Election 1875


Extract from The laurel and the Ivy, by Robert Kee, 1993

The anomaly between his social background and his growing political activity was well evidenced in March 1875. On the 13 March he was announced as a steward of the Co. Wicklow steeplechases to be run at Rathdrum at the end of April.   Among his fellow stewards were to be the Marquess of Drogheda, the Marquess of Waterford, the Earl of Wicklow [his kinsmen] and the Earl of Clonmel.   By contrast, only eight days earlier he had written to the Freeman’s Journal a public letter of support for the candidacy at a by-election in Tipperary of a man, still technically an undischarged felon, whose name was a symbol of implacable republican hatred for any form of British rule at all in Ireland.

This was John Mitchell, an Ulster Presbyterian who, as a Young Irelander, has been moved to bitter desperation by the Famine and had at that time openly, though ineffectually, incited the Irish people to revolt, in his newspaper the United Irishman.  After sentence in 1848 to fourteen years for treason-felony, Mitchel had escaped from his convict exile in Australia in 1850 and had lived ever since in the United States.  He had remained unchanged in his fanatical beliefs about Ireland, though wary and skeptical of the personalities who dominated the Fenian movement in the 1860s.   With intelligent tolerance, the British Government had let him visit Ireland unmolested in the summer of 1874.  He had been accompanied by an American-Irish nationalist of extreme views, a Dr. William Carroll of Philadelphia.  Observers noted that, though Mitchel was now white-haired, asthmatic and looked older than his fifty- nine years, his eye had ‘lost none of its old fire’.  He had stayed with Ronayne, the IRB Member of Parliament for Cork, and on his eventual return to the USA he was to write an interesting report on the state of Ireland as he had found it after more than a quarter of a century.

The country people, he said, were now better housed, better clad and much better educated, almost all the young people being able to read and write.  A calm and settled resolution seemed to have taken the place of the former noisy and demonstrative patriotism that had expressed itself chiefly in threats and boasts – ‘no patriot needs to tell them that he is going to lead them in three months to fight the British Army with their naked hands’.  At the same time Mitchel found Home Rule too mild a political objective, though he respected some of the men behind the movement.  His conclusion was that ‘the force, the power now existing in Ireland is that which is designated by the three mystic letters, “I.R.B.”

This was the ‘courageous and honorable man’ whom Parnell, writing from Avondale, urged the public to support as a matter of ‘the utmost importance’ and to whose election committee he sent a personal contribution of twenty-five pounds.

The by-election was taking place in exceptional circumstances, for Mitchel had already successfully contested Tipperary the month before but had been disqualified as an undischarged felon.  His disqualification was seen as a spiteful and insulting manoeuvre on the part of the Government and rallied Irish national feeling even more strongly for him the second time.  The Home Rule movement, which had been rather equivocal towards him at the first by-election, for fear of disapproval by the Catholic Church, now gave him its support.  Even so, Parnell’s intervention was strikingly personal, for he was at the same time one of five hononary secretaries to a testimonial fund then being raised on behalf of his own moderate leader, Isaac Butt.

At the second by-election Mitchel was again elected but again disqualified, and, already ill, died suddenly within the week.  His death had immediate practical consequences for Parnell. He had already been sounding out advanced nationalists about the possibility of taking Mitchel’s place in Tipperary when on the way to Mitchel’s funeral, another elderly former Young Irelander of national distinction, John Martin, Member of Parliament for Meath, also died.  This created a vacancy in the parliamentary representation in that county.  Parnell came forward with alacrity to offer himself for that seat.  The very day after Martin’s death, Parnell was among four possible candidates being ‘confidently spoken of’ as a successor.  But two of the others had hitherto been nationally more prominent than he, and the other had the advantage of being a local solicitor.  Of the two prominent candidates, one was the Lord Mayor of Dublin and the other Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, a leader of the Young Ireland group and editor in O’Connell’s time of the Nation, the paper which in the 1840s had first most forcefully and coherently propounded a nineteenth-century romantic creed for Irish nationality.  Duffy, unsuccessfully prosecuted in 1848, had since made a respectable political career for himself in Australia and had even been knighted.  Now, with the encouragement of some local Meath clergy, he offered to stand as a nationalist for the county, though making clear that he was still a doctrinaire believer in outright Repeal of the Union rather than federal Home Rule.

