Parnell courted controversy
HISTORIAN DR. EMMETT O’BYRNE CONTINUES HIS SERIES FOCUSING ON THE GARDEN COUNTY’S PAST, HIGHLIGHTING ITS MORE PECULIAR ASPECTS
CHARLES STEWART PARNELL (1846-91) was born at Avondale on 27 June, 1846, to John Henry Parnell (1811-59), deputy lieutenant and high-sheriff for Co. Wicklow and Delia Tudor (1816-1896), daughter of Commodore Charles Stewart (1778-1869) of New Jersey. He was the seventh of eleven strong minded and individualistic children that numbered five boys and six girls. Parnell's domineering, impulsive and self-willed nature was noted early as his sisters nicknamed him ‘ Butthead' due to the inability of anybody to control him. His siblings also called him ‘ Tom Thumb' as he was small in stature as a child. Parnell's childhood in Wicklow was relatively idyllic - spending summers panning for gold in the river near Aughrim, as well as shooting and fishing with his father in Aughavanagh. Even so, Parnell's early years were not without trauma, suffering typhoid and scarlet fever. He was also deeply affected by the death of his brother Hayes in 1853, while the separation of his parents that year was upsetting, leading him to be sent for education to England. On 3 July, 1859, Parnell, aged thirteen, inherited the indebted Avondale estate upon his father's death, becoming a ward of the court of chancery as he was still a minor. Avondale was let, while Parnell returned to England.
It is popularly thought that Parnell was miserable when he was in England - though this view needs qualification. Between 1865-69 Parnell studied at Magdalene College, Cambridge. But due to the financial troubles of Avondale, he spent much of his time in Wicklow. Parnell's Cambridge career ended on 26 May, 1869. Then in accordance with college rules, he was sent down for the remainder of the term following his prosecution for assault on 21 May. The evidence reveals that an abusive and drunken Parnell had assaulted a merchant who dealt in manure. To make matters worse, Parnell was arrogant enough to offer a constable a shilling ‘...to settle the affair.' Although he intended to return to his studies, he never did. Parnell's wild days continued. The Wicklow Newsletter of 24 September, 1869, reports that Ralph Jordan, proprietor of the Glendalough Hotel, brought a case before the Rathdrum petty sessions against Parnell and Arthur Dickinson arising from a drunken punch up in the hotel during the night of 27 July. On this occasion, Parnell was acquitted.
Throughout 1870, Parnell struggled to develop Avondale, constructing saw mills. In spring, 1871, he sailed for the US to meet a Miss Wood whom he met in Paris. When she rejected him, he joined his brother John Howard Parnell on a tour of the American south - returning to Ireland in January 1872. At this point there was nothing to mark him out from the other gentry figures, indulging in the past-times of cricket, horses, and hunting. During the early 1870s, Parnell joined the Wicklow militia as an officer, appearing in uniform at society balls held at Dublin Castle, dancing with all the pretty women. In 1872 Parnell began to show an interest in politics. His brother John Howard Parnell suggested that he should consider standing for parlia- ment. Parnell declined but declared that he was in favour of the tenants and Home Rule.
His first ventures into politics were atypical of his background, becoming a justice of the peace and a grand juror in the Wicklow Assizes. Like his father before him, Parnell served as high-sheriff for Wicklow between 1874-75. He also became a member of the synod of the disestablished Church of Ireland, representing his diocese. In 1874, Parnell sought to stand for election as a Home Rule candidate for Wicklow but his office of high-sheriff disqualified him.
John Howard Parnell contested the election, finishing last in the poll on 12 February, 1874. However, the Home Rule League saw the advantage of having a man such as Parnell on their ticket. So after Parnell's term as high-sheriff ended, he entered a by-election as a Home Rule candidate in Dublin on 18 March, 1874. His campaign was uninspiring, losing heavily (2,183 votes to 1,235). Undeterred, Parnell offered to contest another byelection in Tipperary. The Home Rule League executive groomed him, endorsing him in April 1875 for the seat in Meath vacated by the death of John Martin. Such was their ardour for Parnell that the executive pressurised the local candidate J.T. Hinds unsuccessfully to withdraw. With the support of the local Catholic bishop, Parnell won the byelection on 17 April (1,771 votes to 1,050) - taking his seat on 22 April. On 26 April Parnell made his maiden speech in the commons, asking: ‘Why should Ireland be treated as a geographical fragment? Ireland was not a geographical fragment but a nation.'
Charles Stewart Parnell.