On October 19, 130 years ago, in Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin, over half a million people gathered to witness the funeral of The Chief – Charles Stewart Parnell; ‘The uncrowned king of Ireland’, writes Mickey Kelly.
He died in the arms of his wife Katherine at the age of 45, broken in health but not in spirit.
Although they had been married only a few months, they had been lovers for many years and had three children together.
The scandal of their relationship rocked Irish politics to its very core, destroying the Irish Parliamentary Party and shattering the possibility of a peaceful transition to Irish Home Rule.
Historians have speculated endlessly of how, had Parnell not fallen from grace, a peaceful, democratic and gradual transition might have prevented the bloodshed and rancour which came to dominate Anglo Irish relations after the 1916 rebellion.
The property at 112 Tressillian Road, like so many in the area is now subdivided into flats, but it was in this genteel and respectable property in Brockley that part of this great tragedy was acted out.
It was there that, for some time, Charles Stewart Parnell and his lover and partner, Katherine O’Shea would meet.
Parnell rented the property in 1887 under the assumed name of Mr Fox and when asked for a reference, haughtily replied that a man with horses ought not to be called on to give references.
He paid the rent in advance and in cash. No references were ever given by Mr Fox.
It was here for a short while they could live out their love in the anonymity of suburbia.
Katherine described how they first met on the train to Charing Cross in 1880. She said: “He did not speak. He helped me into the train and sat opposite me.
“I leant back and closed my eyes and could have slept but that the little flames deep down in Parnell’s eyes kept flickering before mine, though they were closed. Leaning over he whispered, ‘I love you’ and I slipped my hand into his and I knew I was not afraid.”
Katherine was married to Captain O’ Shea, a fellow member of Parnell’s Irish Parliamentary Party, a man she met when she was 15.
Although he was fully aware of the affair for a number of years, it was only when Katherine’s Aunt died, leaving a significant fortune that he sued for divorce and control of the fortune, citing Parnell as co- respondent.
The press had a field day with the story, dubbing Katherine as Kitty – a name she had never used, but was a slang term for a prostitute at that time.
Parnell was unparalleled as a politician in his day. He managed to unite all of the factions within Irish nationalism, including elements of the physical force tradition characterised by the Fenians.
From a Protestant Ascendency family and a landlord in his own right, he was a paradox that defied easy explanation.
Coming to power in the shadow of the great Irish famine, he was instrumental in bringing about comprehensive land reform in Ireland so that the people could for the first time own their own land.
He built a grass roots organization, the Land League, through the organization of the Catholic Church.
The Land League agitated peacefully for reform instigating tactics such as boycott, and raising money and support for the party.
He created a united and disciplined political party in Westminster at a time when other parties were just loose coalitions of interest.
His party not only held the balance of power between the Conservative and Liberals, but the cohesion and party discipline enabled them to hold up, thwart and obstruct the conduct of Parliament – members often speaking consecutively for hours on end to hold up business and forcing Government reform.
As William Gladstone, the English Prime Minister said of him “I cannot tell you how much I think of him, and what an interest I take in everything concerning him. A marvellous man, a terrible fall.”
A later Prime Minister, Winston Churchill described his fall at the height of his potential power as a Grecian tragedy, commenting “As he had previously sacrificed all for Ireland, so, when the moment of choice came, he sacrificed all, even Ireland, for love.”
When the divorce case broke, Parnell found himself beleaguered and under attack from all sides.
The Catholic Church turned against him as an adulterer. The English press which had previously attacked him using forged letters to suggest his involvement in terrorism, now knew their opponent was severely wounded and made best use of the salacious revelations.
He fought on doggedly, losing by-election after by-election. Even after Katherine was divorced and he married her, the Catholic Church denounced him for marrying a divorcee in a registry office.
His health was failing and at one memorable election rally, a broken man standing in the pouring rain, he begged the people “Not to throw him as a sop to the English wolves!”
James Joyce later commented ‘They did not fail his desperate appeal; they tore him to pieces themselves’.
It is in the works of James Joyce that we see the ghost of Parnell as a recurring theme.
In Portrait of the artist as a young man, the argument over Christmas dinner is unforgettable – more subtle is, ‘Ivy day in the committee rooms’ in Dubliners.
Parnell also appears in Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake.
Katherine later told the story of their early courtship when a red rose she was wearing fell from her bodice. Parnell picked it up, kissed it and placed it in his pocket. Many years later she found it in an envelope in his papers with her name and the date with it.
When he died, Katherine placed the rose in his coffin.
In Glasnevin he lies, under an unhewn stone of Wicklow granite bearing only one word, Parnell.
Katherine died in 1921 and is buried in Littlehampton Cemetery.
There were only two carriages at her funeral, one of them empty.
On her grave the simple message “ Fide et amore.”- by loyalty and by love.
In this quiet part of London behind the nondescript net curtains, great love and passion played out a drama that reverberated in history.
Let us remember them both.
As the poet Yeats said “The Bishops and the party That tragic story made, A husband that had sold his wife And after that betrayed; But stories that live longest Are sung above the glass, And Parnell loved his country And Parnell loved his lass.”
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