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The Causes of Quarrels

Niamh Reilly

There are fascinating parallels between Anna Parnell’s The Tale of a Great Sham and Andrew J Kettle’s The Material for Victory – two recently republished memoirs of key protagonists in Ireland’s Land War of 1879-1882. Both accounts contain unvarnished critiques of shortcomings of the Land League movement, revolving mainly around failures of leadership and execution of strategy. Moreover, the initial publication of both in book form was thwarted in different ways so that either manuscript could easily have been lost to posterity.

Parnell was prompted to write her memoir around 1906-07 because she was very dissatisfied with how she and the Ladies’ Land League were represented in recently published accounts of the period. In 1907, her memoir was serialised in The Irish People under its alternative title, The Land League. However, she had no success in finding a book publisher for it and in 1909 gave the manuscript to Helena Molony, editor of Bean na hÉireann (the newspaper of Inghinidhe na hÉireann), in the hope that she would continue the search. The manuscript was lost in the upheavals of the revolutionary period that followed but resurfaced in 1959, at which point Molony made it available to historian TW Moody, who subsequently deposited it with the National Library. Finally, The Tale of a Great Sham appeared in book form for the first time in 1986.

In his introduction to the 1958 edition of The Material for Victory, Andrew J Kettle’s son Laurence, then eighty years old and the editor of the memoir, recounts how, after his father’s death in 1916, he was handed the manuscript, which had also been written around 1906-07. Laurence recalls: ‘It was written on very small sheets of ordinary notepaper, rolled up and tied in small bundles. I did not examine or even open them, because I realised that at that time little interest would be taken in the Memoirs, and that one would need to wait until national affairs became more settled.’

By a remarkable coincidence both memoirs had been lost or almost forgotten for some forty years before they became available to readers and researchers within a year of each other in the late 1950s. Reflecting the distinctive experiences and perspectives of their authors, each memoir illuminates and amplifies a common central critique: the failure of the Land League to take the steps necessary, at the right moment, to achieve a radical transformation in Ireland’s land ownership system in the short to medium term, as it was intended to do.

Due to Parnell’s and Kettle’s direct knowledge of the agrarian context in Ireland and the capacities for political analysis evident in their memoirs, both were well-placed to understand the dynamics and inform the direction of the Land League movement to maximise its impact. Yet the ability of each to influence the course of events was limited in key respects by their ‘outsider’ status. For Anna Parnell, as Dana Hearne’s introduction to The Tale of a Great Sham attests, this was largely if not entirely due to the stymieing operation of gender norms, which meant that patriarchal prejudice, male privilege and paternalism, not least from within the Land League organisation, presented some of the most difficult challenges with which Anna Parnell had to contend. Andrew J Kettle, notwithstanding his close relationship with Charles Stewart Parnell and his influence as a veteran ‘tenant right’ activist, regularly characterises himself in his memoir as an outsider – flagging, for example, his limited formal education, the fact that he belonged to neither the Fenian nor the parliamentary party inner circles of the Land League leadership, and his livelihood as a hands-on tillage farmer, which, ironically, set him apart from most of the Land League leaders and prevented his more comprehensive involvement in shaping the operation of the movement.

Anna Parnell (1852-1911) was born at Avondale, Co Wicklow, to a Protestant landowning family on the Parnell side, with formative American influences through her mother, Delia (Tudor Stewart) Parnell. She was one of two politically engaged sisters of Charles S Parnell (1846-1891), the other being Fanny (1848-1882). Anna became a political journalist and the principal organiser of the Irish National Ladies’ Land League, which Carla King describes in Michael Davitt (2009) as ‘the first political organisation led and run by women in Ireland’. In response to crop failures in Ireland in 1879, Anna and Fanny Parnell worked in New York to raise funds for famine relief, where they collaborated with Michael Davitt, whom they admired greatly. Fanny established a Ladies’ Land League branch there, which was a highly effective fundraising vehicle. Subsequently, anticipating the arrest of the Land League leaders, Davitt secured the reluctant permission of the executive to establish a Ladies’ Land League in Ireland, to be led by Anna Parnell, who had recently returned from the USA. She agreed to become general secretary of the new organisation and, as Davitt had envisaged, the Ladies’ Land League eventually took responsibility for the running of the Land League following the imprisonment of its male leaders. However, after the ‘Kilmainham Treaty’ in 1882, which released the leaders and gave concessions on arrears to less-well-off tenants in exchange for a wind-down of agrarian agitation, what was already a strained relationship between the two leagues deteriorated further, ending in the dissolution of the Ladies’ Land League and a permanent rift between Anna and her brother Charles.

