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Parnell Monument - Dublin City

historic landmark

Charles Stewart Parnell (27 June 1846 – 6 October 1891) was an Irish political leader and one of the most important figures in 19th century Ireland and the United Kingdom; William Ewart Gladstone described him as the most remarkable person he had ever met.A future Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Henry Asquith, described him as one of the three or four greatest men of the nineteenth century, while Lord Haldane described him as the strongest man the British House of Commons had seen in 150 years.


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Photo Details

  • County: DublinCity Center
  • Town: Parnell Square
  • Scene: Parnell Monument
  • Date: circa 1910


  • Digitally remastered
  • 10' x 8' printed on quality photo paper
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  • Read about Charles Stuart Parnell below

Charles Stuart Parnell

Charles Stewart Parnell (27 June 1846 – 6 October 1891) was an Irish political leader and one of the most important figures in 19th century Ireland and the United Kingdom; William Ewart Gladstone described him as the most remarkable person he had ever met.A future Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Henry Asquith, described him as one of the three or four greatest men of the nineteenth century, while Lord Haldane described him as the strongest man the British House of Commons had seen in 150 years.


Charles Stewart Parnell was born in County Wicklow, of gentry stock. He was the third son and seventh child of John Henry Parnell, a wealthy Anglo-Irish landowner, and his American wife Delia Stewart, daughter of the American naval hero, Commodore Charles Stewart (the stepson of one of George Washington's bodyguards). Commodore Stewart's mother, Parnell's great-grandmother, belonged to the Tudor family and so could claim a distant relationship with the British Royal Family. John Henry Parnell himself was a cousin of one of Ireland's leading aristocrats, Lord Powerscourt, and also the grandson of a Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Irish House of Commons, Sir John Parnell.

Thus, from birth, Charles Stewart Parnell possessed an extraordinary number of links to many elements of society; he belonged to the established Church of Ireland (most of whose members were unionists), he was connected with the aristocracy through the Powerscourts, he was linked to the old Irish Parliamentary tradition via his great-grandfather, to the American War of Independence via his grandfather, to the War of 1812 (where his grandfather had been awarded a gold medal by the United States Congress for gallantry), and distantly connected to the Royal Family. Yet it was as a leader of Irish nationalism that Parnell established his fame.

The young Parnell studied at Magdalene College, Cambridge and in 1874 became high sheriff of his home county of Wicklow. The following year he entered parliament as member for County Meath, supporting the Home Rule party. He sat for the constituency of Cork City from 1880 until 1891.

Member of Parliament

Charles Stewart Parnell was first elected to the House of Commons (The lower level of British legislature), as a Home Rule League MP for Meath, on April 21, 1875. He replaced the deceased League MP, veteran Young Irelander John Martin. Parnell soon associated with the more radical wing of the party, which included Joseph Biggar (MP for Cavan from 1874), Edmund Dwyer Gray (MP for Tipperary from 1877), F. H. O'Donnell (MP for Dungarvan from 1877) and John O'Connor Power (MP for County Mayo from 1874) and engaged in a policy of obstructionism (i.e., the use of technical procedures to disrupt the House of Commons's ability to function) to force the House to pay more attention to Irish issues, which had heretofore been ignored.

This behaviour was opposed by the less aggressive chairman (leader) of the Home Rule League, Isaac Butt. Biggar and O'Connor Power also had links with the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a physical force Irish organisation that had mounted a disastrously inept attempt at rebellion in 1867. The question of Parnell's closeness to the IRB, and whether indeed he ever joined the organisation, has been a matter of academic debate for a century. The evidence suggests that later, following the signing of the Kilmainham Treaty, Parnell did take the IRB oath, possibly for tactical reasons.

What is known is that IRB involvement in the League's sister organisation, the Home Rule Confederation of Great Britain, led to the moderate Butt's overthrow from its presidency (even though he had founded the organisation) in 1877 and the election of Parnell in his place.


Parnell was never a great speaker in the House but his organisational, analytical and tactical skills earned wide praise, helping to take on the British organisation's presidency. Butt died in 1879 and was replaced as chairman of the League by the Whig-orientated William Shaw. Shaw's victory was temporary, however. In the April 1880 general election twenty-seven supporters of Parnell's were returned as MPs, outnumbering the support base of Shaw. In May 1880 Parnell was elected chairman of the party. Though the elections were for each session of Parliament, he remained leader for over a decade.

New style, new party, new rules

Parnell fundamentally changed the Home Rule League. He restructured it from top to bottom, creating a well-organised grass roots structure and membership to replace the League's previous informal grouping, in which MPs regularly voted differently on issues or did not come to the House of Commons at all. In 1882 he changed its name to the Irish Parliamentary Party and in 1884 imposed a strict party oath obliging its MPs to vote en bloc.

The creation of a strict party whip and formal party structure was unique in politics. The Irish Parliamentary Party is generally seen as the first modern British political party, its efficient structure and control contrasting with the loose rules and informality found in the main British parties, who came to model their party structures on the Parnellite model.

Candidate selection

A central aspect of Parnell's reforms was to ensure that professional selection of candidates took place. Previously candidates had often emerged in ad hoc arrangements, had little commitment to the party and either didn't bother to go to the House of Commons at all (some citing expense, given that MPs were unpaid and the journey to Westminster was both costly and arduous) or if they did, regularly voted against their own party. Parnell's new selection procedure, and the party oath, ensured that the party ran candidates who were committed to taking the seats and voting with their party on all occasions.

The changes impacted on the nature of candidates chosen. Under Butt, the party's MPs were a mixture of Catholic and Protestant, landlord and others, Whig, Liberal and Tory, often leading to disagreements in policy that meant that MPs split in votes. Under Parnell, the number of Protestant and landlord MPs dwindled, as did the number of Tories seeking election. The parliamentary party became much more Catholic and middle class, with a large number of journalists such as Timothy Michael Healy being elected. The disappearance of Protestant landowners and Tories from the IIP made it easier for Parnell to ensure the party voted as a block in the House of Commons.

