John Dolan: Sex, power, triumph and tragedy: Life of Parnell ripe for Hollywood blockbuster

Tomorrow (June 27) marks the 175th anniversary of Parnell’s birth, and the 130th anniversary of his tragic, premature death will fall in October, writes John Dolan
John Dolan: Sex, power, triumph and tragedy: Life of Parnell ripe for Hollywood blockbuster

Charles Stewart Parnell.

Come let me hear you tell

How you slandered great Parnell,

When you thought him well

and truly persecuted,

Come Out, Ye Black and Tans, Dominic Behan


WE are in the midst of a decade of centenaries, and names like Terence MacSwiney, Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera have been tripping off our tongues.

That is right and proper, of course. The events of 1916-1922 undoubtedly played a key role in where we are today as a nation — warts and all: A free, prosperous Republic and a pride in being Irish on the one hand, but a legacy of violence achieving its aims and a divided island on the other.

It is easy for us to forget there could have been a better way, an alternate history. It is especially easy to forget some of the great nationalists who preceded those patriots mentioned above.

Perhaps the greatest of them all was Charles Stewart Parnell.

Tomorrow (June 27) marks the 175th anniversary of Parnell’s birth, and the 130th anniversary of his tragic, premature death will fall in October.

I’ll wager that both dates will, in the main, pass silently by, for Parnell is the great forgotten man of Irish history. Which is a shame, because his life — brimful with trials, triumphs, tragedies, and even a Victorian whiff of scandal and sex — deserves to be remembered. Indeed, it would make a brilliant Hollywood blockbuster...

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Perhaps there is a degree of discomfort in recalling what Parnell stood for — Home Rule for Ireland achieved by peaceful means — given the events that occurred a generation after his death, when violence was seen as the only option. Perhaps also there is a reluctance to hail him as a national hero because he was born into a family of Anglo-Irish Protestant landowners.

But none of these are adequate reasons to swat away Parnell’s life and legacy.

His two great aims in life remain as relevant today as they were when he was at the height of his powers, in the 1880s.

Parnell yearned for Home Rule for all of Ireland, achieved by peaceful means, and he also fought hard for land reform so that all the people of Ireland could find a place to call home. Here we are, 140 years later, still chewing over the same issues.

Born in Wicklow during the Famine in 1846, what Parnell had in abundance was charisma, he was an enigmatic personality, handsome, and politically gifted.

By the age of 31, he was President of the Home Rule Confederation of Great Britain. He created the Irish Party, described as “Britain’s first modern, disciplined, political-party machine”.

Parnell was the Irish Party, and his efforts genuinely had an effect on Westminster politics, putting the Irish question centre stage there for the first time. He was also the first politician to harness the diaspora in America to finance the Irish cause.

In 1885, in a speech in Cork, he famously declared: “No man has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation.”

On the issue of land, Parnell was equally strident and effective, despite his own background as a landowner. In 1879, he was elected President of the newly-founded National Land League and again used the U.S to gain both funds and support for it.

After the rejection by the House of Lords of Irish land reform, he encouraged boycott as a means of influencing landlords and land agents, and was jailed for it. From Kilmainham prison, he urged the poor to stop paying rent, all the while preaching the same message of non-violence.

Thanks largely to his efforts, within two decades absentee landlords had been effectively eradicated in Ireland.

Parnell’s abilities shine through in tributes from his adversaries. Prime Minster William Gladstone, with whom he enjoyed many jousts, said: “Parnell was the most remarkable man I ever met and the most interesting. He was an intellectual phenomenon.”

Liberal leader Herbert Asquith called him one of the three or four greatest men of the 19th century, while a Lord described him as the strongest man the House of Commons had seen in 150 years. Historian A. J. P. Taylor said of Parnell: “More than any other man, he gave Ireland the sense of being an independent nation.”

All of this makes Parnell a man we in Ireland should remember with pride. 

When you add the sex and tragedy that brought his speedy demise — both in terms of his career and his health — you are left with all the ingredients of a Hollywood blockbuster.

Catherine O'Shea, or Kitty, - Consort of Charles Stewart Parnell
Catherine O'Shea, or Kitty, - Consort of Charles Stewart Parnell

On Christmas Eve, 1889, Captain William O’Shea filed a petition for divorce, shockingly naming Parnell as co-respondent. It emerged that he had embarked on a decade-long secret affair with O’Shea’s wife, Kitty, and they had had three children.

The affair now out in the open, Parnell and Kitty married — but the scandal ruined his reputation, and set large swathes of both Ireland and England against him, not least the Catholic bishops in Ireland, outraged at this web of what they saw as sleaze.

Tragically, four months after the wedding, in 1891, Parnell, a ruined man, exhausted from election campaigning, died of pneumonia in Kitty’s arms. He was just 45. 

He had been prepared to sacrifice everything for his love, including the cause to which he had devoted his political life. 

As the poet W.B Yeats’s said in Come Gather Round Me, Parnellites.

The Bishops and the Party

That tragic story made....

And Parnell loved his country

And Parnell loved the lass.

Parnell is now seen as Ireland’s lost leader in the latter decades of the 20th century, a time when the nationalist cause was rudderless.

It’s futile to speculate about what he could have achieved had he lived... maybe a peaceful, fully united Ireland?

The fact that aim for many in the Republic has still not been won cannot be allowed to detract from the legacy of this remarkable man. The fact Parnell was the political hero of the late John Hume is also surely worthy of mention.

Parnell had strong Cork links. He was the MP for Cork city for 11 years until his death. In 1889, two years before he died, a motion was passed to re-name Nelson’s Quay and Warren’s Place in Cork city Parnell Place.

After his death, a woman from Cork sent a wreath of ivy to his funeral, saying it was the best she could afford.

For years after, October 6 became known as Ivy Day, when mourners would attend a commemoration at his grave in Glasnevin Cemetery, pick ivy leaves from the walls, and stick them in their lapels.

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