Known as the "Ireland's Uncrowned King," Charles Stewart Parnell was haughty and aloof yet became a stirring political leader. He died at the age of 45, after a career marked by dramatic triumphs and a disastrous personal scandal.
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:
For someone strongly associated with the cause of Ireland’s liberation from British rule, Charles Stewart Parnell had a highly unlikely background.
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.
Charles Stewart Parnell was born in County Wicklow, Ireland, on June 27, 1846. His mother was American, and held very strong anti-British views, despite having married into an Anglo-Irish family. Parnell's parents separated, and his father died while Parnell was in his early teens.
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:
In the 1800s, Members of Parliament, meaning the British Parliament, were elected throughout Ireland. In the early part of the century, Daniel O’Connell, the legendary agitator for Irish rights, was elected to Parliament, and used that position to secure some measure of civil rights for Irish Catholics.
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:
In the House of Commons, Parnell perfected the tactic of obstructionism to agitate for reforms in Ireland. Feeling that the British public and the government were indifferent to Irish complaints, Parnell and his allies sought to shut down the legislative process.
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 1879 Michael Davitt founded the Land League, an organization pledged to reform the landlord system that plagued Ireland. Parnell was appointed the head of the Land League, and he was able to pressure the British government to enact the 1881 Land Act, which granted some concessions.
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:
Ireland was rocked in 1882 by notorious political assassinations, the Phoenix Park Murders, in which British officials had been murdered in a Dublin park. Parnell was horrified by the crime, but his political enemies repeatedly tried to insinuate that he supported such activity.
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:
Parnell had been living with a married woman, Katherine "Kitty" O'Shea, and that fact became public knowledge when her husband filed for divorce and made the affair public record in 1889.
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.
Parnell made an effort for a political comeback, and embarked on a grueling election campaign. His health suffered, and he died, presumably of a heart attack, at the age of 45, on October 6, 1891.
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."