But the Home Rule League wanted its own candidate.  Duffy gracefully backed out.  The Lord Mayor made no showing, but the local solicitor, John Thomas Hinds, was determined to stand as a Home Ruler and as such received the support of the local newspaper, the Meath Herald. The paper, trusting ‘that a stranger would not be imported into the county’, saw ‘absoutely no reason whatever that a Meath man should not represent Meath’.  However, it was the stranger, Charles Stewart Parnell, who was first off the mark with his adoption address, which he published from Avondale on 2 April 1875, three days after returning from John Martin’s funeral.

The address was immaculately clear on all the necessary points.  ‘Upon the great question of Home Rule,’ it ran, ‘I will by all means seek the restoration to Ireland of our Domestic Parliament, upon the basis of . . . the principles of the Irish Home Rule League of whose Council I am an active member,’   He would - ‘act independently alike of all English parties’.

His next point -  a judicious one, in view of the importance of Catholic Church support – was an assertion of the principle of religious education, ‘of affording to every parent the opportunity of obtaining for his child an education combined with that religious teaching of which his conscience approves’.

This was followed by an equally clear statement in favour of tenant right.  He would support the extension of the Ulster custom to the rest of Ireland, with the object of securing to the tenant ‘continuous occupation at fair rents’.

He also called for ‘a complete and unconditional Amnesty’ for all prisioners suffering for taking part in Irish political movements.

As before, he reminded voters of his ancestor “Sir John Parnell, in the old Irish Parliament," and of his grandfather, Sir Henry Parnell, ‘who rendered in the British Parliament services to the cause of Catholic Emancipation and of Ireland which the Irish people have not forgotten’. He again wound up with the words with which he had, concluded his address to the electors of Dublin the year before: ‘If you adopt me, I will endeavour, and I think I can promise, that no act of mine will ever discredit the name which has been associated with these recollections.’

But he had not yet been adopted.  His rival Hind’s address covered the same political points but in a few words only, and with a total lack of personal style.  Only in the phrase ‘Home Rule at Least’ did he imply that he might be standing for something more than Parnell’s mere domestic parliament.

The Meath Herald continued to call upon Parnell to withdraw.  But he had the advantage not only of a famous name but of political experience the previous year.  The resources of the Home Rule League were put behind him, and by Sunday 11 April he was emerging clearly as the popular candidate.  On the evening of that day he went to Kells and received an unexpectedly large ovation from the crowd.  After addressing them he was carried on their shoulders to his carriage accompanied by enthusiastic cheering and the strains of a brass band playing national airs.  He and his party were then able to drive only a short way before the crowd removed the horse from the traces and drew the vehicle themselves.  There was a final chorus of ‘God Save Ireland!’, the song written to the tune of ‘Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the boys are marching’ to ensure the cry of Fenian prisioners condemned to death for the Manchester shooting in 1867.   ‘Kells’, wrote the nation afterwards, ‘lit the fire and the whole county quickly caught flame.’

The next day, Monday 12 April 1875 a great county rally held at Navan came out unanimously in favour of Parnell as the official Home Rule candidate.  A procession with bands and banners marched through the town from the railway station, with Parnell himself, a ‘slight, handsome delicate-looking figure’, accompanied by a party of political dignitaries who had come up on the morning train from Dublin.  His great-grandfather’s time-worn Volunteer flags from Avondale were carried before him.  At a big open-air meeting at which more than thirty priests sat on the platform, one of them contrasted the inadequate political enthusiasm of Mr. Hinds in the past with ‘Mr. Parnell . . . to those lineage they could look with pride, whose honesty and goodness shone from his very face’, Ireland, he declared, was growing young again.

Another speaker reminded the crowd that, though in Parnell they were advocating the cause of a landlord, he was a landlord who, like his father before him, had never evicted a tenant or changed the rent roll of his estate.  This, the speaker claimed, was more than could be said of the great majority of landed proprietors in Ireland.

Parnell was adopted with acclamation, and came forward to the immense cheering to thank the crowd.  His speech revealed a noticeable improvement in political grasp since the electioneering of the year before.  He concentrated at once on the issue that appealed primarily to the electors of a great farming county like Meath – that of the relationship between landlord and tenant – and he spoke in clear, radical terms.

