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A Letter from Kilmainham Gaol

Charles Stewart Parnell and the Land War

By Oscar Bryan


The archival depository of the RCB Library is well–known for its diverse collection of parish registers, drawn from churches across the length and breadth of the island of Ireland. While these archival resources have proven to be of immense value to both amateur and professional researchers, the RCB also retains custody of numerous documents relating to broader, more secular themes from the depths of Irish history. Such documents might fly under the radar of some researchers, who might assume that all manuscripts held by the RCB are exclusively devoted to the development and institutional functions of the Church of Ireland. However, a detailed glance at the manuscript handlist reveals that there are numerous items of wider historical significance, which go above and beyond the evolution and affairs of religious life in the Anglican context.

One such example of a unique item held by the RCB Library is Ms 994, an intriguing letter penned by the celebrated leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, Charles Stewart Parnell (1846–1891). Often referred to as the uncrowned king of Ireland by both followers and detractors alike, the progressive Parnell was the foremost figure of his day for advancing the rights of tenant farmers, and for the restoration of a Dublin–based parliament. As the product of a wealthy Anglo–Irish family of Wicklow landlords, Parnell was a somewhat unlikely figurehead for the political empowerment of the island’s tenant majority. However, Parnell viewed the question of land ownership and the issue of home rule as inextricably interlinked – believing that the creation of a class of self–sufficient farmers would be the vital underbelly of his efforts to resolve the omnipresent Irish Question. Throughout his career, the politician undertook a careful balancing act between parliamentary and extra–parliamentary activism, waging a career–long crusade for Irish autonomy and land reforms in the British House of Commons, while also building grassroots support from among the population at large.

Baptism of Charles Stewart Parnell in Rathdrum parish, Co Wicklow, 9 August 1846, RCB Library, P/377/1/4.
Baptism of Charles Stewart Parnell in Rathdrum parish, Co Wicklow, 9 August 1846, RCB Library, P/377/1/4.


A crucial juncture in Parnell’s political career came during the Land War (1879–1882), when the statesman both established and spearheaded an influential tenant’s rights association, the Irish National Land League. The rise of the Land League coincided with a period of a sustained economic downturn, alongside climate–induced dips in overall harvest yields – culminating in the Irish Famine of 1879. Along with his senior colleagues in the Land League, Charles campaigned for the three Fs – free sale, fixity of tenure, fair rent – as the backbone of potential legislative solutions for the mounting distress experienced by the nation’s exploited renters. The British government, headed by the Liberal Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone, had previously introduced regulations aimed at curtailing the excesses of the Irish landlord system – but such watered–down measures did not go far enough to address the lingering grievances of tenants who found themselves placed in a highly precarious position. As the Land League’s inaugural declaration of principles proudly protested:


The land of Ireland belongs to the people of all Ireland, to be held and cultivated for the sustenance of those who God decreed to be inhabitants thereof. Land being created to supply mankind with the necessaries of existence, those who cultivate it to that end have a higher claim to its absolute possession than those who make it an article of barter to be used or disposed of for the purposes of profit or pleasure.


Seeking to apply the weight of popular pressure on the British administration, Parnell had made a number of inflammatory speeches, organised mass boycotts against particularly exploitative landlords, and advocated non–payment of rents. In the process of undertaking this nationwide campaign, the Land League hoped that the British administration would bend to the mighty weight of Irish public opinion, and introduce new measures of enhanced economic security for the much–burdened renters and leaseholders. In response to these extra–constitutional methods, the Gladstone government implemented the Protection of Persons and Property Act (1881), a repressive piece of legislation aimed at tackling the ongoing rural agitation. Under the terms of this arbitrary statute, often referred to as the Coercion Act – Parnell and his senior party colleagues were liable to be placed in state custody for encouraging the growing unrest in the countryside.

