Help for Heroes

Charles Stewart Parnell, 1846-1891

For more than a decade, writes Robert Rhodes James, until personal disaster overwhelmed him in 1890, Parnell and the Irish Nationalists held the balance in the House of Commons, and by a policy of considered obstruction swayed the course of British politics.

In 1874, shortly after the General Election which had terminated Gladstone’s first great Ministry, a by-election became necessary in the county of Dublin owing to the appointment of Colonel Taylor, the sitting Member, to a government office. There was some difficulty in finding a candidate who would contest the seat on behalf of the Home Rule League, then in its infancy.

At last one was selected, but he distinguished himself so lamentably in the campaign that when one of the leaders of the League at Westminster was asked about the Colonel's increased majority, he exclaimed, “And no wonder! If you’d seen the fool we had for a candidate!”

Apparently the only reasons for the unfortunate choice were the absence of anyone else and the personal advocacy of Mr. Isaac Butt, the genial and greatly loved leader of the Irish Home Rulers at Westminster.

“My dear boy,” this charming gentleman had said to a friend, “we have got a splendid recruit, an historic name, my friend, young Parnell of Wicklow; and unless I am mistaken, the Saxon will find him an ugly customer, though he is a good-looking fellow.” Thus it had been that Charles Stewart Parnell fought his first election as a candidate for the House of Commons.

It was a matter for some surprise that Parnell was a Nationalist at all. He was an Anglo-Irish land-owner, educated mainly in England. Obstinate and short-tempered, in his early years he lacked self-confidence. He was profoundly superstitious, rather Bohemian in his attitude to life, and had already experienced two unhappy love-affairs.

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