He attacked Gladstone’s Land Act of 1870, saying that he had not given the slightest protection to the tenantry over three-quarters of Ireland.  Speaking as a landlord, he declared that the tenant as well as the landlord had property in the land, and that a bill was required to define the tenants’ interest and to protect it.  In and out of Parliament, he said, he would support ‘fixity of tenure and fair rents’.

On Home Rule he said, with questionable hyperbole, that ‘since I first could think I had the principles of the movement ever fixed in my heart, for I always believed that the day would come whrn the voice of the people in this country would rule her affairs and make her laws and that was what I understand by Home Rule.  [Applause.] . . . England should remember the example set by the American colonies, and bear in mind that if she refuse to Ireland what here people demand as a right, the day would come when Ireland would have her opportunity in England’s weakness . . . [Applause.]  This seemed to be suggesting that something rather more than a mere domestic parliament could one day be the final goal.

That England’s difficulty was Ireland’s opportunity was a favourite IRB slogan.  The adroit blurring of eighteenth-century ‘patriot’ nationalism and mid-nineteenth-century Fenian talk into a rhetorical whole was his first public hint of something he was to keep in reserve in his mind for the rest of his life: a refusal in the last resort to commit himself to a limit to Irish nationalism.   Such hidden imprecision was to become part of his strength.

According to the Freeman’s Journal, the proceedings were throughout ‘of the most enthusiastic and unanimous character’.  A leader in that paper on the eve of the poll endorsed his candidacy with enthusiasm.  ‘Mr. Parnell . . . ‘ it declared, ‘is no convert of yesterday, but a tried, proved and faithful servant of Ireland, and we are confident that his parliamentary career will be as honourable and useful as that of his two ancestors who in the old times upheld the Irish cause in our own and the Imperial Parliaments’.

It was already becoming difficult to remember that he had entered politics as something of a dilettante.

Intensive canvassing of the county by Parnell and his friends followed the Navan meeting, and other meetings were held in many towns and villages.  A most useful tribute to him by the local Catholic parish priest of his home town to Rathdrum had already been circulated, praising his ‘unimpeachable’ dealings with his tenantry and stating that the rents on-his estate were ‘in all cases moderate, and in many instances very low’.  It concluded, ‘I believe Charles to be a man of great pluck, considerable promise, and of the strictest propriety of conduct.’

By now the candidate apparently felt sufficiently confident to take time off from canvassing to appear in the stands at Rathdrum steeplechases as a steward, with his fellow Wicklow landed proprietors, on Saturday 17 April. There was a large and fashionable attendance from Dublin.   What can have been the conversation in the stands that afternoon about the young squire of Avondale, former High Sheriff of the county, and his eccentric departure into the new radical politics of which his fellow stewards and kinsmen must have disapproved almost to a man ?   Did they comment on it to him?  Did they ask him what he thought he was doing ?   Or joke about it or protest about it behind his back?  Or were they just too embarrassed to let themselves talk about it with him there?   All we know for certain is the result of the Meath election, which was declared at Trim in the middle of the afternoon of Monday 19 April.


Parnell   [Home Rule]         1,771

Naper     [Conservative]        902

Hinds      [Home Rule]           138

Parnell’s majority of 869 was larger than John Martin’s had been.  The young Irish patriot’, declared the Freeman’s Journal, ‘is at the head of the poll,’ and it went on to state that Parnell had ‘no spots on his record’ and that he was ‘an Irishman – Irish bred, Irish born, ‘racy of the soil’, knowing its history, devoted to its interests’,

In Meath itself, delight at the result was unbounded.  In Navan, sprigs of laurel and green boughs were fastened on the fronts of houses.  In Kells, Athboy, Slane and other places, bands came out and played national airs in the streets, while bonfires were lit all over the county.  Parnell himself was kept busy.  Immediately after the declaration of the poll he addressed a large crowd outside his own committee rooms at Trim, and later, after a hospitable welcome from the local clergy, a crowd of some five or six thousand people in the streets of Navan.  An enormous bonfire of tar-barrels, casks and boxes was lit on front of the priest’s house where he was entertained, and on leaving for his hotel he was hoisted on to the shoulders of the crowd, carried round the bonfire, and made to give another short address from the top of a barrel before finally retiring.

‘So ended the Meath election of 1875,’ concluded the Nation of 24 April, ‘an election which was of the utmost consequence to the National cause . . .’

No one could then have guessed how prophetic the words would prove.