The “Kilmainham Treaty” had alleviated some of the land crisis in Ireland, but the issue was far from solved. Amid the increasing tension and occasional hysteria that accompanied events like the Phoenix Park Murders and the Dynamite Campaign in Britain, the fractious political situation in Ireland, tied to the ever-present social inequality, meant that the Land War would rumble on well into the 1880’s.
In the aftermath of his release from Kilmainham, Parnell flung himself into the work of making the Irish Home Rule movement the pivotal force in British Parliamentary politics. Transforming previous entities into the IPP, Parnell instituted stricter selection procedures for election candidates. They would be obliged to follow the party line, when required, in Westminster, what we would recognise as a “Whip” system today. By the time of the next election, in 1885, the IPP fielded mostly middle-class Catholic candidates, largely dispelling the large amounts of Protestants that had stood under Isaac Butt’s tenure. Parnell toned down some of his rhetoric in line with agreements previously made, but still maintained a near-radical position on the possibilities for Ireland’s future, giving his famous “Thus far shalt thou go” speech in January of 1885. British politicians toyed with ideas to advance Irish self-government without giving in whole sale to the IPP’s demands: when Gladstone’s government fell in June of that year, Parnell urged Irish voters in Britain to vote against Liberal candidates, knowing that with enough success in Ireland, the IPP could claim the balance of power when Parliament sat again.
That 1885 election was a landmark success for the IPP. Parnell’s party won 86 seats, an increase of 24, mostly at the expense of the Liberals. With Gladstone’s party winning the most seats but failing to secure a majority, that gave Parnell all of the leverage he needed. He initially supported Lord Salisbury’s Conservatives in forming a government, but fell away from this position when decreasing agricultural prices set off more agrarian disturbances in Ireland, that the Conservatives reacted harshly to. In February of 1886 and with Parnell’s support, Gladstone’s Liberals were back in power, but at a major price: namely support for Irish Home Rule, a bill for which Gladstone introduced in April. Conservative and Unionist opposition was rallied instantly, with a resumption of the Orange Order’s popularity and the founding of the Irish Unionist Party as a new political entity. The Liberal Party was split on the issue of Home Rule, and this first bill was defeated despite Gladstone’s best efforts. A new election was a disappointment for Gladstone and Parnell, as the loss of an IPP seat and the schism within the Liberals paved the way for a majority Tory government, backed by strong unionist feeling.
It was shortly after this that the agrarian crisis in Ireland really came back to life. 1885 and 1886 had seen some poor weather that left harvest yields reduced: a general drop in the price of cattle and dairy products resulted in many tenant farmers being unable to pay their rents, even with the 1881 Land Commission reducing many rents by up to 25%. The Irish National League, headed by men like Timothy Healy, Timothy Harrington, William O’Brien and John Dillon, devised the “Plan of Campaign”, which was essentially a collective rent strike in areas where poor harvests were affecting a tenants ability to pay. Until the landlords agreed to reduce rents, the tenant would pay what rent money they had to the INL. The initial campaigns were concentrated in Munster and Connacht, and achieved a large amount of success in reducing rents on smaller farms. But they ran into trouble in larger estates, especially in Ulster. A large scale test case was launched against the Earl of Clanrickarde’s estate near Portumna, County Galway in November, with the intractable Earl effusing to budge on the request of thousands of tenants to reduce their rent.
The Conservatives described the Plan of Campaign as a criminal conspiracy, and soon the clashes between tenant and police that had characterized earlier stages in the Land War were occurring again. Parnell was left in a bit of a bind, dedicated to the legislative course and not wanting the quest for Home Rule to flounder amid a sea of agrarian militancy. He was able to convince the INL to limit their activities to land on which the plan had already been implemented, but the undercurrent of schism was already evident.
In 1887, Lord Salisbury’s government appointed his nephew Arthur Balfour as the Chief Secretary of Ireland. Fresh from combating similar problems in Scotland, Balfour was a pro-active administrator determined to put an end to the agrarian unrest, through the use of a new, harsher, Coercion Act, which aimed directly at rent strikes, boycotting and unlawful assemblies. Mass arrests followed, including up to 20 MP’s who had sought to help tenants. The INL was declared illegal and suppressed, and greater powers given to police to enact evictions and break up protests, frequently through resort to force. At Mitchelstown, County Cork, in September of 1887, a crowd that had assembled to hear William O’Brien and others give anti-Balfour speeches pelted police with stones. The police opened fire in response, killing three people, an event that was soon known as the “Mitchelstown Massacre”. It became a rallying cry for Irish nationalists and the Liberals alike, Gladstone coining the phrase “Remember Mitchelstown!”. Balfour defended his and police actions to Parliament, but soon had gained the unwelcome nickname of “Bloody Balfour”.
