Sheela-na-Gig aka Jeanne Rathbone

Anna Parnell – a great Irishwoman and role model who should be celebrated.

Posted in Anna Parnell a great Irishwoman by sheelanagigcomedienne on May 28, 2015

Anna Parnell

Anna Parnell is one of my favourite Irish Nationalist heros along with Hanna Sheehy Skeffington. We went to a play entitled The Ladies Cage in 2007 in the Finborough Theatre which was about Anna and women’s role in Irish political life at that time. The title referred to her regular bulletin to the Celtic Monthly of her visits to the Ladies’ gallery in the House of Commons when she lived in London for a spell studying art and at the time her brother Charles had become MP for Meath. The play was by a group called Scary Little Girls and the play written by Maureen McManus with input from Margaret Ward, Irish women’s historian. We enjoyed the play and as I was leaving the theatre I noticed Mike Leigh beside me and I asked him if it gave him any ideas for a film!

As usual I have used various sources for this post. This is from Anna Parnell – Our Wicklow Heritage

Anna Parnellby Rosemary Raughter.

Anna Parnell was born at Avondale near Rathdrum on 13 May 1852, the tenth of eleven children of John Henry and Delia Parnell. Her father died suddenly when she was seven years old, and the Parnells found themselves in much reduced circumstances. The heavily indebted Avondale estate, inherited by Anna’s thirteen-year old brother Charles Stewart Parnell, was let, while the family moved to a series of rented homes.

Like most girls of their class at the time, Anna and her elder sister Fanny were educated at home by a succession of governesses. They were, however, fortunate in that their American mother permitted a degree of independence rare at the time, and both girls were encouraged to read widely and to pursue their studies in literature, history and politics. In particular, Anna and Fanny shared with Charles a keen interest in Irish nationalism, and at the age of sixteen Fanny published her first poems in the Fenian newspaper, the Irish People. She became a prolific author of verse, much of it on patriotic themes, and her most famous poem, ‘Hold the harvest’, published in 1880, was   described as the ‘Marseillaise of the Irish peasant.’ However, her health was poor and, though politically committed, much of her short life was spent out of Ireland.

New York Ladies’ Land League

With the outbreak of the Land War, Anna moved from being an observer of political events to a participant. The Irish National Land League was founded in 1879, with Parnell as president, and the aim of securing ‘the land of Ireland for the people of Ireland’ by a programme of peaceful and constitutional action. In the short term, however, a series of poor harvests and falling agricultural prices left many tenants facing eviction for non-payment of rent, and in 1880 Parnell arrived in New York to seek Irish-American support for the campaign and to relieve hardship. Anna and her sister Fanny were already in the US, and immediately threw themselves into the effort, working closely with Michael Davitt, the Land League’s secretary and principal organiser. In an effort to maximise American support, Fanny decided to establish a women’s league, and in October 1880 the New York Ladies’ Land League was founded, with Delia Parnell as president, and Anna and Fanny spearheading a successful campaign which raised thousands of dollars for transmission to Ireland.

The Ladies Land League

The Ladies’ Land League

In late 1880 Anna returned to Dublin, where the expectation was that the government would shortly take the decision to imprison the leaders of the Land League. Inspired by the example of the American women’s organisation, Davitt proposed to establish a similar body in Ireland, which would keep the agitation alive and distribute grants to evicted tenants and their families. With some reluctance, Parnell and the other leaders agreed, and on 31 January 1881 the Ladies’ Irish National Land League was founded, with Anna Parnell as its effective leader. When arrests began shortly afterwards, the Ladies’ Land League set about its appointed task of processing applications, supplying money for relief purposes and distributing literature. Finding the Land League records to be deplorably kept, the women compiled their own ‘Book of Kells’, with detailed information on every Irish estate, described by Davitt as ‘the most perfect system that can be imagined.’ In spite of the male executive’s ambivalence and criticism from some Catholic church leaders and many newspapers, numbers grew rapidly, with more than five hundred branches of the Ladies’ Land League throughout Ireland by the beginning of 1882. Members included the poet Katherine Tynan and eighteen-year old Jennie O’Toole from Baltinglass, who as Jennie Wyse Power would play a leading part in the nationalist movement and in the early years of the Irish Free State.Eviction

