Charles Stewart Parnell was known as The Uncrowned King of Ireland and Kings used to have the power to make treaties or at least send someone to conclude them in their place. But Parnell, in 1882, was partly responsible for the ‘Treaty That Wasn’t’. It became known as the Kilmainham Treaty, called after the impressive jail of that name rather than the salubrious suburb of Dublin 8.
The background was chaos in the Irish countryside as the eviction of tenants escalated when agricultural depression hit what we would now call ‘the developed world’. Ireland was, at the time, only included within the ambit of the developed world by default, as part of the United Kingdom. Evictions led, inevitably, to agrarian unrest – retaliation in the form of attacks on bailiffs, agents, and, occasionally, landlords themselves by Ribbonmen, members of agrarian secret societies. Not to mention assaults on so-called ‘land grabbers’ who moved onto the farms of families who had been evicted. The murder rate soared and the Royal Irish Constabulary found itself under huge pressure to make arrests and secure convictions in a rural environment where juries were not disposed to convict even the most obviously guilty Ribbonmen.
The British government response was, as always, to take a benign, far-sighted softly softly approach.
That’s actually completely untrue. They did what they normally did and imposed the sort of coercive measures that would never have been tolerated in England, Scotland or Wales. In fairness, however, they would probably have been unnecessary outside of stroppy old Ireland.
In essence Habeas Corpus was suspended. This meant the government dispensed with the need to bring anyone to trial and produce actual evidence of wrongdoing in order to convict them. It was sufficient merely to suspect that they had been up to no good to throw them in jail. One of the first victims was Parnell himself, arrested in Dublin by the famed Metropolitan policeman Superintendent John Mallon and detained at the pleasure of Her Majesty in Kilmainham Jail.
He resided there for six months, experiencing no difficulty whatever in keeping up a passionate correspondence with his partner of twelve months or so, Katharine O’Shea. Ultimately it was her ambitious husband who sprang the Uncrowned King. Always a man with an eye to the main chance William O’Shea brokered a deal whereby Parnell promised to do his best to rein in the agrarian extremists who were making things unpleasant for the poor landlords, while William Gladstone’s government agreed to introduce remedial legislation to improve the lot of impoverished tenant farmers. The alternative was a continuation of the anarchy that reigned while the entire Irish political leadership was in stir.
As an added extra Parnell tossed in a tasty morsel for the Liberal government in the shape of a potential future political alliance. That was the bit that stuck in the craw of many of Parnell’s supporters and led to both sides denying that the agreement ever existed. Gallons of cold water were poured over allegations that a deal had been done by both Parnell and Gladstone but O’Shea’s preening and the exponential increase in his normal level of smugness told insiders that some sort of compact had been arrived at to allow for the release of Parnell from jail. It was all a monumental waste of time because four days after Parnell got out of Kilmainham the Invincibles murdered Gladstone’s nephew Lord Frederick Cavendish – the new Chief Secretary, and his second in command Thomas H.Burke in Phoenix Park. And it was back to the messy status quo for another few years.
Charles Stewart Parnell was released from Kilmainham Jail on the basis of what might be described today as ‘certain agreed modalities’ but definitely not a treaty of any kind, 132 years ago, on this day.