Charles Stewart Parnell

Charles Stewart Parnell - Public domain
Charles Stewart Parnell - Public domain

Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891) was an Irish politician who fought for Irish independence and autonomy. A staunch defender of the peasant class and the Home Rule, Parnell engaged in a tough and difficult struggle throughout his life, which placed him as a true anti-British liberator.

Biography of Charles Stewart Parnell

Childhood of a national hero

Charles Stewart Parnell was born on 27 June 1846, in Avondale, County Wicklow. Coming from a particularly well-to-do background, Parnell was immersed at a very young age in a very strong political milieu, and at the age of 28, Charles Stewart Parnell went into politics. He entered the Parliament in County Meath in 1875, and then joined Isaac Butt’s Home Rule Party, a party intended to promote the independence of Ireland through the Home Rule.

From then on, Parnell never stopped trying to obstruct the London government. To do so, he adopted Joseph Biggar’s obstructionist stunt in the House of Commons. The purpose of this enterprise was to interfere with the workings of the House of Commons through long, sterile speeches that no one had the right to interrupt. The tactic goes so far, moreover, that Parnell’s party goes so far as to read long passages from the Bible!

An Irish nationalist with creative means

But Charles Stewart Parnell wanted to go further, and on October 21, 1879, he created the Irish National Land League, a new party that wanted to defend the interests of peasants, to enable them to acquire ownership of their land more easily. According to Parnell, the gradual recovery of Irish land quickly won the battle for Irish autonomy.

To do so, Parnell invented the concept of social, economic and moral quarantine as a means of putting pressure on rich landowners. Charles Cunningham Boycott, a wealthy English landowner, was the first to pay the price when he decided to increase his rents: the peasants totally isolate him, depriving him of food and economic resources, until his capitulation. Faced with this success, the moral quarantine is called “boycott”, in memory of this first victory.

In the face of the success of his initiatives, Charles Stewart Parnell became, in the eyes of the population, an undisputed leader of the nationalist movement, and was affectionately nicknamed “the King without a crown of Ireland”. Nevertheless, Parnell’s actions caused great tension and led to a series of clashes between peasants and landowners.

The British government then took advantage of the situation to imprison Parnell and other leaders in October 1881, in the Kilmainham Gaol prison. The Liberal Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone, tried to free the party members by signing the Treaty of Kilmainham in March 1882.

As soon as he was released, Parnell resumed his fight for the recognition of Ireland as an autonomous state. His determination was such that he managed to stand up to many British attempts to oppose Irish autonomy. After years of political struggle, he managed to present the Home Rule to the House of Commons with the help of Gladstone, which was rejected on several occasions.

Parnell at the centre of lust and jealousy

On this occasion, Parnell was sullied by a series of letters then published in 1887 in The Times, entitled “Parnell and Crime”. These letters claimed that Parnell was involved in the crime of Lord Frederick Cavendish and his under-secretary, T.H. Burke, on May 6, 1882. In the face of these accusations, Parnell officially declares himself innocent. A special commission was set up to study the case, and concluded that the author of his letters was Richard Piggott, one of Parnell’s detractors. This conclusion immediately exonerates Parnell.

However, Parnell was then scandalized once again and never recovered from it: he was discovered to be having an adulterous affair with the wife of a Member of Parliament, Kitty O’Shea, a wealthy English woman. The newspapers make the front page, and the whole of Ireland finds itself scandalized, plunging Parnell into a growing unpopularity. Parnell’s reputation and political career did not survive and he lost the party presidency. After numerous attempts to regain his position, Parnell withdrew, and died prematurely in 1891 at the age of 45. He is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin, and a statue of him was erected on O’Connell Street in Dublin city centre.