Chapter Four

Charles Stewart Parnell was an Irish member of Parliament who came from the Protestant landowning class, and he was a vigorous proponent of Irish Nationalism. A natural leader with great charisma and an uncanny ability to assess the political situation, Parnell organized the Irish Nationalist movement until the bulk of the Irish members of Parliament were elected on a home-rule-for-Ireland platform. This meant that a sizable minority in the British House of Commons were united on this concept, and for the Liberal British Prime Minister, Gladstone, to get any legislation passed, he had to court this minority group to give him sufficient votes to get past the Conservatives.  Thus Gladstone himself agreed to introduce legislation for Irish Home Rule. Though the first Home Rule bill was defeated in 1886 in the House of Commons, nevertheless Parnell’s strong national leadership made it seem apparent that Home Rule was an inevitability.

Parnell’s heroic popularity was at its height in 1890, when he was referred to as Ireland’s “uncrowned king.”  But that year a divorce suit was put forth in Ireland by Captain John O’Shea, naming Parnell as “co-respondent,” that is, claiming that Parnell had had an adulterous affair with O’Shea’s wife, Kitty O’Shea. When Parnell admitted to the affair, and later married the now-divorced O’Shea, the Catholic hierarchy had no choice but to reject and denounce Parnell, and Gladstone’s Victorian England constituency refused to consider Home Rule as long as Parnell was the Irish leader. The resulting split in the Irish populace was enormous: Parnell seemed the greatest leader to emerge in Ireland for centuries, but some now viewed him as a traitor, as an immoral imposter; others blamed the Church for rejecting him, viewing his political importance as overshadowing his moral failings.  The influence of the Catholic Church cannot be overstated here: by denouncing Parnell, they sealed his fate. Parnell struggled to restore his political fortunes, but in 1891 he died from exhaustion. Two years later, in 1893, another Home Rule bill was defeated in Parliament, this time in the House of Lords. Parnellism had passed, leaving in its wake another martyr to Irish freedom, this time largely the victim of the internal struggles within Ireland itself.

Among the Irish modernists, James Joyce was particularly obsessed with Parnell, as can be seen from his short story in Dubliners, “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” and the powerful Christmas Dinner scene in his 1916 novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.