In October 1881 Parnell himself was arrested together with most of the leaders of the Land League, and in retaliation issued the No Rent manifesto. The Ladies, who had not been consulted about this move, were faced with the prospect of trying to enforce a policy which had little chance of success, but they soldiered on, assisting evicted tenants and their families, organising the provision of huts in which they could be housed, and providing for growing numbers of male prisoners and their dependents.   In December the Ladies’ Land League was also suppressed and a number of their members were arrested and imprisoned, but the ban failed to end their activities:  as the nationalist United Ireland pointed out, while the men of the Land League had ‘melted away and vanished the moment Mr Forster’s policemen shook their batons’, the women ‘met persecution by extending their organisation and doubling their activity and triumphing.’


As the campaign dragged on, relations between the Ladies and the Land League worsened. With evictions giving rise to widespread agrarian violence, Parnell’s need to reach a resolution with Gladstone became more pressing, and in April 1882 he and the other leaders were released from gaol as part of an agreement to end the agitation. Shortly afterwards the Ladies’ Land League, disillusioned by the outcome of the campaign, expressed its wish to disband, and after prolonged wrangling succeeded in doing so. The gulf between the Land League and the Ladies was epitomised by the estrangement between Anna and her brother which lasted until his death ten years later. According to his wife, Parnell regretted the breach, and tried unsuccessfully on a number of occasions to repair it, but Anna ignored his letters and refused to acknowledge him when they met accidentally. After his death, however, she did write to the Irish Times to object to the choice of Glasnevin as his burial place: his body ‘belonged to the Irish people’, she said, only if their having killed him gave them a title to it.

Tale of a great shamThe Tale of a Great Sham

Her sister Fanny’s death in July 1882, combined with the stress of the campaign and its aftermath, left Anna in a state of physical and nervous collapse, from which she did not recover for several months. For the rest of her life, she lived mainly in England, sometimes under a false name and at times in considerable poverty. Although she remained in contact with former Ladies, such as Jennie Wyse Power, she played little part in nationalist politics, and the response when she did campaign for the Sinn Fein candidate in North Leitrim in 1908 persuaded her that ‘the character of Irishmen is at present incompatible with any great change for the better in Ireland.’ However, Michael Davitt’s charge, in The fall of feudalism in Ireland, that the Ladies had encouraged agrarian violence, galvanised her to produce her own account of the Land League years, The tale of a great sham. In it she argued that the Land League in fact failed in its objective by neglecting to pursue the No Rent Manifesto to its logical conclusion. She also complained about the hostility of the Land League leaders towards the Ladies throughout the campaign: regarding the women as subservient assistants rather than equal partners, they had relied on them to carry on Land League policies in their absence while seeking to reassert control over them as soon as this should become practicable. Failing to find a publisher for her work, she entrusted the manuscript to Helena Molony, editor of the nationalist woman’s paper Bean na h-Eireann. Molony, too, was unable to get the work published, and in the upheavals which followed, the parcel disappeared from view.

Death and reputation

In 1910 Anna moved to Ilfracombe in Devon. On 20 September 1911 she accidentally drowned while swimming, and was buried in the churchyard there a few days later. Her passing received little attention: as Katherine Tynan wrote a few years later, ‘her life ought to have been written, for she was a great woman, and yet I think that she herself would have preferred that her name be writ in water.’ And so, for many years, it was. The centenary of the Land League in 1979 passed with scarcely a mention of Anna Parnell, and it was not until the publication – finally – in 1986 of the rediscovered Tale of a great sham that a reassessment was possible of a woman regarded by some contemporaries as the equal in ability and judgement of her celebrated brother, and without question a central figure at a pivotal moment in Irish history.

