CHARLES STEWART PARNELL
by Mike McCormack, NY State Historian
On October 6, 1891 the Uncrowned King of Ireland died. That unofficial title belonged to Charles Stewart Parnell, a Protestant Squire in Avondale in Co. Wicklow. He was the son of an English father and an American mother. The maternal grandfather for whom he was named was Charles Stewart: Commanding Officer of U.S.S. Constitution (Old Ironsides) during the War of 1812; the U.S. Navy’s first Rear Admiral (an appointment made by President Lincoln in 1862); and a genuine hero. Stewart began his naval career with the best of tutors for he served under Wexford-born Commodore John Barry, Father of the American Navy, on the U.S.S. United States. Years later, on February 20 1815, with a strategy described by James F. Cooper as the most brilliant maneuvering in naval annals, Stewart — out-manned and outgunned — soundly defeated and captured two British ships off the coast of Spain. He was awarded the freedom of the city of New York and the thanks of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania who presented him with a golden sword.
Young Squire Parnell was indeed of respectable stock, and in 1875 was elected to the House of Commons where, it was expected, he would serve dutifully and create no great sensation. Parnell however, inherited his grandfather’s strong sense of moral justice and he took up the cause of Home Rule – a program calling for an end to the British Parliament in Ireland and the establishment of an Irish Parliament with full control of Ireland’s domestic affairs. In taking up the cause, Parnell became the champion of the Irish people.
Landlords in Ireland, reacting to the changing European economy, were turning their holdings from farming to cattle grazing and thousands of tenant farmers were being dispossessed. Parnell supported Michael Davitt’s Land League against the rack-renting landlords and eventually became its President. He urged tenant opposition to landlords through boycotts and rent refusal, and in 1879, sailed to America to address the U.S. Congress on the problem. He set up an American Land League to raise and channel relief funds to the Irish League in order to defend the tenant farmers in court, making dispossession at least costly for the landlord. The need for this action is evident from British statistics which show that between 1849 and 1882, 482,000 families had been evicted across Ireland.
In spite of the League’s limited success, a virtual land war continued between landlords and tenants. The Crown reacted with arrests, but the situation remained tense. In order to avert open rebellion, the Land Act of 1881 was passed. It was a weak law, but it defused the situation until the government could act. The government acted by declaring the Land League illegal and having its leaders arrested. In the House of Commons, Parnell was accused of fomenting rebellion, but refused to answer the charge declaring that he drew his support from the people and he would only allow the people to judge him; he saw no need to defend his actions to England. Referred to as the uncrowned King of Ireland, Parnell was at the height of his popularity, though his health was beginning to fail. He threw his support to Gladstone in the 1886 British election, and engineered the defeat of the Tories. He was now at the height of his power as well. Gladstone fulfilled his promise to Parnell and introduced a Home Rule Bill, but it was defeated by the House of Commons. Parnell demanded another; in the eyes of many he was becoming too powerful.
Soon, a series of articles appeared in the British press accusing Parnell of instigating a crime-wave against the landlords and a special commission was appointed to investigate. In spite of perjury and bribery, Parnell defeated his detractors but he made many enemies in Parliament, even though they dared not act against him. Their opportunity came when an MP named Capt O’Shea filed for divorce from his wife naming Parnell as co-respondent. Parnell, in typical fashion, gave no defense to Parliament. Instead of feeding the scandal, he chose to save his career by working harder than he had ever worked in his life despite his failing health. Gladstone used the incident as an excuse to rid himself of Parnell and agitated against him. Although he wasn’t even Catholic, the Catholic Church joined the detractors and publicly condemned him as an adulterer for his affair with Kitty O’Shea. One Priest went as far as telling his parishioners, If you support Parnell, you support adultery! Parnell began to lose support among the Irish for the first time since he devoted his life to their welfare.
On Sept 27 1891, he attended a public meeting in Galway against the advice of his doctors. He had promised to speak, and would not disappoint those who had remained loyal to him. It was his last appearance; on Oct 6, he died. He was buried at Glasnevin beside Daniel O’Connell after a funeral procession that could only be termed magnificent. In the eyes of some he had erred and was punished. The tragedy of Parnell is that, in spite of his dedication and superhuman efforts, England was able to sow division among the Irish. Parnell shall nevertheless be eternally remembered for the words he defiantly spoke in Parliament which are now engraved on his monument in O’Connell St, Dublin: No man has a right to fix a boundary to the march of a nation. No man has a right to say thus far shalt thou go and no further. We have never attempted to fix the ne plus ultra to the progress of Ireland’s nationhood and we never shall.
Stirring words indeed, but near the end of his life, when all who loved him begged that he defend himself against the villains who dragged his personal life into the press, he spoke a sentence that should live as his epitaph. He said, I don’t pretend that I had no moments of trial and temptation, but I do claim that never in thought, word, or deed have I been false to the trust Irishmen have confided in me’. So passed away the Uncrowned King of Ireland; time has proven that history has been kinder to him than his constituents were.