With the exception of Daniel O'Connell, he is the most significant Irish political leader of the 19th century.
An Unlikely Leader for the Irish:
Parnell was a Protestant landowner, and was thus essentially from the class generally considered the enemy of the interests of the Catholic majority. And the Parnell family were considered members of the Anglo-Irish gentry, people who had profited from the oppressive landlord system imposed upon Ireland by British rule.
Parnell was first sent to a school in England at the age of six. He returned to the family's estate in Ireland and was privately tutored, but was again sent to English schools.
Studies at Cambridge were frequently interrupted, partly due to problems managing the Irish estate Parnell had inherited from his father.
Parnell's Political Rise:
Later in the century, the movement for “Home Rule” began to run candidates for seats in Parliament. Parnell ran, and was elected to the House of Commons in 1875. With his background as a member of the Protestant gentry, it was believed he gave some respectability to the Home Rule movement.
Parnell's Politics of Obstruction:
This tactic was effective but controversial. Some who were sympathetic to Ireland felt that it alienated the British public and therefore only damaged the cause of Home Rule.
Parnell was aware of that, but felt he had to persist. In 1877 he was quoted as saying, “We will never gain anything from England unless we tread on her toes.”
Parnell and the Land League:
In October 1881 Parnell was arrested and imprisoned at Kilmainham Jail in Dublin on “reasonable suspicion” of encouraging violence. The British Prime Minister, Gladstone, held negotiations with Parnell, who agreed to denounce violence. Parnell was released from prison in early May 1882 following what became known as the “Kilmainham treaty.”
Parnell Branded a Terrorist:
During a stormy period in the 1880s, Parnell was constantly under attack, but he continued his activities in the House of Commons, working on behalf of the Irish Party.
Parnell Caught in Scandal:
O'Shea's husband was granted the divorce on grounds of adultery, and Kitty O'Shea and Parnell were married. But his political career was effectively ruined. He was attacked by political enemies as well as by the Roman Catholic establishment in Ireland.
Always a controversial figure, Parnell's legacy has often been disputed. Later Irish revolutionaries drew inspiration from some of his militancy. The writer James Joyce portrayed Dubliners remembering Parnell in his classic short story, "Ivy Day in the Committee Room."