Childhood & Early Life
Charles Stewart Parnell was the seventh of the eleven children born to John Henry Parnell and Delia Tudor Stewart on June 27, 1846 in County Wicklow, Ireland. His father was a wealthy Anglo-Irish landowner and had a distant relationship with British Royal family.
Young Parnell grew amidst notable figures in his family who played a dominant role in the literary and political circle of the country. Though he belonged to the Church of England, he gradually moved away from it.
Following separation of his parents when he was barely six, Parnell spent much of his early years at different schools in England. His father’s untimely death in 1859 made him inherit the Avondale Estate.
Academically, Parnell attended Magdalene College, Cambridge from 1865–69. However, he could not complete his degree due to the troubled financial state of his estate.
In 1873, a new political group, Home Rule League was established to campaign for moderate degree of self-government. Parnell rendered his complete support to the home rule movement. In 1874, he became High Sheriff of Wicklow.
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In 1875, he was first elected as the Home Rule League Member of the Parliament for County Meath in the House of Commons. In his first year, Parnell was a silent spectator. He observed keenly parliamentary proceedings.
Within two years as an MP of Home Rule League, Parnell gained a reputation for himself as obstructionist. He played a leading role in the policy of obstructionism and forced the House to pay more attention to the Irish issues,which had been ignored until then.
Despite being a restrained speaker in the house, he was popular for his organisational, analytical and tactical skills which gained him a seat on the British organisation’s presidency.
In 1877, Parnell conducted a number of private meetings with important Fenian leaders, who impressed by Parnell’s leadership skills granted him their complete support in Irish struggle for self-government.
In 1879, he was elected as the President of the Irish National Land League. As the President of the organisation, he actively opposed the Irish land laws and campaigned for land reform. He believed that the reform would be the first step in the Home Rule Movement.
In December 1879, he made a trip to America for dual reasons—raising funds for famine relief caused by agricultural crisis and securing support for Irish Home Rule League. The trip was so successful that he soon earned the moniker ‘uncrowned king of Ireland’.
Upon returning from America, Parnell contested in the 1880 United Kingdom general election. He supported William Gladstone’s candidacy as the Prime Minister. Upon Gladstone’s appointment, Parnell was elected as the chairman of the Home Rule group in the parliament
Rejection from the House of Lords on moderate measures of Irish land reform led Parnell to organize a massive land agitation. He also gained support of the clergy on this issue.
In response to the land agitation, William Gladstone came up with the 1881 Land Act according to which fair rents were conceded to the farmers. Since the Land Act did not meet the expectations as desired by Parnell, he joined the opposition. His efforts of encouraging boycott landed him in Kilmainham jail in Dublin in October 1881.
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In 1882, he negotiated a treaty with William Gladstone, which was called Kilmainham Treaty. As per the treaty, he persuaded his followers to stop violence on all accords.
In 1882, Parnell restructured and resurrected the Land League as Irish National League. With more than 1200 branches spread all over, the Irish National League continued with its agrarian agitation that completely changed the face of Irish land ownership. It led to the passage of several land acts.
Following the restructuring of Land League, he reorganised Home Rule League Party as Irish Parliamentary Party. Membership was introduced within the party which called for professional selection of candidates. Furthermore, he laid the structural foundation that made the party the first modern British political party.
By 1884, the Irish National League was completely under the control of Parnell. Parnell’s popularity had a deep impact over the 1885 general election. Though Gladstone and Liberal Party won the 1885 general election, Gladstone clearly supported the Irish National League.
In 1886, Gladstone introduced the first Irish Home Rule Bill. With this, he hoped to establish an Irish legislature. However, the bill was defeated following the split within the Liberal party. Failure of the Bill led to the downfall of the Gladstone government
By 1886, Parnell became the unabated master of Irish nationalism. He dominated the Irish opinion and brought forth radicals into mainstream constitutional nationalism.
Having dominated the Irish nationalism movement, Parnell had acquired a number of enemies. In 1887, his enemies plotted against him by publishing a facsimile of letters in The Times, allegedly bearing Parnell’s signatures condemning the Phoenix Park murders. It was only two years later that proofs of the letters being forged by Richard Pigott was gained, transforming Parnell’s reputation in the eyes of the English Liberals as a hero and martyr.
The hero-status gained after the Pigott forgery case lasted only for a short while. In 1889, William O’Shea, a loyal supporter of Parnell, filed for a divorce following his wife, Katherine’s adultery with Parnell. The news came in as a shock - Katherine was not just a mistress of Parnell but even bore three of his children.
The scandalous affair with Katherine O’Shea belittled Parnell’s reputation. A split in the party was evident which was followed by replacement of Parnell as the leader as he was declared morally unfit by the Roman Catholics. Subsequently, he became politically inactive.
Personal Life & Legacy
Parnell’s personal life remained dubious until 1889. It was only when Captain O’Shea filed for a case of adultery against his wife Katherine O’Shea with Parnell that people were exposed to his private life. Parnell not just was in a love affair with Katherine, but fathered three of her children as well.
Following her divorce with Captain O’Shea, Parnell married his long-term sweetheart on June 25, 1891 in Steyning Register Office after the Church refused a church wedding.
Towards the end, Parnell’s health gradually deteriorated. However, despite ill-health, he refused to let go off his political life completely. It was later revealed that he suffered from stomach cancer and a serious kidney disease. He breathed his last on October 6, 1891 due to pneumonia.
Every year, the first Sunday after October 6 is known as Ivy Day in which Parnell’s contributions are commemorated.
He has been the subject of various novels, short plays, poetry, movies, television miniseries and fiction.