The Great Famine of 1845 to 1849 left over 1 million dead with a further 1 million emigrating over the following 10 years. One of the effects of the disaster was to demonstrate to ordinary Irish people that the English government had failed them in their time of need and that they must seize control of their own destiny.
Out of the Famine grew several revolutionary movements which culminated in the 1916 Easter Rising. In the second half of the nineteenth century the main concern of the Irish people was their land and the fact that they had no control whatsoever over its ownership.
Charles Stewart Parnell was the son of a Protestant landowner who organised the rural masses into agitation against the ruling landlord class to seek the 3 Fs: Fixity of Tenure, Freedom to Sell and Fair Rent.
Violence flared in the countryside but Parnell preferred to use parliamentary means to achieve his objectives and the result was a series of Land Acts which greatly improved the conditions under which the Irish agricultural class toiled.
Parnell’s main ambition was Home Rule for Ireland (local government) and he led the Irish Party, deposing Isaac Butt in the process to achieve this aim. He and colleagues such as Joseph Biggar made a science out of ‘fillibustering’ and delayed the English parliament by introducing amendments to every clause of every Bill and then discussing each aspect at length. His popularity in Ireland soared to great heights.
Trouble loomed for Parnell, however, in his private life. He had secretly courted a married woman, Kathleen O’Shea, the husband of whom filed for divorce, naming Parnell as the co-respondent. He tried to ignore the scandal and continued his public life. Public pressure in Ireland and from Gladstone in England eventually brought his downfall and he died shortly afterwards, in 1891. The Home Rule Bill that he had forced Gladstone into introducing was passed in the House of Commons, but defeated in the House of Lords.
In his last speech in Kilkenny in 1891 he said: “I don’t pretend that I had not moments of trial and of temptation, but I do claim that never in thought, word, or deed, have I been false to the trust which Irishmen have confided in me.”
But perhaps he will be most remembered for the quotation that can be found on his statue at the junction of O’Connell Street and Parnell Street in Dublin City Centre:
“No man shall have the right to fix the boundary to the march of a Nation”.
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