Parnell receives her early education at home, later attending the Royal Dublin Society Art School and the South Kensington School of Design.
Following her father’s death in 1859, the family leaves Avondale, living in Dublin, Paris, and London. While studying in London, Parnell attends parliamentary sittings and writes accounts of them for an Irish-American journal. She helps to organize an American fund for the relief of famine in Ireland in 1879–1880.
When it becomes apparent that the men of the Irish National Land League are likely to be arrested, it is suggested that a women’s league in Ireland can take over the work in their absence. Public opinion at the time is against women in politics, but Anna and her sister, Fanny Parnell, establish the Central Land League of the Ladies of Ireland (LLL), of which she becomes organizing secretary and effective leader in January 1881.
When Charles Stewart Parnell and other leaders are imprisoned in 1881, as predicted, the Ladies’ Land League takes over their work. Offices are given to the ladies but they receive very little assistance. The women hold public meetings and encourage country women to be active in withholding rent, in boycotting, and in resisting evictions. They raise funds for the League and for the support of prisoners and their families. They distribute Land League wooden huts for shelter to evicted tenant families and by the beginning of 1882 they have five hundred branches, thousands of women members, and considerable publicity. Fanny Parnell dies in 1882 at the age of thirty three.
After his release from prison, Charles Stewart Parnell dissolves the Ladies’ Land League in August 1882. Anna, whose nationalist fervor exceeds that of her brother, parts with him on bad terms over politics. She lives the rest of her life in the south of England under an assumed name. She writes an angry account of her Land League experiences in Tale of a Great Sham, which is not published until 1986.