History Ireland Irelands History Magazine.

by Danae O’Regan, a post-graduate student of Irish Studies at Bath College of Higher Education.

Anna’s League was not merely a fund-raising organisation but a militant force. She trained rural women to come out of their homes and play an active role in withholding rent, boycotting, and resisting eviction. When resistance failed she organised the provision of temporary housing and support for those evicted. She also provided support for Land League prisoners and their families. The women of the League faced hostility on all sides, from government forces, the church, the press, and probably, indeed, from most of their contemporaries, but Michael Davitt was to say in The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland (1904): ‘Everything recommended, attempted, or done in the way of defeating the ordinary law and asserting the unwritten law of the League…was more systematically carried out under the direction of the ladies’ executive than by its predecessor’. But their success had its disadvantages. Anna’s methods were exceedingly expensive and funds were running low. Rural violence had increased to such an extent that the British government began to panic. Irish politicians began to see the activities of the women as a danger to their long-term plans. Finally, as part of the Kilmainham Treaty, Charles Parnell agreed to do away with the League. In 1882 it was dissolved. Anna never again had any communication with her brother.

The Royal Irish Constabulary dispersing a meeting of the Ladies' Land League. (Illustrated London News, 24 December 1881)

The images that have survived

Anna had become a modern, militant woman activist. But this was not what the nineteenth century wanted of a woman. When she disappeared from politics her male colleagues must have given a sigh of relief, and society quickly forgot her.
Social attitudes have now reversed. Anna has taken over the role of heroine for our times, and Fanny has been moved to the sidelines. In a way one can see that these Parnell sisters mark a watershed for women in the political sphere. Both were equally effective activists in their different ways, both were probably equally important to the work of the Land League, and the two types of female action they represent continued into the twentieth century. Times were, however, changing. The traditional philanthropic middle class woman, of which Fanny was an outstanding example, did not disappear, but it is Anna, prepared to challenge authority, break down barriers between male and female spheres of public life, and pave the way for radical change, who speaks to us most clearly today.


Adrian Mulligan The Ladies Land League and the development of Irish Nationalism. The crucial role they played has been at best relegated to a historic footnote ignoring the history of poiltical activism by such Irish women contributes to a situation today in which they are woefully under-represented in the Republic of Ireland , as evidenced for example by the fact that of 166 TDs most recently elected only 21 are women.

Durig the brief existence of the LLL Anna Parnell and her female colleagues proved that they could orchestrate and lead an  agrarian relief effort and Irish nationalist campaign as ably as the men, and in the eyes of some contemporary observers perhaps even outperform them. For example, following the disbanding of the organization, the American correspondent for the Irish World, Henry George, commented that the women had “done a great deal better than the men would have done.”
Additionally, Andrew J. Kettle, a prominent Land League member at the time, later remarked that “Anna Parnell would have worked the Land League revolution to a much better conclusion than her great brother.”
Both of these individuals could be characterized, however, as subscribing to the more revolutionary republican stream of Irish nationalism. They speak of Anna Parnell therefore not just as a very capable woman, but more importantly as an Irish nationalist whom they believed shared their vision.
This is an important point, that the LLL was disbanded and subsequently forgotten, not solely because it empowered Irish women but rather, perhaps, because it had also genuinely come to the aid of the most impoverished tenant farmers, for whom only a republican revolution rather than Home Rule offered any hope that they might stave off eviction and subsequent destitution or emigration.’