Balance of power

Parnell's unified Irish block came to dominate British politics, making and unmaking Liberal and Conservative governments in the mid-1880s as it fought for home rule (internal self government within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland) for Ireland. In the mid 1880s, Liberal Party leader William Ewart Gladstone committed his party to support for the cause of Irish Home Rule, introducing the First Home Rule Bill in 1886. However the measure failed to pass the British House of Commons, following a split between pro- and anti-home rulers within the Liberal Party.

Though home rule was a central demand of the Irish Parliamentary Party, it also campaigned for Irish land reform. In its campaign, some of its members worked closely with an organisation known as the Irish National Land League.

Parnell was elected president of the Land League on 21 October 1879. In January 1880, together with John Dillon, he visited the United States to raise funds and awareness for the Land League. On 2 February 1880 he addressed the House of Representatives on the state of Ireland.

The association with the Land League led various members, including John Dillon, Tim Healy, William O'Brien, Willie Redmond and Parnell himself to serve periods in prison. The agitation led to the passing of a series of Land Acts that over three decades changed the face of Irish land ownership, replacing large Anglo-Irish estates with tenant ownership.

In 1882, Parnell dissolved the Land League, and founded the National League to campaign on broader issues.

The Piggott forgeries

In March 1887, Parnell found himself accused by the British newspaper The Times of support for the murders of the Chief Secretary for Ireland Lord Frederick Cavendish, and the Permanent Under-Secretary for Ireland, T.H. Burke and of the general involvement of his movement with crime (i.e., with illegal organisations such as the IRB). Burke and Cavendish had been brutally stabbed to death on 6 May 1882 in the Phoenix Park in Dublin. Letters were published which suggested Parnell was complicit in the murders. Below is the most important one.

However, a Commission of Enquiry revealed in February 1889 that the letters were in fact a fabrication created by Richard Piggott, an anti-Parnellite journalist, who later committed suicide after the letter was showed to be a forgery by him with his characteristic mistakes. Parnell then took The Times to court and the newspaper paid him £5,000 damages in an out-of-court settlement. When Parnell entered parliament, after he was vindicated, he received a standing ovation from his fellow MPs led by Gladstone. The 35-volume report did not clear Parnell's movement of criminal involvement however.

Dear Sir, - I am not surprised at your friend's anger, but he and you should know that to denounce the murders was the only course open to us. To do that promptly was plainly our best policy. But you can tell him, and all others concerned, that, though I regret the accident of Lord Frederick Cavendish's death, I cannot refuse to admit that Burke got no more than his deserts. You are at liberty to show him this, and others whom you can trust also, but let not my address be known. He can write to House of Commons. Yours very truly, Charles S. Parnell

Mrs Katharine O'Shea Parnell was viewed as an Irish national hero, referred to as the Uncrowned King of Ireland, a term originally coined to describe Daniel O'Connell. However, Parnell's triumph was shortlived. It was soon 'revealed' (though it had been widely known among politicians at Westminster) that Parnell had been the long term partner, and father of three of the children, of Katharine O'Shea, also known subsequently as Kitty. She was the wife of a fellow Galway MP, Captain Willie O'Shea, who had started divorce proceedings after failing to secure a large inheritance due to his wife.
Captain O'Shea had stayed married to Katharine because her old and wealthy aunt liked him and was going to leave a large sum of money. The aunt lived for another 11 years; when she died Captain O'Shea gained less money than he expected and he initiated divorce proceedings. After the divorce Katharine became Parnell's wife. Under pressure from the religious wing of the Liberal Party, Gladstone reluctantly indicated that he could not support the Irish Parliamentary party as long as Charles Stewart Parnell remained its leader. Divorce was forbidden under Catholic doctrine and most of Parnell's supporters were Roman Catholics. As co-respondent, Parnell was legally the cause of the divorce. He was also criticised by Nonconformists.
Parnell's reputation was high but the scandal crippled this support. As a direct consequence of the O'Shea divorce, the Unionist movement in Ulster gained strength, as they espoused puritan values and they began to see the Home Rule movement as 'morally wrong'. Parnell refused to resign, leading to a party split between Parnellites and Anti-Parnellites. At a party meeting, Parnell challenged Gladstone's intervention with the question, 'Who is the master of the party?'; Tim Healy, a notoriously waspish MP, responded with the legendary 'Who is the mistress of the party?' putdown.
The fact that it was Tim Healy who so vehemently opposed Parnell was seen as the ultimate humiliation: Healy had been one of Parnell's strongest supporters and had referred to Parnell as 'the Uncrowned King of Ireland' Personal politics Parnell's personal political views remained an enigma. He defended the radical republican and atheist Charles Bradlaugh yet associated with the Roman Catholic Church. He was linked both with aristocracy and with the Irish Republican Brotherhood, with speculation in the 1990s that he may have even joined the latter organisation. The historian Andrew Roberts argues that he was sworn into the IRB in the old library at Trinity College Dublin in May 1882 and that this was concealed for 40 years.
Socially he was a conservative, leading some historians to speculate that personally he would have been closer to the Conservative Party than the Liberals but for political needs. Andrew Kettle MP, Parnell's right hand man, who shared a lot of his opinions, wrote of his own views:

I confess that I felt [in 1885], and still feel, a greater leaning towards the British Tory party than I ever could have towards the so-called Liberals.

Historians believe that Parnell, and Tim Healy, shared that viewpoint. Death Parnell was deposed as leader and fought a long and bitter campaign for re-instatement. He co