No one could have predicted that the hesitant, almost inarticulate candidate for the Irish parliamentary party in the by-election in Dublin in 1874 would go on to be proclaimed as the Uncrowned King of Ireland and then brought to earth by the same people who had deified him in the first place.
For most of the first thirty years of his life Charles Stewart Parnell was a member of the family who were the benevolent landlords of Avondale in Co.Wicklow – an estate of 4000 acres that produced a modest income by the standards of the late 19th century. Parnell did what most of the members of his class did. He rode to hounds in the winter and played cricket in the summer – he was a decent batsman and wicketkeeper.
Then, suddenly, at the age of 28, he offered himself to the Irish parliamentary party, then led by Isaac Butt, as a candidate for the vacant seat in County Dublin. As he could afford to pay for his own campaign and didn’t have to worry about loss of earnings should he win the seat – ordinary MPs were not paid until the early 20th century – he got the nod from the party bosses. They quickly regretted their decision. The young Charles Stewart Parnell was a dreadful candidate. He could hardly put two words together and was so nervous as a public speaker that he could do little more than stammer on the hustings. The electorate was unimpressed and he was easily defeated.
He was given a second chance and did better the following year winning a by-election in Meath. For two years Parnell kept his own counsel in the House of Commons. He watched and waited. Then, in a move apparently out of character with his social status, he threw in his lot with a group of converted Fenians and blocked much House of Commons business by filibustering – making long speeches on very little indeed – much to the annoyance of the British MPs and most of the Irish ones as well.
Parnell would go on to lead his party, deliver some significant land reform, and significantly advance the cause of Home Rule before his involvement in the divorce of Katharine O’Shea brought him crashing to earth. She was, by the way, only called ‘Kitty’ by her adversaries, the name was a term of abuse reserved for Victorian prostitutes.
Parnell, though briefly beloved of the nationalist Irish, was not held in such high esteem by many of his party colleagues. He was seen as aloof, arrogant, and often lazy. Unlike, for example, other Victorian politicians, who were enthusiastic correspondents, Parnell would not have been good on email. He treated the reams of correspondence that arrived for him on a daily basis with utter contempt. He rarely opened a letter, leaving that to others to do on his behalf. He was very superstitious, with a particular aversion for the month of October. Naturally, that was the month, in 1891, in which he died at the age of 45. Bizarrely, for someone who led the Irish constitutional nationalist movement for a momentous decade, he also loathed and feared the colour green.
Charles Stewart Parnell, politician, Uncrowned King and chromophobe, was born 168 years ago, on this day.
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