Parnell and the Land League

Eleanor Hull
Parnell and the Land League

During the land agitation another question came to the front. The Home Rule struggle began. Isaac Butt, the son of a Protestant clergyman in the North of Ireland, a Trinity College man and a rising barrister, who had already attained to the distinction of Queen’s Counsel when he had been only six years at the Bar, had warned the farmers that if they depended solely on Gladstone and English parties in the House for the attainment of their hopes they were doomed to disappointment.

Considering Butt’s antecedents, his career had been a remarkable one. He had taken a prominent part in the defence of the Fenian prisoners, and had thus been drawn to inquire into the causes which led to the evolution of such desperate undertakings as those in which his clients had been involved; and into the amnesty movement, which followed immediately, he had thrown himself with all his energies.

It was a curious spectacle to see a Protestant clergyman’s son defending leaders of revolution against the jibes and severities of an Irish Catholic Solicitor-General, Judge Keogh’s management of the cases before him being hardly less offensive in its way, than that of the notorious ‘hanging’ Judge Norbury after the rebellion of ’98.

Butt had become convinced that no assurance of intelligent attention to Irish needs was to be depended upon from the English Parliament. The ignorance of, and consequent indifference to, Irish conditions was too dense, and the vested interests were too strong.

Irish grievances, Irish famines, and Irish outrages had become a chronic condition, and they wearied, without interesting, the House. It was difficult for an assembly placed, as the English Parliament was, at a distance, and largely dependent for its information on Members who had private interests to serve, to become aware of the real facts.

And members of the Irish Parliamentary party, who, after O’Connell’s withdrawal, had shown themselves only too willing to be bought over by the Whigs, had lamentably failed to convince the House of the sincerity of their complaints.

A new party was required, and this party, with Home Rule or the restoration of Irish Parliamentary independence as its final aim, Butt set himself to form.

Several of the Protestant gentry, who had not forgotten the days of the independent Parliament, joined him, and even the moderate Catholic gentlemen felt they need not stand aside from so innocuous a form of Home Rule. Certain of the old agitators, who still hoped to work through constitutional means, came forward.

It was, however, the Conservatives who took the lead at the inaugural meeting in the Bilton Hotel, Dublin, held on May 10, 1870, which agreed to Butt’s motion “That it is the opinion of this meeting that the true remedy for the evils of Ireland is the establishment of an Irish Parliament with full control over our domestic affairs.”

The new association was called “the Home Government Association of Ireland.” Thus was the campaign for Home Rule launched.[1]

The Ballot Act of 1870, passed by Gladstone’s first Government, came to their aid, for Ireland had for the first time the opportunity of making her voice heard without fear or favour. The result was remarkable. Four by-elections sent to Parliament John Martin, an old Nationalist of transparent honesty, for Meath, Mitchel Henry for Galway, P. J. Smyth for Westmeath, and Butt himself for Limerick City, all pledged to support Home Rule.

At the next General Election of 1874 sixty Home Rulers were returned, out of 103 Members, though in some cases the Catholic clergy actively opposed them.[2]

Butt, their leader, was a man of simplicity, kindliness, and very considerable ability. As a Parliamentarian he stood, in his day, next to Gladstone. He sacrificed his profession to his Parliamentary career, and this sacrifice, combined with a temper too easy and benevolent, and a disposition too pleasure-loving, caused the embarrassments which pursued him through life and led him constantly into debt.

He had to lead a mixed party. There were young patriots and place-hunters, some old Nationalists like A. M. Sullivan and J. J. O’Kelly, and Conservatives like Colonel King-Harman, who voted for Home Rule with his Irish comrades, but on all English party divisions sided with the Ministry.

It was a heterogeneous party, which could hardly be held together even with Butt’s easy handling, and it awaited the coming of a more rigorous leader to weld it into the compact and formidable body which in the time of Parnell and Redmond was to make the Irish party on many occasions the arbiter of the destinies of English parties and the dictators of Irish demands.

But it was in Butt’s time that the great weapon of obstruction, suggested long before by Gavan Duffy, which was to be wielded with frequent and resistless force by the later Irish party, was formed.

