In Parliament, he could be cooperative, as he was in enacting the Third Reform Bill, or he could be intransigent, as he and his supporters were in using the tactic of obstruction. Out of Parliament, Parnell was occupied with the development of tactics that would demonstrate to the Irish people that he was the leader who could deliver concessions that were desired by both the extremists and the constitutionalists. He thus flirted with the Land League for a time and partially initiated and then supported the practice of making social lepers out of those Irishmen who dared to lease a property from which an Irish tenant had been evicted, a practice that became known as boycotting. His association with the extremists resulted in his being imprisoned in Kilmainham jail from October 13, 1881, to May 2, 1882. This period of imprisonment only solidified Parnell’s hold on Ireland. By August, 1885, John O’Leary, the Fenian leader and editor of the Irish People was remarking that “Mr. Parnell is the undoubted choice of the Irish people just now, and as long as that is so, and clearly so, I think it is the duty of all Irishmen, even Irishmen of my way of thinking, to take heed that they throw no obstacle in the way of his carrying out the mandate with which he has been intrusted.”

Parnell’s career was fast approaching its climax. Parnell saw that climax as the grant of self-government to Ireland. To that end, he proceeded to prepare for the general election of 1885 under the newly enlarged franchise of the reforms of 1884-1885. What he wanted to emerge from the election was a highly disciplined party of eighty or more members in the House of Commons that would hold the balance of power between the two English parties and would thereby be in a position to play one off against the other to see which would make the most concessions for Irish support. The elections produced the desired results. Parnell secured the election of eighty-six home rulers, a clear demonstration that he was the acknowledged leader of...

(The entire section is 2110 words.)