Analysis: Charles Stewart Parnell's legacy has proved almost as remarkable as the politician's career

By Martin O'DonoghueNorthumbria University

We have witnessed the return of Charles Stewart Parnell to Westminster, albeit 130 years after his passing. While the flurry of online discussion may have been a new rhetorical sideshow in the ongoing Brexit news cycle, the reaction aroused in Ireland by Jacob Rees-Mogg's remarks indicate the enduring resonance of Parnell’s name.

Rees-Mogg’s complaint that Parnell’s obstructionist tactics had "bunged up" the Commons was soon followed by the news that fellow Brexiter Nigel Farage was an admirer of Parnell and his ability as a "disrupter". Taoiseach Leo Varadkar subsequently described Parnell as one of his "great political heroes". Such statements should not surprise and they offer evidence of a legacy which has proved almost a remarkable as Parnell’s career itself.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, UCD Lecturer in Irish History Conor Mulvagh on the recent exploitation of Charles Stewart Parnell's legacy

John Redmond, the Parnellite leader during the decade of split which followed the Chief’s death, often remarked that he stood "where Parnell stood". As leader of the reunited parliamentary party, he oversaw the unveiling of the Parnell monument in Dublin. However, Matthew Kelly has noted the "myriad of political opinions and aspirations that Parnellism embraced if not disguised" and the leader’s name could be invoked at various occasions and in various causes.

Sinn Féin propaganda used Parnell against the Irish Parliamentary Party in 1918, insisting that it had strayed from his message. In the Treaty debates, reference to Parnell took on another meaning and highlighted the danger of disunity. After independence, politicians from home rule backgrounds continued to trade on Parnell’s name. Redmond’s son, Capt. William, co-founded the Irish National League in 1926, echoing Parnell’s organisation of the 1880s, as he promised to go "into the Dáil just as Parnell went into Westminster".

Parnell's political organisation also offered an example to later parties. Privately, Kevin O’Higgins complained that Cumann na nGaedheal's leadership could not control its grassroots in the 1920s in the way that Parnell had done. O’Higgins’s reflections highlighted a certain contradiction; the pro-Treaty side absorbed more politicians from home rule backgrounds, but Parnell's legacy enjoyed a greater afterlife arguably on the other side of Civil War politics.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Sean O'Rourke, Diarmaid Ferriter on Charles Stewart Parnell and Kitty O'Shea

Fianna Fáil only entered the Dáil in 1927 and briefly tried the tactic of obstruction a year later. This marked change in the Dáil where Cumann na nGaedheal had little need to sit, act and vote as dutifully as the IPP had done prior to this. Parnell’s party had prided itself on discipline and Fianna Fáil did too, as Éamon de Valera instituted a strong whip system and a party pledge which echoed that of Parnell’s day.

Parnell and the land

However, de Valera’s decision to withhold the land annuities owed to Britain and the tariff war which followed also saw the names of Parnell and Michael Davitt regularly invoked in the divisive period of the 1930s. Cumann na nGaedheal claimed that the Free State had to honour Parnell’s agreements with Britain dating back to the 1880s. The same argument was used by Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs J.H. Thomas. The leader of the National Farmers and Rate-payers' League, Frank MacDermot, was even introduced at a meeting as "the Parnell of 1932".

Significantly, though, Fianna Fáil and Labour soon countered that MacDermot only represented cattle farmers, leaving the moniker open to ridicule. The twin legacies of Land League direct action and the constitutionalism of the IPP a combination which spoke to the power of Parnellism — proved difficult to reconcile for those who espoused defence of farmers but also constitutionalism as the Blueshirt movement emerged.

From RTÉ Archives, Michael Ronayne reports for RTÉ News on the opening of the Charles Stewart Parnell museum at Avondale House in 1986

The "new Parnell"?

Instead, it was Fianna Fáil who increasingly sought to absorb Parnell’s memory into the longer narrative of the quest for Irish freedom. A 1933 Irish Press editorial praised the home rule leader for what it claimed was his "recognition of the need for full national independence", while a 1941 leader credited him with "bringing war to Westminster".

Assessing de Valera’s use of historical leadership examples, Patrick Murray reflected that one of his "more congenial manifestations" was the "new Parnell" in 1946. De Valera unveiled a plaque at Avondale and dwelt on the achievement of Parnell who "built up a party equally remarkable for the brilliance of its members and for the rigidness of the discipline it enforced upon itself".

Later that year, de Valera drew on Parnell’s connections to physical force, telling an audience at Creggs, Co Galway, that he marched on the shoulders of the Fenians just as de Valera’s generation took up the work from the "great generation which ended the power of the landlord and made it impossible for a foreign parliament to rule us". He concluded by declaring that the 26 counties had achieved all that Parnell wanted "and more than he felt it expedient to demand in his day".

From RTÉ Jr, Time Travels, a journey back to 1880 to find out about Charles Stewart Parnell and the Land League 

While de Valera’s speeches did not pass without criticism (particularly from the Cork Examiner), his remarks illustrate how the memory of Parnell and the Land War period retained currency for leaders of multiple hues — whatever the interpretation employed.

Politicians always draw on many wells of inspiration, historical and otherwise, but it is no accident that so many have drawn on Parnell. The model of his party machine, the power of his personal appeal and the continued significance of land issues in Irish politics outlived the former leader, a fact which has not been lost on later generations.

Dr Martin O'Donoghue is a lecturer in Irish and British history at Northumbria University. His book, The Legacy of the Irish Parliamentary Party in Independent Ireland, 1922-1949, will be published by Liverpool University Press later this year.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