I found this strange piece by St John Ervine (1883-1971) published in 1925. He had a particular hatred for Delia Parnell and accused her of being the source of her children’s antipathy to England and English domination of Ireland.He was a playwirght, biographer and critic from a working class Belfast who was a socialist Home Ruler in his youth and friend of fellow Fabian George Bernard Shaw but became a rabid Unionist in later years. He had a plaque commemorating him in East Belfast March this year. FullSizeRender

Parnell: His Family by St John Ervine Published by Ernest Benn Ltd, 1925

They had a distinguished ancestry on their father’s side and on their mother’s side, but they had inherited from it a physical weakness and a strongly emotional and morbid nature which impelled some of them dangerously near to lunacy. It was their misfortune that their easily-disturbed minds should have been dominated, during their most impressionable years, by a mother who could give them no better purpose in life than to “hate England,” and was herself mentally unbalanced.

Mr. Barry O’Brien, her son’s biographer, met her in 1896, two years before she died of burns at Avondale. She was then over eighty years of age, and “animated by one fixed idea, a rooted hatred of England; or rather, as she herself put it, of ‘English dominion.’” When Mr. O’Brien enquired of her why her son had such an antipathy to England, she replied, “Why should he not? Have not his ancestors always been opposed to England? My grandfather Tudor fought against the English in the War of Independence. My father fought against the English in the year 1812, and I suppose the Parnells had no great love for them… It was very natural for Charles to dislike the English; but it is not the English whom we dislike, or whom he disliked. We have no objection to the English people; we object to the English dominion. We would not have it in America. Whey should they have it in Ireland?  Why are the English so jealous of outside interference in their affairs, and why are they always trying to dip their fingers in everybody’s pie? The English are hated in America for their grasping policy; they are hated everywhere for their arrogance, greed, cant and hypocrisy. No country must have national rights or national aspirations but England. That is the English creed. Well, other people don’t see it; and the English are astonished. They want us all to think they are so goody-goody. They are simply thieves.”

A review by Myles Dungan of Patricia Groves, Petticoat Rebellion – The Anna Parnell Story states:

She was portrayed as the wilful extremist to her brother’s canny pragmatist, the strident harpy to her sister’s gentle poet. For many years it was the fate of Anna Parnell to be compared unfavourably to her tragically short-lived brother and sister, Charles and Fanny. In fact she was, according to Roy Foster, ‘in many ways . . . the most formidable character in the family’. Anna Parnell was principled, resourceful, dogged and, ultimately, disappointed and disillusioned by those who had been happy to capitalise on her indefatigable energy and organisational abilities.

Lucy Keaveney: Forgotten Women » Guest Blog » The …

Five people attended her funeral, her family being unaware of her death. Later her sister, Theodosia Paget, erected the headstone and a plaque was placed on it in 2002 by the Parnell society with a quote from Anna: –

“The best part of Independence,Anna_Parnells_Grave2
The independence of the mind”
It took some time to locate Anna’s grave earlier this year and some hours to renovate it by cleaning away weeds and spreading gravel. The headstone is very fragile, a fact which I brought to the attention of the Minister Deenihan during the centenary celebrations. He announced that Anna’s grave and that of Eva Gore Booth ( and her parner Esther Roper) in London would in future be maintained and would never be let deteriorate again. (Deenihan is now Minister for the Diaspora).
Anna headstone
It does feel like that things are slowly changing in recognition of women’s role in Ireland’s history.  Let us hope that women will be will be celebrated in the 2016 commemorations and not just the part they played then but before and since the  Easter Rising.
  • Patricia Groves, Petticoat Rebellion – The Anna Parnell Story, Mercier Press , Cork, 2009.
  • A. Parnell, Tale of a Great Sham, Dublin, 1986.
  • Jane Côté, Fanny and Anna Parnell: Ireland’s patriot sisters, Gill and Macmillan Publishers, Dublin, 1991.
  • Jane Côté & Dana Hearne, Anna Parnell in Mary Cullen & Maria Luddy (eds.)
  • Women, power and consciousness, Dublin, 1995
  • Danae O’Regan, Anna and Fanny Parnell in History Ireland, Spring 1999.
  • Margaret Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries: women and Irish nationalism, Pluto Press, London, 1983

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