This post owes a great deal to Paul Bew's entry on Parnell in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
After 1886 Home Rule was the polarizing issue in British politics.
From March 1887 the Chief Secretary for Ireland was Salisbury’s nephew, Arthur Balfour, who was determined to assert the rule of law in that country. This was also the policy of his uncle, who believed that the Irish must take ‘a good licking’. Balfour stiffened the provisions of the Crimes Bill and subjected disaffected areas to a kind of martial law, under which Nationalist politicians, Roman Catholic priests and the poet Wilfred Scawen Blunt were imprisoned. In September 1887 an illegal demonstration took place at Mitchelstown, Co. Cork. The police panicked and fired into an unarmed crowd, killing three civilians and wounding others.
Balfour’s draconian policies earned him the nickname ‘Bloody Balfour’. Ireland once more became an issue of fierce party politics as ‘Remember Mitchelstown’ became a favourite Liberal war cry. On 13 November 1887 (‘Bloody Sunday’) a rally was held in Trafalgar Square, despite a banning order by the Chief Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. Serious rioting erupted, leading to loss of two lives and some prominent arrests. So tense was the atmosphere that the government created the ‘Special Branch’ to protect the queen during her Golden Jubilee celebrations.
The Unionist strategy of coercion was risky but so was the Liberal one of investing so heavily in Irish nationalism and in Parnell. In 1887, The Times published a series of articles, “Parnellism and Crime”, in which the Home Rule leaders were accused of being involved in murder and outrage during the land war. It produced a number of facsimile letters, allegedly bearing Parnell’s signature; in one of the letters Parnell had excused and condoned the murder of T.H. Burke in the Phoenix Park which he had publicly condemned. Parnell immediately declared the letter a forgery and the government set up a Special Commission to investigate the charges made against Parnell and his party. The commission sat for nearly two years. Their findings concluded that the letters were forgeries. They had been bought in good faith by The Times from a disreputable Irish journalist, Richard Pigott, who had forged one of them with his own hand.
In February 1889, Pigott entered the witness box and admitted to having forged the letters; he then fled to Madrid, where he shot himself. Parnell’s name was fully cleared by the commission, and the Times paid a large sum of money by way of compensation. The closing months of 1889 marked the high point of Parnell’s popularity. He received a standing ovation in the House of Commons, was presented with the freedom of the city of Edinburgh. In December he stayed as Gladstone’s guest at Hawarden, planning for what seemed the inevitable Liberal return to office.
A much more serious threat to Parnell’s career was to follow. At the end of 1889, Captain O’Shea, filed for divorce from his wife, Katharine, and Parnell was named in the proceedings. (For Garrett Fitzgerald's review in the Guardian (21 June, 2008) of the latest biography of Katharine O'Shea, see here.) He did not defend himself and to most people it appeared to be another trumped-up charge. This time, however, he was not innocent. He and Katharine O’Shea had fallen in love when they first met in 1880. By that time her marriage to Captain O’Shea was breaking up. From 1886, Parnell and Katharine O’Shea lived together. There is no doubt that Captain O’Shea had been aware of Parnell’s relationship with his wife. To keep him happy Parnell had O’Shea elected as an unpledged Home Ruler to the Galway City seat in February 1886, despite opposition from his party. (Was O’Shea blackmailing Parnell?) It is not clear why O’Shea delayed until December 1889 before seeking a divorce. One possible reason was the hope of obtaining a large sum of money from his wife, when her aunt, Mrs. Woods (‘Aunt Ben’), died. Mrs. Woods left her entire fortune to Katherine, but in such a way that her husband could not get his hands on it. Captain O’Shea is said to have resorted to blackmail, asking for £20,000 from his wife but she refused to pay. It was after this that he went ahead with the divorce case.
The case caused a sensation in England and Ireland. In England The Times gave currency to the phrase ‘the Nonconformist conscience’ in an attempt to label Nonconformists as hypocrites. On the day after the verdict the Baptist minister, John Clifford, wrote:
Men legally convicted of immorality will not be permitted to lead in the legislation of the Kingdom.It was not merely Nonconformists who were outraged. Parnell’s adultery galvanized the social purity movement into action, and Cardinal Manning issued a letter to English Catholics imploring them to put morality above politics. Gladstone told Parnell’s second-in-command, Justin Macarthy, that if Parnell continued leader, the Liberals would lose the next election.
But Parnell, a proud man, showed no intention of retiring. His refusal to step down produced a bitter spilt in the party. His old partner, Michael Davitt, along with another Irish MP, Tim Healy, urged the Irish party to dismiss Parnell. A meeting of the Irish Parliamentary Party was held on 1 December 1890.
The meeting lasted for several days. Desperately the party tried to achieve a compromise. It sought guarantees from Gladstone of a satisfactory home-rule measure if Parnell was to retire, but Gladstone refused to be pressurized in this way. Finally, when one of Parnell's supporters, John Redmond, referred to ‘the master of the party’, Tim Healy could not resist the malevolent quip:
Who is to be the mistress of the party?Parnell bitterly retorted by describing Healy as that
cowardly little scoundrel … who dares in an assembly of Irishmen to insult a woman.Healy later called Parnell ‘Mr Landlord Parnell’, introducing a note of aggressive Catholic nationalism into the debate.
After a long discussion as to whether the man (Parnell) was more important than the cause (Home Rule), the party split in two. Forty four members sided with Justin McCarthy, the vice-chairman, and remained in favour of the alliance with the Liberals, and twenty seven sided with Parnell. Parnell had now lost the leadership of the parliamentary party. He refused to accept the verdict given against him. Almost immediately afterwards at a by-election in Kilkenny, Parnell's candidate was beaten (22 December 1890) 2 to 1. In 1891 two more by-elections were held and in both the Parnellite candidates were beaten. On the campaign Parnell had mud thrown at him. He was subsequently and falsely accused of a whole range of exorbitant acts including embezzling party funds to pay for his affair.
In June 1891, he married Katherine O’Shea at Steyning registry office, profoundly shocking the Irish clergy, but he still refused to retire from public life. Eventually the strain of addressing meetings up and down the country proved too much for him. On 27 September while suffering from rheumatism he addressed an outdoor meeting in the rain. Returning to England gravely ill, he went home to his wife at Brighton and died on 6 October 1891. He was only forty-five years of age. 150,000 people attended his funeral at Glasnevin cemetery, his casket led by a group of radical Fenians.
Parnell was the architect of his own downfall. He refused to co-operate with the party during the critical time of the divorce dispute. His attitude was that of a ‘loner’ and so he was prepared to ignore the advice of his best friends. Despite this his achievements were real and lasting. He brought Home Rule from being a faint hope to the forefront of national politics. Both the English political parties and successive governments had to recognise the importance of the Irish question and declare their standpoint on it. By his creation of a disciplined party, he proved that Irishmen were capable of ruling themselves.
Perhaps he will be most remembered for the quotation that can be found on his statue at the junction of O'Connell Street and Parnell Street in Dublin City Centre:
'No man shall have the right to fix the boundary to the march of a Nation'.But possibly his greatest legacy was the powerfully emotional image of Ireland’s ‘uncrowned king’ torn down by base followers; a prophet outcast with the Promised Land in sight.’
He is still remembered today on Ivy Day, 6th October, when supporters wear a sprig of ivy on their clothing.
Meanwhile agrarian agitation in Ireland was abating. With Ireland relatively tranquil, the policy (wrongly) called ‘Killing Home Rule with Kindness’ was pursued. Public money was invested in rural projects and new piers and harbours along the western seaboard. Ireland became relatively quiet until the beginning of the twentieth century.