Kettle’s The Material for Victory is frequently cited by Anna Parnell scholars for its unequivocal and egalitarian statement of her capacities and role in the Land League movement. Kettle writes that:

[Anna Parnell] had a better knowledge of the lights and shades of Irish peasant life, of the real economic conditions of the country, and of the social and political forces which had to be acted upon to work out the freedom of Ireland than any person, man or woman, I have ever met … [and] would have worked the Land League revolution to a much better conclusion than her great brother. (emphasis added)

A generation older than Parnell, Andrew J Kettle (1833-1916) was born in north Co Dublin to a Catholic tenant farmer family with a thirty-acre holding. Kettle recalls how during the Great Famine his mother exhorted him to ‘labour to overthrow landlordism and English domination’. By the early 1870s Kettle was a well-known ‘tenant right’ campaigner associated with Isaac Butt and in 1874 led the deputation that persuaded twenty-eight-year old Charles S Parnell to run for election as a Home Rule candidate for the first time. As recounted in The Material for Victory, recognising the importance of the tenant farmer networks that Kettle brought to the Irish National Land League, Parnell and Davitt insisted that Kettle preside at the inaugural meeting of the organisation in Dublin in October 1879, of which he was also honorary secretary.

Some twenty-five years later, in 1906, Anna Parnell returned to Ireland, having spent the previous two decades in England. As Jane Côté documents in Fanny and Anna Parnell (1991), Anna had been living in straitened circumstances, frequently using pseudonyms to conceal her identity. The Freeman’s Journal carried a short news article titled ‘Miss Anna Parnell in Dublin’ (October 12th, 1906), which invokes the continuing national regard for Charles S Parnell and his mother and sisters, who had supported the cause of Ireland. It notes that Anna had been ‘one of the most energetic members of the Ladies’ Land League’ and expressed disappointment that she had declined to be interviewed. Andrew J Kettle followed up with his own letter of appreciation of Anna Parnell to the Freeman. Apparently intending to correct the understatement of her role, he wrote: ‘[T]here would have been no Ladies’ Land League but for Miss Parnell’ and ‘when the inner history of the Parnell Movement is written … the part played by Miss Anna Parnell in the Land League revolution will stand out as well defined as the more extended mission of her great brother’. Kettle also noted that he was at that time writing his own memoir on the land movement, to be completed by him or one of his sons (October 15th, 1906, emphasis added).

However, apparently unknown to the Irish public up to this point, Anna Parnell did not accept that there had been a ‘Land League revolution’ or that there was any reason to praise her brother’s role in relation to it. There are two principal dimensions to Parnell’s critique elaborated in The Tale of a Great Sham. The first is that the resolutions of the Land League and the rhetoric of its leaders said one thing while operations on the ground did something very different. In Davitt and the Irish Revolution 1846-82 (1982), TW Moody summarises the declared methods of the Land League as: the collective organisation of tenants; refusal to pay unjust rents; defence of tenants who were threatened with eviction for doing so; and securing land laws that would enable tenants to become owners of their holdings on reasonable terms. The second dimension of Parnell’s critique centres on her strenuous objections to the various ways in which she, and the Ladies’ Land League under her leadership, were misrepresented by the male leadership of the Land League.

Regarding the first dimension, when Parnell became secretary of the Ladies’ Land League in January 1881, she describes in her memoir that she was given only patchy information and no guidance from the executive on how to lead the organisation. She assumed that her role was to pursue the Land League’s advertised agenda and methods. As the year progressed, Parnell describes her ‘great shock’ at discovering the true nature of the Land League’s operations. Most threatened evictions stemmed from tenants’ inability to pay rent and not from a coordinated, principled refusal to pay ‘unjust rents’ in keeping with declared Land League policy. In effect, Land League assistance given in these ‘poverty cases’ was used to pay rent – as Parnell describes it, ‘the very opposite of what we intended to do’. However, the now entrenched policy on the ground of ‘rent at the point of a bayonet’ was the crux of the sham that Parnell wished to expose. It entailed tenants delaying payment of rent for as long as possible without being evicted, with the Land League covering legal and sheriffs’ sales costs. The upshot of this was that a large share of the organisation’s funds was flowing into the pockets of landlords and lawyers, without any real threat to landlords. For Parnell, this was a monumental mistake that was ‘not consistent with sanity’ and ‘bore the seeds of all disasters’.

