Deaglán de Bréadún: Charles Stewart Parnell's story has lessons for today

Irish home ruler Charles Stewart Parnell passed away in 1891 at the age of 45
Irish home ruler Charles Stewart Parnell passed away in 1891 at the age of 45

THE terrible tragedy at Creeslough had a heartrending impact but it was impressive to see how people rallied to express support.

To their credit, political leaders travelled to Donegal to express their condolences. One of them was Taoiseach Micheál Martin, who was originally intended to deliver a speech at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin where his place was taken by his Fianna Fáil colleague, housing minister Darragh O'Brien.

The speech marked the anniversary of the death of Charles Stewart Parnell, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party which held the balance of power in the House of Commons debates on Home Rule for Ireland in 1885-86, helping to convert Prime Minister William Gladstone to the cause. Born into a wealthy Anglo-Irish landowning family, Parnell "went over to the other side" and campaigned for land redistribution and Irish self-government within the United Kingdom. He was eventually brought down by the revelation of a long-term relationship with a married woman, Katharine O’Shea.

The annual commemoration takes place on the Sunday closest to October 6, the date Parnell passed away in 1891 at the age of 45. It has been known ever since as Ivy Day, because mourners at his funeral plucked ivy leaves from the cemetery walls and wore them in his memory. James Joyce later wrote a short story with a political theme called 'Ivy Day in the Committee Room', as part of his famous collection 'Dubliners'.

As last Sunday’s speech put it: "Parnell was the essential transformative figure who helped our country off its knees and towards securing independence within three decades of his death." The speech continued later: "He gave a new impetus to the demand that Ireland must be taken seriously or parliamentary business would be undermined."

In a documentary shown on the TG4 channel, various historians contributed to an account of Parnell's rather short but eventful life. The programme illustrated very well how Parnell used the balance of power as a means of advancing the cause of Irish nationalism. His story contains some lessons for today: regular readers may recall that I have previously suggested Sinn Féin candidates who get elected as Westminster MPs should take a pragmatic approach towards participation in the House of Commons.

In the 2019 UK general election the Tories achieved a majority of 80 seats, but only a minority of their MPs supported Liz Truss in the recent contest for the party leadership and it looks like there will be a very different balance of forces in the next parliament. If taking the oath, the Sinn Féin people could repeat Eamon de Valera's words as he entered the Free State parliament in 1927, where he said the equivalent of the following in Irish: "I am prepared to put my name down in this book in order to get permission to go into the Dáil, but it has no other significance."

The next British general election must be held by January 2025 at the latest. The final deadline in the Republic of Ireland is March of the same year. Wouldn’t it be exciting if both contests took place around the same time?

Reflecting on Parnell’s life and achievements recalled an episode from my own family history, where the forebears on my father’s side were from Kiltyclogher in County Leitrim. They were called Bredin, the English-language version of the name. Parnell’s sister Anna, a leading member of the Ladies’ Land League, which played such an important role in the land agitation, arrived in the village on June 2, 1881. There was much discontent in the area, as many tenants had been dispossessed by a local landlord. Anna Parnell stayed overnight with my ancestors and addressed a huge crowd from north Leitrim and west Fermanagh at a meeting next day, where the 29-year-old challenged the landlord’s actions in the following terms: “He wishes to decide the land question in his own way but I have no hesitation in saying that it must be the people who decide it and in a manner not acceptable to him.”

The present writer has the privilege of speaking at an all-day conference of the Irish Association in Riddell Hall at Queen’s University Belfast next Tuesday where the topic is ‘Journalism without Borders: The Role of the Media in Political and Social Debate across the island of Ireland’. I can’t hope to match Anna Parnell’s eloquence but there are other participants who might well do so: further information on the event is available by emailing admin@irishassociation.org

Email: Ddebre1@aol.com; Twitter: @DdeBreadun