Riches of Clare: How Parnell secured his place in history

Clare Champion, Friday, October 31, 2003

The Riches of Clare exhibition at the local authority-run Clare Museum charts the county’s history. In this article, Elaine Saunders writes about the strong and various links between Clare and the huge Victorian political figure that was Charles Stewart Parnell.

“Ireland is not a geographical fragment but a nation.”
- Charles Stewart Parnell.


Charles Stewart Parnell had a long association with and great affection for County Clare.

It was in Carmody’s Hotel in Ennis, for example, that The O’Gorman Mahon introduced Parnell to Captain William O’Shea, a future MP for Clare. Both would become embroiled in controversy in later years.

In one of his most famous speeches made in County Clare Parnell would contribute a new word to the English language, which was a new system of revenge against ‘landgrabbers’.

Throughout the speech, which was attended by 30,000, reminiscent of the many monster meetings held by the Daniel O’Connell a half a century previously, Parnell encouraged the use of boycotting:

“When a man takes a farm from which another has been evicted, you must shun him on the roadside when you meet him, you must shun him on the street of the town, you must shun him at the shop counter, you must shun him in the fair and in the market place and even in the house of worship, by leaving him individually alone; by putting him into a moral Coventry...”.

On January 26, 1885 Parnell was invited to turn the first sod of the West Clare Railway and was presented with a silver engraved spade.

Also that day he gave a speech in Miltown Malbay and such was his heroic status that he gathered an audience of 20,000.

In his speech he mentioned that the rapid spread of the Land League in Clare had set an example to the rest of Ireland.

By 1889 Parnell’s political reputation was greater than ever, not only in Ireland but also in England.

In December of that year Captain William O’Shea filed for divorce from his wife, Katherine O’Shea and Parnell was named as co-respondent.

To many it seemed another allegation set out to tarnish Parnell’s political reputation, however this time Parnell was not innocent.

Captain William O’Shea was well aware of his wife’s infidelity and often encouraged it to further his career in politics.

Parnell later said “I was right when I said in 1880, as Willie got up on that platform at Ennis, dressed to kill, that he was just the man we did not want in the Party.”

The sensational divorce case signalled the downfall of Parnell’s political career.

The belief was that the great leader of the National Land League would retire from public life if not for a short time, but Parnell being a proud man refused.

This refusal led to bitter split in the party.

The Irish Parliamentary Party held a meeting in December 1890, and after a lengthy discussion as to whether the man was more important than the cause, the party split.

Forty-four members sided with Justin McCarthy, the vice-chairman, and twenty-seven sided with Parnell. He had now lost leadership of the party, and refused to accept the verdict against him. He carried on his campaign in Ireland and fought three by-elections all in which his candidate was defeated. But Parnell remained stubborn and referred to it as “a war to the death”.

The majority of Clare still backed Parnell. It was believed in Clare that the cause was more important than the moral issues. At a meeting held in Labasheeda on Wednesday 1st April 1891, a resolution of confidence in Parnell was passed.

However later that afternoon there was a dispute with a band of McCarthyites, leading to the banner of the Kilmihil Parnellite Contingent being torn.

Parnell married Katherine O’Shea in June of 1891. Eventually ill health and the strain of addressing meetings throughout the country took its toll on him and he died in Brighton on October 6.

His body was taken back to Ireland where he was buried at Glasnevin Cemetery.

At the invitation of Michael Davitt, Parnell had become the first president of the Land League in October 1879.

His major achievements were obtaining the three F’s; fixity of tenure, fair rents and free sale.

In the reserve collection at Clare Museum, there is a letter that was written to a Miss Stritch from Parnell’s home in Avondale, Rathdrum, Co. Wicklow on 3rd October 1882.

In this letter we can see the meticulous effort Parnell put into individual cases when it came to tenant rights.

For example, Parnell states in the letter that he could not defend one particular case, “as if it is really for forcible possession it is indefensible under the new land act.”

Parnell also said that he enclosed a cheque for £40 payable to Miss Stritch for the costs of the four tenants on the Stepney Estate (possibly in County Wicklow) and also that he would pay for the catering of a certain Mr. Barrett and friends while they were in prison.

Charles Stewart Parnell was a man with very strong beliefs. Michael Davitt once described him as “an Englishman of the strongest sort moulded for an Irish purpose”.

Parnell’s letter to Miss Stritch is in the collection at Clare Museum and can be viewed on request or via the museum web site at www.clarelibrary.ie

Letter from Charles Stewart Parnell, 1882

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