Parnell had first-hand knowledge of the unsustainable financial situation of Irish landlords as a group. She also outlines the relative weakness of landlords at this time in terms of waning support within the English political establishment. She posits that if faced by ‘a show of determination’ on the part of the tenants in 1880-81, ‘the whole landlord class might have been seized with panic and caved in, which … most likely would have brought about a bloodless victory in months’. From Anna Parnell’s perspective, the yawning gap between principle and practice in the Land League organisation actively undermined its core objective to end landlordism in Ireland. She was convinced that an unprecedented opportunity to transform the Irish land ownership system had been squandered. As it happened, unknown to Anna Parnell, Andrew J Kettle was in complete agreement with her assessment.

Just as Parnell assumed leadership of the Ladies’ Land League in early 1881, Andrew J Kettle was engaged in the most significant political battle of his activist life – to persuade the Land League executive to embrace a short-term, high-pressure strategy of ‘suspension of payment of all rent’ as the trump card in the League’s response to imminent ‘coercion’ laws intended to suppress the Land League and its leaders. Kettle’s plan, which he had persuaded Parnell and Davitt to back, was adopted by the executive. In summary, it consisted of all the Home Rule MPs staging a strong vocal protest against coercion in the Westminster parliament (without going so far as to get them expelled), followed by them staging a ‘walk out’ and a return to their constituencies in Ireland, where they would await arrest. According to the plan, following the first arrest, the Land League would call a rent strike to force a comprehensive settlement of the land question. Kettle insisted that ‘this is a turning point in the whole movement’. Like Anna Parnell, he predicted that, if implemented competently at that juncture, the collective suspension of rent payments would settle the matter ‘on the lines of the Land League’ within months.

However, as related in Kettle’s memoir, the authorities acted more quickly than expected – due to ‘treachery’, Kettle suspected – arresting Davitt within two days of the executive adopting Kettle’s plan. In response, the Irish Party members ‘raised such a storm’ that they were expelled from parliament. These events caused disarray among the members of the Land League executive, the majority of whom decamped to Paris. Kettle describes how his efforts to press them to stick with the agreed plan failed and a new proposal presented by Charles S Parnell was approved instead with no mention of a rent strike strategy. Kettle was convinced that this happened because his proposal had not emanated from an ‘extreme man’ and because Davitt was not there to back him. Utterly discouraged, Kettle concluded: ‘Thus ended one of the most disastrous retreats ever recorded in the unfortunate history of this unfortunate country.’

After these events, Kettle recalls that his ‘mind was seething with the effects of the breakdown at Paris’. However, although he disagreed with Charles S Parnell on this and other occasions, his core support for his leadership did not waver, in line with his pragmatic commitment ‘not to decry but to utilise Parnell’s and every other man’s genius to work out the redemption of the race’. This approach was evident again after Parnell was arrested and in Kilmainham Jail with other imprisoned members of the executive he asked them to co-sign the ‘No Rent Manifesto’ on October 18th, 1881. As Kettle explains in his memoir, he signed it reluctantly, viewing it as a necessary gesture but a doomed strategy, recognising that the people now ‘without leaders nor the organisation’ were being called upon to embark on ‘an indefinite warfare which … they can’t wage successfully’. For Kettle, the window of possible success for a ‘No Rent campaign’ had closed months earlier. However, neither he nor any of the imprisoned Land League leaders appear to have considered the implications of issuing the manifesto for the Ladies’ Land League. Anna Parnell devotes a chapter of her memoir to meticulously dissecting and fairly appraising the problematic elements of the manifesto, the worst of which was its promise of bottomless funds from America to cover all necessary supports to tenants whom the manifesto reassured: ‘If you are evicted you shall not suffer.’ As Parnell puts it, ‘the language used was directly calculated to cause extra trouble for those who had to administer the funds’ and bore the hallmark of people who believe that ‘anything that they never tried themselves is very easy’.

Communications surrounding Anna Parnell’s return to Ireland in 1906 offer a window on the second dimension of her critique regarding the Land League’s leadership. Her letter to The Freeman’s Journal in response to Kettle’s letter of welcome and appreciation (October 16th, 1906) appears to be the first public communication of her anger about how she and the Ladies’ Land League had been treated some twenty-five years earlier and how they were being misrepresented again in Davitt’s The Fall of Feudalism (1904), among other publications that were increasingly treated as authoritative accounts of the Land League. Parnell especially wished to clarify that establishing the Ladies’ Land League was not her idea and she had not been consulted about it before its foundation, as Davitt presents it in his book. Parnell states: ‘The only communication I received … was contained in a letter from my brother who said the executive of the Land League had decided to form a female Land League and … [asking if] I would consent to take charge of the new body’s office in Dublin.’ While superficially this might seem like hair-splitting, it was not a trivial matter for Anna Parnell because it went to the heart of her grievance. As Jane Côté pinpointed, ‘scrupulous honesty and respect for fidelity to principle’ were integral to Anna Parnell’s political journalism and character. In her experience the Land League and its operations had been misrepresented to the public and to her and she would not have accepted the role of general secretary of the Ladies’ Land League if she had known what the true policy of the Land League was in practice. Anna Parnell simply wished to correct the record of the founding story.