On April 22, 1875, when the House was engaged on its accustomed task of passing a Coercion Bill for Ireland, Butt put up Joseph Biggar to speak.[3] “How long do you wish me to speak?” asked Biggar. “A pretty good while,” said Butt, who wished to delay the House. Biggar rose; it was five o’clock, and he sat down at nine. By the expedient of reading passages from Blue Books and Acts of Parliament he had managed to occupy four hours of the time of the debate.

The success of the plan led to its adoption by the Irish party as a regular means of Parliamentary warfare. Parnell first used it effectively in the debate on the new Coercion Bill of 1881, when motion upon motion was made by the Irish Members for the adjournment of the House, one Member succeeding the other through the day and night, without the slightest indication of wearinesss or surrender, in an uninterrupted sitting of forty-one hours, until their campaign was defeated by the introduction of the closure by the Speaker.

A memorable contest followed on the reassembling of the House, which ended in the suspension of a large number of the Irish Members for having been guilty of “wilful and deliberate obstruction.”

Thus the contest for the time was finished, but such scenes were not unusual. They probably tended to make many English Members less averse than they might otherwise have been to the idea of Home Rule as promising to relieve the House of the presence of these obstructionists.

Charles Stewart Parnell

Charles Stewart Parnell
From the painting by Sydney P. Hall in the National Gallery of Ireland.

It was while the land agitation was at its height and Home Rule was becoming a question of the first importance that a new and striking figure appeared on the Irish side in the House of Commons. On April 22, 1875, Charles Stewart Parnell took his seat as Member for Co. Meath, in the place of John Martin, who had suddenly died.

The slim and quiet young man who unobtrusively entered the House on the day made memorable by Biggar’s formidable harangue gave no sign of the power either over Parliament or his own party that he was destined to attain. His own maiden speech was brief and nervous, uttered in a thin, unaggressive voice and with a marked English accent, but it contained the keynote of the position he was about to take up. “Why,” he asked, “should Ireland be treated as a geographical fragment of England … ? Ireland is not a geographical fragment. She is a nation.”

Parnell was a Protestant landlord, living on his property at Avondale in Co. Wicklow. Nothing, either in appearance or temperament, could be further removed from the popular ideal of the Irishman as it was embodied in the person of the last “uncrowned king of Ireland,” O’Connell.

The new claimant for that title was outwardly cold, impassive, and chilling, even to his followers; the outside world he confronted with a careless nonchalance which resented familiarity and seemed to ask for nothing. He was ignorant of public affairs and read few books. Such information as he needed in debate he picked up from others, or got others to look up for him. He quickly mastered the rules of debate, but he had no ambition to become a practised public speaker, and to make an oration was always painful to him.

At times it seemed that he went out of his way to show his contempt of popularity, amounting almost to a contempt of humanity. When, in December 1883, it was decided to present him with the magnificent tribute of £40,000 collected among his admirers and friends his only remark was: “Is it made payable to order and crossed?” No words of thanks or sign of gratitude.[4]

While mass meetings which he was to address were waiting in Ireland for his appearance he might be found watching for the arrival of Mrs. O’Shea at some railway station in London or reading quietly in her room at Eltham. “I found out early in political life,” he would say, “that they think I’m much more wonderful when I do nothing than when I’m working hard.”[5]

When the first of the forged incriminating letters in The Times was shown to him long after the rest of the London world had read it and come to the hasty conclusion that Home Rule had received its deathblow, all he remarked after looking at it carefully was: “I did not make an s like that since 1878.”

No wonder that his friends thought that if he were going to treat the letter in that way in the House there was not an Englishman but would believe that he had written it. On all critical occasions in his life this same impassive attitude distressed his supporters and baulked his enemies.

It is no doubt true that Parnell looked even on the men of his own party rather as counters in the political game he had sat down to play than as friends and confidants. In response to a plea from Mrs. O’Shea that “after all they were human beings” he would answer characteristically, “In politics, as in war, there are no men, only weapons.”[6] When his will was thwarted he would fling out of the party even a man who had been useful to him in former days, saying, “While I am leader they are my tools, or they go.”[7]

A man so autocratic made few personal friends and had, among his party, no confidants. He held himself aloof, and his very aloofness surrounded him with that attraction which an impenetrable mystery always provokes. But the world was not wrong in believing that there were fires smouldering beneath the impassive exterior, and that he was a man of strong feeling.

