When Samuel Hayes, barrister and forester and builder of Avondale House, died without issue in1795 he be queathed his beloved Avondale to his cousin and "dear friend Sir John Parnell". Throughout his life, Sir John ("the Incorruptible") stood steadfastly for an independent Irish Parliament and although he was offered the bribe of office under the British Crown if he would vote for the Act of Union he refused resolutely to sell his vote.
On his death in 1801, Sir John bequeathed Avondale to his youngest son, William, a life-long advocate of Catholic emancipation and of the spread of education in Ireland. William died in l821 leaving the estate to a much-travelled son, John Henry, who married Delia Tudor Stewart, daughter of Admiral Charles Stewart who played an important part in the war of1812 against the British and took his nickname "Old Ironsides" from that of the most famous of American fighting ships, officially known as the Constitution. John and Delia Parnell had eleven children in all - five sons and six daughters - nine of whom, including Charles Stewart, were born at Avondale. Charles, the fourth son and the sixth child, was born on 27th June 1846 when Ireland was in the grip of famine and the seeds of revolution were being sown. Throughout her life, his mother was outspokenly anti-English in her opinions and some of Parnell's biographers have conjectured that he inherited his intense nationalism from her. However his own later accounts laid more stress on stories of the 1798 rebellion which he heard in childhood, and, without question, he was strongly influenced in particular by the fate of the Manchester Martyrs in 1867, and by the activities of the Fenian Brotherhood in general.
Essentially, however, Parnell was a constitutionalist, and when he entered politics as member of Parliament for Co. Meath on l9th April 1875 he supported Isaac Butt's Home Rule Party, then striving ineffectually to obtain local self-government for Ireland. He immediately set up a liaison with Joseph Gillis Biggar, a Belfast provision merchant who had entered Parliament in l874 and who set out to deliberately obstruct the business of the House of Commons by making lengthy speeches. Biggar's contempt of England and English parliamentary institutions was equalled only by English contempt of Biggar as is evidenced by the following extract from the London World of 5th March 1876:
Mr. Biggar brings the manner of his store into the illustrious assembly, and his manner, even for a Belfast store, is very bad. When he rises to address the House, as he did at least ten times last night, the air is heavy with the odour of kippered herring.
Parnell was subsequently to forge and polish obstructionism into a parliamentary weapon of deadly effect which forced a hearing of Irish grievances on an outraged House of Commons. Within a few years he was leader of a party which was formidable for its discipline and talent andwhich he directed with an eye of genius for the proper action in any emergency. In turn he supported the Liberal and Conservative sides with a sole regard to the balance of power in Parliament and a fixed determination to hold it in his own hands if possible.
The real source of Parnell's power however was among the ordinary people of Ireland whose economic distress, bordering on famine, was aggravated by a land-holding system which gave the mass of tenant farmers no security in their small-holdings. These conditions led Michael Davitt, the Fenian leader, to create the Land League in 1879 and whcn Parnell agreed to become President of thc League the two leaders - the revolutionary and the constitutionalist - "found themselves in control of a vast human machine that carried out orders such as the boycott of the League's enemies, the withholding of rent payments etc. with alacrity and thoroughness". This great Land War in the 70's and 80's was the immediate cause of the setting up of the Irish Land Commission in 1881 and of the passing of the remarkable bodv of legislation known as the Irish Land Code that ultimately achieved a veritable revolution on Irish land, supplanting the landlords by the people as full proprietors of their farms and holdings.
Between1879 and1882 Parnell adroitly combined parliamentary pressure with agrarian agitation and his vehement campaign on behalf of the Irish tenant farmers led to his imprisonment in Kilmainham Gaol by Gladstone in October 1881. Parnell in prison however was an even greater scourge to the British Parliament than Parnell free and the campaign throughout the country was taken up by the Ladies Land League, which event marked the entry of Irish women into the national struggle for the first time in modern history. Their defiant attitude is well illustrated in the following resolution which was put forward at one of their meetings:
We will ncver marrv a young man who is not a Land Leaguer, but let him live and die an old bachelor that he may be as tired of Skellig as we are of the English Government.Meantime, Parnell's sister Fanny was adding poetic fuel to the rising fires of patriotic enthusiasm by verses such as this:
"Rise up and plant your feet as men Where now you crawl as slaves And make the harvest fields your camps Or make of them your graves."The borderline between constitutional agitation and open revoit was now very thinly drawn.