Parnell also wished to dispel categorically two increasingly prevalent narratives, ostensibly justifying the dissolution of the Ladies’ Land League by her brother, namely, that it fuelled agrarian violence and was financially out of control. She was disconcerted by Davitt’s account in The Fall of Feudalism that her ‘purpose and policy were to render Ireland ungovernable by coercion’, thereby causing the ousting of Chief Secretary Forster, who had presided over the policy of coercion. Deflating this argument, Anna Parnell later wrote to The Irish People that ‘Nobody but Mr Gladstone could claim credit for breaking Mr Forster’s power’ (September 14th, 1907). In a further letter to The Irish People, Anna Parnell rebuts William O’Brien’s account in his Recollections (1904) that after her brother’s release from jail, Charles S Parnell had visited the offices of the Ladies’ Land League to rebuke them for their financial recklessness and then ‘quietly walked across … and cut off their account at the Hibernian Bank’.

Anna Parnell clarifies that the only issue discussed was her request to dissolve the Ladies’ Land League and an agreement to continue ‘for the present’ at her brother’s request. She insists: ‘He never cut off our account at the Hibernian Bank. I wish he had’ (September 14th, 1907). In this context, Anna Parnell’s response to Kettle in The Freeman’s Journal is not surprising: ‘the public need not wait for Mr. Kettle’s reminiscences to know the true history of the Land League. I have written it myself and all that remains … is to find a publisher for it’ (October 16th, 1906).

Chapter XI of Parnell’s memoir (‘The End of the Ladies’ Land League’) documents the conditions under which the Ladies’ Land League was working by mid-1882 and why Anna Parnell might have ‘cherished hopes of an early release from a long and uncongenial bondage’ with the Land League. The Phoenix Park murders in May 1882, after the release of Charles S Parnell, were met with a slowdown in the release of the remaining Land League prisoners, keeping the costs of supporting them and their families high, while the costs of legal defence and other proceedings continued unabated, and evictions were also rising following the cessation of the ill-timed ‘No Rent Manifesto’. Strikingly conveying the scale of the undertaking, Anna Parnell compares the Ladies’ Land League operations at this time to that of a government ministry where ‘a House of Representatives [is] refusing supplies to a ministry, and at the same time insisting on that ministry carrying out government’. In the end, the Ladies’ Land League was dissolved because it turned down a very patriarchal Land League proposal to settle its debts in return for the women continuing to handle the casework as they had been doing, except now under the direct control of the Land League.

Till now, Anna Parnell’s memoir has been considered mainly as an exposé of the bad behaviour of the male leadership of the Land League, which it is. It is likely that, after their indirect exchange of letters via The Freeman’s Journal in 1906, Andrew J Kettle had the opportunity to read Anna Parnell’s memoir when it was serialised in 1907 in The Irish People. If this is the case, it is not unreasonable to read the passages about Anna Parnell in his memoir as a sincere acknowledgement of the enormity of her contributions, as much as a thinker as an organiser of the Land War, fully accepting the critiques she sets out in her writing. As Anna Parnell astutely observed: ‘people insist on thinking that it is quarrels, and not the causes of quarrels that do mischief’. The Tale of a Great Sham (or The Land League), deserves to be read by a wide audience and studied carefully as a rich source on the ‘causes of quarrels’ and the experiences and ideas that animated them in Ireland’s age of reform.


The Tale of a Great Sham, by Anna Parnell, with introduction by Dana Hearne (ed.) and historical overview by Margaret Ward, was published by UCD Press in 2020, 232 pp, €20, ISBN-13: 9781910820599 (paperback)
The Material for Victory: The Memoirs of Andrew J. Kettle, Laurence J. Kettle (ed.), introduction and additional biographical note by Niamh Reilly and annotations by Niamh Reilly and Jane O’Brien, The Open Press at the University of Galway, 2023, 300 pp, €20, ISBN: 978-1911690146 (paperback), 978-1911690153 (ebook). The Material for Victory is available free to download at: https://openpress.universityofgalway.ie/materialforvictory/; print copies can be ordered at cost + postage by contacting: [email protected])

Niamh Reilly is Established Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the University of Galway. The image on the home pages is of Fanny Parnell.




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