Parnell was in truth a man of two passions, which absorbed, controlled, and dominated his life. For the attainment of both of these aims he was ready to employ all means, lawful and unlawful; to go through any suffering; and to sacrifice ruthlessly both himself and others.

The passion which controlled his private life was his love for Mrs. O’Shea, who shortly before his death became his wife; the passion of his public life was the desire to lift Ireland out of the rut of hopeless postponements of relief and to see her set on the paths of national progress and prosperity.

His concern for his country began, as it would appear, from the epoch of the executions of Allen, Larkin, and O’Brien, “the Manchester Martyrs,” but it was more probably instilled into the boy at an earlier date by his mother, who was a strong Nationalist, and by his sisters, Anna and Fanny Parnell, the founders of the Ladies’ Land League, which he suppressed in 1882, denouncing its criminality and wild extravagance and saying that it had taken the country out of his hands.

He had in his early days no intention of taking up a political career. He was interested in his property in Wicklow, busied in investigating its mineral resources, and preparing to take a course in geology at the Royal College of Science in Dublin, when his life as an Irish squireen was changed by a half-hearted effort to secure a seat in Parliament.

The bent of Parnell’s mind was scientific, and all through his life he fell back on engineering and chemistry as his absorbing hobbies. His interest in his crucibles was so great that even on the morning of The Times attack he put off reading the paper for two hours while he completed some chemical work and jotted down results. It was a chance remark dropped at the dinner-table of his sister, Mrs Dickenson, that led Parnell to think of entering Parliament, but to his intimates he appeared likely to prove a hopeless failure in a political career. He struck them as wanting both in political knowledge and capacity.

When Parnell entered Parliament Butt was the undisputed leader of the Irish party; Bill after Bill in reference to Ireland was introduced, but none of them got through. To Parnell it appeared a terrible waste of time; he despised all the talking which ended in nothing. Slowly he set himself to form a party, strictly disciplined, entirely dependent on himself, and answering to his every call. His policy outside the House and within it was practically the same; in the House he obstructed, not special Bills, but all Bills and every detail of business.

The lesson he had learned from Biggar on the day when he entered the House he perfected into a fine art. The House would not carry Irish Bills; he therefore determined that his lieutenants should talk out every Bill presented; his object being to throw the whole machinery of Parliament out of gear.

By 1877 he had organized the party, and Butt, who disapproved of such treatment of the Parliamentary institutions which he reverenced, withdrew and was formally deposed from the leadership of the Home Rule party, William Shaw being elected in his place in 1879. But the feeling that in Parliament the government of England was being challenged and thwarted had a great effect in Ireland, where Davitt was lecturing on a peasant proprietary.

The “sheer tenacity” of Parnell, who carried war into the very citadel of the “enemy,” struck them as a new departure. He was busy organizing the Land League, and he was in touch with the Fenians, though he never became one of that body.

There was no organization that he would not have used if he thought it would have promoted the ends he had in view, and the New Fenian movement was demanding separation from England and the establishment of peasant proprietorship. In the latter proposal Parnell agreed, and at a Land League meeting at Westport in 1879 he called on the farmers and peasants to “show the landlords that you intend to hold a firm grip of your homesteads and land.”

Those landlords that resisted were to be boycotted mercilessly. This was Parnell’s land policy. He stood in a peculiar position, leaning on the one hand on the Fenians and the Clan-na-Gael, their American associates, but on the other hand still determined to employ Parliamentary methods.

He won the hearts of the rank and file of these revolutionary bodies, whose earnestness and fearlessness he admired, by “walking on the verge of treason-felony,”[8] though he held the violent spirits back until he had once more given constitutional opposition a trial.

Two new advances in position had been more clearly formulated since Parnell took up the reins—Irish peasant-ownership and separation from England.