From Kilmainham Parnell continued to direct the affairs of the League and on 18 October 1881 a "No Rent Manifesto" was issued which, in essence, was a call for a general strike against the payment of rents. An enraged Government suppressed the Land League and this in turn led to a new wave of agrarian violence:
It rained evictions, it rained outrages. Cattle were houghed and maimed - tenants who paid unjust rents or took farms from which others had been evicted were dragged out of their beds and assaulted. Graves were dug before the doors of evicting landlords, murder was committed. A reign of terror had in truth commenced.
With the situation getting more and more out of hand a modus vivendi was desired by both sides and this took the form of what came to be known as the Kilmainham Treaty whereunder Parnell and his supporters were released from prison in April1882 on their undertaking to use their influence to put down lawlessness whilst the Govemment agreed that coercion would be relaxed. The "Treaty" marked the point in Parnell's career where he abandoned the land war and concentrated on the parliamentary struggle for Home Rule. The infamous Phoenix Park murders of Cavendish and Burke by the "Invincibles" which followed shortly afterwards, and which he roundly condemned, did much to harm Parnell's policy and in the following two years his influence in Parliament, and even in Ireland, was exerted only intermittently.
His health was bad, his absences from the House of Commons were frequent and mysterious and he had already formed those relations with Mrs. O'Shea which were ultimately to bring him to the divorce court.
His semi-obscurity however was soon reversed by the London Times which in 1887 accused him of being connected with Irish terrorism and with the "Invincibles" in particular and printed facsimiles of letters allegedly in Parnell's own handwriting. These accusations were investigated by a special commission in 1888/9 and the letters were shown to have been forged. Pamell was found innocent of the charges made against him, became the idol of London society and in Ireland was hailed as "the uncrowned king". The stage seemed set for a triumphant climax to Parnell's career but tragedy stood in the wings and took its cue from Capt. William O'Shea, a former member of the Irish Party, with whose wife, Katherine, Parnell had been living since 1886. Although O'Shea undoubtedly knew of the relationship between his wife and Parnell he had seemingly delayed seeking a divorce in the hope of obtaining a substantial sum of money from Katherine when her aged and bedridden aunt, Mrs. Benjamin Wood, would die. This wealthy lady had named Katherine as her heiress but obviously would alter her intentions in the event of a scandal. In every sense, therefore, silence was golden as far as O'Shea was concerned, but ceased to be so in1889 when following the death of Mrs. Wood, Katherine refused to pay £20,000 demanded by her husband. O'Shea promptly filed suit for divorce and when the case came to court in November 1890 neither Parnell nor Mrs. O'Shea offered any defence.
The verdict of the divorce court found Parnell guilty and caused a sensation in England and in Ireland. In Victorian England, indulgent to those who kept their moral weaknesses out of the public eye, his real crime was that of being found out, while in Ireland where he had been revered, the discovery that their "uncrowned king" was a mortal man led to a cataclysmic volte face in public opinion in which Parnell suffered every kind of indignity, apart altogether from withdrawal of support by all but twenty-seven of the closely knit Irish Parliamentary Party of seventy-two members. It is significant that in the heart-searching decades that followed the death of their former leader, a sense of deep responsibility for his death filled the national conscience and various legends coalesced around his memory.
At ten o'clock on Friday morning, 26th June 1891, Charles Stewart Parnell and Katherine O'Shea were married at Steyning by the Registrar "who was enjoined in the most strict manner not to give any information with regard to the matter". The only witnesses to thc ceremony were two servants from Mrs. O'Shea's house at Walshingham Terrace, Brighton. Less than four months later, on 6th October 1891, broken in health if not in spirit, he died of pneumonia in the presence of his wife.
In Glasnevin cemetery a granite boulder marks his last resting place and in O'Conllell Street, Dublin, a massive triangular obelisk of Shantalla Granite, fronted by a bronze statue of the leader, carries Parnell's own words:
"No man has a right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation. No man has a right to say to his country - thus far shall thou go and no further. We have never attempted to fix the ne plus ultra of Ireland's nationhood and we never shall ."