Balfour tried more subtle tactics, attempting to get the Vatican involved (they duly published an encyclical that condemned the Campaign, which immediately backfired) and helping with the creation of an anti-tenant syndicate for landlords. Bizarre incidents occurred, such as when a large proportion of Tipperary Town attempted to found a new town nearby in dispute with one of the local landlords. Many looked to Parnell and the IPP for support, and while Parnell was able to organize some financial assistance, he was distracted by the events of the “Parnell Commission”, an 1888-89 investigation into claims that Parnell had been involved with the Phoenix Park Murders.
Parnell was ultimately vindicated by the Commission, with the letters purporting to show his involvement proven to be forgeries. However, the Commission’s remit had expanded to include the general level of violence in Ireland, that IPP MP’s were shown to be more involved in than they cared to admit. This justified, in the Tory governments’ eyes, the measures that had been taken in Ireland to subdue the violence. With links between the IPP and perceived established, Parnell was on shaky ground.
Even as he prepared for a resumption of the Home Rule battle in Westminster, negotiating with Gladstone in the expectation that the next election would produce a Liberal government that could enact nationalists aspirations, Parnell’s political career was living on borrowed time. And it was not because of his ties to the IRB or the INL, but because of the situation in his personal life. Parnell was engaged in an extra-marital relationship with Catherine “Kitty” O’Shea, wife of William O’Shea, one of the men who had negotiated the Kilmainham Treaty: Parnell had later pushed him into being an IPP candidate at a by-election. The O’Shea’s were separated but not divorced: Parnell lived with O’Shea and the two had three children together, and among certain circles of the IPP the situation was even known about. But that didn’t really help when William O’Shea filed for divorce, naming Parnell as a co-respondent. The resulting court case turned the situation into a national scandal, and led to the downfall of Parnell and a decisive drop in the IPP’s power and influence for a time.
Even as the Plan of Campaign kept fighting in certain areas, despite the ever diminishing amounts of funds, Parnell was struggling to keep the IPP together, the party split into pro-and anti-Parnellite factions. Despite being warned by Gladstone that Home Rule was dead in the water if Parnell remained as leader of the IPP, Parnell refused to resign, let alone admit that he had done anything wrong in regards the O’Shea’s: Parnell married Kitty after her divorce was finalized.
The IPP broke into pieces, and Parnell worked himself to exhaustion on the campaign trail of several successive Irish by-elections that his chosen candidates lost: in one, in North Kilkenny, Parnell was supported by Fenians, further ruining his public persona. Parnell hoped that the 1892 general election would restore his fortunes and bring the IPP back together, but he would not live to see it. He died on the 6th October 1891 of pneumonia, contracted after he endured a severe soaking in Creggs, County Galway, where he was giving a public speech. He was only 45.
The scandal diverted a lot of attention from the Campaign, and it slowly petered out over the following few years as the money dried up, with Irish nationalists more concerned with getting the IPP cobbled back together and Home Rule back on the agenda. The Land War entered another quiet phase, but the issues surroundings the question of land and the Catholic underclass would remain a major part of the Irish political landscape for many years to come. Another Land Act in 1902 – ironically introduced by then Prime Minister Arthur Balfour – did much to alleviate the problem, allowing tenant farmers to buy freehold titles to land with affordable government loans.
As for Home Rule, the IPP was able to get it back on the agenda relatively quickly, losing a few seats in the 1892 election but finding themselves again in a position to hold the balance of power between Liberal and Conservative. Backing Gladstone, the IPP was able to see another Home Rule bill brought into Parliament in 1893, which passed the Commons but was then defeated in the Conservative dominated House of Lords. Home Rule would not be on the Parliamentary agenda again for another 20 years, but it had shown its potential to fuel militancy in Ireland, from both sides of the nationalist/unionist divide.
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