Parnell silver casket, 1884
A history of Ireland in 100 objects:This ornate silver casket, with the by now standard imagery of round towers, wolfhounds and “Celtic” filigrees, along with a representation of the former (and with luck future) Irish parliament, was presented by “the nationalists of Drogheda” to Charles Stewart Parnell in 1884. He was then near the summit of his prestige as the “uncrowned king of Ireland”.
Parnell was an unlikely leader of Irish nationalism. Born into a Protestant landowning family in Avondale, Co Wicklow, and educated at Cambridge, he was nervous, superstitious and at times withdrawn. But he was, at his height, a brilliant political strategist. Within five years of his election as Home Rule MP for Co Meath, in 1875, he had established control over both the previously fractious Irish parliamentary party at Westminster and the extraparliamentary Land League.
To do so he had to be able to appeal simultaneously to respectable middle-class nationalists, to militant tenant farmers and to physical-force republicans belonging to the Fenian secret society, which was founded in 1858 and staged an abortive “rising” in 1867. Parnell was a master of ambiguity, a pragmatist who could hint effortlessly at revolutionary intent.
His boldest stroke was to accept the presidency of the Land League, founded in Dublin in 1879, by the former Fenian gunrunner Michael Davitt.
Its long-term demand was for tenants to become owners of the land, but in the short term it was focused on the “three Fs”: fair rents, free sale and fixity of tenure. The league’s tactics became increasingly militant: rent strikes; physical impeding of evictions; mass meetings; and its signature tactic, the boycott, a term coined to describe the organised ostracism of the Mayo land agent Capt Hugh Boycott in 1880.
Parnell fused these tactics with an obstructionist campaign at Westminster, to keep the Irish land question near the top of the British political agenda. His great triumph was the 1881 Land Act, which granted the three Fs and established a land commission with powers to set rents and make loans to tenants wishing to purchase their holdings. It was the first in a series of acts – 1885, 1891 and 1903 – that gradually accomplished a momentous social change: the transfer of the vast bulk of Irish land from landlord to peasant proprietors.
After the first land act Parnell moved away from Land League militancy and shifted the focus to Home Rule: autonomy for Ireland within the empire. After his arrest and brief imprisonment in 1881, he agreed with the prime minister, William Gladstone, that he would oppose further land agitation. When he led 86 Home Rule MPs to Westminster in 1885, gaining the balance of power, he cemented an alliance with Gladstone. Though bitterly opposed by Unionists and Conservatives, he now had a formidable alliance for Home Rule, stretching from the Catholic bishops to the Liberal Party.
In 1886 a Home Rule bill was defeated in the House of Commons, but only by 30 votes.
Yet, from this zenith, Parnell’s power declined. Poor health and a long-term affair with Katherine O’Shea, wife of one of his more disreputable MPs, diverted his energies. He was increasingly alienated from grassroots agitation. He briefly regained his heroic status in 1890, ironically because of a failed smear campaign linking him to secret support for rural crime. But he was then cited by O’Shea’s husband in a divorce petition and lost the support of the Catholic bishops. The party split bitterly, and Parnell died in Brighton in 1891, aged just 45.
Thanks to Sandra Heise
Where to see it National Museum of Ireland – Decorative Arts and History, Collins Barracks, Benburb Street, Dublin 7, 01-6777444, museum.ie