From his initial arrest at Morrison’s Hotel on 13 October 1881, Parnell would spend a total of nearly seven months lodged in Kilmainham Gaol. As a political prisoner, Charles enjoyed many special privileges, being largely exempt from the burdensome restrictions imposed on the general prisoner population. Housed comfortably in semi–luxurious, private quarters, his former prison cell has since been preserved in the modern Kilmainham Gaol Museum. Undeterred by the stint in prison, which served only bolstered the movement’s popularity, the Land League defiantly issued the No Rent Manifesto on 18 October, in which the organisation’s freshly imprisoned leaders bodily urged:


FELLOW–CITIZENS: The hour to try your souls and to redeem your pledges has arrived. The executive of the National Land League, forced to abandon its policy of testing the Land act, feels bound to advise the tenant farmers of Ireland from this day forth to pay no rents under any circumstances to their landlords until Government relinquishes the existing system of terrorism and restores the constitutional rights of the people. Do not be daunted by the removal of your leaders. Do not let yourselves be intimidated by threats of military violence. It is as lawful to refuse to pay rents as it is to receive them. Against the passive resistance of the entire population military power has no weapon.


An insightful letter penned by Parnell during this period of confinement, presently in the custody of the RCB Library, dates back to February 1882. According to the account rendered alongside the letter, this historical memento was uncovered accidentally in August 1967, when it was found inside an antique book, with the letter in question acting as an improvised page marker! While the quality of the paper and handwriting makes this short message difficult to decipher on first viewing, the transcription of the communication reads as follows:


Letter from Charles Stewart Parnell to William Kerr 1882, RCB Library, MS 994.
Letter from Charles Stewart Parnell to William Kerr 1882, RCB Library, MS 994.

Kilmainham. Feb 14/82

Mr. W. Kerr

Casino, Rathdrum

Dear Sir,

The reason of this Mr. M.J. Farrelly desires to insist in my place of Avondale and I shall be much obliged if you will give him any facilities in your power.

Yours truly,
Chas. S. Parnell


Placed in its full historical context, the letter composed by Charles describes a rather ironic development in his personal financial affairs. Seeking to convey a message to his resident land steward on his Wicklow estate of Avondale, Parnell was effectively calling for the collection of the outstanding rents owed by his own tenants! Back in their home community, the Parnells were widely regarded as lenient, improving landlords, but as Charles himself once quipped to a confidant about his Avondale tenants – they are standing by the No Rent manifesto splendidly.

While such a communique might reek of hypocrisy, several contemporaries of Parnell subsequently argued that the party leader never intended to provoke a general rental strike. From Parnell’s perspective, the primary objective of the manifesto was to increase the leverage over the Gladstone government to protect farmers facing looming evictions, and to force the British cabinet to the negotiating table. Revealingly, William O’Brien, a fellow nationalist politician imprisoned in Kilmainham, afterwards asserted that his party leader did not believe that the advice to the Irish tenants to endure evictions rather than pay their rents would be generally obeyed; but he anticipated that it would be on a sufficient scale to exercise upon the new land courts the same wholesome influence as the test cases, and to make the government of the country by Foster’s [Chief Secretary for Ireland] ruthless coercive methods impossible.

Parnell’s period of imprisonment came to an end with the Kilmainham Treaty, forged between Charles and Gladstone. In exchange for Parnell using his influence to put an end to the rural agitation, the British government offered key concessions, in the form suspending the Coercion Act, and strengthening protections for tenants. The most vital of these measures was the Arrears of Rent bill, which prevented mass evictions by compelling the British Exchequer to cover the outstanding sums owed to Irish landlords. The Kilmainham Treaty initially proved controversial among the more radical strain of Irish nationalists, who saw it as a betrayal of the Land League and the struggle for national self–determination. However, the subsequent return to constitutional politics saw a dramatic reduction of violence in the countryside, and paved the way for a future alliance between the Irish Parliamentary Party and the British Liberal Party. In the aftermath of this Kilmainham episode, the sway of Parnell at Westminster was greatly increased, and his status as the ‘Uncrowned King of Ireland’ would be further solidified in the public eye.



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