Complex leader of the Ladies' Land League was more than just Parnell's sister

 

BOOK OF THE DAY: Petticoat Rebellion: The Anna Parnell StoryBy Patricia Groves Mercier Press 256pp; €14.99

IN LATE September 1911 Mrs Rowe from Ilfracombe in Devon attended a funeral. Mrs Rowe brought her sister and two friends, and the manager of the Tunnels Baths made five. This small congregation came to bury the woman they knew as Cerisa Palmer. Mrs Rowe came because she was the dead woman’s landlady; her sister and friends only came to keep her company. The manager of the Tunnels Baths was there because the dead woman had drowned after being swept out to sea from his establishment. It was a rather sorry end for the woman once described as “a very Joan of Arc”, for a woman who was once deemed worthy of burning in effigy by her adversaries one Guy Fawkes night. It was a rather sorry end for the sister of Charles Stewart Parnell.

Petticoat Rebellionmakes it clear that being the sister of Charles Stewart Parnell was possibly Anna Parnell’s greatest challenge in life and in death. Dismissed by most studies as little more than a troublesome footnote in her brother’s life, she is known as the slightly wayward sister who led the Ladies’ Land League, as the zealous advocate who had to be reined in by her brother for the greater good of the Irish question. However, Patricia Groves argues that Anna Parnell was far more complex and compelling than that. Petticoat Rebelliontraces the life of Anna Parnell through the history of the Ladies’ Land League, suggesting that the Ladies’ Land League was a more important movement than the Land League itself. The women provided the practical help: building shelters for the evicted; providing food; assessing claims for assistance; and trying to control the consequences of the land war. The Land League merely made promises that it expected these women to keep. Groves draws a quite pointed contrast between the comfort and the convalescence the leaders of the Land League experienced while confined in Kilmainham Gaol and the pressures the women worked under to cope with the consequences of the No Rent Manifesto on the outside. Groves makes a clear case for the work of Anna Parnell. She is described leading her “ladies” against the chauvinism of the Land League’s leaders who were happy for the women to do the work, but were offended by the accusations of the British press that they were hiding behind women’s petticoats. Where the women were concerned the Land League adhered to the social conventions of the day: even at an eviction a refined young lady should always know her place.

Petticoat Rebellionportrays an Anna Parnell who understood the need for revolution on the land in a way that her brother never could; it depicts a progressive advocate of women’s social and political rights, and Groves’s portrayal might be right. Anna Parnell’s politics were the politics of building shelters for the evicted, the politics of the activist who could brook no compromise not even from her own brother, whom she considered a traitor for signing the Kilmainham Treaty. However, Anna Parnell is more difficult than the romantic heroine depicted in Petticoat Rebellion. This book is written, as it admits, as “a celebration of the life and times of this extraordinary young woman”, and it chooses not to question her sometimes extreme methods, her obsessive need to revise the published version of events, or why she died the unknown Cerisa Palmer, possibly because, or in spite, of what had gone before. It is not the last word on the Land War and does not pretend to be. But it is a gentle reminder that perhaps we need to consider “Madam Moonlight” a little more.


Anne Dolan lectures in Irish history at Trinity College Dublin. Her latest book, No Surrender Here!: The Civil War Papers of Ernie O’Malley, co-edited with Cormac O’Malley, was published by Lilliput Press